Russia v Ukraine – cruise or ballistic destruction

17 June 2022

The Russian forces taking part in the invasion of Ukraine have made impressive use of their cruise missiles. The Russians so far launched three Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles during the fighting but their effect was minor. Likewise, the ballistic missiles used by the Ukraine Army were not effective. These statements are part of the analysis made by Dr. Uzi Rubin, one of Israel's top missile experts.

In a special interview, Rubin told FrontLine that the heaviest damage to Ukrainian air force assets was achieved by Russia’s cruise missiles rather than ballistic.

Ballistic missiles are rocket-powered only in the initial boost phase of flight, and follow an arcing trajectory to the target. A cruise missile, on the other hand, is jet-propelled at subsonic speeds throughout its flight, travels at lower altitudes, and on a far straighter trajectory.

The Israeli expert notes 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 (simultaneous or quick succession) launch of four Iskander missiles taking off from Belarus and demolishing a regional Ukrainian military headquarters compound.

"The lack of evidence for Iskander attacks against Ukrainian air force targets may be due to the fact that such attacks were not recorded."

The assumed preference by Russia of cruise over ballistic missiles in dealing with Ukrainian air force and ground based air defence assets begs an explanation.

Some observers suggest a lack of Iskander ballistic missiles may be the reason cruise missiles appear to be the preferred weapon, but this is “not a plausible explanation,” says Dr Rubin. “The Russians have fired them in abundance since the beginning of the invasion - 100 rounds in the first week."

He mused that perhaps the explanation lies in the different warheads, since Iskander ballistic warheads 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.” Still, with the lack of clear evidence either way, this remains a speculation.

Rubin is very familiar with the Russian air-launched hypersonic Kinzahl missile, which made its debut during the war on Ukraine. The 2000 km (1240 mile) range Kinzahl 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. According to the senior expert, the missile can be launched in an offset direction but curves at the last minute into the target. This, he adds, prevents the defender from predicting the final trajectory of the missile, rendering existing missile defence systems (based on trajectory prediction) impotent against this type of threat.

At the end of March, a Russian Army spokesperson disclosed that Russia had already used this ballistic 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). Russia’s justification for employing such defence-evading missiles against a country that lacked missile defence capability, was that the Kinzahl’s tremendous terminal speed was essential for penetrating bunkers and underground structures.

"This explanation is not that convincing,” says Rubin, especially in light of the attack on fuel dumps. It is more likely that the Russians used this cutting-edge weapon rather than more conventional weapons for a "shock and awe" effect against the US and its allies.

The psychological impact was indeed significant, and the appearance of the Kinzahl on the battlefield reignited the debate over why the U.S. does not have similar weapons.

The Israeli expert claims that there is no evidence of any Ukrainian indigenous missiles being used in the present war, however, 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 discernible effect on the course of the land battles. "

In a paper for the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, Rubin writes 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.

In response to repeated Ukrainian requests for more and longer-range precision weapons to defend against Russian heavy artillery, both the U.S. and UK have recently announced they will be providing long-range missiles to Ukraine in the near future. But Putin isn't taking a rest. On 16 June, a Russian missile destroyed a train near Donetsk, Ukraine. It was transporting 34 pallets of food to be distributed by World Central Kitchen, an aid organization.

As Ukraine waits, Russia has been gaining ground. Will an influx of additional weaponry keep the invaders at bay?

Arie Egozi is a defence writer based in Tel Aviv