A Pantsyr S-1 air-defense system atop the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow on August 3.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
In recent months, Moscow has seen high-profile drone attacks thought to be launched by Ukraine.
Russian officials have scrambled to deploy additional air defenses around the capital city.
Moscow has had air defenses for a century, but they haven’t been designed for what Ukraine is doing.
The last few weeks have seen frantic efforts strengthen Moscow’s air defenses. The UK’s Ministry of Defense noted in a Tweet on September 12th that pictures on social media showed new anti-aircraft installations on towers and ramps around Moscow to protect against drone attacks.
These additions may seem strange given that Moscow is one of the most heavily-defended cities in the world, with an air-defense district dating back to Russia’s civil war in 1918. Thirty-six anti-aircraft guns were brought into defend the city from attacks by counter-revolutionary biplanes, and there has been a century of preparation since, with huge upgrades in WWII and the Cold War. So why all the sudden activity?
An ICBM in Red Square during a military parade on May 12, 1965.
Central Press/Getty Images
To appreciate just how extensive Moscow’s air defenses are, we need to visit the suburb of Filatov Lug. Sixteen miles out from the Kremlin, away from the city smoke, Filatov Lug boasts with a forest park popular for winter skiing, with summer amenities as playgrounds, picnic areas and walking paths lined with wooden animal sculptures.
An area sealed off behind high walls contains a more unusual facility: 16 underground missile silos, the striking element of the A-135 anti-ballistic-missile system, protecting the city from incoming missiles.
This is one of five such sites circling Moscow. Each of the silos at Filatov Lug houses an 53T6 Amur (“Gazelle”) missile, so called for its incredible acceleration. On launch, the missile goes from stationary to Mach 16, more than 3 miles a second, in three seconds flat. Like a bullet, the launch is too fast for the eye to follow.
Ballistic missile interception is notoriously challenging. One American engineer famously described it as “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” This only applies for the kinetic approach though; the Russians made the task easier by fitting the interceptors with 10 kiloton nuclear warheads. The warhead on the 53T6 is a neutron bomb to fry the electronics of any incoming missile and neutralize it, assuming the missile survives the explosion.
A transport and reloading vehicle for 51T6 long-range interceptor missiles, part of the A-135 Amur anti-missile defense complex.
The Gazelle is an endo-atmospheric missile, meaning it only hits missiles once they are inside the Earth’s atmosphere, at altitudes of less than 60 miles. This is actually the inner defensive ring: The A135 system originally had an outer ring of 51T6 Gorgon missiles with megaton-class warheads.
The A135 is the successor to the A35 built in the 1960s, as Russia’s equivalent of the US Safeguard system with its Sprint and Spartan nuclear-tipped interceptors. The big difference is while Safeguard was positioned to protect US ballistic missiles in North Dakota from a Soviet first strike, the A135 exists entirely to protect the Russian leadership. And while Safeguard was shut down in 1976, the A135 remains very much active.
The Gorgon silos were mothballed in 2002, but in recent years Moscow has been working on upgrades to transform the A135 into the A235, integrating it with other assets and adding new long-range missiles to shoot down satellites as well as ballistic missiles.
The A135 is sophisticated, with several arrays of radar to detect, locate, identify and track incoming threats, but has been useless for small drone attacks: you cannot use a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon against a low altitude target.
The wrong threat
A building in Moscow damaged in a drone attack on July 24.
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Moscow’s integrated air-defense system is also equipped to deal with smaller threats, in theory. The 1st Air Defense Army operates the S-50M anti-aircraft defense complex to defend the capital with networked radars and batteries of S-400 and S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile launchers.
The problem is that the drones are both literally and metaphorically not on its radar. The system is designed to tackle large jets and cruise missiles moving at high speed. It is not configured for slow, low-altitude threats. In fact air-defence radar typically filters out slow-moving objects as these are likely to be flocks of birds.
Nobody in the Russian leadership ever seems to have thought drones would be a problem. As a paper by the think tank Center For European Policy Analysis notes, “Neither the National Security Strategy of 2021 nor the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation of 2014 identify drones as a threat to national security. The Concept of the Development of the Aerospace Defense of the Russian Federation until 2030, dated April 2, 2019, also pays no attention to countering drones.”
This has left a massive blind spot which needs filling. Ironically enough, Moscow no longer has the capacity to stop drones with performance similar to those biplanes in 1918.
A Pantsir air-defense system on the roof of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow in March.
STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images
As far back as this January, Russian planners realized that Moscow was wide open to drone attacks. Ukraine had been building small drones from commercial kits, like the Chinese Mugin-5, and packing them with explosives for kamikaze missions in Crimea.
Moscow lies less than 300 miles from the nearest point in Ukraine. Kyiv had refrained from attacking Russian soil due to Western sensitivities, but it seemed inevitable that the massive Russian missile and drone attacks on Ukraine would draw a response and drone strikes were an obvious possibility.
Russian authorities responded by hoisting SA-22 Pantsir vehicles on to the roofs of high-profile buildings in Moscow, including the Defense Ministry. The Pantsir is a self-contained anti-aircraft system, mounted on an eight-wheeled Kamaz truck. It has radar, twin 30mm rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns and up to twelve launchers for surface-to-air missiles with a range of 11 miles.
The slightly comic sight of 30-ton vehicles perched on rooftops may have been intended to reassure the population that Moscow was ready to defend itself. But commentators doubted how much protection the Pantsirs would provide. They had performed badly in action in Syria and Libya where, embarrassingly enough, Pantsirs were destroyed by the drones they were supposed to be defending against.
In 2018, a critical article in the Russian military journal Arsenal of the Fatherland claimed that, “In Syria, it turned out that the Pantsir was practically incapable of detecting low-speed and small-sized targets, which include military UAVs [drones]. At the same time, the complex regularly recorded false targets — large birds flying around the base — rather confusing the operators.”
The drone siege of Moscow
Investigators examine a damaged skyscraper in Moscow’s business district after a reported drone attack on July 30.
The first drones hit Moscow in May, with waves of subsequent attacks continuing through July, August and September. After each strike the Russian authorities invariably claim that they brought all the attacking drones down with electronic warfare or anti-aircraft weapons, and that any damage is caused by falling debris.
There are good reasons to doubt this. The fact that the same high-rise building, which houses three Russian government ministries, was struck twice by drones in three days suggests that the damage is far from random. The destruction of aircraft at nearby airbases also suggests the drones are getting through.
This explains the latest round of developments. As the UK’s Ministry of Defense noted in a Tweet in September 12th, a number of pictures on social media showed Pantsirs on special towers and ramps around Moscow, “in an effort to more effectively defend against the uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks the city now experiences most days.”
These systems are in limited supply, and the more that are used to defend Moscow, the less are available on the front line or to defend Russian air bases and oil refineries which are also coming under drone attack.
Meanwhile, after a year or more of development and prototyping, and a handful of launches, Ukraine is starting to mass produce of long-range strike drones. Officials say they aim to produce hundreds per month. That will be an onslaught on a very different scale to what we have seen so far. Even after a century of preparation and a lot of last-minute rush, Moscow does not look ready to deal with storm of drones to come.
Author expertise and biography
David Hambling is a London-based journalist, author, and consultant specializing in defense technology with over 20 years of experience. He writes for Aviation Week, Forbes, The Economist, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and others. His books include “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-tech World” (2005) and “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” (2015). He has been closely watching the continued evolution of small military drones. Follow him @David_Hambling.