Moscow’s “Iron Dome” repels bombers and missiles, but has one major weakness

On August 9, a plume of smoke rose above the factory in Zagorsk, north of Moscow, which supplies Russian armed forces with optical equipment. An explosion there killed one person and injured 60, and eight people were missing, according to officials, who downplayed the obvious explanation: that it was the result of a Ukrainian drone strike.

Since May, dozens of “kamikaze” drones, apparently launched from Ukraine, have hit the Russian capital or nearby locations. A skyscraper housing three ministries was attacked twice in a row on July 30 and August 1. This suggests that some of these drones are accurate on their targets, not just dealing damage when they crash. Moscow is among the best protected cities in the world. Why is the city having trouble defending itself?

A gigantic missile defense system watches over Moscow

The Moscow Air Defense Directorate was established in 1918 with 36 anti-aircraft guns. Since then, the system has undergone several modernizations and today includes surface-to-air missile complexes, radar systems and jet fighters. The outer layer of defenses known as the A-135, covering the entire city, is one of the few fixed ballistic missile defense systems in the world.

It was activated in 1995 and has about 100 missiles capable of intercepting nuclear warheads. Inside is the S-50M complex with radar installations, command centers and launchers for short- and long-range surface-to-air missiles. Apart from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, there is nothing comparable in Europe.

But drones are not on Moscow’s radar – neither in a figurative nor in a literal sense. Air defense is focused on high-speed bombers, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Older radar systems automatically filter out low, slow-moving objects like birds that could trigger false alarms. It also means, much to the Kremlin’s chagrin, that they often overlook drones. The Kremlin does not seem to have given much thought to this problem: in Russia’s current air defense plan, which covers the period up to 2030, this technology is not mentioned at all.

When it comes to drones, Israel and Ukraine are much further along

This strategy seems strange. Although defending against drones is difficult – the US, for example, has had difficulty protecting its forces in Syria from such attacks – several countries have successfully modified and enhanced their defense systems to deal with the increased risks posed by drones.

Israel, which in recent years has been a frequent target of rocket attacks by both Islamic Jihad and Hamas, an armed Palestinian Islamist movement, has upgraded its “Iron Dome” to also be used against drones.

Although it took several months, the Ukrainians are now able to reliably shoot down drones attacking Kiev. And while drone strikes on Moscow itself are new, Russia has long been aware of the problem: its airbase at Khmeimim in Syria has been attacked by small drones multiple times since 2018.

How strong is Pantsir really?

But rather than developing a comprehensive strategy, the Russian authorities have relied mostly on ad hoc workarounds since the attacks on Moscow began. One of these was the deployment of tactical anti-aircraft systems in the city center, including a Pantsir-S1 vehicle (usually used on battlefields) on the roof of a Ministry of Defense building on the Moscow River.

According to official data, the Pantsir air defense system, which can be armed with up to 12 surface-to-air missiles and two 30mm automatic cannons, shot down several drones. However, its effectiveness is in doubt: in Syria, Libya and Armenia, Pantsir appears to have had poor results against drones, as many of the air defense systems appear to have been destroyed by the drones it was designed to defend against. In 2018, a Russian military journalist claimed Pantsir had virtually no ability to detect small, slow-moving targets.

It’s not the equipment that’s missing, it’s the organization

Russia doesn’t lack equipment, it lacks organization. Ukraine has numerous Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons which, according to US Air Force Air Combat Command chief General Mark Kelly, are “quite capable” when operated by Ukrainians. In March 2022, he stated that the Russians could hardly use their surface-to-air weapons effectively.

So far, the attacks on Moscow have been largely symbolic, involving only a handful of drones with small warheads. But in the next few months, Ukraine plans to produce hundreds of long-range drones with larger warheads. That could force the Russians to organize and perhaps haul back surface-to-air systems from Ukraine to defend the capital. Failure to do so would result in more and more damage to Moscow, both physically and psychologically.

Jean Harris

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