Poor performance of Moscow’s air defences.

Poor performance of Moscow's air defences.

Moscow’s Struggle to Defend Itself Against Drones

Explosion at manufacturing plant

On August 9th, an explosion occurred at the Zagorsk manufacturing plant near Moscow, which supplies optical equipment to Russia’s armed forces. The explosion resulted in one fatality, 60 injuries, and eight people unaccounted for. Although officials downplayed the possibility, evidence suggests that this explosion was caused by a Ukrainian drone strike. Since May, dozens of these “kamikaze” drones, seemingly launched from Ukraine, have targeted sites in and around Moscow. These attacks have raised concerns as to why the heavily fortified city is struggling to defend itself.

Moscow, being one of the world’s best-protected cities, has an extensive air defense system. The Moscow Air Defence Directorate, established in 1918, has undergone numerous upgrades over the years. The defense system consists of surface-to-air missile complexes, radar systems, and jet fighters. The outer layer of defense, known as the A-135, is a fixed anti-ballistic missile system that covers the entire city. It was activated in 1995 and houses around 100 missiles designed to intercept nuclear warheads. Within the A-135 system is the S-50M complex, which comprises radars, control centers, and long- and short-range surface-to-air missile launchers. Other than Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Europe lacks a similar defense system.

However, the Moscow defense system seems ill-equipped to handle drones. The system was primarily designed to counter high-speed bombers, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. The older radar systems in place automatically filter out low, slow-moving objects such as birds, resulting in frequent missed detections of drones. Surprisingly, Russia’s current air defense plan up until 2030 does not mention the threat posed by drones. This decision raises questions, as several other countries have successfully adapted their defense systems to counter the increased risk posed by drones. For instance, Israel, facing rocket attacks from groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, upgraded its “Iron Dome” system to address drone threats. Ukraine, too, took several months to enhance its defenses and can now reliably shoot down drones attacking Kyiv. Furthermore, Russia has experienced drone attacks before, particularly at its Khmeimim airbase in Syria since 2018.

Instead of developing a coherent strategy, Russian authorities have mainly relied on ad hoc measures since the drone attacks on Moscow began. One such measure is deploying tactical air defense systems in the city center, including using a Pantsir-S1 vehicle (typically used on battlefields) on the roof of a Ministry of Defense building. Officials credit the Pantsir system, equipped with surface-to-air missiles and automatic cannons, with successfully shooting down several drones. However, doubts remain about its effectiveness, as the Pantsir system has shown poor performance against drones in conflicts like Syria, Libya, and Armenia. In fact, some reports suggest that the Pantsir system struggles to detect small, slow-moving targets.

Russia possesses a range of air defense weapons, but the issue lies in deploying them effectively. Ukraine, despite having Russian-made air defense systems, has proven capable of using them, according to General Mark Kelly, the head of the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command. In contrast, Russian forces have faced difficulties in effectively utilizing their surface-to-air weapons.

So far, the attacks on Moscow have been relatively symbolic, employing only a few drones with small warheads. However, the situation is expected to change as Ukraine plans to produce hundreds of long-range drones with more significant explosive payloads in the coming months. This heightened threat may force Russia to organize a more thoughtful defense, potentially even bringing back surface-to-air systems from Ukraine to protect the capital. Failure to address this issue adequately could result in mounting damage to Moscow, both physically and psychologically.

Moscow skyline

In conclusion, Moscow’s struggle to defend itself against drones is a consequence of its outdated defense system, which was not designed to detect and neutralize slow-moving targets like drones. While Russia possesses advanced weaponry, the effectiveness of these weapons in countering drones remains in question. Other countries, such as Israel and Ukraine, have successfully adapted and upgraded their defenses to address similar threats. As Ukraine plans to increase its drone capabilities, it is imperative for Russia to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect Moscow effectively. Failing to do so will result in severe consequences for the city’s physical and psychological well-being.