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Russia has been scrambling to find missiles to fire at Ukraine, but it's not going to run out of them

Benjamin Brimelow   

Russia has been scrambling to find missiles to fire at Ukraine, but it's not going to run out of them
  • Russia has had to dig deep into its arsenal to find missiles to fire at targets in Ukraine.
  • Despite the challenge, Russia continues to attack Ukraine with a variety of missiles and drones.

Ukraine has liberated vast swaths of its territory over the past year and is now conducting an offensive against Russian-occupied areas in the south and east. Despite that progress, however, Russia still threatens all of Ukraine with missile and drone attacks.

Since invading in February 2022, Russia has fired "well over 5,000 missiles and one-way attack drones against Ukraine and nearly every known type of conventional missile in their arsenal," according to a report published in May by Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

To keep up that pressure, Russia has dug into its arsenals, scrounged for parts, and turned to other isolated countries for supplies. Despite those struggles, strikes with missiles remain one of Russia's primary tactics, and it's unlikely to run out of them any time soon.

Launched from air, land, and sea

By far, most missiles fired by Russia into Ukraine have been launched from aircraft — mainly Tu-95, Tu-22M, and Tu-160 bombers and Su-24 and Su-35 fighter-bombers.

Air-launched missiles are the "largest and most diverse portion of Russian missiles used in Ukraine," according to the CSIS report, which said that of the more than 2,700 air-launched missiles Russia fired in the first five months of the war about half came from aircraft outside Ukrainian airspace.

The most common long-range cruise missiles launched by Russian aircraft are the Kh-101 and Kh-555, which are often fired from Russian airspace — sometimes from as far away as the Caspian Sea — and from over Belarus and the Black Sea as well. More than 600 have been launched since the war began, according to the report.

Introduced in 2012, the Kh-101 has a range between 1,500 to 1,700 miles, a 990-pound warhead, and uses satellite navigation to reach its target. Russia claims the Kh-101 has stealthy features, though Ukraine has reported shooting down a number of them. The Kh-555 is the conventional version of the Kh-55, which was introduced in 1984 and carries a 200 to 250 kiloton nuclear warhead.

The most interesting and modern air-launched munition Russia has used so far is the Kh-47 Kinzhal, which is the first hypersonic weapon used in combat.

Russia says the Kinzhal, a modified ballistic missile, has a top speed of about Mach 10, a range between 900 miles and 1,200 miles, and that it can carry a warhead of more than 1,000 pounds. Russian officials previously claimed the Kinzhal was invulnerable to modern air defenses, but Ukraine has reportedly shot down as many as seven with its US-made Patriot air-defense batteries.

Other air-to-surface missiles used by Russia include the Kh-25, Kh-29, Kh-31, Kh-58, and Kh-59. The Kh-22, an air-launched anti-ship missile meant to destroy US aircraft carriers, has also been used against Ukrainian ground targets.

Russia has also used an array of ground-launched missiles, including the modern 9M728 and 9M723 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and older Tochka-U tactical ballistic missiles, which the Iskanders are meant to replace. Ukrainian data released in January indicated that Russia had launched nearly 750 Iskanders, and Kyiv has said more than 60 Tochkua-Us were fired between February and July 2022.

Russian Bastion-P coastal-defense batteries have been launching supersonic P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles at Ukrainian ground targets since March 2022. P-800s have active radar seekers and are meant to strike heavily defended warships, and their use led to speculation that Russia was running low on precision-guided munitions.

Russia has also fired interceptor missiles from S-300 and S-400 air-defense batteries at targets in Ukraine. Interceptors are poor replacements for precision-guided munitions, as they have smaller warheads and use semi-active radar homing for terminal guidance, making them less accurate for ground strikes.

Ukraine has said more than 1,000 S-300 interceptors have been fired against land targets. The CSIS report estimates that Russia has 500 S-300 launchers and 8,000 interceptors, making them an economical way to keep up the pressure on Ukraine's air defenses, even if their lack of precision makes then an indiscriminate weapon.

Russian warships and submarines in the Black and Caspian seas have also been firing 3M-14 Kalibr cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets. Nearly 600 were launched in 2022. With a range of up to 1,550 miles and a nearly 1,000-pound high-explosive warhead, the Kalibr is generally well regarded, drawing comparisons to the US's Tomahawk cruise missile.

Russia has also employed two types of ground-launched loitering munitions: the Iranian-made Shahed-136, which is believed to have a roughly 600-mile range and carries a 66- to 110-pound warhead, and the Russian-made ZALA Lancet, which is estimated to have a range of about 25 miles and carry a 3- to 11-pound warhead.

The Shahed costs $20,000 to $50,000 and the Lancet about $35,000, making them cheap alternatives to missiles. Shahed-136s have been used widely against Ukrainian infrastructure, while Lancets have been used against Ukrainian battlefield targets.

Because they fly low and relatively slow, lower-level Ukrainian air defenses, such as shoulder-fired missiles and Gepard anti-aircraft batteries, have been able to intercept them in large numbers, allowing Ukraine to focus its higher-level air defenses on more sophisticated threats.

Dwindling but not depleted

Russia's missile campaign has given the world a glimpse of not only how it uses those weapons but how it builds them. Those revelations have caused what one arms-control expert called "reputational damage" to Russia's missile program.

Russia's profligate use of missiles and tightening Western sanctions have also led to speculation about the limits of Russian stockpiles, but that arsenal will likely never be depleted, Williams wrote in a separate commentary in June.

While Russia likely did "quickly expend" the long-range missiles it initially allocated for the war, it has acted to ensure it has a steady supply, including by reallocating missiles from other theaters and repurposing and re-tasking anti-air and anti-ship missiles, Williams wrote.

"Russia's continued strike campaign in 2023 has made one thing quite clear: it is unrealistic to expect Russia to ever 'run out' of missiles," Williams wrote. "Despite sanctions and export controls, it appears likely that Russia will be able to produce or otherwise acquire the long-range strike capacity necessary to inflict significant damage upon Ukraine's people, economy, and military."

As the war has gone on, Shahed-136s have made up a larger proportion of the long-range projectiles fired by Russia — rising from about 40% in the first quarter of 2023 to about 60% in the second quarter, according to Williams — allowing Russia to reserve more sophisticated missiles for more important targets.

Russia has also found ways to produce missiles despite sanctions and export controls. US officials have said that Russian producers are pulling electronic components from military hardware and from civilian products, like dishwashers, for use in missiles. Russia also continues to acquire Western-made parts for other weapons, including the widely used Orlan-10 drone.

Williams cited Ukrainian intelligence estimates from May that said Russia was producing around 60 cruise missiles, five Iskander ballistic missiles, and two Kinzhals per month.

Russia's ability to continue buying and building missiles and drones means Ukraine "must maintain a robust air and missile defense" and needs "steady support" from the US and other countries to do so, Williams wrote in June.

That will require expanding defense industrial capacity and setting up new supply chains, a process that Western officials are approaching with new urgency but one that will take time. Fortunately, Williams wrote, doing so will help the US sustain its support for Ukraine and "leave the United States and its allies in a stronger position to deter and defeat future threats."

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