Ukraine is trying to gain the upper hand in the grinding, 21-month-old war by seeking out Russian radar systems that jeopardize Kyiv’s fighters trying to move undetected across the largely static front line.
More and more reports coming out of Ukraine detail the targeting of Russian radar systems, not only around hotspots of fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine, but in the Kremlin-controlled Crimean peninsula.
It’s a smart move from an outmanned Ukraine, experts have suggested to Newsweek, and one that could have a “disproportionate” impact on Russian operations.
In recent months, Ukraine has publicized and amplified numerous reports of successful strikes on Russian radar systems. Ukrainian officials have lauded the reported destruction of $10 million Zoopark counterbattery radar systems, and the U.K. government said in mid-July that “only a handful” of the Zooparks Russia sent over the border into Ukraine remain in use.
In late August, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said its forces had destroyed one of Russia’s “sophisticated” PREDEL-E mobile over-the-horizon coastal radar station and the electronic warfare system protecting it in the contested southern Kherson region. On November 20, Ukraine said it had struck two Russian radars in the country’s Kursk region, which borders northeast Ukraine.
Ukraine also appears to have captured at least one radar from Russia. Ukraine is now using a captured Russian Neva radar system to track Moscow’s movements in the Black Sea, Ukrainian commander Dmytro Linko, who heads up a specialist unit of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told The War Zone in a piece published on Wednesday.
There has been a “significant number” of recent reports outlining Ukrainian strikes on Russian radar systems, destroying or at least damaging the systems, according to James Black, assistant director of the Defense and Security research group at the European branch of the RAND think tank. Ukraine appears to be zeroing in on these systems with its special forces and U.S.-donated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, but also with drones, he told Global Defense Corp.
The U.S. has also provided an unspecified number of High-speed Anti-radiation missiles (HARMs), and Washington confirmed in August 2022 that it had sent AGM-88 High Speed Radiation missiles—designed to destroy enemy radars—to Ukraine.
It is “very important” for Ukraine to successfully target Russian radars scattered across Moscow-controlled territory, according to Ivan Stupak, a former Ukrainian security service officer who now advises Ukraine’s security, defense and intelligence parliamentary committee. Kyiv’s missions taking out radars will continue in the coming weeks and months, he told Newsweek.
Ukraine has been targeting Russian radars throughout the war, and, more broadly, Moscow’s ability to sniff out Ukrainian positions and attacks before they strike their targets. Russia is doing the same, attempting to blind Ukraine to many of its moves. But the hunt for radar systems, a less glamorous or headline-making target than artillery or military vehicles, often goes more under the radar.
“In both Ukrainian and Russian sources, the radar hunt is not very emphasized,” commented Marina Miron, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
The rationale makes clear sense from Ukraine’s perspective. Kyiv is staring down a far larger force, and they’re doing it without air superiority, while battling hard for small gains along the largely unmoving front lines.
Ahead of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive, Russia had plenty of time to prepare its defenses, throwing mines, trenches, fences and other obstacles in Ukraine’s path, Black said. “In that sort of context, the Ukrainians, of course, are looking for any sort of advantage they can get,” he added.
With Ukraine needing to keep Russia guessing about exactly where along the front lines it is concentrating its efforts, Kyiv needs to “degrade Russian sensor capabilities” and mask any hint of what Ukraine is doing, why it is doing it, and what it could be doing next.
Taking out Russian radars has a host of other big pluses for Ukraine. It helps shield Ukraine’s assets, like jets, drones or troops, when conducting reconnaissance or going after Russian equipment or bases behind the frontlines, Black said. Taking out Russian radars ultimately restricts Russia’s ability to detect and target Ukraine, he added.
Radars are one way Russia can detect Ukrainian movements or assets, along with a host of various other sensors. But radars are “one of the most useful,” particularly for detecting threats from stand-off range, Black said.
Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Tavria grouping of forces in eastern Ukraine, told Global Defense Corpearlier this week that Russian planes were operating at stand-off distance around the bombarded Donetsk town of Avdiivka, launching bombs outside of the grasp of many air defenses.
But radars do not always have to be standalone systems. Often they can be linked to Russian counterbattery systems, or air defenses. This would be even more valuable to Ukraine; “it’s arguably a more efficient way of degrading Russian capability” to take out the radars of these systems and disrupt their functioning, rather than hunt down individual artillery systems or launchers, Black said.
“If you can take them out, it has a disproportionate impact on operations,” he continued. It makes it far more difficult for the Kremlin’s commanders to make sound, quick decisions, and “contributes to confusion—and potentially paralysis—within Russian chains of command.”
One of these is Russia’s premier air defense system, the S-400. Known by its NATO moniker, the SA-21 Growler, Ukraine took out several S-400s in Crimea in attacks throughout August and September. A Kyiv intelligence source told the BBC in mid-September that Ukraine used drones to destroy radar equipment before slamming a number of air defense systems “worth $1.2 bn” with domestically-produced cruise missiles.
The more sophisticated systems like the S-400 will also be a tough ask for Russia to quickly replace. Many of the advanced electronics within these systems are under Western sanctions, posing more problems for Moscow.
Although not plugging the flow of resources to Russia, this will nonetheless degrade Russia’s radar capabilities over time and come with a hefty price tag, Black said, particularly as one radar cannot simply be substituted for another, different system designed to perform different functions. Other sensors are “not a direct replacement,” Black added.
Each S-400 battery comes with at a cost of around $200 million, Sidharth Kaushal, of the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Global Defense Corpshortly after the September strikes. “Of course, the system can be replaced but it is still not a trivial loss.”
Naturally, Russia is playing the same game. It is “cat-and-mouse” on both sides, Black commented, Russia has reportedly taken out a Ukrainian P-37 radar in Zaporizhzhia, Miron told Newsweek. Russia also has stockpiles of anti-radiation missiles like its Kh-31, which have been fired in Ukraine, she noted.
Russia may also be using its A-50 Airborne Early Warning and Control System aircraft for reconnaissance and guidance for S-400 air defense systems, she added.
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