Russian Forces Have Made Impressive Use of Cruise Missiles, Says Israeli Expert

By ARIE EGOZI

Foreign Affairs

Tel Aviv: The Russian forces that take part in the Ukraine invasion made a very impressive use of their cruise missiles. The missiles used by the Ukraine army were not effective. The Russians so far have launched three Kinzhal hypersonic missiles during the fighting but their effect was minor. This is part of the analysis made by Dr. Uzi Rubin, one of Israel’s top missile experts.

In his very detailed analysis released by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, Rubin says that the impression is that the biggest damage caused by the Russians to Ukrainian assets was achieved by cruise, rather than ballistic missiles.

The Israeli expert says that the Russian SS 26 Iskander precision quasi ballistic missiles can reach deep into Ukraine from launching points in the eastern part of the country as well as from Belarus. Photographic evidence shows their use against Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure, for example a salvo of four Iskander missiles taking off from Belarus and demolishing a regional Ukrainian military headquarters compound.

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“Yet there seems to be a lack of evidence for Iskander attacks against UAF targets – perhaps because such attacks were not recorded.”

Rubin says that one explanation to the Russian preference of cruise over ballistic missiles in dealing with Ukarine assets – if true – begs for an explanation.

“The lack of Iskander missiles is not a plausible explanation. The Russians have been firing them in abundance since the beginning of the invasion – 100 rounds just in the first week of the fighting. ”

Rubin says that perhaps the explanation lies in the different warheads, since those of the Iskanders ballistic missiles are generally heavier. Perhaps cruise missiles with their lighter warheads are reserved for softer targets like air force assets while the heavier Iskanders are used against more hardened targets.

“This, of course, is a speculation that has not been corroborated at the time of writing.

Rubin also deals with the Russian air-launched hypersonic Kinzhal,

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He says that the  air-launched hypersonic Kinzhal, making its debut on the world’s battlefields. The 2000 km (1240 miles) range Kinzhal is launched from the MiG- 31 heavy combat aircraft on the usual curving trajectory but has tremendous maneuvering capability once it re-enters the atmosphere. Hence, it can be fired in an offset direction but curve at the last minute into the target. This prevents the defender from guessing the intended target or predicting the final trajectory of the missile, rendering all existing missile defense systems (based on trajectory prediction) impotent against this type of threat.

At the end of March, the Russian Army spokesperson disclosed that Russia had already used this weapon on three occasions: to attack an ammunition dump in western Ukraine, to hit a parking garage in downtown Kyiv where – according to the Russians – the Ukrainians hid Grad rocket launchers, and against fuel dumps in the city of Mikolaiv in Southern Ukraine. The missiles were launched from a distance of 1000 km (620 miles). The Russian’s justification for employing such defence evading missiles against a country that lacked missile defence was that the Kinzhal’s tremendous terminal speed was essential for penetrating bunkers and underground structures .

“This explanation is not too convincing, especially when considering the attack on fuel dumps. It is more likely that the Russians chose to use this cutting-edge weapon rather than more conventional missiles for a “shock and awe” effect against the US and its allies. The psychological impact was indeed significant, and the appearance of the Kinzhal on the battlefield reignited the heated debate on why the US still lacked weapons of similar capabilities.”

Ukraine has its own missile industry, and during the years preceding the current war, it disclosed the development of an Iskander – like precision battlefield missile. It also developed the Polonez precision rocket, sold to Azerbaijan and used during the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war.

The Israeli experts claim that there is no evidence of any Ukrainian indigenous missiles being used in the present war.  At the same time, evidence shows that Ukraine is using its soviet-era SS 21 Tochka missiles. Various sources estimate that Ukraine has had about 500 missiles of this type and up to 90 launchers at the onset of the war.  This short-range missile (120 – 140 km/75-85 miles) often carries an anti-personnel cluster munition warhead.

“It seems that beyond their effect on the cognitive battlefield, Ukraine’s ballistic missiles have had no discernable effect on the course of the land battles. One caveat: On April 1, a fire broke out in an oil depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, located 40 km (25 miles) from Ukraine’s border. One Smartphone video shows what seems to be three missiles slamming into the depot. On April 25, two oil storage tanks in the Russian city of Bryansk, 150 km (93 miles) from the Ukraine border, caught fire simultaneously. Russia blamed it on Ukrainian helicopter attacks. Ukraine denied responsibility for the Belgorod event but refused to comment on the Bryansk fire. Some observers argue that both events were caused by the Ukrainian Tochka missile attacks. Perhaps the Ukrainians did put their Tochka missiles to a better and more strategically significant use than mere propaganda.”

Rubin says that it seems that in spite of their problematic reliability and occasional accuracy problems, Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles (of which more than 1000 rounds are estimated to have been used at the time of writing) were effective in suppressing the Ukraine  combat capability as well as Ukraine’s air defences. Ukraine does not possess modern missile defence weapons.

Rubin says that according to various sources, UAF fighter aircraft managed to shoot down some Russian cruise missiles. In an April 25 televised interview, an anonymous Ukraine fighter pilot stated that he had managed to shoot down two out of six cruise missiles launched by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea at Odesa. While he describes this as a “satisfactory achievement,” the Ukrainian pilot admitted that it was more effective to combat cruise missiles from the ground, and stressed the need for modern Ground based air defence and anti-missile systems.

“With no effective protection, Ukraine’s air bases, logistic centres and ammunition depots are largely exposed to Russian deep striking precision cruise missiles. At the time of writing, the other missile used by both sides – the ultramodern “Kinzhal” and the obsolete “Tochka” seem to have had no significant effect except on the cognitive battlefield.

The Israeli senior expert also analysed the use of UAV’s in the war. In 2019, Ukraine purchased from Turkey 20 Bayraktar TB2 armed UAVs, a type that later on proved its mettle in the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war.

The Ukrainians have been using them against the invading Russians since the outbreak of the war. Like the Azerbaijanis in the 2020 war, the Ukrainians also used videos from their UAVs successes for propaganda, releasing action videos recorded by the Bayratars’ cameras of Russian armor and vehicles being hit. Yet, in contrast to the decisive role of the Bayraktars UAVs against Armenia’s army in 2020, their impact in the current Battle for Ukraine seems marginal.

“Two different explanations can be offered for this decline in the recorded kill rate of the Bayraktars. First, the more modern Russian mobile air defence and systems were more successful than the obsolete Armenian ones in shooting down the slow-flying and vulnerable Bayraktar UAVs. Second – an explanation offered by some Turkish observers – is that the Ukrainians decided to decrease the media exposure of their combat UAVs to divert Russian attention from them. This second explanation sounds artificial and even if true, is by itself an indirect confirmation of the first one – that the Russians got the measure of the Bayractars and were shooting them down at a high rate.”

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