Russian, Ukrainian Air Defense Kill Rates Not Credible

Many dozens of reports by Ukraine and Russia claim extraordinarily high success rates in shooting down enemy missiles and drones. These claims are problematic.
Russian, Ukrainian Air Defense Kill Rates Not Credible
An explosion is seen in the sky over the city during a Russian drone and missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 29, 2023. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
Mike Fredenburg
On Nov. 25, Russia launched some 75 drones at key military and infrastructure targets in Kyiv. As per usual, the Ukrainian military reported that its air defense systems had been incredibly successful—shooting down all but one of the drones (74 out of 75)—about a 98 percent kill rate.
But that feat is chump change compared to the claims made on May 16, 2023, by the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, “that his forces had intercepted the six Kinzhal missiles launched from aircraft, as well as nine Kalibr cruise missiles from ships in the Black Sea and three Iskanders fired from land,” according to Reuters.

If true, this was a very impressive feat indeed.

But Russia has also been making some extraordinary claims. On Aug. 26, Russian media reported that Russia detected 42 drones and then eliminated 33 of them via electronic warfare and shot down the remaining nine using its air defense systems—a 100 percent success rate. On Nov. 26, Russia claimed to have shot two S-200 missiles and 24 drones over three different areas of Russia.

The above are just a few out of the many dozens of reports by Ukraine and Russia claiming extraordinarily high success rates in shooting down enemy missiles and drones. These claims are problematic for two primary reasons.

The first is that both Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in propaganda efforts designed to make themselves look more powerful and competent while making their opponent look weaker and less competent—and clearly this is an important part of that narrative. But the other reason comes out of the history of air defense development and its real-world success rate and finds that such high success rates are highly problematic and thus more likely to be propagandistic exaggerations.

It has long been known that the estimated success rates for intercepting rockets and missiles established by testing vary greatly from those seen in the real world. For example, that Russia’s vaunted S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) apparently never failed a test strongly suggests that Russia wasn’t being transparent about all the unsuccessful test results that came before the successful one. Consequently, it may not be reliable when it comes to reporting on real-world stats. That doesn’t mean the S-400 isn’t effective, but that it likely isn’t as effective as reported by Russia.
However, if Russian and Ukrainian reports are to be believed, Ukrainian and Russian defense systems are regularly outperforming Israel’s much-vaunted Iron Dome System despite going up against much more sophisticated targets such as maneuvering drones that can use terrain to cover their approach, stealthy cruise missiles, and very fast ballistic and maneuvering semi-ballistic missiles. But even the Iron Dome’s estimated real-world success rates have been hotly debated.
Another example of a missile defense system with much-debated performance is the Patriot Air Defense System, of which Ukraine has received at least two. Each Patriot system costs over $1 billion. As is often the case, both the service who purchased the system (the U.S. Army) and the Patriot supplier, Raytheon, have been guilty of overestimating its effectiveness, with claims of 100 percent effectiveness being downwardly revised first to 52 percent and then to 10 to 20 percent effective. Along with the Patriot, at the start of the war Ukraine had around 100 operational Soviet/Russian S-300 SAM systems. While the S-300 is highly effective against relatively large jet fighters, when going up against tactical ballistic missiles, according to Russian tests it will fail an estimated 30 percent of the time. And as is the case with the Patriot Missiles System, the S-300 isn’t designed to take on low-flying UAVs that use terrain to mask their approach.

Of course, Ukraine has short- and medium-range air defense systems that are much better against drones, such as the IRIS-T and the NASAM, etc., but they too can be fooled, suppressed, jammed, and overwhelmed. Russia’s air defense systems are also subject to being fooled, suppressed, jammed, and overwhelmed. Consequently, when considering the complex and hostile engagement environments in which these air defense systems operate, continuous claims of them being 70 to 100 percent effective should be viewed with a healthy skepticism.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Mike Fredenburg writes on military technology and defense matters with an emphasis on defense reform. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and master's degree in production operations management.