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.

Or how the SR-71…

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.

…eventually gave rise to S-400

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.

  1. CHUCKMAN says

    Yes, good summary points.

    And the American insistence on atomic bombing cities in Japan, even though the Japanese had sent out clear peace feelers with almost no demands and despite the fact that the selected cities (like Hiroshima) were not military targets, is thought by many as mainly being addressed to Russia’s attention.

    Japan had asked only to keep their emperor, but the US said no conditions whatsoever.

    Then, after Japan humiliated itself with unconditional surrender, America let them keep the emperor.

    For that detail America atomic-bombed two cities and was ready to keep going on, I believe, a list of twelve.

    1. Mary E says

      The US has no moral compass!

  2. gabart says

    It is very interesting that the Soviet anti-aircraft defenses were useless against the B-29s. However, North Korea wasn’t defeated, thanks to its powerful army and the Chinese intervention.

    1. Richard Monette says

      How is that ancient history relevant

      1. Mary E says

        Well, for one thing, the US can forget invading Russia! The long planned ‘event’ will have to wait until the US catches up militarily with Russia and surpasses them….which will Never happen! Russia is on a roll and the US is lagging behind not really knowing how they will defend themselves in the future, let alone, right now…..

      2. Jesus says

        The relevancy of the matter is, air power alone does not win a conventional war. Today US cannot win any wars without any significant boots on the ground. Yea, boots on the ground would mean body bags coming home by the hundreds or thousands, something the US public and neocons are not capable of digesting.

        1. Mary E says

          Which makes one wonder why so many young men in the US are signing up for that totally hazrdous duty! They know they have a very high chance of being damaged when they go to war….psychologically if nothing else…which can ruin one’s life..
          Is it really worth it, guys?

          1. Jesus says

            It’s not that many young men are signing up, the armed forces have become a spectacle of social degradation prevalent in the US do society, with mixed units made up of snowflake Y generation volunteers. US armed forces lack the internal, mental strength and discipline to engage a peer force that is motivated and has a good reason to fight. Current state of the empire’s armed forces is similar to the Roman Empire armed forces about 300-350 AD , whereby troops did not want to wear armour and helmet for long marches leading them to battle.

    2. Max Glazer says

      only the guns. migs were plenty effective though

  3. David Bedford says

    Russia’s S-400’s are the best missile defence in the world!

    1. Jesus says

      The S500 will be operational within a few months.

      1. David Bedford says

        Jesus is that you?

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