Tuesday’s drone strike in Moscow further shows the spread of the war in Ukraine to the Russian capital, putting a spotlight on the city’s air defenses and the Kremlin’s attempts to adapt to a new type of conflict. .
Since the 1980s, Moscow has been ringed by a complex air defense system known as Amur, designed to protect the capital from intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs, a threat that is very different from reality. in Russia’s modern war against Ukraine.
Ukraine has denied responsibility for Tuesday’s drone attack and another this month targeting the Kremlin, but such attacks are increasing on Russian territory. This forced Russia to adapt its defense systems to counter a type of ordnance that was less lethal but more numerous.
In January, Russia began placing new military hardware around Moscow without official explanation, including on top of prominent buildings such as the Defense Ministry. Military experts identified the weapons as the S-400, Russia’s most sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, and the Pantsir S-1, which in its basic form is a truck that carries relatively simple antiaircraft. missile launcher.
Pantsir missiles downed five of the eight drones that attacked Moscow on Tuesday morning, according to the Defense Ministry. A video posted on social media on Tuesday and verified by The New York Times shows a Pantsir system launching a missile outside of Moscow.
The other three drones, according to the Defense Ministry, were disrupted by so-called “radio-electronic warfare.” The ministry did not provide details, but starting in 2016 it installed an electronic jamming system known as Pole-21 on satellite towers. These systems block satellite navigation signals, causing drones and other electronically guided weapons to lose control.
As a result, Russian officials – including President Vladimir V. Putin – tried to frame the attack on the capital as a victory for Russian defenses.
“It is clear what needs to be done to increase the density of air defense systems in the capital,” Mr. Putin said in response to the attack. “And that’s all we’re going to do.”
One potential issue: The effectiveness of the Pantsir and Pole systems is greatly reduced in densely populated areas full of satellite data, said Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the security research group based in Moscow CAST. To effectively counter drone attacks, he said, the Russian military must try to disable them before they reach city limits — a difficult task given the country’s size. .
Air defense in urban areas is also more difficult than near the front lines, where most aircraft will be military. Around cities, soldiers must track civilian aircraft, such as airplanes and helicopters, while at the same time looking for radar reflections of smaller aircraft, such as unmanned drones.
“In the past, air defense systems near cities would tune out anything smaller than a helicopter,” said Ian Williams of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Smaller drones can have a radar that returns the size of a goose, so if you tune your radars to look for enemy drones you will also see more birds.”
The Pantsir air-defense vehicles seen around Moscow entered service with the Russian Army in 2003, according to CSIS, and have since been upgraded. Equipped with short-range infrared-seeking missiles and a 30-millimeter gun aimed at radar, the Pantsir was built to accompany mechanized forces like a tank column, Mr. Williams said, providing a “bubble” of protection as the convoy moved on.
They were designed and built before small drones became a major threat on the battlefield, Mr. Williams said, and although they have some ability to shoot down drones, that’s not what they’re optimized for. will do. Attackers can also use the terrain to mask the approach of low-flying aircraft, such as drones, he added.
Those responsible for Tuesday’s attack, he said, appeared to be “exploiting the limitations of the Pantsir and other air defense systems around Moscow.”
Oleg Matsnev and Riley Mellen contributed to the report.