Russian A2/AD: Overrated, underrated, *and* poorly understood

Quite a few readers will likely make the connection between the headline and a recent post by Michael Kofman over at his Russian Military Analysis blog. The post, titled “Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood”, has received quite a bit of both praise and pushback in the few days since it was published, and certainly deserve a closer look.

To begin with, last autumn Kofman published a long read over at War on the Rocks. Titled “It’s time to talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge”, it was without doubt one of last year’s best texts on the topic. I recommend anyone not familiar with it to go over there and read it, as it gives a very good overview of why the adoption of terminology originally dealing with a Chinese concept of operations and inserting it into an unrelated Russian context will lead us deep into the land of wrong conclusions. It also details well how the Russian long-range systems fit into the Russian operational concept.

A 9A83 TELAR of the S-300V system operated by the 202nd Air Defence Brigade. The unit is co-located with the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Armoured Division in Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow. The system a good example of a high-end capability found within the Russian Ground Forces structure, as opposed to the VKS/V PVO PRO. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

“Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood” instead looks at the question on a tactical level, and takes issue with what Kofman describes as “technology fetishism and threat inflationism [seemingly] giving way to a dismissive attitude”. There often exist a very real possibility of overcompensating when the first wave of panic-induced threat inflationism is receding, but I am not quite convinced that is what is happening here. Before starting, it should also be pointed out that whenever discussing the “general consensus” or “the discussion” as I do here, it can easily qualify as debating a strawman, since the average opinion, much as the average person, doesn’t exist.

There are several valid points in Kofman’s piece, perhaps the most important of which is that the focus on the strategic long-range systems* of the Aerospace Forces (VKS), which control the Air and Missile Defence Troops (V PVO PRO), leave out a sizeable number of Russian Air Defence assets. This include not only the Russian Air Force, but also the vast number of air defence systems of all kinds and ranges, some of which are very capable, that are subordinated to the Russian Ground Forces’ air defence units (PVO-SV). Another issue is whether Russia in a conventional war against NATO really would think in terms of a limited war, or whether the smallest size would be something along the lines of a conflict stretching along the full span of Russia’s western land border. Perhaps the most important point raised is the importance of discussing how well the Russian systems would work in a Western setting. As was evident especially during the post-Cold War thaw of the 1990’s when Russia shared the thinking behind their weapons programs more openly (though it frankly should have been evident both before and after), the Russian concept of operations differs from NATO’s CONOPS. This in turn means that their development and procurement decision are driven towards solutions that might seem strange or underperfoming in a Western context, but match the requirements of the Russian Armed Forces (ask yourself where all the Russian targeting pods are, just to give one brief example).

However, other issues raised by Kofman aren’t quite as clear-cut in my opinion. Yes, the Russian Air Force did receive 402 new tactical fighters and strike aircraft between 2008 and the end of 2019 (88 of which were Su-35 and 125 of which were Su-34). However, that ten-year run can be contrasted to the deliveries of 134 F-35 in 2019 alone (a year in which the Russian Air Force received 20 new fast jets), with another 140+ planned for next year, not to mention the production figures of other western fighter programs currently running. It should also be noted that the Russian Air Force of 2008 was sorely outdated, and that the aircraft since delivered, while modern, dosen’t necessarily provide the Russian Air Force with a qualitative edge compared to the current western inventory. Big questions surround the Russian fighters when it comes to key areas such as sensor fusion and man-machine interfaces, two fields that have grown in importance over the last decade with the increased amount of information available to the pilots.

The most serious issue for the Russian Air Force however is their weapons. For decades nothing much happened in the field, to the extent that the main air-to-air weapons still are the R-27 family of medium-range and the R-73 short-range missiles, both of which entered service well before the end of the Cold War. The situation is so dire that when the Russian Air Force first went to Syria, they had to resort to the ‘export-only’ RVV-SD to get a medium-ranged missile with an active radar seeker. Deliveries of updated weapons such as the R-77-1 (on which the RVV-SD is based) and the R-74M have now started (though the R-74M is still somewhat uncertain as far as I am aware), but it will take time until they have become the standard load of the fighters.

For air-to-ground, a more or less similar situation exists, not aided by the fact that Russian ‘dumb’ bombs aren’t easily kitable to become smart due to their general construction. The most common air-to-surface missile is the laser-guided Kh-25ML, a weapon with a 10 km range that was in production between 1982 and 1997. Several other air-to-ground systems exist, in fact the Russian arsenal include more diverse weapons/seeker capabilities than the NATO air forces, but the numbers for modern systems are generally low.

This is not to suggest that the air component of a NATO-Russian clash would be easy, especially once considering the possibility of preemptive strikes against NATO air bases and the low stocks of weapons held by the western air forces. It certainly would be a complex and messy affair, of which the SEAD/DEAD mission would be just one aspect.

EA-18G Wingfold

While much has been written about the Russian focus on electronic warfare, there are still a number of very capable platforms in the west as well. The EA-18G Growler would be a key asset in any US air campaign within the foreseeable future that was faced with modern air defences. Source: Own picture

I do agree that the greatest benefit of ground-based air defences often aren’t their kinetic capabilities, but the fact that their presence on the battlefield causes the enemy to alter tactics and divert resources to managing the threat from these long range systems (or, as Kofman put it, they become McGuffins). There is an inherent value in these systems, but the question is if we haven’t left A2/AD territory a long time ago by this point, and are back to the issue of how to pick apart a multi-layered air defence system made up of multiple components, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. This in itself is nothing new, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War are probably the two most well-known examples, both in part due to the seemingly superior air force suffering serious losses when trying to get around one kind of threat and running into another one. However, it should be pointed out that the examples to the contrary are also found. The Lebanon War of 1982 and Operation Desert Storm both saw seemingly robust integrated air defence systems supported by serious fighter and interceptor components destroyed with fairly limited losses.

How the Russian air defences stand up against a concentrated air offensive is anyone’s guess. One of the key questions is who really dominates the electronic warfare spectrum? The Russian capabilities have been on test in Ukraine and Syria, but while the focus in west can be said to have been elsewhere during the post-9/11 period, there is still several capable systems and platforms in operational service. The effect they would have on the modular structure of the high-end Russian air defence assets is one of the key unanswered questions.

In the end, if I would have to guess, I find the high-end Russian systems such as the S-400 to likely be overrated. The same goes for the capabilities of active seekers of individual missiles, especially as their ranges grow. The medium-range systems such as the latest versions of the Buk and the Tor, are likely underrated, due to their combination of being easier to hide while still packing a serious punch. The whole A2/AD bastion concept makes little sense for most of Russia (the Murmansk area being the exception). What is completely open to me is how modular the Russian ground-based air defences really are, and how robust this modularity is in the face of a squadron of Growlers. In general, it can also be noted that history hasn’t been kind to ground controlled intercept-based tactics post-WWII.

*These are the S-300PM1 and S-300PM2, S-400, and their close-defence 96K6 Pantsir-systems, as well as the A-135 anti-ballistic missile system defending Moscow.

11 thoughts on “Russian A2/AD: Overrated, underrated, *and* poorly understood

  1. E.A.Presley

    The article seemed to steer clear of effectiveness of stealth against said air defence systems. However, interesting to see, how Russians see the battle space.

    1. Locum

      Fight the System, acupuncture at war.
      Translated from Russian army text during the Cold War: “Keeping your enemy alive, is not living yourself. Were the enemy is at his weakest points, hit him there the hardest way. So he will collapse.”

      When I lived in Israel I had quite a lot of Russian friends. From them I learnt that if your opponent is equal or superior. Do not counter the enemy’s weapons directly with another same kind of weapon. Like F-15 vs ‘F-15-ski’. Regard your opponent like a organism or living system, with strong and weak points. In Russian culture, ‘people always put their big toe in the water to sense the temperature’, before they start acting. In other words: first find out about the situation, are there weak points to exploit. Is he / she ‘giving me a finger tip ?’, so I can grab the whole finger, or even whole hand or arm. In Russian culture and the same applies to the Chinese and Arab cultures, you never show weakness, never !

      The Russians, Chinese and others, like India and Iran for example ran analyses of air power dominated ops Desert Storm in ’91 and later ops Desert Fox (Iraq, 1998) and ops Allied Force, Former-Yogoslavia, 1999.
      They concluded that the US air power Concept of Operations (CONOPS)in the nineties and especially the future, relied on:
      1. Close and secure air bases.
      2. Low Observability (LO or VLO of F-117A, B-2A, F-22A and forthcoming JSF).
      3. BVR weaponry.
      4. Employment of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM).

      Between approx 1995 – 2000, the Russians and China already developed countering concepts and exported them to countries like India and Iran.
      4. PGM’s are deflected, degraded or neutralized by: concealment, hardening, decoy-targets, jamming. And active defense by employing systems like the Pantsir.
      3. The former Soviet-Union was already traditionally strong in surface- and airborne electronic warfare against radars and tele-communications. In Russia, China and India, investments in EW were intensified to counter BVR weapons and Network Enable Capabilities (NEC) better.
      2. Counter (V)LO techniques by developing improved Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) active phased array (AESA) VHF radars; AESA L-band and S-band radars; Infra Red Search & Track (IRST). And Passive Co-Locating Systems, which use the reflections of external electro-magnetic transmissions of sources like radars, jammers, radio’s and even radio and TV stations.
      This mix of different kind of sensors were tied in an advanced kind of network.
      The US Navy ran around 1998 a realistic Exercise, in which a network of different sensors could counter LO / Stealth.
      1. Disrupt or deny close and secure basing. 39 Air launched cruise missiles, launched by B-52 Stratofortress bombers blew (then secretly) the first holes in the Iraqi IADS in the beginning of ops Desert Storm.
      The Soviets and Russians have a long tradition in which they regard the artillery as the King of the Battlefield. Napoleon Bonaparte agreed with them, because artillery is the biggest killer of enemy’s forces.
      The Soviets had already since 1984 long range cruise missiles like the 1.700 kg RK-55 Relief with a max. range of 3.000 km or air launched Kh-55 / AS-15 Kent. In 1994, the more capable 1.500 – 2.500 km range Kalibr cruise missile was introduced, which is even based at small corvettes. In Central-Europe, most targets are within 400 nm / 740 km reach from the take-off / start place. The Gulf War of ’91 proved how difficult it was to intercept old Scud tactical ballistic missiles (TBM). Now give a new TBM, Pershing II like performance with a solid propellant motor, which gives a much shorter preparation time than liquid fueled missiles.
      Add an advanced guidance system with Inertial gyroscopes, GPS or the Russsian Glonass satellite nav. system and terminal all-weather radar guidance. Enter the Iskander missile, probably with a range of 700 km, according to Polish source. To attack high value key-targets like air bases, airports, oil processing & storage plants, command & control posts, power plants, etcetera. Or … enter guided TBM’s like the Iranian 200 – 300 km range Fateh-110; 500 km range Fateh-313, 700 km range Zolfaqar or 1.000 km range Dezful. The Ukranians suffered severely from a combination of (long range) artillery, tipped with devastating fuel-air explosives, directed by a network of drones and data links. Which provided very quickly firing solutions.

      Experiences have shown that NATO or US air power sortie generation ratio’s are decreasing considerably at ranges > 500 nm / 926 km. Imagine, that the Serbs had precision guided TBM’s in 1999. And could destroy the limited number of NATO air bases, overcrowded with fighter aircraft.

      In my opinion, Anti Access – Area Denial and it’s associated ‘bubbles’ is an overrated idea in the heads of Westerners.
      The Asians, Russians included, are more into “Dim Mak”, means literally “deadly touch”.
      Like Chinese acupuncture and acupressure, action or pressure is applied to key areas of the body. Acupuncture and acupressure are aimed at healing your body. Dim Mak, a centuries old martial art, works in the same way, but with opposite results by paralyzing or killing your opponent.

      1. E.A.Presley

        That was superb overview with history perspective and lots of details! You must have taken some time to write the reply for my post — I appreciate your reply immensely.

        Lot have happened since the Gulf War and Serbia, and that consideration about close and secure air bases really hits home. Finland needs a aircraft that can be used in dispersed manner for obvious reasons. I’m not sure, if the F-35 _currently_ is suitable for such dispersed operations with enough sorties generated. Everything is probably fixable with time and money, but we don’t have luxury of those. The FAF have given impression that they want ready aircraft.

        I’ve noted the progress on passive sensors and others that take away some of the advantage of VLO by giving a location, where there are stealth planes present. VLO does however give other advantages making the killing chain harder as the missiles can’t have that big wave length radars for physical constraints and VLO helps increasing the effectiveness of the defensive EW means as there is less energy reflected from a stealth plane.

        The more I read about all the aircraft the less I can see, what will be the selected one.

        Once again, thank for your brilliant reply. I probably read it few times more 🙂

  2. You should really read this, despite it being from 2014. The conclusions still holds. The F35 does not need growlers on day one against a peer-adversary. That it the USAF doctrine and that is why they have no growlers and no plans for growlers or growler-like planes. If you have F35 you send them in on the first day to knock the door in of a A2/AD bubble. 4gen assets will not be used on day one.

    1. Locum

      Do It in the Mix.
      Well, according to the US Air Force, the F-117A Nighthawk did not need any Electronic Warfare (EW) systems to successfully penetrate the Serbian Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) in 1999.

      In the beginning of 2018, the F-35 flew it’s first Red Flag exercise. Several times, F-35’s managed to sneak unseen upon their opponents. That’s nothing new at the battle field.
      During the era of the F-104G Starfighter. Pilots used a combi of it’s natural radar Low Observability (LO), small frontal and plan view silhouettes and high speed to kill the enemy in a Jaws shark style surprise attack. Roughly 65 – 85 % of all pilots, shot down in air-to-air combat, did not see their attackers coming at all.
      The ‘104’ Starfighter was also used in the (nuclear) Strike role. With just one nuke, you could fly from the Eastern Netherlands as far as in Poland. Despite it’s LO characteristics, they did this mission at a low altitude of 250 ft / 76 meters till 100 ft / 30 meters. The Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) found that this combi of natural LO and low flying was not enough.
      Several manufacturers of EW systems were invited. Representatives of an Italian company claimed: “If you flip the switch “On”, on our jammer, than no adversary radars are a threat anymore”.
      Unfortunately, this kind of single “End all, be it All” counter measures do not exist.

      Defeating an enemy’s IADS in an effective way, happens in a (wide) mix of tactics, evasive manoeuvres, passive EW (emitter classifying and locating). Active EW: jamming, deceiving or seducing by dispensing, false signals, chaff, flares and decoy’s. And of course Destruction Enemy’s Air Defense (DEAD).

      Kicking in the door at war day No. 1 is the job of: cruise missiles, precision guided tactical ballistic missiles ;), Very LO bombers like the B-2A Spirit and VLO fighters like the F-22A Raptor.

      The F-35 capability that stood out, during that Red Flag in the beginning of 2018, is it’s multi-sensor package, with multi-F-35 ship sensor fusion into a single common picture. Which is considerably clearer and much further reaching than the limited sensor fusion. Of advanced F-18 versions, Rafale’s, Typhoon’s or Gripen’s, with their compilation of several sensor data streams.

      Before this Red Flag exercise, when discussions about the F-35 capabilities arose. A lot of pilot’s praised those great sensors package, but they pointed out that weapon system effectiveness is also measured by it’s possible payload. During this Red Flag, quite often F-35’s prematurely ran out of ammunition. Luckily, there were enough Typhoons and Strike Eagles weapon-platforms around to aid the now sensor-platform-only F-35’s. Both F-35’s and non-LO partners in this effective combo were operating inside enemy’s IADS bubble !

      1. THalken

        The 117 in Serbia flew 42 missions by the same path and they got sloppy. Thats the story. That kind of attrition rate is okay.

        The 104 is not VLO so I wonder what you deduct from that, that is relevant for the F35?

        USAF has not any EW asset. Its that simple. It is procuring 900 F35 and has 180 F22s.
        If the F35 does not have enough missiles, it does not engage or you have to have more F35s. Its not only about sensor fusion, thou that is a contributing factor. At the end of the day the F35 is created to sense the other planes before they sense the F35 and engage them. Its a combination of passive sensing while 4gen needs active sensing (radars), combined with VLO that means that even with a radar you need to get very close to detect it, and when you do the F3 has detected you first -> game over. The F35 will close the kill chian much faster and much before its adversaries see it. That is the whole concept of which the USAF is betting 1tn$ in the worlds greatest procurement project and USAF air superiority.

    2. I do believe we have discussed that article earlier as well 😉 I somehow doubt the whole “Day one”-concept, the enemy rarely give away the initiative to first to an orderly SEAD-campaign, followed by an offensive counter-air campaign, and then go over to ground-pounding. Instead, everything takes place pretty much simultaneously, and that will see both F-35 and older aircraft operating inside the ranges of enemy air defences.

      1. THalken

        It does not really matter. Whatever concept you have of day one, imagine that where Finland fights with 4gen assets and then with 5gen assets.
        From a Danish point of view, we have some of the same challenge if we’re attacked by Russia. Russia has superiority in numbers and airframes that can dogfight, and they will try to conduct a campaign that is playing to their advantage. We can only afford maybe 20-25 planes to protect Denmark. Having a very limited number of F35s that has been built to counter esp 4gen by relying on passive BVR engagements is therefore taking advantage of this. With the F35 we can make it more expensive for an attacker than if we had any of the other platforms. Not being detected, while taking out as many baddies as you can, is key to survival in the first day and key to make it costly for the attacker. Hence it matters little what scenario you imagine for the first day of a war with a peer that has superior numbers of 4gen planes and superior SAMs. The higher the treat level, the higher the value of an asset that cannot be detected, cause it makes it survivable and provide graceful degradation, unlike defenses that rely on high value assets such as a AWACs or growlers.

  3. Speak of the devil and he shall appear. This is a fair post, but I think it is overly dismissive of the developments in the Russian VKS over the past 5 years, and the views on both Russian air to air or air to ground weaponry are somewhat dated. Things in munitions have changed, and are changing. The VKS that exists today is quite different from what entered Syria in 2015. That’s a target better to lead than to follow. What’s true today will also be quite untrue within the next 5 years given the focus of Russian modernization programs on PGMs.

    Also the real state of modernization and readiness in Western air forces needs to be kept in mind as a reality check, given whats on paper versus what actually can fly in the initial period of war (or for Europeans in the not so initial period of war also). The same question can be asked about munitions availability.

    Take caution in looking back to WWII or Arab-Israeli Wars. In an attempt to gain insights and lessons on what the next great power conflict might look like we often learn things that are not true from smaller wars, and attempt to port those lessons into a different context. In general aerospace offense has the advantage in my view, but with many caveats.

    Appreciate the continuing conversation on this subject.

    1. Well, I must admit this was a nice surprise!

      To begin with, I do believe that we are generally in agreement on the larger issues at play here, even if opinions on certain details vary.

      The modernisation of the Russian forces is going forward at a rapid pace, although note quite as rapid as some of their press releases would have us believe. In quite a few cases, it seems to be more along the line of two steps forward, one step back, and we have seen quite a few projects encounter significant delays when it comes to transitioning from pre-production to full-scale series production. If things start to come together better (and there is an argument to be made that the Russian supply chains have started to successfully adapt to the post-Crimea situation) this post could look very different three or five years into the future. For the time being, I am somewhat cautious in my interpretation about to what extent Russia has been able to roll out modern systems across the line (though as noted, within a week or two both sides would likely be scraping at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to supplies of munitions anyway). I also highly doubt the “first day of war when we take out the enemy IADS”-concept that is often discussed together with the F-35. A far more likely scenario is that the SEAD-mission will continue throughout the conflict, alongside other air missions.

      It is true that one should be careful with drawing lessons from history, though it does provide good pointers at times. Part of the reason behind the successes of the SEAD-campaigns in Lebanon and Desert Storm can be traced back to the studies of what went wrong in 1973 and in Vietnam respectively. My go-to book about the Yom Kippur War is Abraham Rabinovich’s book (simply titled “The Yom Kippur War”), and at one point he simply notes “The Arabs were now doing a lot of things that the IDF hadn’t expected from them”. It is a line that has stuck with me ever since first reading it. We shouldn’t whip ourselves into panic with the glossy-paper brochures of Rosoboronexport, but at the same time falling into the trap of underestimating potential adversaries has the potential to have even more dire consequences. As such, erring on the side of caution might very well be called for.

      1. Locum

        Winston Churchill once said: Russia is never as weak as you hoped for and never as strong as your feared for.

        Bursting the Bubble
        Russian A2/AD in the Baltic Sea Region: Capabilities, Countermeasures, and Implications.
        A report by the FOI, the Swedish Defence Research Agency (Swedish: Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, FOI)

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