In this age of great-power competition, simmering global tensions, technological breakthroughs and climate change, it can sometimes be hard to understand what’s going on. That’s where “HCSS Explains” come in: our strategic analysts will try to provide insights and understanding of the implications of the geopolitical changes and threats around us.
If true, the successful interception of 18 missiles by the Ukrainian air defences on Monday night is quite a feat in itself, but the claim of having intercepted 6 Kinzhal KH-47M2 air launched ballistic missiles makes it almost incredible – for although they are not true hypersonic weapons as is often claimed, Kinzhal missiles are very hard targets. Up till now, they were considered to be Russia’s silver bullets and even feared by NATO. Moscow might not have many of them, but this was a weapon that could be counted on to get through NATO’s defences and hit key targets like command posts or key radar systems.
Now we don’t know exactly what happened yet, but as far as we can glean from the news Russia launched a well-coordinated attack aimed at overwhelming Kyiv’s air defences and possibly even at knocking out the newly delivered Patriot system. Russia’s claim of having done so would point in that direction. In all honesty, a Patriot system is a target that would be worth such an impressive missile barrage, both from the military point of view but most of all from the political point of view: if Moscow has destroyed one of NATO’s top-line air defence systems it would be a real coup.
But if this news bears out, NATO should be able to properly defend such key targets. There might still be leakers, but rather than a Russian silver bullet it becomes ‘just’ a very dangerous weapon. So if we assume this is true, how has Ukraine managed to do this? Well, for starters the Patriot system and its PAC-3 missiles must have worked very well indeed, although it would be interesting to know how many of these missiles have been used. But by itself technical excellence is not enough.
With different kinds of missiles using different flightpaths streaking in from all sides, the command, control and communications must have done their work near seamlessly to shoot them all down. Which points us to what might be the final part of the puzzle: a year of experience in dealing with Russian attacks. The school of hard knocks is one in which you learn fast or perish. One thing that springs to mind is how to identify penetration aids. The Kinzhal is derived from the Iskander 9K720 ballistic missile which has been used extensively and which is equipped with these penetration aids, basically decoys to confuse the radar systems about what to target. It isn’t a great leap of thought that Kyiv – and NATO – will be a whole lot better at spotting the decoys for what they are now than a year ago.
One thing is certain: this won’t be the end of it. Just like Kyiv learns how to defend itself, Russia will be learning how to tackle those defences. At the minimum, it will look for targets outside the limited defensive footprints of the Patriot systems.
Author: Frederik Mertens, HCSS strategic analyst
This “HCSS Explains” was written based on intel currently available. Responsibility for the contents and for the opinions expressed, rests solely with the author.