This is because low-altitude air defense weapons went ‘all in’ on the defense of the Kremlin… One S-400 battery remains in Crimea
Ukraine is burning its fighting spirit, saying it will definitely recapture its territory, the Crimean Peninsula, occupied by Russia. Meanwhile, large-scale explosions have been observed every day across the Crimean Peninsula, and Ukrainian military drones and missiles have struck Russian military facilities. The Kerch Bridge connecting the Crimea Peninsula and Russia has also been destroyed, restricting vehicle and train traffic. The Crimea Peninsula is a very important strategic base for Russia to wage this war. It borders Krasnodar, mainland Russia, to the east, and Kherson Oblast, Ukraine, to the north.
Russia, which has been slow to modernize its military systems, still largely relies on railways for supplies. The Russian army, currently engaged in a defensive war on the Zaporizhia Front, maintains two major railway supply lines. One is an inland railway line that connects Rostov Oblast, mainland Russia, to Donetsk-Zaporizhia-Kherson, Ukraine, and the other is a Crimea bypass railway line that connects Krasnodar Oblast, mainland mainland, through the Crimea Peninsula to Kherson. However, the Ukrainian army has recently achieved significant results in its offensive in the Zaporizhia region, and the inland railway line has come into the range of the Ukrainian army’s conventional artillery. If the inland railway line is completely blocked, the Crimea Peninsula will now be the only remaining supply line for the Russian army. The Crimea Peninsula, which can be said to be the lifeline of the Russian military, is being hit hard by the Ukrainian military’s onslaught.
Ukraine’s major offensive began in late August. The Ukrainian military launched several small reconnaissance drones and searched the entire Kherson region south of the Russian Dnieper River. As a result, the Russian army’s S-300V air defense system deployed near Novofedorivka in southern Kherson on August 23rd was discovered. The distance from the Ukrainian-controlled area north of the Dnieper River to this place was about 47km. The Ukrainian military immediately mobilized HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and launched a long-range precision-guided rocket GMLRS. The entire S-300V battery, which was said to have the ability to intercept not only rockets but also tactical ballistic missiles, was devastated by three GMLRS rounds.
On the same day, the Ukrainian military also attacked the Russian S-400 battery deployed in Olenivka, northwest of the Crimean Peninsula, with several new self-developed surface-to-surface cruise missiles that were improved versions of the Neptune surface-to-ship missile. Russia mobilized all of its air defense assets but was unable to prevent the S-400 battery from being destroyed. Ukraine found a loophole in Russia’s air defense network and conducted additional airstrikes on August 27. In the end, even the Russian ‘Predel-E’ over-the-horizon radar and electronic warfare system deployed on the southern coast of Kherson were destroyed. This system was a strategic asset deployed forward in the Kherson region to detect long-range low-altitude flying objects heading toward the Crimea from Odessa. Following the destruction of Kherson’s S-300V and Olenivka’s S-400, as well as Predel-E, the skies heading to the Crimean Peninsula were now defenseless.
Then Ukraine began more indiscriminate attacks. On August 31, the Russian military port in Feodosia, a port city in the southeastern Crimea, was attacked by a drone from the Ukrainian military, and on September 9, a military supplies warehouse in Simferopol, a transportation hub in the center of the Crimean Peninsula, was destroyed by a suicide drone strike. . Russia attempted to intercept the drone with old anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, but failed to defend the facility.
In particular, September 13th was a truly nightmarish day for Russia. Ukraine flew a number of suicide drones in the direction of Odessa and simultaneously launched about 10 British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles using a Su-24 fighter-bomber in the high seas west of the Crimean Peninsula. The target of these weapons was the Sevastopol Naval Base, the heart of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Missiles and drones launched by the Ukrainian military struck the 13th Ship Repair Station located deep inside the Sevastopol Naval Base. A 4,000-ton landing ship and a 3,000-ton submarine that were being repaired at the dock were hit by missiles and destroyed beyond repair. A generator and a crane supplying electricity to the repair dock were also destroyed. A few days later, it was revealed that the frigate Admiral Makarov, moored at an adjacent dock, was also damaged by Ukrainian forces. She was observed losing her ability to sail under her own power and being towed by a tugboat.
The following day, September 14, the S-400 position at the Yevpatoria base, about 60 km southeast of Olenivka, where Russia had previously lost an S-400, was destroyed by a missile attack. In the early morning of September 18, the S-400 air defense system at the Chernomolskoye Podvorye base on the southern coast of the Crimean Peninsula was neutralized by an attack believed to be drones and missiles. Initially, Russia deployed four batteries of S-400 systems to various locations to defend the Crimean Peninsula. As the Ukrainian army destroyed three S-400s in Olenivka, Evpatoria, and Chernomolskoye Podborye, only one battery stationed in Feodosia guarding the Kerch Bridge remained.
The S-400 is Russia’s cutting-edge air defense weapon that has been highlighted several times by domestic media. It is a high-performance strategic air defense weapon developed by Russia to the level of a complete transformation of the existing S-300 system to counter the United States’ advanced long-range guided weapons and stealth fighters. Russia’s propaganda is that “if the United States has THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), we have the S-400.” This system, which began being deployed to the Russian military in 2007, was evaluated as the world’s most powerful air defense weapon, capable of intercepting not only aircraft but also ballistic missiles.
As Russia launched a large-scale publicity campaign, several countries showed interest in introducing the S-400. China was only able to introduce the S-400 after lobbying Russia on all fronts. China granted Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom a natural gas supply contract worth $400 billion (approximately 531.2 trillion won), and many analyzes say it is a gift to purchase the S-400. Turkiye, a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), not only broke down relations with the United States, but also gave up purchasing about 100 F-35 stealth fighters to introduce the S-400. At this point, one wonders just how powerful a weapon the S-400 is.
The S-400 is a system that integrates and operates several types of radar. It has the ability to detect and track various aerial targets, including enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles, from a distance of up to 600 km. The data processing speed is superior to that of THAAD before improvement, allowing it to track aerial targets flying at Mach 14 (speed of sound). It is possible to control multiple missile launchers simultaneously, allowing 72 missiles to be launched at up to 36 targets.
There are three main types of missiles mounted on the S-400. The 48N6 series is used to attack fighter-sized targets at a distance of 150 to 200 km, and the 40N6 series is used to attack large targets such as transport aircraft and early warning aircraft at a distance of 400 km. The 9M96 series, which has a range of 40 to 120 km, is used to intercept highly maneuverable fighter jets, cruise missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles. Russia claims that these missiles have a hit rate of over 90% against regular aircraft and over 80% against tactical ballistic missiles. It is advertised that if radar is used well, it can shoot down American B-2 stealth bombers and F-35 stealth fighters from a long distance. If Russia’s claims are true, the S-400 is the most powerful air defense weapon that can easily intercept all objects floating in the sky. So, why was the S-400 so helplessly destroyed by Ukraine’s cheap suicide drone?
The S-400 may be good at catching large targets flying from afar at high altitudes, but it is a difficult weapon to deal with small targets approaching at low altitudes. Objects smaller than regular aircraft, such as cruise missiles or drones, tend to have a smaller radar reflection area. For these targets, it is advantageous in terms of detection and response to use X-band or K·Ku·Ka band radars, which have short wavelengths and high frequencies. The wavelength of this type of radar is within 0.75 to 3.8 cm, enabling precise detection and tracking compared to other radars with longer wavelengths. On the other hand, it is difficult for radars with short wavelengths to go far, so long-wavelength radars such as L-band or S-band are needed to detect long-distance targets. The wavelength of the L band and S band is 7.5 to 30 cm, which is relatively longer than the X band. So, the detection accuracy is relatively low, but the feature is that it can see farther with less power. Because the S-400 uses long-wavelength VHF and L-band bands as a detection radar, it is difficult to effectively detect low-flying small targets.
Therefore, the S-400 must be protected by a field air defense system specialized in intercepting low-altitude and small targets. This is why the Russian military deploys at least one Pantsir-S1 system per S-400 battery. Pantsir-S1 is responsible for protecting the S-400 from aerial targets such as drones, cruise missiles, and attack helicopters that approach closely at low altitudes. Since the S-400 cannot perform air defense missions while moving, the Pantsir-S1 follows closely to establish a low-altitude and close-in air defense network.
The problem is that Russia has recently been dragging the Pantsir-S1 and deploying it in the wrong place. Ukraine flew drones over Moscow several times in July and August, offending the Kremlin. To protect the Kremlin, the Russian military gathered low-altitude air defense systems such as Pantsir-S1 and Thor from all over the country and began building a dense air defense network south of Moscow. Low-altitude air defense systems such as Pantsir-S1 were fixedly installed by creating an artificial hill or installing a tower-type stand in the outskirts of Moscow. Due to these measures by the Russian authorities, the number of Ukrainian military drones flying to Moscow was greatly reduced, but front-line units were in chaos. It was at this time that Russian military strategic assets, including the S-300V, S-400, and Smerch, began to be destroyed one after another by Ukrainian drones, guided rockets, and cruise missiles in the Kherson and Zaporizhia areas. Due to the military’s excessive loyalty to protect only the Kremlin, several S-400 batteries, a high-value asset worth $1 billion (approximately 1.32 trillion won) per battery, were destroyed in a matter of weeks.
The problem is that the chaos of the Russian air defense network cannot be dismissed as just a story from a distant country. The Korean military is deploying Patriot and Cheongung, the Western world’s strongest air defense systems, at major facilities and air force bases across the country. Like the S-400, it boasts an incredible hit rate against mid- to long-range, medium-altitude and higher targets, but it is a difficult weapon to block small drones flying at low altitudes. Let us recall the fact that a North Korean drone crossed the cease-fire line and was active in the skies over the metropolitan area as if flying in and out of its own home. Even though various air defense assets, including Patriot, Hawk, and Cheongung batteries, were deployed throughout the North Korean drone’s flight path, the South Korean military was unable to detect the drone until it crashed or returned.
The South Korean military has deployed low-altitude close-in air defense weapons to protect high-value air defense assets such as Patriot and Cheongung. However, as revealed when a North Korean drone invaded its airspace in December last year, anti-aircraft guns such as the 20mm Vulcan, Cheonma, Biho, and Cheonho currently in operation have virtually no ability to respond to small unmanned aerial vehicles. The radar performance of the Cheonma and Biho, which were developed using technology 30 years ago, is not suitable for anti-drone operations, and the Cheonho, which has no radar at all, is an anachronistic weapon that is nearly impossible to counter drones.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries around the world are realizing the importance of drones in 21st century warfare. Accordingly, Western military powers such as the United States are quickly developing and deploying anti-drone weapons, such as four-sided fixed X-band phased array radar and electronic warfare jammer that can be mounted on small vehicles. If we continue to insist on outdated concepts of weapons and tactics, in the event of an emergency, not only high-value air defense assets worth hundreds of billions of won per battery, but also major facilities across the country may be destroyed one after another by North Korea’s cheap drones. We hope that the Korean military authorities will use the Russian military example as an example to completely reexamine their air defense operation strategy and related equipment introduction plans.
Weekly Donga Room 1408
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Shin In-gyun, CEO of Independent Defense Network
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.