How US Made Russia the World Leader in Air Defense
Facing an adversary with a vast air fleet and an inclination to level cities Soviets had no choice but pour enormous energies into countermeasures
Originally published in February 2017.
With most weapons on the market buying Russian means you’re getting something nearly as sophisticated as the western analogue but at a good discount.
That’s not true for air defense systems though. If you need to shoot something out of the sky Russians have hands down the most powerful missiles. Ironically, US did a lot to make that happen.
In 1945 the Soviet Union emerged victorious from WWII but also completely devastated. It had lost 27 million people in a conflict which razed over one third of its territory. Yet here it was now facing an adversary which if anything was even more powerful than Nazi Germany had been.
The Soviets fielded the largest land army in Europe by far but Americans were in possession of the largest air fleet the world had ever seen. An air fleet which had just spent years practicing and perfecting the science of terror bombing cities, and had proven its ability and expertise over Tokyo and Dresden. Worse the US now had atomic bombs that it would take the Soviets years to develop and field in comparable numbers.
Moscow military planners had always paid great attention to air defense but now their efforts went into overdrive. Made an independent branch of the military in 1949, by 1954 the air defense forces were recognized as an equal to the land, naval and air branches of the Soviet Army.
In the American understanding ‘air defense’ is synonymous with air defense artillery but the Soviet Air Defense Army also fielded thousands of specially designed interceptor jets built for speed and rate of climb. The Soviets did not just make the air defense forces large, they invested frantically in its technologies.
They had every reason to. Constantly the US would breach Soviet air space sometimes sending its planes to fly the width of the entire country.
Not only were the Soviets doing nothing comparable over the US mainland, but these were reconnaissance flights by a power with the world’s largest aerial butcher’s bill. US bombers had killed perhaps 2 million in north Korea and would go on to kill hundreds of thousands in Vietnam — and that is without using nuclear bombs which would surely be used against the USSR.
The Soviets understood full well American overflights meant to test their responses and collect targeting data for a possible future war. US was so dedicated to these flights it designed and built special high-flying spy planes, the U-2 and the SR-71.
The purpose-built U-2 presented a challenge for Soviet air defenses but one that was eventually overcome. The SR-71 was a tougher nut, but then it was an expensive and impractical plane and was rarely exposed in the same manner the cheaper predecessor had been.
It was a fast-paced technological race but one where the reds were definitely catching up. If in Korea Soviet-supplied air defense artillery was virtually powerless to stop B-29s from turning the north into ash, by the time the Vietnam war rolled around Soviet technology exerted a very painful tax and on the bombardiers. 3,500 fixed-wing aircraft were lost in Vietnam by the US, primarily to ground-based weapons.
Today aerial surveillance has long given way to spying via satellites in space, and if nuclear ammunition is ever unleashed it will be delivered via intercontinental ballistic missiles against which there is not even a theoretical defense.
Even so the legacy of the race between America’s vast air capabilities and Soviet countermeasures persists. It manifests in the outsized attention and resources Russians devote to anti-aircraft weapons to this day and the expertise they have been able to attain.