TechRussia's missile barrage tests Ukraine's strained air defenses

Russia's missile barrage tests Ukraine's strained air defenses

Launching of an Iskander missile system; illustrative photo
Launching of an Iskander missile system; illustrative photo
Images source: © Wikimedia Commons | Alexey Ivanov

9:31 AM EDT, May 30, 2024

Russia continues its intense missile and drone attacks. Ukrainian air defense effectively neutralizes most drones and cruise missiles but has significant difficulties with ballistic missiles. We explain why this happens.

The Russians conducted another attack using several dozen air assault means, including drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. On the night of May 29 to 30, 2024, the Ukrainians managed to shoot down all 32 drones from the Shahed family launched by the Russians, and 7 out of 11 cruise missiles from the Kh-101 and Kh-55/555 families, but seven ballistic missiles, S-300/400 remained elusive.

Judging by the missiles' known trajectory, this time, the main target of the Russians was the Starokostiantyniv airfield, located about 186 miles west of Kyiv. Before the war, it was the central station for Su-24 aircraft carrying Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

Reasons for the weakness of Ukrainian air defense

Ukrainian air defense has already exhausted its missile stock for post-Soviet systems, and resupply from Western countries is too small, especially in some categories.

Ukraine has received several short-range systems, including modern systems like the IRIS-T SLM/SLS and NASAMS, and older but still effective systems like the Aspide 2000 or the Gepard. With Western help, Ukrainians integrated Western missiles with post-Soviet launchers, creating hybrids known as FrankenSAM.

However, the situation is worse for medium-range systems, the only ones capable of countering ballistic missiles. So far, Ukraine has received only four Patriot system batteries (three from Germany), one French-Italian SAMP/T battery, and old MIM-23 Hawk batteries. These are insufficient means, and efforts are being made with great difficulty to provide more systems. For example, the Netherlands is organizing an initiative to acquire another Patriot battery, and Italy is considering providing a second SAMP/T battery.

Ballistic missiles - here's why they are such a difficult target

For example, ballistic missiles like the Iskander-M travel in a ballistic trajectory, reaching speeds exceeding Mach 7 (over 6,561 ft/s), making them challenging to shoot down. They achieve such speed in the final phase of flight as they fall to the ground from higher parts of the atmosphere, making them a difficult target that only a few air defense systems can handle.

In such cases, systems like the Patriot are necessary, but the small protected area is a significant limitation. The effective range for combating such targets is a maximum of about 25 miles from the launcher compared to aircraft, which can be countered at distances over 62 miles. Attempting to shoot down a ballistic missile with an interceptor can be compared to trying to "hit a needle with another needle," explaining why the cost of one PAC-3 MSE missile, estimated at $5-7 million, is unsurprising.

The current air defense systems are supposed to be countered by hypersonic missiles that can reach ballistic missile speeds while being capable of performing evasive maneuvers. In theory, this was supposed to be the case for the new Russian Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles, but these turned out to be mere propaganda shells.

The second type of very difficult-to-shoot-down weaponry is supersonic cruise missiles like the Raduga Kh-22, which reach Mach 3, around 3,281 ft/s, and fly at a low altitude. This not only allows them to avoid ground radars (detection range limited to about 25 miles due to the radar horizon) but also gives air defense system operators very little time to react. Additionally, not all missiles are capable of catching up with the Kh-22.

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