May 29, 2024

Missiles and Missile Defense Systems

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An explosion is seen in the sky over Kyiv during a Russian missile strike on May 16, 2023.

One after another, bright flashes pierced through Kyiv’s night skies early on Tuesday morning, as Russia launched an “exceptional” aerial assault against the Ukrainian capital.

Most Kyiv residents would have had no way of knowing for sure that the sudden, terrifying loud bangs were the Ukrainian air defense systems taking down Russian missiles, rather than rockets hitting their city.

Liudmyla Kravchenko, her husband and their two children spent most of the night hiding in their corridor.

“There’s no bomb shelter nearby, the underground station is quite far from us … I think it’s even more dangerous to try to get there during the bombardment,” she told CNN.

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Kravchenko said that while her family doesn’t always take shelter during air raid alarms, last night was different. “It was very scary, so after we heard the first explosions we rushed to the corridor … of course in case the missile hits our house directly, none of this will save our lives – not two walls, not three, not even five,” she said, pointing to the guidance that people unable to reach shelters should stay inside and try to be separated from a potential impact zone by two walls.

She said her one year old son Artem slept in her arms as they were waiting for the attack to end. Her nine-year-old daughter is now so used to air raids that she knows to “to drop everything and take cover” when her parents tell her to.

Liudmyla Kravchenko said her family hid in the corridor during the attack on Tuesday.

Liudmyla Kravchenko said her family hid in the corridor during the attack on Tuesday.Yulia Kesaieva/CNN

“My wife counted over 30 explosions and we saw dozens of launches by the Ukrainian air defense from our balcony. It was so fast, we didn’t even have time to get to a shelter,” Tymofiy Mylovanov, a presidential adviser and head of the Ukrainian School of Economics, said on Twitter.

Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said in a Telegram post that the barrage of missiles on Tuesday was the eighth assault on the Ukrainian capital this month. He said the attack came from multiple directions and was “exceptional in its density, with the maximum number of attacking missiles in the shortest time possible.”

Despite the intensity, most of the Russian munitions failed to hit their marks after being detected and destroyed by Ukraine’s defense systems, Popko added.

The falling debris caused some – although limited – damage on the ground. At least three people were injured, according to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko. Authorities said early reports of damage were minor, with a building and several vehicles catching fire from falling debris in one area of the capital.

Klitschko said some debris fell within the grounds of the Kyiv Zoo, damaging some green spaces but not causing any injuries to the animals. The mayor added the zoo would be open as normal on Tuesday.

Air defenses hard at work

Ukrainian Armed Forces chief Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi said the attack, which started at about 3:30 a.m. local time, was launched from the north, south, and east.

“Six Kh-47M2 Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles were fired from six MiG-31K aircraft, nine Kalibr cruise missiles from ships in the Black Sea, and three land-based missiles (S-400, Iskander-M),” Zaluzhnyi said on Twitter, adding that Moscow also launched attack drones, all of which were destroyed.

While the Ukrainian military refused to comment on the type of weapons it used on Tuesday, two US officials and a Western official familiar with the matter told CNN that Ukrainian forces have begun using long-range Storm Shadow missiles provided by the UK to strike Russian targets.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed later on Tuesday that it destroyed a US-made Patriot air defense system in Kyiv on Tuesday – despite the Ukrainians saying all 18 Russian missiles launched at the country in the early hours of Tuesday morning were intercepted and destroyed.

The Ukrainian military has declined to comment on the claim by the Russian Defense Ministry.

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But a US official later told CNN that a US-made Patriot system was likely damaged, but not destroyed, as a result of Monday’s Russian missile barrage.

The US is still assessing to what degree the system was damaged, the official said, adding that will determine whether the system needs to be pulled back entirely or simply repaired on the spot by the Ukrainians.

storm shadow cruise missile 022823

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Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, said on Telegram that Tuesday marked “another unbelievable success for the Ukrainian Air Forces” with all six of the Kinzhal missiles shot down.

“Thank you to our Air Force service members and our partner states, who invested in securing the skies over Ukraine and all of Europe,” he said.

Kyiv resident Oleksandr Kravets, 50, said he saw the air defenses work first hand on Tuesday.

“I live on the 13th floor … I saw the missile wreckage falling. Our air defense are real heroes. I think they get better each month, the percentage of downed targets increases each time. I think it’s both – the experience and the new air defense systems we got,” he told CNN.

Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly talked up the hypersonic Kinzhal missiles for their ability to evade Ukraine’ original air defense systems.

However, that has changed since Ukraine received at least two US-made Patriot missile defense systems, one from Germany and one from the US, making it possible for Ukraine to intercept more modern Russian missiles such as the Kinzhal.

Earlier in May, Ukrainian and US officials said Russia had tried to destroy a Patriot battery with a Kinzhal air-launched ballistic-missile strike, but Ukraine Patriot operators were able to intercept the Russian weapon.

The Patriot systems, coupled with Ukraine’s other air defense systems, have been able to deal with most of what Russia has challenged them with in recent months – but Ukraine has been warning that its ammunition stocks are getting depleted.

Last week the Ukrainian capital was targeted by what Klitschko called Russia’s “most massive” drone attack, in which 36 Iranian-made Shahed were fired on the city. All 36 were intercepted and damage from falling debris was light, the mayor said.

An explosion is seen in the sky over Kyiv during a Russian missile strike on May 16, 2023.Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukrainian intelligence claims

The strikes on Kyiv came a day after Ukrainian intelligence claimed Russian forces are no longer capable of large-scale offensive action and faced a shortage of some missiles, such as the Kalibr.

However, Ukrainian Defense Intelligence spokesperson Andriy Yusov said Moscow still had enough missiles to sustain its current rate of air attacks.

He estimated Moscow has large stockpiles of S-300 missiles, which are capable of considerable destruction. The S-300 was designed as an anti-air weapon but Russia has frequently used it in a ground-to-ground mode, which makes it less accurate.

Volodymyr Zelensky attends a press conference in Rome on Saturday.

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Ahead of a much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, Yusov said Russia “is on the defensive” along “the entire front line” and lacked the resources “to repeat large-scale offensive actions.”

“They have been preparing for defense all this time, and this is a serious factor that the Ukrainian command certainly takes into account when preparing for the de-occupation of Ukrainian territories,” he said.

In recent days, Ukraine’s military says it has gained an advantage in some areas near the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, but officials have been reluctant to provide specific dates for when the counteroffensive will begin.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in England Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv is “preparing very important counteroffensive steps.”

“We really need some more time,” he said, but added: “Not too much.”

Grave diggers bury the bodies of a husband and wife who were both killed by Russian shelling that hit a supermarket in Kherson, Ukraine, May 10, 2023. (Finbarr O
Grave diggers bury the bodies of a husband and wife who were both killed by Russian shelling that hit a supermarket in Kherson, Ukraine, May 10, 2023. 

KHERSON, Ukraine — Maryna Ivanova, a young woman living in a riverside village in southern Ukraine, had an uneasy feeling when her fiancé and brother left for work one morning in early May. They were headed to a nearby island in the Dnieper River, the watery front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and the area was getting heavily shelled.

Standing at her stove, making pork and potato soup, Ivanova heard — and felt — an enormous blast, much more frightening, she said, than the explosions that have become routine.

“It felt like something was dropped right on us,” she said.

A few minutes later, she heard shouting outside and ran down to the dock. A boat pulled up. Inside lay her brother, soaked in blood. Slumped next to him was her fiancé with part of his face blown off. Both were dead.

She fell to her knees.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she said.

The strike was not a mortar, a tank round or a projectile fired by long-range artillery, according to Ukrainian officials who investigated the incident. It was, they said, an 1,100-pound modified bomb dropped from a distant Russian warplane, the latest destructive twist in a war that is intensifying.

As Kyiv gears up for a much-anticipated counteroffensive, Ukrainian officials, independent analysts and U.S. military officials say the Russians are increasing their use of Soviet-era bombs. Although they have limitations, the weapons, they said, are proving harder to shoot down than the fastest, most modern missiles that the Ukrainians have become adept at intercepting.

Much of this war is being fought with long-range munitions, from artillery shells to ballistic missiles. In the past few weeks, the Russians have launched wave after wave of missiles and exploding drones at Ukrainian cities, and Ukraine has shot down just about all of them.

But the aircraft bombs are different. They don’t have propulsion systems like cruise missiles or stay in the air nearly as long as drones. The bombs are aloft for only 70 seconds or less and are much more difficult for Ukraine’s air defenses to track. They are little dots on radar screens that soon disappear after being dropped, Ukrainian officials said, and then they slam into villages.

“This is the evolution of the air war,” said Lt. Col. Denys Smazhnyi of the Ukrainian air force. “They first tried cruise missiles, and we shot them down. Then they tried drones, and we shot those down. They are constantly looking for a solution to strike us, and we are looking for one to intercept them.

“It’s evolution, countermeasures, evolution, countermeasures,” Smazhnyi added. “It’s a nonstop process, unfortunately.”

According to Ukrainian and U.S. officials, the Russians have retrofitted some of the bombs with satellite navigation systems and wings that stretch their range, turning an old-fashioned weapon, which Moscow has thousands of, into a more modern glide bomb.

The Russians are deploying these glide bombs from Su-34 and Su-35 jets, their top-of the-line warplanes, said a U.S. Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic. Zooming over Russian-controlled territory, where Ukrainian air defenses don’t reach, the warplanes release the bombs, which glide 20 miles or more, crossing the front line and then striking Ukrainian territory.

These bombs are even harder to hit than the hypersonic Kinzhal missiles that the Ukrainians claim to have destroyed recently with American Patriot air defense systems.

“A Kinzhal has a longer flight time at high altitudes, so it’s easier to detect and track,” said Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Glide bombs, on the other hand, were not a weapon that the Patriot system was designed to counter, he said.

Russian military bloggers have boasted about the prowess of the glide bombs, posting videos and comments starting in early January. One Russian analyst provided detailed information on Russia’s development of them going back to the early 2000s and said their use was “a step in the right direction.”

There have been some recent mishaps. In late April, a Russian warplane, apparently headed for Ukraine, accidentally dropped a bomb on Belgorod, a Russian city near the border. No one was killed, Russian officials said, but days later, Russian media reported that two more unexploded aircraft bombs had been discovered in the same area. It’s not clear whether these were old-fashioned bombs or the newer gliding versions.

Ukrainian officials are using the threat of these bombs to help press their case for F-16s, which allies are expected to provide after the Biden administration reversed course and allowed Ukrainian pilots to be trained. The Ukrainians say that they are outmatched in the skies and that F-16s could chase away Russian warplanes bombing their communities.

“Trying to intercept these bombs isn’t effective. It’s not even rational,” said Yuriy Ignat, spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force. “The only way out of this situation and the only way to stop it is to attack the planes that launch these bombs.”

Both Russia and Ukraine have strong air defenses on the territory they control, making it hard for either side to fly combat missions. Ukrainian pilots also have a few dozen glide bombs provided by the United States, but they have struggled with them, according to documents allegedly leaked by Jack Teixeira, the Air National Guardsman implicated in a vast disclosure of classified material. The Russians have figured out how to jam the guidance systems, the classified documents said, and several Ukrainian bombs have missed their target.

Smazhnyi and other Ukrainian officials said the Russians were dropping a combination of unmodified vintage bombs and modified ones. The glide bombs are made by taking a FAB-500 M-62 low-drag bomb, a standard mass-produced Soviet munition, and strapping on a kit with movable fins and pop-out wings, along with a satellite guidance system that adjusts its course mid-flight. Military analysts said the modified bombs cost a tiny fraction of the price of a cruise missile but pack about the same amount of explosives.

Ukraine’s security services shared photos of Russian bombs that they said had been modified to glide, which U.S. defense officials confirmed. The locations of the photos could not be independently verified.

Few places have been as heavily hit by glide bombs as the area around Kherson, an industrial city along the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian officials said. As Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive looms, Ukrainian troops are pouring into Kherson and nearby villages like Veletenske, where Ivanova lived with her fiance, Kostiantyn Rumega.

He was 19, she is 20. He was looking for work, and on the morning of May 2, a man who ran a fishing business summoned him to a nearby river island to clean some nets.

His fiancee said that he didn’t want to go, because he had already gotten in trouble once for not having the necessary fishing permits, and it was very dangerous — the Russians have been lighting up that entire area with an arsenal of weapons.

But he needed the money, Ivanova said, and before leaving, he lingered at the door.

“At that moment when he was kissing me and saying goodbye, there was so much love,” she said. “I never experienced it before. It felt different.”

It was as if he knew, she said.

A few hours later, the explosion by the river blew open her doors and shook her house. It was more than a mile away. Along with her brother and fiance, another civilian was killed, a woman living along the river.

Since then, Ivanova has been drifting through a haze of grief, disbelief, rage and depression.

“I don’t want to do anything,” she said.

And she keeps hearing explosions, stirring a pain inside her that she says she will carry forever.