Air Defense: Improvised Ukrainian Air Defense


May 15, 2024: The effectiveness of Ukrainian air defenses has baffled and frustrated the Russian Air Force, which has taken heavy losses over Ukraine and increasingly stayed away from Ukrainian air space. There are very practical reasons for this. For example, the Ukrainians earlier managed to shoot down one of two Russian Tu-22M3 heavy bombers as well as an A-50 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft that was monitoring air orations over Ukraine and thought it was safe from attack. Russia has fewer of the expensive A-50s than they do Tu-22M3 bombers. The Ukrainian S-200 missile traveled over 300 kilometers to hit the A-50 and Tu-22M3. That is the maximum range for the S-200 missile. It is not known how much recent Russian upgrades of their S-200 systems contributed to the recent success of the system.

Ukraine used a Russian designed S-200 anti-aircraft system developed in the 1960s and remains in use because of continuous upgrades and maintenance. S-200 has remained the primary Russian air defense system since it was introduced. Ukraine inherited over a dozen S-200 batteries and hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The S-200 has been used in three wars. The first was the Libyan Civil War that began in 2011 and soon turned into a stalemate that continues. The second war was the Syrian Civil War that also began in 2011, was more intense than the one in Libya and is still active but has also turned into a stalemate. The third war the S-200 has shown up in is in Ukraine, where both Russia and the Ukrainians had S-200 systems when Russia invaded in early 2022. In early 2022 Ukraine had four S-200 batteries in service and twelve S-200 sites that had been shut down and the equipment put in storage.

Before and after the invasion Ukrainian developed and implemented improvements in its S-200 systems. That is one reason why Ukraine has used most of its S-200 missiles. New missiles are only available from Russia, though some old ones held by NATO countries which had been former Soviet satellites were given to Ukraine, which now wants more Patriot systems for the United States and other NATO countries. Patriot has performed very well in Ukraine and Ukraine wants more Patriot batteries and missiles. Ukraine also received other, shorter range, anti-aircraft missile systems from NATO countries but Patriot is the most capable and heavily used system. With the loss of the A-50 and Tu-22M3, Russia is no longer operating over or near the Black Sea. This was the first time the Russians lost a Tu-22M3 since they invaded Ukraine. The second Tu-22M3 present when the first one was downed, turned and quickly left the area before it could be fired on. The bombers were based inside Russia, some 600 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.

This latest incident makes five major mishaps or crashes of Tu-22’s since 2017. Only about ten percent of the 497 Tu-22s built between 1967 and 1997 are still in service and many are grounded for required maintenance. The problem with the Tu-22 is that most were built in the 1980s. after the first ones entered service in 1980. The Tu-22 had plenty of problems during the eleven years after a prototype made its first flight. Development had been underway since the early 1970s. Efforts to upgrade up to twenty percent of the younger Tu-22s ran into lots of problems and delays, and the latest fatal failure of the ejection seat system is but one of many problems with aging tech in the Tu-22s still flyable.

The Tu-22 is the most recent Russian heavy bomber that was produced in large numbers. In 1987 the 275 ton Tu-160 was introduced as a successor to the Tu-22 but only 28 production models were completed. Some of these weren’t completed until after 1991 using unfinished aircraft that were stored when regular production was halted after 1992. Production resumed but at the rate of one new Tu-160 every few years. Russia only has 18 Tu-160s in service and about ten new ones on order. Meanwhile Russia is trying to muster the cash and capabilities to design and build a new heavy bomber similar to the American B-2. Given continued problems with shrinking military budgets and keeping the Tu-22s, flying a new aircraft is unlikely.

In the 1990s the Soviet Union fell apart and the new Russian Federation armed forces lost 80 percent of its Soviet era manpower. Too many of the most able officers left the military for better paying jobs in the new free market economy or took advantage of the post-1991 freedom to emigrate. Soviet era defense industries also shrank and those that remained lost many of their best technical people and managers. There was no money for new technology or even maintaining Cold War era equipment. The military high command was unable to cope with all this and much-delayed reforms were imposed on the military from above after 2008.

After the reforms began the air force retired most Tu-22s and tried to upgrade and refurbish about a hundred of the Tu-22s built since the late 1980s. That program was scaled back several times because of a shortage of money and heavy use of Tu-22s in Syria after Russian forces entered the civil war there in 2015. All that led to more and more problems with Tu-22s and more were withdrawn from service. An ejection seat accident was particularly demoralizing for Tu-22 crews.

The Tu-22 is a 1970s design. It's a 126-ton, twin-engine, swing-wing aircraft with a crew of four including two pilots, a bombardier, and a defensive systems operator. Originally it had a 23mm cannon mounted in a tail turret. It normally carries 12 tons of bombs and missiles, including cruise missiles but can carry 24 tons over shorter distances. Max speed is 2,300 kilometers an hour and combat radius 2,400 kilometers on internal fuel. The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the contemporary 45-ton American FB-111.

Russia wanted to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging but upgraded Tu-22M3Ms. That is not going to happen so the latest upgrade, the Tu-22M3Ms must receive another refresh before it is retired. The new Russian stealth heavy bomber project is running into problems with its budget and doubts that the aircraft industry can develop the new aircraft on time and in sufficient numbers.




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