Russia Recognising New Air Defence Challenge From Compact Low Speed Drones: Designing New Sensors Accordingly

Russia has begun development of a new aerospace control system able to effectively monitor low speed and compact unmanned aircraft, after the Ukrainian Military launched successful strikes on Russian targets including the capital Moscow using such assets repeatedly. CEO of the Rostec state owned defence conglomerate Sergey Chemezov stated on August 7 regarding work towards fielding such an asset that the company “is carrying out work to create an aerospace monitoring system. We have designed small radars that can detect compact, low-speed targets – which is exactly what drones are.” “The radars that are available today cannot always detect such targets because they fly low, whereas radars are designed to intercept high-flying objects – airplanes, missiles and so on,” he added.

Russian air defence systems are widely acknowledged by analysts in both Asia and the West to lead the world in their capabilities, with assets such as the S-400 and S-500 systems having no near peer rivals fielded abroad. With air defence assets having taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian aerial warfare assets since the early stages of the Russian-Ukrainian War, including newly supplied NATO aircraft such as Byraktar drones that Western analysts initially had high hopes for, introducing a superior capability against compact low speed drones has the potential to close a major loophole. Ukraine has been able to replenish its supplies of drones rapidly through its Western supporters, where higher end aircraft such as fighters would take considerably longer to train crews on and have more requirements for basic and maintenance which would be difficult to address in wartime. 

Use of low speed aircraft to evade radar detection was hardly a tactic first pioneered in Ukraine, with North Korea having invested heavily in such assets including production of propeller driver bi-planes to deliver special forces against key targets in South Korea. Such aircraft have negligible heat signatures and are extremely difficult to detect by radar. North Korean drones are also thought to have been able to repeatedly penetrate deep into South Korean airspace by flying at low speeds, flying over highly sensitive government buildings in the capital Seoul in the process. Russia itself since the 1990s invested in developing thrust vectoring engines for its fighter aircraft to allow them to discard radar capture by remaining still momentarily. The Russian Defence Ministry has invested far more heavily in ground based air defence systems than in its tactical combat aviation since the end of the Cold War, with progress in modernisation of the arsenal accordingly being much faster while post-Soviet contraction to the number of operational units was far less sharp. The air defence network has been able to provide protection against a growing range of potential threats, with the S-500 system recently introducing the ability to intercept higher speed hypersonic glide vehicles as well as intercontinental range ballistic missiles, while the S-400’s 40N6 missile with a Mach 14 speed and 400km range in the late 2010s introduced superior anti ballistic missile and anti hypersonic capabilities. The very low end threat of compact drones has posed challenges to air defences at the opposite end of the spectrum.