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.
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.
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.