Why has Ukrainian airspace become a “death place” for Russian pilots?

According to expert David Shank, each of Ukraine’s air defense systems today presents its own problems for Russian pilots.

Commenting on how the Russian pilots had to deal with what was happening in Ukraine, David Shank said it is very similar to the way US troops viewed the side streets of Baghdad — full of dangers they couldn’t see.

“If you were a ground soldier, every step you can potentially step on IED,” Shank told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I think the Russians are living the same human dimension. I’ll just use the term nightmare. You never know where the next [MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense system] team is.”

According to Colonel Shank, the “nightmare” the Russians now face traces back to mistakes Russians made in the war’s first hours when they failed to gain air superiority

“The Russian defense forces in general had a poor plan from the start,” Shank said. Aside from failing to execute “the fundamentals of combined-arms fighting,” the Russians also failed to suppress Ukraine’s air defenses.

David Shank believes that Ukraine has cleverly capitalized on Russia’s mistakes, using a range of “very capable” air defense systems of its own making as well as mobile systems such as the US-made Stinger man-portable missile to fight back.

“I think the Russian pilots are very concerned. Ukraine has made very good use of the capabilities they have at hand,” commented Shank.

Airspace over Ukraine remained contested, due “largely to a very creative air-defense posture by the Ukrainians. They’re being very nimble, very agile in how and when and where they apply air defense.” Said US defence official.

According to the above US official, Ukraine’s air defense network includes not only man-portable systems like Stinger, but also mobile, long-range air defense complexes like S-300, Buk etc.

“They were very resourceful in their way of trying to prevent Russia from dominating the skies over Ukraine.”

Russia’s failure to gain air superiority has surprised many military experts. In fact, what air defense systems have the Ukrainian Army been using to deal with Russian airstrikes?

Ukraine’s air defense platforms are divided into two categories. While the Army deploys some missile systems and artillery in small units, the Ukrainian Air Force handles larger missile systems with launchers of comparable power to the US Patriot.

According to experts, Ukraine’s Army arsenal includes Osa-AKM, Strela-10, Tunguska, Shilka and MANPADS, all of which can accompany moving combat units. The Ukrainian Air Force uses the S-300, S-125 and Buk-M1 – larger, longer-range systems to protect bases or airfields.


The Gecko is an independent combat unit composed of a BAZ 5937 vehicle with launching track for missiles, according to the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Defense & Armed Forces. It has fire-control electronic devices and a storage compartment for missiles. The crew can conduct combat activities on the run or during short stops. The system has “a good heavy terrain capability and is capable of crossing water obstacles by floating,” according to the Czech ministry.

The Gecko’s high-explosive warhead can travel at Mach 2.4 at an altitude of between 25 meters and 5,000 meters with a range of 1,500 meters to 10,000 meters, according to the US Army.

Osa-AKM or SA-8 Gecko by NATO designation
Osa-AKM or SA-8 Gecko by NATO designation


Another independent armed combat unit, the Strela fires missiles with 6-kilogram high-explosive warheads, according to the Czech Republic Ministry of Defense, that have homing systems and solid-fuel engines that can reach a velocity of Mach 2 at an altitude of 10 meters to 5,000 meters and a range of 1.5 kilometers to 10 kilometers.

Some combat vehicles are equipped with the 9S16 direction finder to identify air targets. That gives operators time to turn the turrets to required positions.

A Strela made news early on in the conflict when one of the units was caught on camera running over a car in downtown Kyiv.

Strela air defense system
Strela air defense system


Dubbed “Zoo-23” by generations of US pilots, the Shilka ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun can capture, track and attack low-altitude aircraft (as well as moving ground targets) while in place or on the move). ZSU-23-4 is armed with four 23 mm cannon with a maximum tilt range of 3,000 m.

According to the Ukrainian Army, the system is designed for close-in air defense, shielding ground troops and destroying air targets.


As an anti-aircraft artillery and missile system, the highly mobile, self-contained Tunguska is designed to counter aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and lightly armored ground-sea targets.

Tunguska can fire both 9M311 anti-aircraft guided missiles and 30mm rounds. The system uses solid fuel with a 9 kg warhead, can move at a speed of 900 meters per second, a ceiling of 3,500 m and a range of up to 10,000 m. The 30 mm cannon can reach an altitude of 2,000 m with a maximum range of 4,000 m.

ZPRK 2K22 Tunguska
ZPRK 2K22 Tunguska


The Buk mobile air defense system is designed “to operate in an intense electronic suppression environment to defeat aerodynamic targets (such as fixed-wing aircraft, rotary-wing aircraft and cruise missiles) flying at low and medium altitudes with speeds up to 830 m/s and at a range of up to 30 km.

The Buk-M1 consists of a 54K6E command vehicle, a crawler-mounted target acquisition radar and up to six 9A39M1 launchers carrying four 9M38 missiles. The system can be ready to fire in just 5 minutes and attack 6 targets simultaneously.

Buk missile system
Buk missile system

S-125 (SA-3 GOA)

The S-125 is “a two-stage, solid-fuel, low to medium altitude surface-to-air missile system designed to protect very important government, industrial and military installations against all types of airborne threats flying at extremely low and medium altitudes, such as bomber aircraft, fighter bombers, multirole aircraft and also cruise missiles,” according to Ukroboronprom.

The missiles, with high-explosive warheads, can travel faster than Mach 3 and hit targets up to 25,000 meters high and 25 kilometers away, according to the FAS. Long-range surveillance and target acquisition is handled by the van-mounted radar.


S-300 (SA-10 GRUMBLE)

Roughly similar to the United States’ top-line Patriot missile interceptors, the S-300 PS system can intercept all types of aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, and other airborne targets. Its missiles fly at 1,200 meters per second to ranges up to 90 kilometers and altitudes up to 25 kilometers, according to Ukroboronprom.

S-300 missile system
S-300 missile system

A variant of the systems the US and allies are considering sending to Ukraine, the S-300 PS, is thought to have been designed for Soviet use to be capable of carrying a small nuclear warhead, though there is no indication that those in use in Ukraine by either side would do so.

Each system presents its own set of problems for Russian pilots, said Shank, the former Air Defense Artillery School commandant.

“Are they going to be hiding around a corner or behind a building?” Shank said. “Are they going to pop up from an open field? As you go through the layering of air defense, you go all the way up to an S-300 or an SA-10. And you go, where are those systems located?”

A senior US defense official agreed that the Russians were taking Ukraine’s air defenses into consideration.

“We continue to see a risk aversion by a lot of Russian pilots inside Ukrainian airspace,” the official said.

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