Defending Mother Russia’s Skies

Ready for launch: a Soviet S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile on display at a museum in St Petersburg. Image: Andrey Korchagin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The war in Ukraine shows that Russian ground-based air defence is capable of inflicting serious losses on an adversary.

If Joseph Stalin saw artillery as the ‘God of War’, then the Soviet Union’s military saw ground-based air defence (GBAD) as its archangel. GBAD played a vital role in the Soviet armed forces, and this has been inherited by the Russian military. This article will explain Russia’s contemporary GBAD doctrines and capabilities. Due to available space, it will not examine the electronic warfare posture supporting Russian GBAD. It will also refrain from a detailed examination of Russian GBAD in recent conflicts.

Russian GBAD is divided across the country’s Space Forces (known by their anglicised Russian KV acronym), the Aerospace Forces (VKS) and Land Forces Air Defence (PVO-SV). All these services have distinct, yet overlapping, roles. The KV targets ballistic missiles, the VKS protects Russian territory, and the PVO-SV defends deployed land forces.


The mainstay of KV GBAD capabilities is the 53T6 (NATO reporting name ABM-03 Gazelle) anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Deployed to protect Moscow and its environs, the ABM-03 is equipped with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead. It is designed to defeat incoming ballistic missiles by detonating in close proximity, destroying them in the process. The 53T6’s surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are believed to have a range of up to 54 nautical miles (100 km). They are thought to be capable of engaging warheads at a maximum altitude of 98,000 ft (30,000 m). Target acquisition and fire control is provided by a solitary Don-2N (Pill Box) Ultra High Frequency (UHF: 420 MHz to 450MHz/890MHz to 942MHz) radar. The 53T6 is believed to be supported by additional, conventional SAM systems. These include three S-300PM1/2 (SA-20A/B Gargoyle) and five S-400 (SA-21 Growler) regiments. These long-range systems are presumably tasked with intercepting warheads not destroyed by the 53T6.

VKS GBAD doctrine is not focused on area defence. Instead, according to Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies programme at the Center for Naval Analyses, the VKS safeguards strategic politico-military targets and critical national infrastructure. The doctrine prescribes the use of a protective ‘bubble’. This has an altitude of 54 nautical miles (100 km) and a range of 189 nautical miles (350 km) to cover these targets. According to Kofman, deployed VKS GBAD units would absorb initial air attacks, preserving as much of the means of counterattack as possible.

PVO-SV doctrine stresses the protection of deployed land forces at the operational and tactical levels. The force prioritises the: ‘(d)efeat of enemy aviation, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles … to deny enemy air reconnaissance, deter enemy air strikes and prevent or interdict enemy air assaults’. The PVO-SV also protects deployed formations against surface-to-surface/air-to-surface missiles and ordnance. The force engages targets at altitudes of 650 ft (200 m) up to 40,000 ft (12,000 m), and ranges of 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) up to 100 km (62.2 miles).

The PVO-SV and VKS share a similar approach to their kill chains. Both services, in addition to the KV, use radars transmitting in Very and Ultra High Frequencies (V/UHF: 30 MHz to 3 GHz). These V/UHF radars will monitor a large swathe of airspace to detect hostile air targets. Russian GBAD is an enthusiastic user of V/UHF radars. Such radars can detect so-called ‘stealth’ targets with low radar cross sections (RCSs). They will not be able to detect low-RCS targets with sufficient accuracy to guide a SAM towards such a target. Nonetheless, this will give air defenders a good idea of where in the sky these threats reside. This tactic was used by Serbian air defence when it downed a US Air Force F-117A Nighthawk combat aircraft on 27 March 1999. The F-117A had an RCS of between 0.001 and 0.1 square metres. Once the location of hostile aircraft is determined, it is possible to anticipate their ingress routes. These can then be deluged with fighter and SAM coverage. Russian fighter and SAM radars transmit in higher frequencies than V/UHF. They will have an inferior performance against low-RCS air targets but can still engage conventional air threats. These radars will receive target data from the V/UHF radars via tactical datalinks hosted on high frequency, V/UHF, satellite communications and conventional telecommunications networks.


Three elements are essential to KV, VKS and PVO-SV GBAD: sensors, weaponry and command and control (C2). These elements are symbiotic. Losing one would greatly hamper the ability to provide GBAD writ large.

GBAD played a vital role in the Soviet armed forces, and this has been inherited by the Russian military

The KV uses several ballistic missile early warning radars. They are positioned to cover the northern, western and southern approaches to Russia. Primarily designed to track incoming ballistic missiles, the radars may have some utility in detecting conventional airpower. The comparatively low frequencies they use could potentially detect ‘stealth’ air targets with low RCSs. These frequencies would not provide the sharp accuracy that SAMs need to perform a successful engagement. They would, however, be able to provide general location information regarding incoming targets. Such information would be useful when controlling fighter interceptions of these targets. Comparatively low frequency radars are used by the VKS for much the same reason. They are probably not permanently deployed within Russia’s military districts. Instead, they are likely be deployed as needed to enhance ground-based air surveillance radar coverage over these military districts and fill gaps in existing radar surveillance.

The SAM systems used by the KV, VKS and PVO-SV are capable of engaging air targets at ranges of between 2.7 nautical miles (6 km) for tactical systems and 130 nautical miles (240 km) for missiles equipping the S-400. These systems provide between 23 square kilometres (9 square miles) and 502,655 square kilometres (194,076 square miles) of area coverage. Radars accompanying these systems can provide surveillance footprints of between 380 square kilometres (147 square miles) and 1.2 million square kilometres (463,322 square miles).

Supreme command of Russia’s armed forces flows from the country’s president and defence minister to the military chiefs and their staffs at the National Defence Management Centre (NDMC). At the strategic level, the NDMC commands the country’s Integrated Air Defence System (IADS).

The IADS performs surveillance of the country’s airspace and air approaches, providing C2 of its air defence assets. It will be responsible for protection against conventional air threats and ballistic missiles at the strategic level, with control exercised from the NDMC. This facility will probably also exercise strategic control of the KV’s ballistic missile early warning and defence system. The NDMC is where information on conventional air and ballistic missile threats will be merged, and where the response to these will be planned and executed.

Very little information is in the public domain regarding the exact workings and composition of the IADS. Nonetheless, some assumptions can be made based on standard IADS concepts of operation. The VKS almost certainly divides Russian airspace into numerous sectors. These may be contiguous with the country’s military districts. The air defence of each district is almost certainly the responsibility of its respective Air Force and Air Defence Army (AFADA). These aggregate all ground-based and airpower air defence allotted to that military district.

The disparate elements of the IADS like command centres, radars, airbases and SAM batteries will be networked using several communications links. These will include conventional civilian and military telecommunications and fibre optic links. These facilities also likely use satellite communications and high frequency radio links. The latter both allow communications across thousands of kilometres. This is an important consideration given Russia’s geographical size. Using several different communications links to network these facilities also builds in redundancy. If, for whatever reason, one link becomes unserviceable, others pick up the slack. It also means an adversary would need to badly degrade or destroy all these links to have a chance of neutralising the IADS.

Cybersecurity will also be built into the IADS’s links. The Russian military is deploying its new Multiservice Transport Communication Network (MTCN). This is a high-speed military fibre optic network stretching across the country. The MTCN supplements the Russian military’s existing intranet, known as the Closed Data Transfer System (CDTS). The CDTS is believed to have been designed to ensure it has no gateway to the global internet in order to reduce the possibility of cyber attacks.

NATO and allied countries need to view Russian strategic, operational and tactical GBAD as a clear threat

PVO-SV GBAD units have a command element within the battalion headquarters. C2 is provided by the 9S52M1 Polyana-D4M1 Air Defence Automated Command and Control Post. Russian army air defence will almost certainly have gateways into the national IADS. This will be imperative if the force is fighting on, or near, Russian territory, as air defence will need to be coordinated between the VKS and PVO-SV. Likewise, when deployed beyond Russia’s borders, the PVO-SV will be networked into the NDMC via SATCOM links.

The Future

The VKS is receiving new air defence kit in the form of S-350E and S-500 high-altitude, long-range SAM systems. The S-350E is a mooted replacement for the VKS’ S-300PS/PM batteries. Open sources state that a S-350E battery consists of one 50N6A X-band ground-based air surveillance radar. This has a reported range of 215 nautical miles (400 km). The 50N6A is joined by a single 50K6A mobile command post and up to eight 50P6 launch vehicles, each of which can fire 9M96/E or 9M100 SAMs. These have engagement ranges of up to 65 nautical miles (120 km) and maximum engagement altitudes of up to 98,000 ft (30,000 m). It was reported in January 2020 that the first S-350E battery had entered service, although further details remain unclear. The VKS could receive 12 S-350E batteries by 2027.

The S-500 ensemble will include the 91N6A(M) air surveillance and battle management radar, itself an enhanced version of the 91N6A radar accompanying the S-400, and the 96L6-TsP target acquisition radar. The latter is an enhanced variant of the S-400’s 96L6E. These two systems are accompanied by the 76T6 multimode fire control radar, itself thought to be a derivative of the 92N6E. Also forming part of the S-500 ensemble is the 77T6 anti-ballistic missile engagement radar, the capabilities of which remain unknown. Open sources say the missiles equipping the S-500 could hit targets at ranges of up to 270 nautical miles (500 km). Deployment of the S-500 is expected to commence by 2025.

Several PVO-SV systems are being upgraded or replaced. Plans are afoot to replace the 2K22 (SA-19 Grison) with a new anti-aircraft artillery platform equipped with a 57mm autocannon. This is likely to be a new system, as opposed to the PVO-SV adopting the 96K6. Instead, the 96K6 is being retained as the point defence for strategic systems like the S-400. Likewise, the 9K338 Igla-S (SA-24 Grinch) is being replaced by the KBM 9K333 Verba (SA-25). Compared to its predecessor, this has an increased range of 6.5 km (4 miles) and engagement altitude of 15,000 ft (4,500 m).

The 9K330, meanwhile, is being replaced by the 9K332 Tor-M2E, which has a range of 12 km (7.5 miles) and an engagement altitude of 19,685ft (6,000m). The 9K35 Strela-10 (SA-13 Gopher) is earmarked for replacement by the KBM Luchnik-E system. This can hit targets at a range of 6 km (3.7 miles) and an altitude of 11,482 ft (3,500 m). Finally, the 9K37M Buk-M1 (SA-11 Gadfly) is destined for replacement by the 9K317M Buk-M3 (SA-17 Grizzly). This greatly extends the range and altitude of the original 9K37M to 70 km (43.5 miles) and 114,829 ft (35,000 m), respectively.


Clearly, the effectiveness of Russian GBAD is a major question, but one to which any definitive answer is difficult. Russian air defence systems have supported the country’s military interventions in Georgia (2008), Syria (from 2015) and Ukraine (from 2014). Georgian airpower appears to have lost seven aircraft during the conflict with Russia. Few details exist as to how many of these were destroyed by Russian GBAD. Likewise, few reliable details exist in the public domain on the performance of Russian GBAD in Syria. Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, particularly its invasion of much of the country on 24 February, are better documented. Open sources say that Ukraine may have lost 28 fixed-wing planes, eight helicopters and 16 uninhabited aerial vehicles to Russian air defence. Taken together, the losses of fixed-wing planes and helicopters equate to 19% of Ukraine’s pre-war strength of 189 inhabited military aircraft.

The ongoing war in Ukraine shows that Russian GBAD is capable of inflicting serious losses on an adversary, despite the assessed desultory performance of the Russian military elsewhere in the conflict. NATO and allied countries need to view Russian strategic, operational and tactical GBAD as a clear threat. Countering this threat requires the continued prioritisation of offensive counter-air capabilities as a key means to defeat Russia’s anti-access/area denial posture. Any alliance, country or military which underestimates the strength of Russian GBAD does so at its peril.

This Commentary is part of the Russia Military Report series.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Thomas Withington

Associate Fellow - Expert in electronic warfare and air defence

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