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OPINION

The missile balance: Kyiv’s Western allies must understand that Ukraine cannot liberate itself without long-range weapons

The manufacturer of the German TAURUS missile has halted production due to a lack of orders. Meanwhile, Chancellor Olaf Scholz remains adamant in his refusal to supply Ukraine with the long-range weapons Volodymyr Zelensky has been begging for for more than a year. For Kyiv, the ability to strike operational and strategic targets deep inside enemy territory — i.e. inside Russia itself — is not a whim, but a crucial necessity, argues independent analyst Colby Badhwar. President Zelensky is right: Ukraine will not succeed in liberating its lands without the provision of long-range missiles.

RU

In his daily address on January 20, 2023, President Zelensky highlighted the message he had delivered when meeting with a delegation of U.S. Senators: “we need long-range missiles to liberate our territory.” Over a year later, his request has remained largely unfulfilled. Long-range fires — long-range precision fires — are an essential capability on the modern battlefield. The ability to strike operational and strategic targets located far behind the frontline is not an optional luxury that Ukraine can afford to do without. President Zelensky is correct; Ukraine will not be able to liberate its territory without long-range missiles. However, there remains great resistance in some Western capitals to providing such weapons.

Five months ago, I wrote of the significant impact that a handful of old American M39 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) had had, destroying a large number of Russian helicopters shortly after the weapons system arrived in Ukraine. But since that initial September shipment from the United States, Ukraine has not received any additional ATACMS. Politico has reported that the security assistance package announced on March 12 would include additional M39 ATACMS, but these have yet to make an appearance on the battlefield.

And ATACMS still fall short of Zelensky’s requests for truly long-range capabilities. The M39 is the oldest variant of ATACMS, with a range of only 165 kilometers. In a recent interview with David Ignatius of the Washington Post, President Zelensky said: “ATACMS-300, that is the answer” — a reference to the 300 kilometer range M39A1, M48, and M57 ATACMS. However, these newer, longer-range variants seem to be off the table for President Biden. Why?

There is great asymmetry between Russian and Ukrainian long-range precision fires capabilities. It is a disparity that has existed since the beginning of the war — one that has not been adequately redressed. In the opening days of the invasion, Russian launched barrages of cruise and ballistic missiles at Ukrainian targets, both military and civilian. At the outset, Russia’s inventory of conventionally armed missiles was considerable, and it included a diverse array of different systems. There are too many to list in totality, but some of the key ones are: 9K723 Iskander-M (ground launched aero-ballistic), 3M-14 Kalibr (sea launched cruise), Kh-101 (air launched cruise), Kh-22/32 (air launched anti-ship), Kh-35 (multi-platform anti-ship), 3M55 [P 800] Oniks (multi-platform anti-ship), and Kh-17NM Kinzhal (air launched aero-ballistic). To supplement these more sophisticated capabilities, Russia has made considerable use of its S-300 family of surface to air missile systems, which are capable of firing their interceptors ballistically against surface targets. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense assessed that all together, Russia had over 11,000 of these missiles in inventory at the beginning of the war.

On the other side, Ukraine started the war with just two fielded missile systems: the Soviet OTR 21 Tochka-U tactical ballistic missile, and the indigenously developed (though based on the Kh 35) R-360 Neptune anti-ship cruise missile. Per the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Threat Project, Ukraine had up to 500 Tochka-U missiles in its inventory at the start of the war. That is certainly a high estimate though, and many missiles would likely not be in operational condition. Confirmed Ukrainian Tochka-U strikes have been infrequent. Even less is known about the production of Neptune missiles. The Ukrainian navy aimed to field a battalion of Neptune systems, but the war has certainly impacted their ability to build the missiles. It is therefore not a stretch to say that with just a subset of their inventory, Russia possessed 20 times as many missiles as Ukraine did.

At the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia possessed 20 times as many missiles as Ukraine did

Russia’s arsenal is of course considerably more advanced as well. Tochka-U has a range of just 120 kilometers. Neptune was designed to have a range of up to 300 kilometers, but Ukraine reportedly sought to increase that to 360 as part of modifications aimed at enabling the missile to strike land targets. This paucity of options severely limits Ukraine’s capacity to strike military objects inside Russia.

By contrast, Russia is fully capable of hitting targets anywhere in Ukraine. Kh-101 air launched cruise missiles have such considerable range that they are routinely launched from over the Caspian Sea by Russian strategic bombers and can reach all the way to the far corners of western Ukraine. Launching from Belarus or Russia’s westernmost regions allows the comparatively shorter-range S-300s and Iskanders to range most of Ukraine as well. For Ukrainian civilians, Ukrainian infrastructure, and the Ukrainian military, nowhere is truly safe.

Despite this massive disparity in missile arsenals, the Ukrainians have made impressive use of what little they had at the beginning of the war. On February 25, 2022, the second day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian forces struck Millerovo Air Base in Rostov Oblast, Russia, with Tochka-U, destroying one or two Su-30SM fighter jets. Exactly a month later, on March 24, Tochka-U was used to target the port in Berdiansk, located in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine. The Russian Alligator-class landing ship Saratov was sunk, and the Ropucha-class landing ships Tsezar Kunikov and Novocherkassk were damaged. Several weeks later, in a history-making event, two Neptune missiles struck and sank the Slava-class guided missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The Russian Alligator-class landing ship 'Saratov' ablaze after an explosion in the port of Berdiansk, March 24, 2022
The Russian Alligator-class landing ship 'Saratov' ablaze after an explosion in the port of Berdiansk, March 24, 2022

These early missile strikes demonstrated Ukraine’s ability to plan and execute long-range attacks on high value Russian targets, and they provided a critical morale boost at the time. Sinking the Moskva in particular had tremendous strategic impact, forcing the Black Sea Fleet away from the Ukrainian coast and back to its ports in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. These successes were limited by the aforementioned lack of inventory depth, however, and further missile strikes were infrequent throughout 2022.

Russia, on the other hand, was just getting started. Thanks to its significantly larger stocks, Russia has been close to indiscriminate in its campaign of missile strikes. No major Ukrainian city has been safe, particularly Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv, which have borne the brunt of the attacks. The latter in particular has suffered greatly, in large part due to its proximity to Russia, which has allowed Moscow’s forces to hit the city using shorter-range multiple launch rockets, many of them carrying cluster munitions. During the first year of the full-scale war, Russian missile raids focused heavily on civilian infrastructure. Military targets and strategic infrastructure were not excluded, but seemed to be prioritized less than would be expected. Targeting critical civilian infrastructure is of course very much part of Russian doctrine, and this had been put into practice by the Russian Air Force in their operations in Syria prior to the 2022 invasion. Their campaign of terror strikes has not been successful in breaking the will of the Ukrainian people though.

A missile strike left Odesa's largest cathedral, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, virtually destroyed. July 23, 2023
A missile strike left Odesa's largest cathedral, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, virtually destroyed. July 23, 2023
Jae C. Hong/AP

The Russian approach contrasts with NATO doctrine, in which the purpose of a long-range strike is destroying enemy logistics, command and control, and military industry. Despite the failure of the terror bombing, President Putin has not ended this practice. There are many factors that may be driving this decision, but two key ones are deficiencies in the accuracy and reliability of Russia’s missiles, and inadequate intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR).

Targeting critical civilian infrastructure is very much part of Russian military doctrine

Ukrainian forces have been adept at ensuring their own high value military assets, such as U.S. provided HIMARS launchers, are not lost to Russian counter fire. This is thanks in part to their own operational security protocols, and in part to those failures in Russian ISTAR. Successful counterfire depends on ISTAR capabilities being able to rapidly identify enemy artillery assets so that information can be communicated to the relevant assets that are able to execute counterfire missions. It also depends on the accuracy of the firing solution being employed for the mission. Shortcomings in both these areas explain why Russian missiles were not being utilized more frequently against high value Ukrainian military targets.

In their July 17, 2023 Defence Intelligence update, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence noted that Russian General Ivan Popov had complained of the inadequacy of his forces’ counter fire capabilities, particularly in the field of radar. This problem has been exacerbated by Ukraine’s success in using their American provided Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) on Russia’s counterfire radars and artillery systems. While not at all comparable to the long-range missiles in Russia’s arsenal, the ~90 kilometer range GMLRS have been highly effective.

Their arrival on the battlefield was further proof of concept that Ukraine has the ISTAR capabilities, along with a sufficiently flexible command and control apparatus, to achieve the rapid targeting cycles necessary to prosecute Russian time sensitive targets (TSTs).

On the Russian side, their long-range fires employment has been dominated by subsonic munitions, which are the least suitable for attacking TSTs. Using publicly available data from the Ukrainian Air Force, independent munitions analyst John Ridge has compiled and classified the missiles being employed by Russia in its raids. A combination of Shahed One-Way Attack Unmanned Aerial Systems (OWA-UAS) and subsonic cruise missiles has constituted the overwhelming majority of the munitions used in these missile attacks.

Over the course of the winter of 2022-2023, Ukrainian energy infrastructure was one of their primary targets. These attacks prompted President Biden and German Chancellor Scholz to finally agree to provide Ukraine with Patriot air defense systems. The Patriots have provided a major boost to Ukrainian air defense capabilities, particularly for intercepting ballistic and supersonic cruise missiles. The sheer quantity of Russian missiles and OWA-UAS remain a huge challenge though. Air and missile defense systems, their interceptors in particular, are highly expensive. While they save Ukrainian lives and protect critical infrastructure, both civilian and military, they only enable Ukraine to survive, not to win.

While air and missile defense systems save Ukrainian lives and protect critical infrastructure, both civilian and military, they only enable Ukraine to survive — not to win

As President Zelensky emphasized, in order to win, Ukraine needs its own long-range missiles — not to strike Russian cities, but to destroy strategic targets. The United Kingdom and France were the first to understand and accept this requirement, providing Ukraine with Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG air launched cruise missiles in May 2023. These missiles have been utilized very effectively against targets that fall beyond the reach of GMLRS, such as the Chonhar railway bridge from Crimea to Kherson Oblast. Most notably, they have been instrumental in further devastating Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. On September 13, 2023, the Improved Kilo-class submarine Rostov-na-Donu and Ropucha-class landing ship Minsk were both struck and irreparably damaged. The following week, the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol was hit, causing serious damage to the building. 26 December saw another Ropucha-class ship, this time the Novocherkassk, destroyed while it was in the port of Feodosia, Crimea. Last month, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that two more Ropuchas, the Yamal and Azov, were hit, along with the main communications center of the Black Sea Fleet and other infrastructure. A third Ropucha, the Konstantin Olshansky, was also reportedly hit, but by Neptune, rather than Storm Shadow.

Headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. September 22, 2023
Headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. September 22, 2023
Sergey Malgavko / TASS

Ukraine’s campaign against these landing ships and key facilities of the Black Sea Fleet advances multiple Ukrainian priorities. It makes Russia’s occupation of Crimea strategically untenable, reinforces Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, and shapes the battlespace for future operations to interdict Russian logistics.

Ukraine’s campaign against the landing ships and key facilities of the Black Sea Fleet makes Russia’s occupation of Crimea strategically untenable

Russia’s Ropuchas have been used to ferry material in and around the Sea of Azov, and to keep Russian occupying forces in the regions of Crimea, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia supplied. Knocking them out is likely viewed by Ukraine as a prerequisite to future attempts to damage or destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge, which links the Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia. This is all part of Ukraine’s overall strategy to force Russia out of Crimea — a strategy confirmed by Zelensky to Ignatius while the Ukrainian president highlighted his country’s need for the longer range ATACMS:

“When Russia knows we can destroy these jets, they will not attack from Crimea. It’s like with the sea fleet. We pushed them from our territorial waters. Now we will push them from the airports in Crimea.”

Ukraine has of course attacked air bases in Crimea before. Saky airbase was struck on August 9, 2022, destroying or damaging a dozen Russian fighter jets. The then Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, later confirmed that the attack had been conducted using missiles, although he did not elaborate on the type.

This attack predates the arrival of both Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG and ATACMS, which led to speculation that it could have been done with Ukraine’s domestic short range ballistic missile system, OTRK Sapsan. All publicly available information indicates that Sapsan is not yet operational though, leaving this particular episode shrouded in mystery. The fact that we have not seen further unexplained missile strikes on Russian air bases, and that Zelensky continues to urgently request the delivery of 300 kilometer range ATACMS, would suggest that Ukraine currently lacks this capability.

While Storm Shadow/SCALP EG has proven effective against Russian warships and command and control infrastructure, it is poorly suited for striking air bases. M39A1 ATACMS, with its cluster munition payload and a 300 kilometer range, is exactly what Ukraine needs if it is to make every Russian airbase in Crimea untenable. It would also make quick work of Russian air defense batteries and put K-300P Bastion-P launchers (one of the platforms for 3M55 Oniks missiles) at risk as well.

M39A1 ATACMS, with its cluster munition payload and a 300 kilometer range, is exactly what Ukraine needs if it is to make every Russian airbase in Crimea untenable

While GMLRS has been effective at counterfire, higher value targets are seldom close enough to the frontline to be hit by them. This problem can only be solved by ATACMS, and the urgency of this need is only growing. Russian forces have learned and improved their targeting cycles considerably over the last 8 months. They recently scored their first confirmed kill of a M142 HIMARS, which was likely at the hands of an Iskander ballistic missile.

Two damaged HIMARS were previously spotted being unloaded from a Ukrainian transport aircraft in Pennsylvania, likely on their way to Letterkenny Army Depot for repair. It also appears that an Iskander was able to destroy two M901 Transporter Erector Launchers from one of the German donated Patriot batteries. The fact that Russia is now successfully using their ballistic missiles to target Ukrainian TSTs is a significant threat. Aside from improvements in Russia’s targeting cycle facilitating these strikes, it’s possible that the arrival of North Korean ballistic missiles has allowed Russia to utilize their more accurate Iskanders in this battlefield role, leaving it to the less accurate Hwasongs to terrorize Ukrainian cities.

Ukraine only has two munitions suitable for engaging TSTs: GMLRS, and the newly arrived Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb. The latter has an improved range of 150 kilometers, but only “several dozen” were reportedly provided in the first shipment, and both systems are still outranged by Iskander — along with all of the other missiles in Russia’s arsenal.

Ukraine’s lack of a ballistic missile that can hold Russia’s own TSTs at risk from comparable ranges is a massive disadvantage that needs to be addressed. This threat will only become greater if Russia secures additional ballistic missiles from Iran, a prospect that is actively being negotiated. These escalations from North Korea and Iran have largely gone unpunished by Ukraine’s supporters.

President Biden and Chancellor Scholz in particular have remained adamantly opposed to providing Ukraine with true long range strike capabilities. The fear seems to be that Ukraine would use them to strike Russian territory. Zelensky recalled to Ignatius that he had explained to western leaders that he wanted long-range missiles not to strike Russia, but to hit Crimea and other occupied Ukrainian territories which are currently out of reach. This argument has so far not changed the minds of Biden or Scholz though.

President Biden and Chancellor Scholz in particular have remained adamantly opposed to providing Ukraine with true long range strike capabilities

The opposition to Ukraine using any of its donated weapons to strike the internationally recognized territory of the Russian Federation has forced Kyiv to resort to the use of its domestic drone programs to at least partially fill in the long-range capability gap. Ukraine has been using drones to execute very long-range strikes on Russia since 2022, though recently these attacks have intensified. The latest development are the strikes being executed on Russian oil and gas infrastructure. These are undoubtedly legitimate military targets, but the Biden Administration is rumored to be concerned about the potential economic impact of these attacks.

“The reaction of the U.S. was not positive on this,” Zelensky confirmed to Ignatius. It’s an impossible position that Ukraine is being put in, one compounded by the fact that Russia is beginning to shift the focus of some of its own deep strikes on Ukraine. The UK Ministry of Defense reported on January 3 that Russian strikes executed on December 29, the largest in the course of the war so far, had focused primarily on Ukraine’s defense industry. Both sides are in a race to scale up their defense production, but if Russia is able to strike Ukrainian strategic industries with impunity, it is easy to guess who will win.

If Russia is able to strike Ukrainian strategic industries with impunity, it is easy to guess who will win

Ukrainian forces have performed extremely well with the limited resources available to them, but they are severely constrained by the lack of more capable weapons. Their own domestically designed and produced systems have had some modest success, but there are significant limits to what the Ukrainian drone and cruise missile programs can achieve. There is no indication that Sapsan will be ready for serial production anytime soon, nor is it clear how capable it would even be.

This leaves the fate of Ukraine in the hands of its Western supporters. The United Kingdom and France have shown leadership in delivering cruise missiles, but both have so far come up short in ensuring sustained delivery of newly produced missiles from MBDA. Biden and Scholz can make a critical impact on the course of the war with the delivery of long-range ATACMS and Taurus cruise missiles, respectively. A significant quantity of these two missiles would allow Ukraine to prosecute a much larger number — and a much more diverse — spectrum of targets at longer ranges than they are currently able to do. Without these systems, Russia’s advantage in long-range fires will grow larger. Moscow’s forces will continue to refine their targeting capabilities, and Ukrainian forces will suffer further degradation as a result.

If Biden and Scholz do not change course, then they will be in no position to order Zelensky not to attack Russia’s energy infrastructure using Ukraine’s own domestically produced drones. This is the choice before Washington and Berlin: arm Ukraine with the weapons it needs to liberate its territory, or accept the risk that global energy prices will rise as Russian refineries continue to go up in flames.

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