Managing the Long-Range Missiles

The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.

A Russian Tu-95 heavy bomber sporting a number of Kh-101 cruise missiles, a weapon reportedly used in the strikes on Ukraine today. Source: Dmitry Terekhov/Wikimedia Commons

To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.

Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.

While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.

The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.

However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.

A NASAMS-launcher during a Norwegian exercise. The modularity and relatively large number of missiles ready to fire makes the system a prime candidate for anyone wanting to shoot down cruise missiles. Source: Soldatnytt/Wikimedia Commons

Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.

But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.

11 thoughts on “Managing the Long-Range Missiles

  1. Damn right. There should be a capability to strike all russian bases in western russia if they launch attacks from there. It would be a legitimate target. FFS right now Ukraine cant even blow up the russian military bases in Crimea at will…. its ridiculous. And Putin can threaten to use nukes all day but its all BS. You think Putin and the russian elite will end the world and lose their billionaire lifestyle? No way in hell. Nuclear weapons are a BS weapon because you can never use it. Ever. They are a paper tiger. And they need to be treated as such.

  2. EMK

    You’re absolutely right. The West should provide fighters for Ukraine. It would be interesting to read your take on, for example, what specific type would be the right one.

    No matter what, it will take considerable time before any planes Ukraine gets are operational. That’s why the West should, IMO, make the decision yesterday and get on with it already.

    Ukrainian pilots can fly western planes within couple of weeks. That’s not a problem. The big effort will be the tactical training (pilots and air battle managers, or what ever name the UAF organization call the people who prepare, plan and run missions).

    The toughest nut to crack, however, is probably organizing the maintenance and service. Trained people, logistics and facilities won’t magically appear out of the blue. It’s a big effort and takes time.

    As for the type, my first choice would be Hornet (D) or Super-Hornet (E/F). F-16 is fine too, but the landing gear (nose) is not the best possible one if one wants to operate from rough runways (road bases, for example).

    To be frank, any western 4 or 4+ gen plane which is available quickly and in numbers would probably do. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to look a little bit further down the road. Ukraine is going to need a capable air-force to keep Russia at bay long after the current war is over. That’s worth planning now.

    1. Pvt. Joker

      What about the legacy Gripens now in storage upgraded for Ukraine?
      Sweden training them for dispersed operations.
      Naturally would need to be cleared by US but might stoll be easier politically than a purely US made ac.

      NASAMS being modular in sofware and hardware would it not be wise to integrate the remaining Buk and Kub batteries with it?

      1. EMK

        I think providing any western fighter to Ukraine would need to be more or less a consensus decision (by the West). I think that’s what is dragging (i.e. a lack of political will or even opposition from certain countries).

        I have to admit I am not too familiar with the legacy model. But what little I know about it, Gripen would be a good fit for Ukraine. Maybe someone more knowledgeable could enlighten us about the pros and cons.

        I didn’t know Sweden had legacy models in storage. Do you happen to know how many?

      2. Pvt. Joker

        Over 70 if you dont count the 28 that are leased by the Czechs and Hungarians.
        Those could be available also if they get F-16s or Gripen Es in return.
        So possibly up to 90 Gripens that could be upgraded and form the new core fleet of the Ukrainian Air Force.

      3. EMK

        Had to update myself regarding the legacy Gripen. I found out, among many other things, that Ukraine has already announced (July 2022) Gripen as a candidate for the UAF.

        If I was an Ukrainian buying the stored planes, I would like to get modernized versions:

        – PS-05/Mk4 AESA radar (the same as in E/F models)
        – MS20 Block II software
        – the latest EW pods & integration
        – Meteor (and maybe Iris-T) integration, if it’s not there already
        – HARM (or equivalent) integration

        And, of course, a lofty weapons package.

        90 (or even 70) planes would be a real game changer in Ukraine, I think. And this might be the only realistic short-term option as the planes already exist (well, maybe F-16 is another realistic option).
        Let’s hope Ukraine will get these planes. They really have good use for them.

      4. F-16 is the better mid-/long-term solution due to numbers. Even if Sweden would ditch all 39C/D (which is unrealistic) that would still be a limited supply. F-16s are on the other hand found throughout the world in huge numbers as well as with ready HARM and cruise missile integration if you manage to get the right standard.

      5. EMk

        Mid term, I agree. And as I said above, F-16 would be a good short term solution too.

        If we consider longer term, current availability is not an issue. Because of that there are, IMO, quite a few options. For example Gripen E/F and many, many others.

        My opinion is that a viable *long term* solution for any AF should be based on a relatively new type. That would exclude F-16 and F/A-18D. Even F/A-18E/F would be so so, IMO. But don’t get me wrong. That’s just a generic, or rather a base line, opinion which may not apply to the situation and needs of Ukraine very well. As you know, there are a lot of different factors at play here. The available amount of funding is not the least among them.

      6. Pvt.Joker


        Even if Ukraine is allowed to order the Gripen E, including a tech transfer and domestic production?

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