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Lessons from Ukraine: Lethal Air Defence Deployment is a Real Thing

Recently, the Ukrainian military retook Lyman, a major city in the Donetsk region, which Moscow annexed only days prior to Kyiv’s counteroffensive.

Until this point, a combination of precision strikes from land, well-trained infantry, and an effective use of drones and cruise missiles all contributed to Ukraine’s success. However, there is no doubt that the clear deprecation of Russia’s airpower has also been critical.

Although narratives like the “Ghost of Kyiv” fill headlines and drive conversations, Ukraine’s ground-based air defence systems (GBADS) were critical to restraining Russia’s air power. Reports peg some of Russia’s recent losses (i.e., including a Su-30SM and Su-34) to man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS).

These losses seemed to have occurred due to several factors. Firstly, Ukraine’s medium-to-long-range air defence systems forced Russia’s combat aircraft to fly lower than they should. Secondly, Ukraine used its MANPADS to target the low-flying Russian aircraft.

This outcome suggests that a multi-layered GBADS can erode enemy airpower, if not create an anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) situation. For its part, Ukraine is deftly deploying its GBADS assets, even though its largely reliant on older surface-to-air missiles (SAM) like older S-300 and Buk variants.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s has been vocal about his country’s need for modern fighter aircraft. But through its skillful air defence deployments, Ukraine is, once again, imparting valuable insights for other countries to follow for their requirements in the coming years.

The Wartime Evolution of Ukraine’s Air Defence Environment

At the start of the war, the bulk of Ukraine’s GBADS assets comprised of legacy systems, particularly older variants of the S-300 long-range SAM, the Buk-M medium-range SAM, and the Igla short-range/MANPAD systems, among others. Mostly inherited from the era of the Soviet Union, these SAMs formed the bulk or mainstay of Ukraine’s air defence assets prior to war, and for much of the conflict up to this point.

Despite their use of older technologies – e.g., semi-active radar-homing (SARH)-based guidance – these SAMs have been relatively effective for Ukraine. In fact, in earlier stages of the war, Russia claimed that it had destroyed many of Ukraine’s SAM systems. However, despite those losses, Ukraine has been able to sustain A2/AD pressure on Russia’s air assets, especially at higher altitudes.

The effectiveness of Ukraine’s S-300s and Buk-Ms had forced Russia to fly its combat aircraft (including its marque assets like the Su-34) at lower altitudes. In turn, these aircraft were vulnerable to MANPADS. This is a significant achievement for Ukraine and, evidently, shows as it recaptures territory.

However, one cannot reduce Ukraine’s gains solely to its SAMs. In reality, other factors played a role too.

These include Russia’s relatively limited supply of stand-off range weapons (SOW), insufficient experience managing large-scale air operations, more limited electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasure (ECM) options, and other structural handicaps.

That being said, it is not as if Ukraine was a markedly strong power prior to this war either. It did not have much in the way of the latest weaponry. In actuality, Russia had both the quantitative and, at least from a materiel standpoint, qualitative advantage prior to the war.

Thus, even with the caveats in place, Ukraine’s success with GBADS is noteworthy. It is not surprising that the U.S. and Western Europe are building on this edge by supplying newer generation SAMs to Kyiv. These new capabilities will center on the NASAMS and the IRIS-T SL.

The NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) is a short-to-medium-range air defence system. Its design centers on using air-to-air missiles (AAM) from land.

The first iteration used the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). This gave the NASAMS a range of around 25 km. Subsequent NASAMS versions added other missiles to the compatibility list, notably the AMRAAM-ER (Extended Range), AIM-9X, and IRIS-T SL.

However, it is unclear which variant of the NASAMS is getting. It might be receiving Norway’s older stocks, so this would mean the first-generation variant. That said, this version can reportedly interoperate with the Saab RBS-70, a laser beam-assisted MANPADS. Given that Sweden is mulling the option of supplying the RBS-70 NG to Ukraine, the Ukrainians might actually put the NASAMS’ versatility to practical use.

Still, the first-generation NASAMS will involve the AIM-120 AMRAAM, a modern ARH-based missile. That alone would be a significant addition to Ukraine’s inventory. However, Ukraine will still complement the ARH-based AMRAAM with an IIR solution, i.e., the IRIS-T SL (Surface Launch).

Ukraine’s IRIS-T SLs will come with their own dedicated systems. So, Ukraine will utilize both the NASAMS and the IRIS-T SL. In effect, Kyiv will throw varied anti-air warfare (AAW) threats at Russia, i.e., SARH plus ARH and IIR. Countering this evolved GBADS will be a real challenge for Russia. It will test how well Russia can counter more modern seekers as well as tracking and targeting methods.

Applicability to Pakistan

Ukraine’s success may drive Pakistan to bolster its own GBADS investments. In fact, each of the tri-services is already allocating resources towards this area. However, after seeing how an adept GBADS can support an A2/AD posture in Ukraine, Pakistan might reinforce its focus in this area.

For example, the mainstay short-to-medium-range SAMs of the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) – i.e., LY-80 and Spada 2000, respectively – are SARH-based systems. So, Pakistan may observe how Ukraine fares using the ARH and IIR-based SAMs. If the results are good, Pakistan might adopt comparable ARH and IIR-based options from China, Turkey, and potentially even Western Europe.

The NASAMS might be of particular interest to the PAF in the sense of using AAMs in the SAM role. If the NASAMS works for Ukraine, the PAF might look at leveraging the SD-10 and/or PL-15E in a similar role. It can use one maintenance and logistics overhead for both AAMs and SAMs and leverage the economies-of-scale of inducting a large number of a specific AAM than juggling many different missile types.

However, Ukraine’s success is also a warning for Pakistan. India has – and will continue to – invest much more in its air defence solutions. Thus, engaging in offensive air operations over India will certainly be as perilous, if not more so, for the Pakistani side as it would for the Indian side over Pakistan.

Thus, to retain its offensive capabilities, Pakistan may need to visit new technologies, possibly sooner than it had anticipated. For example, India’s GBADS will inflict loss, potentially to the extent of neutralizing an offensive air operation. Thus, knowing that aircraft losses will occur, the PAF would need to ‘step into it’ by acquiring a solution it would not mind losing as much as a manned fighter.

Queue: unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). The PAF likely has UCAVs in its roadmap for the future, but this vision may need to materialize sooner than envisioned. Unfortunately, there are no credible UCAV programs in Pakistan that could provide that capability. Thus, the solution would have to be off-the-shelf, potentially from China and/or Turkey. However, overcoming a potent GBADS environment is more than just amassing certain armaments, it must involve innovation and novel deployment strategies too.

So, Pakistan may need to push for tighter coordination between the PAF and the Army. For example, the UCAV could expose or identify an enemy SAM position. In turn, it can relay location information to friendly artillery. This artillery element could use guided shells, guided rockets, and/or ground-launched cruising missiles (GLCM) to engage the air defence threat. Just as effective GBADS usage requires deft deployment strategies and execution, so do suppression and destruction of enemy air defence operations.

Finally, Pakistan need not look only outside for future air warfare weapons. With enough investment, the PAF, for example, could scope new use out of its existing technologies. For example, the PAF can push for developing the Ra’ad-series of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) into ‘smart weapons.’ In this scenario, the Ra’ad or Ra’ad-II could carry ECM equipment for radar-jamming or spoofing, or electronic intelligence (ELINT) gear for identifying enemy radar positions. These ‘canary’ Ra’ad ALCMs could signal smaller ALCMs with munitions warheads to engage the exposed targets.


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