26 May 2023

Moscow: Near-Defenseless Against Drones

Maxim Starchak

On the night of May 3, an unmanned aerial vehicle exploded on the roof of a Kremlin building, causing a small fire. The Russian authorities said two drones had struck the complex.

Moscow and the central area around it have always been the most heavily defended places in Russia. Currently, the protection for the capital and the central district is carried out by the 1st Air and Missile Defense Army.

The capital’s air-missile defense system has a complex structure consisting of two layers. First is the A-135M strategic missile defense system. And the second is the S–50M, which includes the Baikal-1 and Universal-1 automated control systems, S-400 and S-300PM2 complexes, as well as Pantsir anti-aircraft units. All of them are supported by various radar stations that allow for the detection and guidance of defensive air missiles.

However, this large array of systems is primarily against air strikes, cruise missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. Protection from drones has never been the task of air missile defense systems in service with the 1st Army.

Neither the National Security Strategy of 2021 nor the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation of 2014 identify drones as a threat to national security. The Concept of the Development of the Aerospace Defense of the Russian Federation until 2030, dated April 2, 2019, also pays no attention to countering drones. In March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, speaking about a report on the development of the Russian aerospace forces, mentioned that the modernization of the Moscow missile defense system will be completed in 2023. The drone threat was not mentioned.

The fact that Ukrainian drones have the capability and the intent to attack important targets on Russian territory was clear even in the fall of last year. In November 2022, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev called for increased air defense forces in the Central Federal District to protect particularly important facilities. Judging by the attacks on Russian airfields in December 2022, this realization of vulnerability came too late.

Ukraine has announced it is working on long-range drones and plan to spend $550m on such projects in 2023. Its uncrewed aircraft have repeatedly made cross-border attacks inside Russia. In January, former Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force for the Joint Air Defense System of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev, proposed the establishment of around-the-clock air defense duty at key strategic sites, including the Kremlin, the Ministry of Defense and the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the FSB. However, his recommendations were not accepted.

This is probably because, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, most Russian air defense systems were moved closer to the Ukrainian border, according to military expert and director of the Museum of Air Defense Forces, Yuri Knutov. The placement of air defenses on the roofs of some Moscow buildings in January also suggests the Russian army has an acute shortage of short-range systems.

Russia has some experience with drone attacks in Syria. As the editor-in-chief of the Arsenal of the Fatherland magazine, Viktor Murakhovsky noted, it transpired there that Russian Pantsir air defense systems are largely unable to detect low-speed and small targets, including military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs.) At the same time, the system regularly identified false targets – including large birds flying nearby — confusing the operators.

As a result, Tor-M2 anti-aircraft missile systems were sent to Syria in 2018. After that, according to the head of the military air defense of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Lieutenant General Alexander Leonov, more than 45 drones were shot down in a year and a half.

However, Tor-M2 is not an absolute defense either. It detects UAVs with a probability of at least 70% at a range of 9-15km (5.5-9 miles.) The lowest detectable altitude level is 30-60m (100-200ft.) But this is in ideal testing conditions. There is a lot of interference in urban areas and the possibilities of detecting, targeting, and taking out such a target are even more reduced. It is also likely that Russian air defense systems have problems with the defeat of drones in the dark; the Kremlin UAVs hit between 2 am and 3 am.

Military theorists at the Russian Defense Ministry have openly noted the low efficiency and unreasonably high cost of defeating drones by traditional means. Defense is made more complicated because UAVs are often made of plastic and powered by a small metal engine and so have a low radar signature. They fly at low speeds and low altitudes, making it hard to hit them from afar.

They are easy to maneuver, which allows them to bypass radars and air defense systems. This indicates that the drones that struck the Kremlin could have been launched from almost anywhere; either the territory of Ukraine or the Moscow region.

Moreover, there are signs that Ukraine (the likeliest attacker) had been practicing, possibly to map out safe routes through earlier drone flights. From February to April, several drones were spotted or eliminated in the districts of Kaluga, Kolomna, Chekhov, and other areas of the Moscow region.

Laser and microwave weapons are being developed in Russia, but their introduction into service is still very far away. Moscow’s air-missile defense is not perfect, and even with new technologies, 100% protection will not be achieved. The appearance of police anti-drone teams in St Petersburg indicates the authorities’ worries and the relatively low-tech countermeasures on offer.

In the meantime, the Moscow authorities have banned UAV flights altogether, but this cannot overcome the weaknesses in air defense described above. The Russian capital remains vulnerable.

Maxim Starchak is an independent expert on Russian nuclear policy, defense, and the nuclear industry. Based in Moscow, he is a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy of Queen’s University in Canada and a Russia Correspondent for Defense News.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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