• Thu. May 25th, 2023

Russia’s missiles failing to overwhelm Ukraine ruins China’s plan for Taiwan

ByGurinderbir Singh

May 22, 2023

It was supposed to be President Vladimir Putin’s grand statement. He unleashed a barrage of his best “super weapons” against Ukraine just hours before a visit by a Chinese special envoy. But the message it delivered was precisely what Beijing didn’t want to hear.

Chinese special envoy Li Hui arrived in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv Tuesday for two days of talks aimed at convincing President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender vast tracts of his country to appease Putin’s aggression.

The Kremlin wanted Li to be greeted with scenes of devastation; shattered buildings, billowing smoke, wailing sirens and terrorised victims.

So, just hours before his scheduled appearance, Russia unleashed a massive assault involving explosive drones, advanced cruise missiles and much-hyped hypersonic warheads.

With one overwhelming, focused strike, it wanted to humiliate Ukraine’s new Western air defence systems.

It wanted to prove to Beijing that, despite the humiliating failure of its assault last year, the Russian military is still a force to be reckoned with.

Instead, the near-total failure of the best Moscow had to offer will send China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) analysts scurrying to reassess their own plans to seize Taiwan.

It relies on swarms of cruise and ballistic missiles to force warships to retreat and blast military bases into uselessness. But it turns out that idea doesn’t work as well as expected.

Time on target

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence says the assault came from three directions, at different speeds and altitudes. The tactic is intended to overwhelm defenders, causing them to focus on one threat and not notice the others.

It failed.

Six of Putin’s “superweapon” Kinzhal (NATO codename Killjoy) ballistic missiles were fired from MiG-31K combat jets to Ukraine’s north.

Nine modern Kalibr (NATO codename Sizzler) land-attack cruise missiles were fired from ships and submarines in the Black Sea.

Ten Iskander-M (NATO codename Stone) intermediate-range ballistic missiles were lobbed from Russia’s side of the front lines.

The rest were a selection of explosive-laden drones, mostly Iranian-supplied Shahed-131 and Shahed-136, launched from various battlefield locations.

It was a ‘time on target’ attack – where multiple weapon systems of varying speeds and properties are timed to arrive over their target simultaneously.

It didn’t help.

The Kinzhal ballistic missile is touted by Russia as a hypersonic superweapon. And it is, in terms of raw speed. But it does not have the manoeuvrable warhead that many military analysts fear can bypass modern defences.

The same applies to the Iskander-M ballistic missile. Both rely on approaching their targets from high angles and high speeds to minimise the opportunity for defensive weapons to make a successful interception.

The low-altitude Kalibr cruise missiles are a modern take on an older concept. Faster than drones but much slower than ballistic missiles, they’re supposed to rely on unpredictable, terrain-hugging flight paths to avoid detection.

But once the 20-minute barrage lifted, Ukraine had proven it could handle both Moscow’s best weapons and a complex, multi-layered attack.

Signs and portents

“It was exceptional in its density — the maximum number of attack missiles in the shortest period of time,” Kyiv’s military administration chief Serhiy Popko posted to Telegram. He added three people were hurt by falling debris.

Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said all the attacking missiles and drones had been successfully intercepted.

But it wasn’t entirely one-sided.

US officials confirmed one of the Patriot air defence missile systems they had supplied to Ukraine had been hit. Though they said they believed the damage was light enough to be repaired on-site.

Moscow claims to have destroyed one Patriot and damaged another. Nor was the attack Russia’s largest.

The heaviest attack so far was made on November 15. More than 100 missiles struck a dozen cities and critical energy infrastructure sites.

Ukraine had previously been relying on mostly Soviet-era S-300 missile defence systems. And its upgrades had proven unexpectedly effective.

But it has since received a wide variety of more sophisticated Western systems. These include highly-mobile small vehicle systems such as the Avenger, Gepard and Vampire. Larger truck-mounted deployable systems include Germany’s medium-range IRIS-T, Norway’s NASAMS and the US Patriot.

“An adversary can significantly reduce the effectiveness of air defence by launching salvos of multiple weapons simultaneously. Therefore, an attacker can always overwhelm a defender if the attacker has more attack missiles than the defender has defensive missiles,” says University of Colorado Boulder aerospace engineer Professor Iain Boyd. “Conversely, a sufficient number of defensive systems may cause an attacker to stop firing altogether. It becomes a war of attrition, with the winner being the side with the most missiles.”

Hunter, prey

“On May 03 2023, Ukraine achieved the first ever shoot-down of a Killjoy (Kinzhal) air-launched ballistic missile. Subsequently, Russia has prioritised attempting to neutralise Ukraine’s improved air defence capabilities, but in the process has likely lost several more Killjoy,” a statement released by the Ministry of Defence in London reads. “The apparent vulnerability of Killjoy is likely a surprise and an embarrassment for Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin has touted the system as undefeatable.”

The apparent difficulty for ballistic and cruise missiles to penetrate well-prepared defences has severe implications for Beijing.

China has invested heavily in new missile systems in recent decades. The idea is to overwhelm US aircraft carrier battle groups and regional military bases with swarms of fast, accurate, difficult-to-intercept warheads.

It’s a similar strategy to what Russia has attempted in Ukraine.

More than 2000 weapons were fired at Ukrainian air defence and civilian centres between February and May last year. Ukraine claimed to have intercepted about 25 per cent.

At the time, the Iskander tactical ballistic missile was doing exceptionally well.

“By June, targets included critical energy facilities and railway lines,” argue analysts Matthew Tentler and Azriel Bermant of the Institute of International Relations Prague. “Ukrainian air defences were reorganised and redeployed to protect cities and important infrastructure, and interception rates reached 50–60 per cent.”

Russia responded by adding the Kinzhal to its weapons mix.

In the face of a flurry of attacks this month, Ukraine claims a 90 per cent success rate.

“While Ukraine is exhausting its ammunition supplies at an alarming rate, Russia’s stock of Iranian drones is also diminishing because it uses vast swarms to penetrate Ukrainian air defences,” the analysts write in ASPI’s The Strategist.

But one type of modern missile system is yet to be tested in Ukraine: hypersonic glide vehicles.

And China and Russia are believed to hold a significant advantage in the technology over the West.

“Over the past two decades, China has dramatically advanced its development of conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities through intense and focused investment, development, testing and deployment,” the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s chief scientist told Capitol Hill in March.

He explained that high-speed maneuverability makes hypersonic glide weapons unpredictable and, therefore, difficult to detect and track.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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