Maybe Ukraine Is Shooting Russian Missiles Back At Russian Targets?
A pure speculation, per the evidence
I avoid doing hot takes on hot wars because even a few hours of information and conversation can change our understanding of an event. Propaganda infuses the news cycle. Errors in reporting can escape the best editorial curation. Better to hold speculations open as events provide additional evidence.
Tuesday’s strike on Engels air base, 1,200 kilometers from Kyiv, the second in a month, establishes beyond doubt in my mind that Ukraine has developed a high-payload delivery system.
Furthermore, both the Engels and Kerch bridge strikes indicate that this system can respond to intelligence of transitory events. In plain English: it is fast, so that it can be used quickly whenever Ukrainians spot a fleeting opportunity.
For instance, bombers being fueled and armed for a missile strike on Kyiv. Or the operations crew inside the control tower as they begin flight operations.
On the morning that the Kerch Strait bridge strike happened, I posted a mild speculation that it appeared to me as the work of a drone bomb, and that similar recent explosions in Crimea might be explained by similar attacks, a pattern of Ukraine using an unknown weapon to hit targets of opportunity beyond HIMARS range.
I don’t regret posting this opinion at all. Upon reflection, however, there was a key operational problem with my vision of the strike. Most drone bombs are subsonic. That is, they would not be fast enough to fly hundreds of kilometers and hit a bridge at the exact time and place that a tanker train is parked on it, waiting to cross.
Any flight time longer than a few minutes will miss the bombers at Engels. The ground crew will be at the cafeteria instead of doing their jobs around the bomber, its wings filled with kerosene. The weapon must be as fast as the opportunities are fleeting.
After the Kerch Strait bridge strike, speculation abounded that Ukraine may have been gifted an ATACMS missile. While that system has the range to reach the the Kerch Strait, it does not have the range to hit Engels. I will leave aside the political question of giving those weapons to Ukraine and only note that the ATACMS is a Reagan-era weapon system that does not have the range ot hit Engels, either.
An American RQ-4B Global Hawk High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) mission was flying over the Black Sea during the Kerch strike. Likewise, American spy sattelites have been watching Russian strategic bomber bases like Engels-2 for decades, with ever-increasing acuity. Actual drone-bomb strikes on Sevastopol have been observed by RAF Rivet Joint aircraft over the Black Sea.
With that kind of ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assistance, the weapon itself is the only real procurement challenge. Suppliers are not plentiful. Alibaba sells drones, sure, but not the kind with ramjets.
Here’s the thing, though. Russia may have solved that problem for Ukraine.
A supersonic or hypersonic drone bomb is hardly impossible for Ukrainians to build. Ukraine has now been bombarded with hundreds of Russian hypersonic weapons, with many being shot down and recovered intact enough for analysis.
So a far more elegant explanation than a hypersonic drone bomb is that the Ukrainian defenders have simply learned from their opponents, and built a hypersonic missile, even a copy of a Russian system.
One with a powerful payload. This point deserves boldface: Ukraine has a very powerful bomb, whatever it is flying on. Moreover, the payload seems to have excellent spreading effects. This was apparent in the video of the Kerch strike, which clearly shows a tremendous fireball descending onto the roadway from above. It is suggestive to me of a thermobaric warhead, though I am no explosives expert by any means.
Nor am I an expert in missile technology, to be clear. My speculation is more like a game of Clue, except instead of fingering Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Candlestick, I am suggesting that the history of military revolutions and combat technology transfer applies to this war just like every other war, ever.
Neanderthalensis did not care to learn the use of atlatls, the spear-chucking weapons preferred by Homo sapiens. It meant their extinction. Monkey see, monkey do is an original evolutionary combat imperative in humans, and it has been an advantage in our success as a species.
So I am only suggesting that Ukrainians are human beings. This will be shocking to some people, I realize. They can cope, however, because they are humans too.
Start with the 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missile. A submarine variant, 3M14TE, has been advertised as having 4,000 kilometers of range, a Mach 3 speed, terrain-following and complex maneuver ability, remote control features, bells, whistles, and a dog and pony show. It is just one of many variants of the missile that exist. Export versions of the missile are not this good, but a resourceful engineer could probably upgrade those.
Russia has fired over four hundred Kalibr missiles of all kinds at Ukraine by now. Another hundred or so were fired at Ukraine just this morning as I write. This rain of missiles began with the war and has continued sporadically, leaving analysts to question how large the remaining Russian stockpile is. Without granular information, it is impossible to know exactly how many of what variants have been launched at Ukraine, how many shot down, and how many of those recovered in whole or part.
But I don’t have to do that. Just a point of logic will do.
Just imagine — and this is a terrible oversimplification, forgive me — that I randomly remove half the pieces of ten identical puzzles, then dump all the remaining pieces in one great pile.
Sooner or later, with enough painstaking interest and time, you could figure out the complete puzzle.
You could even put together a couple of completed puzzles — say, just two — and then, because these puzzles are hypersonic munitions, you could scrawl greetings on them in chalk and send them back to Russia.
In theory, anyway. I cannot stress that enough. “Reverse engineering” is the point here.
The “puzzle method” would be a pretty inefficient way to obtain hypersonic munitions. I am not really suggesting this has happened. Rather, a resourceful and intelligent human society under bombardment by such missiles, that recovers whole or partial examples, will naturally learn from, and imitate, the attacking society.
It is only human to do so. Fling rocks at me, I will pick up rocks and fling them back.
Ukraine has enough materials and know-how to build a Kalibr of their own. They did that with Neptune, a version of the Harpoon. Nine-tenths of the development is already done for them once they have put a few “Kalibr puzzles” together.
They don’t even need to manufacture such missiles at scale to start using them. Building, say, just two every month, in a nondescript barn basement somewhere perhaps, is a start. Set up a plant like that every few weeks, and Ukraine could achieve Kalibr parity over time, given the consumption of Russian stocks.
Even a small build allows war planners to issue propagandistic stamps with not one, but two Kerch bridge strikes, advertising the new capability as more than a one-off.
That one strike on the Kerch Strait bridge significantly reduced Russian logistics in Crimea. Bombers have reportedly left the Engels airbase for Siberia. Cloud cover has obscured the airfield, preventing open source battle damage assessment at the time of this writing. Nevertheless, no Kalibr strikes will be launched from the facility very soon. Two missiles, possibly Kalibr copies, have greatly affected Russian strategic action.
By comparison, Ukraine seems to be weathering the storm of Russian missiles aimed at critical infrastructure. Winter will not defeat them. The Kremlin recently signalled possible acceptance of a “long war,” perhaps an endless series of terroristic missile flurries. Ukraine has responded with its own signal that they can hit deep inside of Russia, perhaps with increasing frequency. Responsive escalation would be a very human development.
Indeed, just an hour or so after this morning’s Russian missile sortie, Ukraine hit Engels again. A fast missile offers a fast response. [EDIT: This turns out to have been a successful intercept of a Russian fighter coming to patrol the airspace, oopsie! Nervous, half-trained Russian air defense crews are a menace to their own aviation, a point seldom acknowledged in analyses of poor performance by air regiments. Nevertheless, my point about rapid response stands.]
Vladimir Putin did not want Ukraine to have any capability of responding to his escalations. He did everything he could to prevent it. I only suggest that he has perhaps failed in a self-defeating pursuit by bombarding Ukraine for so long with so many missiles.
Too many samples have been delivered to the enemy. If Ukraine is flinging Putin’s weapons back at him now, it is his own fault.
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