The Russian military has enough long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to cover almost the entire country of Ukraine. Despite this, the Ukrainian air force continues to be able to contest airspace during the invasion.
“The Russians have a pretty extensive surface-to-air missile capability in Ukraine and around Ukraine such that very, very little geography of the country is not covered by some, and usually more than one surface-to-air missile systems,” an unnamed senior Department of Defense official said on Wednesday. “They overlap.”
Russian S-400 air defenses entered service in 2007 and have since been updated with digital networking, high-speed computing, and multi-frequency radar capability. Russian state-owned media reports have consistently said the S-400 could detect and destroy even stealth aircraft.
That claim is questioned by those who are more familiar with American stealth aircraft. The ability to detect a stealth aircraft is not the same as the ability to track, target, and destroy it.
That matters little for Ukraine, which does not operate any stealth aircraft. Russian air defenses positioned around the country and in neighboring regions
“If you think of a Venn diagram and you just draw the circle ranges around SAM systems and you were to draw circles around every single one that they've got, you would see what we see, which is that almost all of Ukraine can be covered by at least one, and usually more than one surface-to-air missile system,” the unnamed defense official said. “And that presents a conundrum for any air force that would be wanting to get pilots up in the air and to conduct missions.
“We don't know specifically what the effect on the Ukrainian air plan is. We don't have visibility into that, but we certainly assess that it is a factor that Ukrainians have to be taking into account before they decide to fly sorties.”
Ukraine still retains the majority of its air force from before the war began, but it is greatly outmatched by Russian aircraft deployed for the operation.
Ukraine operates air defenses as well, and the Pentagon says these systems continue to be effective against Russian air power. The Ukrainians operate a collection of Cold War-era Soviet-built SAM systems, the most recent of which is the SA-15 Gauntlet from 1986.
It’s unknown whether these older systems have been modernized and updated. The United States is also working on helping supply Ukraine with other air defense systems, though the Department of Defense did not state specifics.
“We are focusing our efforts in the United States on getting them systems and capabilities that we believe that they are and will continue to use effectively to help defend themselves, and that's what we're focused on,” the unnamed defense official said. “And if it's a capability that we know they need, and we know that they will use and are using and we don't have it, then we're working with allies and partners to see if anybody who does have it, you know, can look at getting it to them.”
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.