TechRussian missile assault on Ukrainian hospital exposes defence gaps

Russian missile assault on Ukrainian hospital exposes defence gaps

The effect of one of the Russian missiles hitting Kyiv.
The effect of one of the Russian missiles hitting Kyiv.
Images source: © PAP | PAP/EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Przemysław Juraszek

9 July 2024 08:56

In the 8 July attack, where one of the targets was a children's hospital, the Russians used a full range of long-range weapons. These included hypersonic, ballistic, and cruise missiles (subsonic and supersonic). Here is precisely what was used and how.

According to the Commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk, the Russians used 38 missiles in the attack, of which 30 were shot down by Ukrainian air defence. The defenders managed to bring down one Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile, three out of four Iskander-M ballistic missiles, one hypersonic 3M22 Zircon missile, 11 out of 13 Kh-101 cruise missiles, 12 out of 14 Kalibr cruise missiles, and all three Kh-59/69 cruise missiles from the Kh-59/69 family.

Only a pair of supersonic Kh-22 cruise missiles broke through the Ukrainian air defence. Despite high effectiveness against many challenging targets hidden among easier ones, some missiles managed to get through, and one of the missiles (Kh-101) hit the children's hospital, among other targets.

Russian cruise missiles

The Russians mainly used Kh-101, Kalibr, and Kh-59/69 cruise missiles in the attack. These missiles all feature stealth characteristics, making them more difficult to detect by radar. They also fly at low altitudes, using valleys or river beds, for example.

These missiles have a range of several thousand miles, primarily achieved thanks to the use of wings and an efficient turbofan engine. However, their disadvantage is a relatively low flight speed of around Mach 0.8-0.9 (609 - 684 mph), which allows them to be shot down, for example, by Gepard systems or handheld anti-aircraft systems like the FIM-92 Stinger.

However, these must be deployed along their path, which is problematic. It is equally impossible to create a tight network of ground radars, which must be spaced about 25 miles apart due to the radar horizon. The only way around this problem is to have an airborne radar in the form of AWACS aircraft, which coordinates mobile ground intervention groups or fighter jets that shoot down detected missiles.

Unfortunately, Ukraine does not currently have such solutions, and only the delivery of a Swedish AWACS and F-16 aircraft will provide some capabilities in this area. On the other hand, an anomaly in the case of cruise missiles is the Kh-22 Raduga missiles, originally designed as anti-ship weapons. They have a range of up to 311 miles and use a very high speed of around Mach 4 (3048 mph) to avoid air defence systems.

These missiles rise after launch and then attack in a dive with enormous speed, giving the target very little time to react. In practice, medium-range air defence systems are needed to shoot them down, which Ukraine has a significant shortage of.

Ballistic and hypersonic missiles

Ballistic and hypersonic missiles use a different approach to breaking through air defence. The former, which includes the Iskander-M with a warhead weighing about 1100 lbs, first rises to higher parts of the atmosphere and then falls on its target at a speed exceeding Mach 7 (more than 5323 mph).

This makes them challenging targets to shoot down even with their predictable flight trajectory, which only a few air defence systems can manage. In practice, shooting down a ballistic missile with an anti-missile system, such as a Patriot system or SAMP/T, can be compared to hitting a needle with another needle.

In addition to their enormous speed, hypersonic missiles have the ability to manoeuvre, making their trajectory much more difficult to calculate. Russia is one of the few countries working on such weapons, but its solutions, like the 3M22 Zircon or Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, perform much worse than initially anticipated.

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