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What To Talk About When We Talk About Ukraine Shooting Stuff At Russia
The long-range war is changing
The USSR made over 150 of these jet-powered drones fifty years ago. Ukraine inherited some number of them for being so close to NATO in the Cold War. The Ukrianian Air Force (UAF) lost one of these during an apparent recon mission into Russia just recently. The photo above is of a museum piece located in Kyiv before 2022. With few options for long-range strategic targeting inside Russia, to date the Ukrainians have also used at least ten Tu-141s as makeshift cruise missiles with help from Raytheon, if we believe the Kremlin. Strizh has a range of 1,000-km (620 mi.), enough to reach the bridge across the Kerch Strait.
However, it is also subsonic, so while one of them could hit the bridge from Ukrainian-held territory, this dinosaur would not be able to launch on warning in order to hit a train of tanker cars during the ten or twenty minutes that it sits idle on the track. Either the drone was circling over the Black Sea waiting for that train, which in turn means that Russia’s air defense game was incredibly bad (not impossible) when the bridge was hit last year, or Ukraine probably used something other than Strizh to conduct their most spectacular strike of the war.
What actually happened to the Kerch bridge last October is still unclear. Nevertheless, my suspicions that Ukraine has more long-range missile capability than we realize have led me to explore the topic in closer detail.
As I set out to write up my findings in recent days, however, the situation has changed quite drastically.
Russia’s long-range bombardment campaign began as a stopgap measure against Ukrainian successes last fall. Now widely seen as a failure, it has reduced their stocks of expensive munitions to critical levels just as the Ukrainian counteroffensive campaign seems to be patiently getting started. Ukraine, on the other hand, has a suite of new capabilities under development, or being demonstrated almost daily. If Vladimir Putin had hoped to win a long-range duel with Kyiv in order to salvage his pride at the negotiating table, the opposite state seems to be solidifying right now.
By continuously bombarding Ukraine so many different ways for so long, Russia has unintentionally taught Ukrainian air defense commanders to excel at shooting down drones and missiles. Dispersing, never staying still, enough air defense platforms have stayed alive for these habits to be applied to the western air defense equipment that arrives, producing spectacular results.
For example, during May a flight of one Su-34 fighter-bomber, an Su-35 fighter, and two Mi-8 helicopters was “ambushed” while still in Russian airspace. The implication is that Ukraine used the Patriot missile battery in an aggressive, forward-deployed manner, extending its kill range far inside enemy territory. A similar tactic appears to be behind the downing of another Su-35 over the Black Sea eight days later. Ukraine is not just getting better at intercepting Russian weapons, they are making it harder for Russia to launch those weapons into Ukraine in the first place.
In a report issued during March, Ian Williams, a fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a deputy director of the Missile Defense Project, said that “frequent shifts in targeting priorities and the irregular availability of precision-guided munitions” have undercut the Russian bombardment. “Russia is likely to struggle to maintain the frequency of attacks moving forward as its missile stockpiles diminish and it becomes more reliant on newly produced or recently acquired projectiles to fuel its attacks,” he concludes.
The Kyiv Post estimates that “Russia fired more than 500 missiles and kamikaze drones at Ukraine during May with nearly 90 percent of them being destroyed by Ukrainian air defenses … at a cost to the Russians of more than $1.7 billion dollars.” Heads must roll, obviously.
Underperformance of hyperinflated expectations has usually led to scapegoating, in the Russian system. The poor performance of Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles stands out in this regard. Never really anything more than a ground-launched ballistic missile reengineered for air launch, the Kinzhal started out only on the edge of what can even be called “hypersonic” to begin with.
Successful interceptions (again, by US-built Patriots) must therefore have an explanation, and that explanation can only ever involve treason, so of course three prominent scientists who worked on the Kinzhal have been arrested by Russian security services and charged with treason.
In 2012, [Anatoly] Maslov and [Alexander] Shiplyuk presented the results of an experiment on hypersonic missile design at a seminar in Tours, France. In 2016, all three were among the authors of a book chapter entitled "Hypersonic Short-Duration Facilities for Aerodynamic Research at ITAM, Russia".
The open letter from their colleagues at ITAM - the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Novosibirsk - said the materials the scientists had presented in international forums had been checked repeatedly to ensure they did not include restricted information.
The cases showed that "any article or report can lead to accusations of high treason", the open letter said.
"In this situation, we are not only afraid for the fate of our colleagues. We just do not understand how to continue to do our job."
Via Moscow Times:
These and other treason cases targeting Russian scientists have had a chilling effect on young researchers, the Siberian RAS members said.
“Dropping levels of research due to aging scientists and the disrupted continuity in the generations of experts will […] gradually become irreversible and rapid.”
“We think these issues require an urgent solution, otherwise it will be impossible to prevent a catastrophe hanging over domestic aerodynamics.”
This is not a society on the cutting-edge of rocket science. Russian rocket scientists are not going to produce any wunderwaffen for Putin anytime soon. Instead of developing the command and control systems needed to effectively find and destroy the one Patriot battery in Ukraine, for example, Russians come up with a dozen creative claims to have destroyed it already.
If not for the US Army’s reluctance to part with some existing systems, there would be two or three or more of them in-country already, and it would not even be a fair fight.
By contrast with Russia, which is increasingly reliant on Iran for long-range weapons while hollowing out their own national production and development capacities, Ukraine has a different technology regime problem. Namely, the international export regime that limits guided missile ranges to 300 kilometers, or about 180 miles. Concerns about a potential enlargement of the war if American or western-made missiles rain down inside Russia have factored into the American president’s decision to withhold ATACMS, for example.
It bears mention here that one or two ATACMS, quietly supplied by a non-US NATO partner, perhaps even upgraded with more powerful warheads, could easily explain the Kerch Bridge strike. Evidence for such an origin must await postwar declassification.
Nevertheless, the argument over sending them has largely missed the point: the US and NATO never had more than a few thousand ATACMS missiles in the first place, nor is it clear that large, new production runs of that last-generation weapon are even possible today. In this sense, the Storm Shadow cruise missile is in fact a better choice for Ukraine than ATACMS, having almost as much range, but in a newer design with more potential production capacity. Storm Shadow is not as fast as an ATACMS, but speed is not everything in this battle.
During late February, a Ukrainian UJ-22 drone got within 100 km/62 mi. of Moscow amid a flurry of drone activity inside Russia. Slow, unfit for delivering very large detonations, the mere appearance of this propeller-driven UAV so deep inside Russia was a harbinger of future events.
This week, the Kremlin cried of a “terrorist attack” after at least eight small drones caused damage in Moscow, including a swank suburb where the siloviki live. Russian air defense seems to have been active but it is still unclear what, if anything, was shot down. No one was injured on the ground, either, because none of the drones carried a warhead. This strange fact about the attack left some analysts speculating that the regime had conducted a “false flag” operation to justify greater social mobilization for war. As the week ends, some of the same analysts are re-thinking their earlier conclusions.
Like the nighttime “attack” on the Kremlin by two small drones during the first week of May, neither of which did any real damage or realistically threatened the life of President Putin, these sorties seem primarily a psychological warfare campaign. Flying low and slow to avoid radar detection, perhaps even launched by Ukraine’s Russian friends from within Russia, the Ukrainian bombardment is mostly designed for shock value, so far. Mostly.
Given all of the above, Ukraine has a native missile industry that deserves more attention. Kyiv is not waiting on the world to present them with “game-changing” weapons as gifts. Instead, the world should be keeping an eye on Ukraine’s native missile industry, which is producing limited runs already of some very impressive systems.
“Hrim-2” (lit. “Thunder”) is a project of two former Soviet design bureaus in Ukraine. It has a single-stage, solid-propellant motor, just like your home model rocket kit, which makes it reliable and safer to store, eliminating any dangerous fueling process before launch. Designed for wheeled mobility on a transporter erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle, it reportedly packs a very heavy punch with a 500km/310 mi. range and the speed of a Kinzhal.
This system was still in peacetime development hell when the Russian invasions resumed last February, so although it may have been finished in haste, it would also be a state secret if any of them were being used on targets in Crimea, such as the Kerch Strait bridge, or Saki airbase. One possible indication that they are in use already is the Russian claim to have shot them down, already. For while that is possible, it is also axiomatic of Russian propaganda that every new weapon they see coming at them must be “destroyed” in headlines immediately, lest fear of its effects overwhelm the peasant conscripts.
Ukraine has also developed a variant of the old BM-30 Smerch family of Russian MLRS systems for tactical volley fire. The new 9M528 300mm rocket system is intended for soft targets, like command posts, that are far to the rear of the front lines. With a range of 110 km/68 mi., it has greater reach and twice the explosive power as the US-made GMLRS missiles that HIMARS systems fire. Each launcher can fire a dozen of these rockets, or as many rockets as two HIMARS, collectively putting 9,600 metal fragments into a target zone one kilometer wide.
US officials have confirmed that Vilkha-M, as this monster is known, has already been used in combat and rumor has it that Ukraine is boosting the range to 150km/93 mi. When I saw this rocket, I got excited. It suggests to me that Ukrainians are at the forefront of not just missile tech, but electronic warfare countermeasures. There has been a good bit of attention paid recently to the arrival of ADM-160 MALD (Miniature Air-Launched Decoy) missiles in Ukraine, which are American weapons designed to confuse Russian air defense radar systems. I find these missiles at least as compelling.
One of the best ways to throw off interceptor missiles that are trying to stop your inbound missile is to make it spin a little bit while in flight. That way, the radar reflections are scattered, confusing the software and degrading the operator’s picture of the situation. ATACMS were developed way back in the 1980s with this sort of thing in mind — they can, if desired, perform loops in order to dodge air defenses — but if anything, this Vilhka-M rocket appears to have higher maneuverability than an ATACMS, a bigger payload, and at least the same range. Perhaps Ukraine doesn’t need ATACMS anymore because they have something that is actually better?
Your bottom line takeaways:
Here is what you should bear in mind while you are talking about the state of the war in Ukraine at the water cooler or in your tweets.
1 - The Russian long-range bombardment campaign is flagging
2 - Russian missile technology is overrated and underwhelming
3 - Russia is prosecuting their rocket scientists
4 - Ukraine has developed a range of deep strike capabilities
5 - Ukraine doesn’t need as much help in this area as we think
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