18.01 Review

Mutual Denial: Air defences block the use of aircraft on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and a similar situation may arise in the event of a clash between Russia and NATO, experts have warned

Combined missile and drone attacks are playing a leading role in Russia's war against Ukraine, while Russian combat aviation is virtually inactive. Missile attacks are much more expensive and less effective. Ukraine's defence against Russian missile attacks is also costly but provides valuable data to Western forces on how to improve the effectiveness of ballistic missile intercept systems. Generally speaking, the growing role and effectiveness of air defence systems creates a situation of 'mutual air denial', which makes it impossible to use aviation, which plays a key role in NATO's military doctrine. NATO forces in Europe must be prepared for a potential conflict with Russia in the second half of the 2020s, at the same time as the Taiwan crisis, military experts say. To prepare, Europe needs to invest both in its own air defence capabilities and weapons that will allow them to suppress Russia's air defence system.

Missile and drone strikes have become Russia's key means of conducting combat operations in Ukraine, but this fact only underscores the Russian army's inability to conduct active operations using aviation, the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies notes. According to the experts, it would take just 20 aircraft deployments to achieve the same air attack capability that Russia carries out with long-range missiles. However, not only are missiles unable to provide the same intensity, but they also come at a significantly higher cost.

There is no precise data on the cost of missile production in Russia, and to assess how much more expensive the missile campaign is, researchers used data on the American Tomahawk. The cost of one such missile is approximately $1.54 million, and producing 120 units (the estimated monthly number of cruise and ballistic missiles produced in Russia, according to specialists) would cost the Pentagon about $185 million. But, with the same $185 million, two F-35A fighter jets could be built and they could be used for two deployments each day for a month. As a result, over the same period and for the same cost, aviation would hit almost 2.5 times more targets than missiles (240 vs 100). To drop the same amount of ordnance delivered by 120 missiles in a month, two American aircraft would only need a week, at a cost of up to $5 million.

At the start of the full-scale invasion, the Russian army held a decisive advantage in aviation. The Russian air force had more than 130 specialised heavy bombers, about 600 specialised and multi-purpose fighters, and more than 260 attack aircraft. Ukraine possessed around 70 fighters and 40 ground-attack aircraft of Soviet models with outdated radars and missiles. This was supposed to ensure Russian dominance of the skies and a complete defeat of the Ukrainian armed forces. However, in the first days of the invasion, Russian forces failed to disable the Ukrainian air defence system due to poor operational planning, insufficient aircraft equipment, poorly trained pilots, and successful actions by the Ukrainian armed forces, according to experts. By the end of March 2022, according to the defence analytics website Oryx, Russia had already lost 82 fighters, 3 strategic bombers, 2 command and control aircraft, 6 transport aircraft and 131 helicopters in Ukraine. And as a result, Russia was forced to stop using aircraft for deep strikes on Ukrainian territory, limiting itself to missiles and drones. 

Last winter, Russia launched missiles in relatively small waves (an average of 50 at a time). In total, between September 2022 and March 2023, the Russian army used about 1000 missiles and 1000 drones against Ukrainian infrastructure. However, the intensity of attacks significantly increased this winter, according to military experts cited by the Financial Times. From December 29 to January 2 alone, Russia launched over 500 drones and missiles at Ukraine, with their targets now primarily defence infrastructure rather than energy infrastructure.

To break through Ukraine's air defences, the attacks involve several waves: first low-speed drones, then subsonic cruise missiles, and finally, ballistic missiles. To repel them, Ukraine uses the FrankenSAM hybrid air defence system, a US-assisted system consisting of mobile units equipped with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and large-calibre machine guns, IRIS-T and SAMP/T medium-range air defence systems, and Patriot systems capable of shooting down ballistic missiles. Thanks to FrankenSAM, Ukraine has managed to intercept the vast majority of Russian missiles, but this is done with the help of expensive anti-missile systems (the launch of one Patriot missile costs $2-4 million, IRIS-T SLM costs around €400 thousand). 

Nevertheless, each attempt to intercept a ballistic missile provides invaluable information that could save the lives of millions of Westerners in the event of a nuclear confrontation with Russia, the experts at the Centre for European Policy Analysis believe. Every time a ballistic missile is intercepted, information about it is transmitted back to the Patriot system, which allows it to improve its algorithms and increases its efficiency. As a result, Patriot systems will be able to more effectively intercept missiles equipped with tactical nuclear warheads, such as the ‘Kinzhal’, in the event of a nuclear confrontation with Russia.

However, with Western aid to Ukraine frozen, each new large-scale missile launch threatens to breach the air defence system. This threat is becoming more serious as Russia builds up its attack capabilities. This winter, Russia used short-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to attack Ukraine for the first time. In addition, White House reports indicate that Moscow is in advanced talks with Tehran to acquire short-range ballistic missiles. The Russian army is also increasingly using drones: a factory in Tatarstan plans to produce more than 6000 Shahed drones by 2025. According to media reports, Iran has developed a new Shahed-107 attack and reconnaissance drone for Russia, with a range of about 1500 kilometres.

The active use of missiles and drones on the battlefield in Ukraine has led to a situation of 'mutual air denial', according to the experts from The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. The capabilities of air operations on both sides are limited by ground-based air defence systems. Such a situation could also arise in the event of a potential confrontation between Russia and NATO. RUSI experts have previously stated that none of NATO's European armies currently possess sufficient experience and ammunition reserves to suppress and destroy enemy air defences on a large scale. Without such a capability, NATO's European air forces will not be able to reliably ensure control over the battlefield in a confrontation not only with Russia, but also with rivals such as Iran. Experts believe it is critically important that at least a few European countries restore ground-based air defence capabilities on a sufficient scale.

This task needs to be addressed urgently, since the escalating situation in the Indo-Pacific region could lead to a military confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan as early as 2026-2028, according to another study by RUSI. By that time, the Russian military-industrial complex could largely restore the military potential of the Russian Armed Forces (German experts have identified a similar timeline). In such a scenario, Europe will not be able to count on Washington's operational support and will be forced to confront Russian aggression on its own. In this situation, the critical task will be to destroy Russian air defence systems in order to leverage air superiority. According to RUSI, European countries, including the United Kingdom, should urgently invest in increasing capacities for the production of artillery ammunition, components, and air defence missiles, necessary both to assist Ukraine and replenish their own depleted reserves.

The only alternative to this plan is to acknowledge that achieving air superiority against Russia is unattainable. This would require a complete overhaul of NATO forces, which in this scenario would have to rely on artillery, armoured vehicles and infantry. This implies demographic, political, and financial costs that far exceed the cost of providing potential air force capabilities.