The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 involved the largest use of land attack missiles in history, with launches from all base modes. On March 21, the The Pentagon said that the “Russians launched more than 1,100 missiles” and that “they also suffered a not insignificant number of failures of these munitions”. Four days later, the Pentagon added that “they still launch a lot of missiles”, but Russia knew “a significant amount of [missile] failure”, including “failure to launch or failure to hit target”.
On April 4, the The Pentagon claimed that Russia had launched more than 1,400 missiles and that its residual inventory is the lowest among cruise missiles. At the end of May, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky declared that Russia has launched 2,154 missiles and Ukraine estimates that Russia has exhausted 60% of its precision missile arsenal. Since April, restocking has been difficult and the depletion of stocks continues.
This very large missile expenditure was clearly not planned as Russia expected a quick victory. Russia’s efforts to replace its missiles will be very difficult due to costs, production limitations and the impact of sanctions. Worse still, from the Russian perspective, is that the attacks demonstrated that there are significant problems with the performance of Russian cruise missiles.
Excessive failure rate
On March 25, the Pentagon confirmed news reports that various Russian missiles were experiencing failure rates of 20-60% (failure was defined as the inability to launch or hit the target) with “cruise missiles, in particular air-launched cruise missiles” having the lowest death rates. Apparently, some missiles did not explode even when they hit their targets. So, in addition to the missile reliability and quality control issues, they apparently have a fusion problem.
On May 10, the The Pentagon has confirmed that Russia has exhausted its inventory of missiles and that it “passed through their precision-guided missiles at a fairly fast speed” and “worked at the lowest on cruise missiles, especially air-launched cruise missiles”, but Moscow still had more than 50 % of its pre-war inventory. Since then, the use of missiles has continued, but at much reduced rates.
For a long time, the Russian military claimed that its non-strategic ballistic and cruise missiles and its long-range strategic cruise missiles had accuracies measured to within a few meters. Former Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov (now head of the Russian Space Agency), who handled defense procurement, said the hypersonic missiles Kh-101, Bastion, Bal, Kalibr, Iskander (longer-range hypersonic) and Kinzhal were high-precision missiles and that “high-precision ammunition has an error probability of only a few meters. They can travel hundreds of miles and have almost zero CEP. Even before the war there was evidence that this was not the case.
In 2017, a Russian military journalist noted in state media that the Kalibr naval cruise missile had an accuracy of 30 meters and that the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile had an “accuracy of five to 50 meters”, which is quite different from “a few meters” or a CEP close to zero. Although the accuracy variation is not explained, 50 meters is not even close to near accuracy. In January 2022, US Army Chief of Staff General James McConville said Russian hypersonic missiles were not a game-changer because “I haven’t seen them hit a target with this system” .1 The commander of the United States Northern Command, General Glen VanHerck, said that Russia has “challenges” regarding the accuracy of its hypersonic missiles. He added that Russian missiles were still “on par” with American missiles. This is apparently a reference to the capabilities of Russian missiles but not American missiles – supersonic and hypersonic speed, very long range, dual capability, and in many cases anti-ship capability (until recently when the United States began to introduce longer-range missiles). anti-ship missiles). These are important features that don’t play much of a role in Russia’s war with Ukraine, but would be much more important in a war against NATO or against the United States and its Pacific allies.
In the last war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia used the Iskander-E supplied by Russia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that 90% of Iskander missiles “didn’t explode, or maybe 10% of them exploded”, although he later withdrew from this statement. The issue probably wasn’t primarily misfires but rather accuracy. The Russian motive for attacking its claim is obvious. Russia wants to scare the West and sell Iskander missiles. Although the Russian version of the Iskander is more accurate, it is likely that Russian claims about the accuracy of the Iskander-M are also exaggerated. Pashinyan’s initial statement may have reflected the low accuracy of the Iskander-E, which would have a CEP of 30 to 70 meters.
Noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer observed:The Iskander and other Russian non-strategic missiles can only be truly effective with a nuclear warhead– apparently the way it’s primarily intended for use in any peer conflict. Although Russian technical inferiority also plays a role, Mr. Felgenhauer is probably right.
Due to the shortage of modern missiles, in June Russia began using older Kh-22 (NATO name: AS-4) missiles. The UK Ministry of Defense said:These 5.5 ton missiles were primarily designed to destroy aircraft carriers using a nuclear warhead. When employed in a ground attack role with a conventional warhead, they are highly inaccurate and therefore can cause significant collateral damage and civilian casualties.
The threat of dual use from Russia
Assuming that Russia does not use nuclear weapons against Ukraine (not a given), the poor performance of Russian missiles is good news. Presumably, this will fix accuracy issues, but it will take time, as will rebuilding inventory. This gives the United States more time to upgrade its deterrent forces and a potential conflict with Russia or China.
However, Russian missiles are not only conventional like US cruise missiles, but rather dual-capable. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review The report confirmed that Russia is also “building a large, diverse and modern set of non-strategic dual-capability systems (can be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons).” Dave Johnson, Staff Officer, Defense Policy and Planning Division, NATO International Staff, observed that with respect to Russian precision strike weapon systems “everything . . . are dual-capacity or have nuclear analogues.” The distinction between conventional missiles and dual-capability missiles is very important.
The nuclear versions will likely suffer from the same reliability and quality control problems that their conventional versions demonstrated in the war against Ukraine. However, accuracy and fusion issues will likely have little to no effect on nuclear versions. While higher precision is always better than lower precision, for most targets, strikes with nukes do not require precision and accuracy or even near precision and accuracy. This is largely true even with low yield nuclear weapons. The difference in yield between conventional and low-yield nuclear weapons is enormous, and at very low yield the rapid radiation effects of nuclear explosions are often greater than the blast. Also, the Russian fusion issue causing misfires probably won’t affect the nuclear versions as they are products of different design bureaus with different design criteria and the fusion is also generally different. For example, the “no fallout” burst height is something that only applies to nuclear weapons. Direct impacts on the ground will often be avoided to limit collateral damage. It should be noted that America’s only nuclear-armed cruise missile, the AGM-86B, is 40 years old, pre-stealth, pre-precision/near-precision accuracy, and has seriously eroded reliability – and this will be the case for nearly a decade to come.
With the exception of Russia’s Kh-101 strategic air-launched cruise missile, all of the missiles mentioned by Deputy Prime Minister Borissov have a primary or secondary anti-ship role. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia seized most of Ukraine’s navy. At the start of the 2022 war, Ukraine sank its only frigate to prevent Russia from seizing it. While the Russians used anti-ship missiles against land targets, they apparently did not use them for anti-ship attacks. However, because the missiles have terminal sensors for anti-ship use, the accuracy issues demonstrated in Russian ground attacks would likely not apply against a ship target.
For a variety of reasons, the lessons Russians learn from Ukraine may be very different from what the West learns. (Russia’s lessons from Syria, constantly brought up, seem to ignore that Syria was a low-intensity conflict). Due to their combat experience in Ukraine, some members of the Russian military will likely argue for a further increase in nuclear capability and confidence. Indeed, Russian state television is urging more emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons.. Deputy head of the Russian National Security Council (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia will defend the annexed Ukrainian territory (Donbass and Lugansk) with “strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles could be used for this protection.”
Putin has demonstrated a willingness to launch massively destructive attacks, lives in a fantasy world where he fights the Nazis and plays general Hitler-style during World War II. If he remains in power or is replaced by someone like him, the free world is seriously threatened.