In what was called dubbed a “Special Military Operation,” Ukraine was invaded on Feb. 24, 2022 by a vast Russian army, seeking—in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own words—to turn Ukraine into a neutral and disarmed state, as well as to “de-Nazify” its government. Russia’s “Special Military Operation” is indistinguishable from a high intensity, full-scale war between unequal contenders: On one side, a nuclear superpower with a vast manpower pool deploying huge stockpiles of modern weapons. On the other side, a non-nuclear European country with limited military power, whose aging weapons stockpiles mostly hail from the Soviet era.
At the time of writing, it seems that the first stage of this war is now over. The results from Russia’s point of view have been disappointing, though with some solid gains on the ground. Ukraine’s government and people displayed remarkable resiliency as well as surprising military prowess. At present, it is hard to predict the course of the war, which may last months, if not years.
This twenty-first-century war is being fought in multiple dimensions, including—and with particular intensity—on the cognitive front. Both sides inundate the public with verbal and visual information, including a flood of smartphone videos uploaded to social media. Obviously, both sides’ disclosures are highly biased, yet, careful perusal yields some preliminary impressions on the impact of those quintessential modern weapons, precision missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
This article was completed in mid-April 2022, when the first phase of the war—the battle for Kyiv—ended with a Russian failure. The observations and insights in this article are relevant to this phase only. The second phase of the war—the battle for eastern Ukraine—has already begun and is raging at the time of publication. Its course and outcome may require a reassessment of the conclusions offered at the end of this article.
As already stated, the so-called “Special Military Operation” is in reality a full-scale war. Western sources disclose that Russia committed to the invasion of Ukraine no less than 120 battalion tactical groups comprising some 1,200 main battle tanks, 3,600 armored personnel carriers, 720 self-propelled guns, dozens of mobile air defense batteries and thousand of logistic and command vehicles. This vast force invaded Ukraine from the north, east and south. The invasion was preceded by a pre-emptive air strike on the Ukraine Air Force (UAF) airbases and Ground-Based Air Defense (GBAD) bases.
The Russian strike comprised about 100 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM), launched from Russian strategic bombers flying over Russian territory. The impression is that this Russian opening strike was underpowered. Open sources indicate that Ukraine has eight fighter-aircraft bases, one UAV base, three air-transport bases, 10 GBAD bases (mostly deploying Soviet-era S-300 systems) and 12 civilian or general-purpose airfields potentially usable by the UAF. The Russians needed to destroy all of them in one blow to achieve immediate air supremacy over Ukraine. With fewer than three missiles allotted to each target on average, it seems that Russia’s strike was too weak to accomplish its goal. Indications are that while the Russian missile strike degraded the UAF’s operational capabilities, it failed to extinguish them entirely.
Still, there is no doubt that the Russian strike had a significant effect, as is evident in Romania, where a Ukrainian fighter aircraft made an emergency landing because the destruction of its home airbase prevented it from landing there (the aircraft was later permitted to return to Ukraine). The runways of the transport airbase in the town of Uzerme were cratered by Russian cruise missiles in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, thereby making them unserviceable and grounding the Ukrainian quick reaction forces based there.
A few hours after the preliminary airstrike, Russia launched a massive vertical flanking operation aimed at capturing the Antonov Airport in Kyiv’s suburb of Hostomel. Ukrainian smartphone videos uploaded to social media show dozens of low-flying Russian troop-carrying helicopters, escorted by gunships, flying towards Hostomel. Russian videos, released by the Russian Ministry of Defense (RMOD), show Russian commandos being landed inside the Antonov Airport perimeter. It stands to reason that the Russian military high command would not have embarked on such a massive airborne operation unless convinced that it had achieved air supremacy, at least locally.
Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the UAF was still active at the time, despite the Russian preliminary strike, and managed to engage the Russian air cover, shooting down several Russian fighter jets. Moreover, images released to the media show Ukrainian bombers attacking Russian troops in Hostomel. Ukraine’s armed forces managed to re-take the Antonov airport by the evening of that day. It was reoccupied the next day by Russian armor advancing from the Belarus border. Nevertheless, energetic Ukrainian resistance managed to render the Antonov Airport runways unserviceable for Russian troop transporters, thereby frustrating the Russian plan to win the war in one blow by landing special forces at Antonov that could quickly capture the nearby capital of Kyiv, establishing there a Russian-friendly government.
It seems, then, that the failure of the Russians to wipe out the UAF in their initial missile strike played a significant role in the failure to achieve a quick victory.
Thus, Russia’s bid to wipe out Ukraine’s air capability at the very beginning of the war—a Russian version of Israel’s “Operation Focus” that wiped out the Arab air forces at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967—was only partially successful. What was the reason for that failure? One hint is a satellite photo published in Western media, showing a Ukrainian runway with three fresh craters in the surrounding terrain. The runway itself is untouched and perfectly serviceable. According to an anonymous source in the U.S. Air Force, many Russian cruise missiles “failed to launch, missed or failed to explode after impact.” The result was that the UAF managed to retain a significant measure of combat capability in the first days of the war.
Yet the Russians persevered in their efforts to erode the UAF’s fighting power via a persistent campaign of destruction targeting serviceable runways across Ukraine. For example, on March 6 they destroyed the commercial airport in the town of Vinnitsya in central Ukraine. On March 13, they followed up by destroying Lutsk’s Airport in northeastern Ukraine, then demolishing the international airport of Ivano-Frankivsk in the southwest. The small airport of the town of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine was wiped out on April 10. It stands to reason that all these operations, carried out by cruise missiles, were aimed to deprive the UAF of runways.
Why the Russians did not take out these targets in the opening strike remains a mystery. Nevertheless, the impression is that the cumulative effect of the runway-busting campaign, complemented by the systematic destruction of fuel dumps all over the country, significantly eroded the UAF’s capability to fight back. In late April, a UAF combat pilot told a U.S. interviewer that the remaining UAF fighter jets exploit stretches of uncratered runways for takeoff and landing, managing to launch a meager number of sorties, about five to 10 per day—a paltry number which has more symbolic than operational effect. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s urgent calls for the West to establish a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine and to send replacement fighter aircraft to his country are clear indications of the dire straights of the UAF.
It seems that Ukraine’s GBAD array, too, was severely damaged by the Feb. 24 preliminary strike, as well as by subsequent Russian attacks. According to the Turkish blog ORYX, whose reliability was verified by its coverage of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Ukrainians had lost—at the time of writing—22 S-300 launchers as well as 17 other short-range GBAD batteries. That some Ukrainian GBAD capability did survive is attested to by the alleged reluctance of the Russian Air Force to operate in Ukraine’s skies. A hint is provided by the Russian armed forces’ disclosure that it had attacked a Ukrainian S300 radar on April 5—indicating that the Ukrainians still had serviceable air defenses more than five weeks after the outbreak of the war. At Ukraine’s behest, four S-300 batteries were provided by Eastern European neighbors still operating this venerable ex-Soviet system.
In summary, then, while Russia managed to bring UAF manned aircraft operations to a near standstill, it still lacks (at this time) an uncontested control of Ukraine’s airspace, particularly at low altitudes that are within the range of MANPADs (Man Portable Air Defense Systems, that now include the modern Western systems being rushed into Ukraine from the United States and European countries). This is a testimony to the bravery and steadfastness of Ukraine’s soldiers in their struggle against a much superior Russian air force. It also demonstrates the perseverance and power of the Russian armed forces, based on qualitative and quantitative superiority as well as the capacity to cover the entire national territory of Ukraine with cruise and ballistic missile fire. It seems at present that Russia has the wherewithal to achieve full air supremacy over Ukraine. Whether it will succeed in doing so remains to be seen.
The impression is that the brunt of the attacks on UAF assets have been via cruise, rather than ballistic missiles. 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 of four Iskander missiles taking off from Belarus and demolishing a regional Ukrainian military headquarters compound. Yet there seems to be a lack of evidence for Iskander attacks against UAF targets—perhaps because such attacks were not recorded.
The assumed preference of cruise over ballistic missiles in dealing with UAF assets—if true—begs for an explanation. A lack of Iskander missiles is not plausible: the Russians have been firing them in abundance since the beginning of the invasion—100 rounds just in the first week of the fighting. Perhaps the explanation lies in the different warheads, since those of the Iskander’s ballistic missiles 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. This, of course, is speculation that has not been corroborated at the time of writing.
Beyond the extensive use of the current generation of legacy precision missiles, the Russians unleashed one of their cutting-edge missiles—the air-launched, hypersonic Kinzahl, making its debut on the world’s battlefields. The Kinzahl, which has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), is launched from the MiG-31 heavy combat aircraft on the usual curving trajectory, but has tremendous maneuvering capability once it reenters the atmosphere. Hence, it can be fired in an offset direction but curve at the last minute into the target. This prevents the defender from guessing the intended target or predicting the final trajectory of the missile, rendering all existing missile defense systems (based on trajectory prediction) impotent against this type of threat.
At the end of March, the Russian Army spokesperson disclosed that Russia had already used this 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 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). The Russians’ justification for employing such defense-evading missiles against a country that lacks missile defense was that the Kinzahl’s tremendous terminal speed was essential for penetrating bunkers and underground structures. .
This explanation is not too convincing, especially when considering the attack on fuel dumps. It is more likely that the Russians chose to use this cutting-edge weapon rather than more conventional missiles for a “shock and awe” effect against the United States and its allies. The psychological impact was indeed significant, and the appearance of the Kinzahl on the battlefield reignited the heated debate on why the United States still lacks weapons of similar capabilities.
Ukraine has its own missile industry, and during the years preceding the current war, it disclosed the development of an Iskander—like precision missile. It also developed the Polonez precision rocket, sold to Azerbaijan and used during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Yet there is no evidence of any Ukrainian indigenous missiles being used in the present war.
At the same time, evidence shows that Ukraine is using its Soviet-era SS-21 Tochka missiles. Various sources estimate that Ukraine had about 500 missiles of this type and up to 90 launchers at the onset of the war. This short-range missile (120 to 140 kilometers or 75-85 miles) often carries an anti-personnel cluster munition warhead. On one occasion, a Ukrainian Tochka missile hit the Sea of Azov port of Berdyansk, now occupied by Russia. The Russians claimed that they had intercepted that missile, but images of its debris don’t show any evidence supporting this claim.
On two well-advertised occasions, Tochka missiles caused massive civilian loss of life. On March 14, a Tochka missile hit the city of Donetsk—the capital of the pro- Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR)—killing 20 civilians and triggering a Russian accusation of “genocide.” On April 4,another Tochka hit a train station in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, killing 59 civilians. The spent rocket section of the missile carried the enigmatic inscription “For the Children.” This event may have been retaliation by the DPR for the earlier missile attack on Donetsk attributed to Ukraine.
It seems that beyond their effect on the cognitive battlefield, Ukraine’s ballistic missiles have had no discernable effect on the course of the land battles. One caveat: On April 1, a fire broke out in an oil depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Ukraine’s border. One smartphone video shows what seems to be three missiles slamming into the depot. On April 25, two oil storage tanks in the Russian city of Bryansk, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the Ukraine border caught fire simultaneously. Russia blamed it on Ukrainian helicopter attacks. Ukraine denied responsibility for the Belgorod event but refused to comment on the Bryansk fire. Some observers argue that both events were caused by the Ukrainian Tochka missile attacks. Perhaps the Ukrainians did put their Tochka missiles to a better and more strategically significant use than mere propaganda.
In summary, then, it seems that in spite of their problematic reliability and occasional accuracy problems, Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles (of which more than 1,000 rounds are estimated to have been used at the time of writing) were effective in suppressing the UAF combat capability as well as Ukraine’s air defenses. Ukraine does not possess modern missile defense weapons. According to various sources, UAF fighter aircraft managed to shoot down some Russian cruise missiles.
In a televised April 25 interview, an anonymous Ukraine fighter pilot stated that he had managed to shoot down two out of six cruise missiles launched by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea at Odessa. While he describes this as a “satisfactory achievement,” the Ukrainian pilot admitted that it was more effective to combat cruise missiles from the ground, and stressed the need for modern GBAD and anti-missile systems. With no effective protection, Ukraine’s air bases, logistic centers and ammunition depots are largely exposed to Russian deep-striking precision cruise missiles. At the time of writing, the other missiles used by the respective sides—the ultramodern “Kinzahl” and the obsolete “Tochka”—seem to have had no significant effect except on the cognitive battlefield.
One other significant dimension of the Battle of Ukraine is the extensive use of UAVs by both sides, for obtaining visual intelligence as well as for ground attack. In 2019, Ukraine purchased from Turkey 20 Bayraktar TB2 armed UAVs, a type that later on proved its mettle in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war as well as in sundry other conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The Ukrainians have been using them against the invading Russians since the outbreak of the war.
Like the Azerbaijanis in the 2020 war, the Ukrainians also used videos from their UAVs successes for propaganda, releasing action videos recorded by the Bayraktar’ cameras of Russian armor and vehicles being hit. Yet, in contrast to the decisive role of the Bayraktars UAVs against Armenia’s army in 2020, their impact in the current Battle for Ukraine seems marginal.
As of April 12, the Turkish ORYX blog listed total Russian mobile equipment losses as 476 tanks, 849 armored personnel carriers and 787 trucks. Of these, only six armored personnel carriers and 24 trucks but not a single tank were attributed to Bayraktar strikes. The results were somewhat better with regard to Russian mobile GBAD systems: Out of 25 systems lost by Russia, 10 were attributed to Bayraktar strikes.
It seems that the Bayraktar operators (some of whom were Turkish, judging by the soundtrack of one of those videos) strove to emulate their strategy from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, when they first destroyed most of Armenia’s GBAD systems, thereby freeing them to go after its armor, trucks and troop concentration. It seems, however, that this time the Turkish-made UAVs did not repeat their former success, as evident from the negligible amount of Russian equipment they destroyed. Moreover, since each Bayraktar video is date-stamped, scrutiny of the strike dates indicates that after the first week of the war, the success rate started to decline, coming to a virtual stop in mid-March, after which date Bayraktar kills became rather rare.
Two different explanations can be offered for this decline in the recorded kill rate of the Bayraktars. First, the more modern Russian mobile air defense systems were more successful than the obsolete Armenian ones in shooting down the slow-flying and vulnerable Bayraktar UAVs. Second—an explanation offered by some Turkish observers—is that the Ukrainians decided to decrease the media exposure of their combat UAVs to divert Russian attention. This second explanation sounds artificial and even if true, is by itself an indirect confirmation of the first one—that the Russians got the measure of the Bayraktars and were shooting them down at a high rate.
The Ukrainians are making extensive use of Unmanned Helicopter Vehicles (UHVs). An article published in a leading Western newspaper describes the establishment, several years ago, of a heavy UHV unit in Ukraine staffed by volunteers and UHV enthusiasts. The unit’s personnel developed their own brand of heavy, eight-rotors UHVs, that could carry light bombs.
The founder of that unit was a Ukrainian high-tech expert who had participated in the 2014 “color revolution” that deposed the incumbent pro-Russian president. Financing of R&D and production came from small government budgets and crowdsourcing. At the outset of the Russian invasion, a substantial armored column approached Kyiv from the north. The Ukrainian VHS unit sortied out, moving by night aboard all-terrain vehicles. Bombs from their heavy VHSs destroyed the leading vehicles of the column, thereby bringing it to a dead stop. The unit’s VHSs then concentrated on the destruction of fuel and supply trucks at the tail end of the convoy, paralyzing it for several days.
According to this report, the Russian tried to disrupt the Ukrainian UHVs by electronic interference, but had to stop from time to time to allow their own UAVs to operate. The Ukrainians exploited the pauses in electronic interference to launch their own heavy UHVs. As we have already observed above, the information provided by both sides in this war is highly biased, and the story of how a crowdsourced group of high-tech enthusiasts stopped a Russian armored column seems biased enough. However, some indirect corroboration for the story, or at least parts of it, comes from a Russian-released video showing a mobile air defense system shooting down a heavy, eight-rotor Ukrainian UHV.
Apart from militarized heavy UHVs, the Ukrainians are making an extensive use of commercial-grade UHVs of the kinds available from consumer goods vendors. Social media is flooded with images captured by commercial-grade UHVs depicting Russian forces in the field, the destruction of Russian armor as well as war crimes committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians. Ukrainian supporters in the West are contributing hundreds of commercial-grade UHVs to the Ukrainian forces. It seems that commercial UHVs are rendering the battlefield transparent, making it impossible to hide military forces. Their position and movements are constantly monitored in real-time, at least in clear weather and mostly during the daytime.
Russia, in turn, has thrown into battle all its types of UAVs. The primary type for tactical reconnaissance is the Orlan 10, an infantry-operated UAV for “beyond the hill” observation. RMOD releases show several types of combat UAVs in action against Ukrainian forces. One type of armed UAV featured by the RMOD is the Forepost-R, a Russian version of the unarmed Israeli Searcher 2 UAV sold years ago to Russia (Ukrainian released video footage shows the Israeli tags on the instrumentation of a downed Forepost-B).
Russia’s leading armed UAV, equivalent to the Ukrainian-operated Bayraktar, is the Inokhodets (called Orion in its export version). This is a rather large UAV that can carry up to 250 kilograms (550 lbs) of ordnance, including air-to-air missiles for combating helicopters. One Russian-released video shows an Inokhodets UAV attacking ground targets with anti-tank missiles. At least one Inokhodets was shot down, probably by a Ukrainian MANPAD. In addition, the Russians unveiled their own suicide UAV, the KUB, which outwardly resembles the Iranian Shahed 136 of the 2019 raid on the Saudi oil installation fame. Yet with all this large selection of Russian armed UAVs, their impact on the ground campaign seems limited at best.
The war in Ukraine is the largest land battle since the 1991 Gulf War. This article focused on the effect of precision missiles and UAVs on this battle. The following conclusions should be taken with a degree of caution, since they are based on incomplete, conflicting and biased information. The Battle of Ukraine is far from over, and its future course may confirm or refute the impressions now offered. With this cautionary caveat, let us proceed to draw some conclusions from the evidence to date.
According to open-source evidence, it seems that Russia’s precision missiles—both cruise and ballistic—have significantly suppressed the UAF’s combat capability, largely preventing it from interfering with Russia’s maneuvering ground forces after the first few days of the war. It stands to reason that air combat was also significant in reducing the size of the UAF fighter force. Yet, the description of UAF fighters forced to take off and land on the remaining serviceable stretches of cratered runways testifies to the effectiveness of precision missiles in shutting down airbases. This is an important lesson for Western air forces, and especially so for the Israeli Air Force.
As for unmanned aircraft, it seems that their most significant impact is in providing real-time battlefield reconnaissance. UAVs and UHVs—including commercial-grade systems—have brought about “the transparent battlefield” where nothing can be hidden. At the same time, it seems the ground attacks by armed UAVs of both sides had no discernable effect on the course of the battle. This is somewhat surprising given the decisive role of armed UAVs in recent land battles in northern Syria, Libya and the Caucasus.
Two reasons can be offered for these contradictory results: First, compared to the land-based firepower from artillery and anti-tank weapons, the level of firepower provided by armed UAVs is negligible. Second, that the modern Russian GBAD protecting its advancing troops took the measure of the Ukrainian armed UAVs—the Turkish Bayraktars—and managed to shoot them down at a rate exceeding their replenishment rate—if indeed the Turks did offer any replenishment. It is estimated that on the eve of the war Ukraine had 20 Bayraktar UAVs in service. It seems then that the Russians managed to shoot down most of them during the first three weeks of the war—a lengthy but not unreasonable period of time.
It follows then that armed UAVs may have a significant effect in low-intensity wars and against unsophisticated antagonists. The vulnerability of the larger types such as the Turkish Bayraktars and the Russian Inokhodets to modern GBAD reduces their ability to affect land battle in high-intensity conflicts (the jury is still out about the effect of suicide UAVs). This too is an important lesson to Western air forces. It seems that in ground attack missions, manned aircraft are destined to be replaced not by unmanned aircraft, but by precision missiles fired from hundreds of kilometers away. It will be the defense against such missiles—both of the cruising and ballistic types—that will decide the outcome of future wars.
Uzi Rubin was founder and first director (1991-1999) of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Israeli Defense Ministry, which developed, produced and deployed the country’s first national defense shield—the Arrow Weapon System. He subsequently served as Senior Director for Proliferation and Technology in the National Security Council (1999-2001), and directed several defense programs at the Israel Aerospace Industries and in the Defense Ministry. He was twice awarded the Israel Defense Prize (1996 and 2003), and was also awarded the U.S. Missile Defense Agency “David Israel” Prize (2000). He has been a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control, where he directed a study on missile proliferation.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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 Personal information provided to the present author by a former commander of the Estonian Air Force, a Soviet air force serviceman in his past. He received the information by phone on the morning of the Russian invasion from his former Soviet Army colleagues now serving in the Ukrainian armed forces.
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 In the present article, unmanned fixed-wing unmanned aircraft that take off horizontally are dubbed UAVs. Unmanned multi-rotor helicopters that take off vertically are dubbed UHVs.
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