Since February 2022, Russia has fired thousands of missiles and stray ammunition at Ukraine’s cities, infrastructure and military forces. These attacks have killed and killed thousands of Ukrainian military and civilians.
Despite the high cost of Russia’s missile war against Ukraine, the attacks, taken as a whole, have not produced the kind of decisive strategic effects that Moscow probably hoped Ukrainian capitulation would bring about.
This fiasco is attributed to the incompetence of the Russian military and Ukraine’s skillful use of air defenses and passive measures such as dispersal and deception.
Although the understanding of what has happened in the air war over Ukraine remains sketchy, some things are becoming clearer. After more than a year of war, the command and control apparatus of the Ukrainian army is still intact.
The Ukrainian air force and anti-aircraft defenses continue to thwart Russian air and missile operations. Western weaponry continues to arrive at the front, and the morale of the Ukrainian people remains strong despite enormous difficulties.
As we head into spring, Ukraine’s power grid remains fragile but functional. And while Discord leaks indicate Ukraine is running out of air defense interceptors, new Western air defense systems keep coming in to mitigate a future shortfall.
Meanwhile, Russian missile attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure are becoming less frequent. Russia’s pre-war missile stocks have been greatly diminished, and Moscow is now likely to rely on fewer newly produced missiles.
The results of the Russian campaign of long-range strikes in Ukraine contrast with those carried out by the United States and coalition military forces during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In those wars, US cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions played a critical role in the Iraqi army’s fracture of its political leadership, suppressing enemy air defenses and achieving coalition air supremacy.
Russia’s inability to achieve similar strategic effects with its early air campaigns gave Ukraine the necessary time and respite to disperse and rebuild its forces. And Russia’s continued inability to achieve air superiority and significantly disrupt Ukrainian logistics has allowed the Ukrainian Armed Forces to carry out aggressive counteroffensives with increasingly sophisticated weaponry.
In a successful attack campaign, one might expect the belligerent to become less reliant on ranged means of attack over time as he wears down his adversary’s air force and anti-air defenses. But the opposite has happened to Russia.
Their inability to achieve air superiority in the early stages has led to an increasing reliance on missiles and other isolated weapons, such as one-way attack drones, to strike targets beyond the front lines. Thus, Russia has become a victim of the type of anti-access/area denial strategies that it has attempted to develop for many years.
In the broadest sense, the messy Russian missile campaign against Ukraine cannot be separated from the broader strategic failures that have plagued nearly every aspect of Moscow’s war effort. However, some unique factors have contributed to the poor performance of the Russian missile forces. Russian intelligence and targeting capabilities have been too slow and inflexible to keep up with the dynamic and changing battlespace.
Russia also underestimated the scale of strike operations needed to achieve its initial war objectives. The effectiveness of Ukrainian air defenses has also limited the number of Russian missiles that have managed to hit their targets.
Although it is difficult to confirm the impact of Ukrainian air defenses independently, general trend lines suggest that the force is becoming more effective and capable of reducing Russian missile and drone salvoes.
At the beginning of the conflict, for example, Ukraine was intercepting no more than 10% of Russian cruise missiles. In early fall, Ukraine claimed to intercept around half of Russian cruise missile salvoes.
As of late 2022, following the advent of longer-range Western air defenses such as NASAMS and IRIS-T, Ukraine claims to intercept 75-80% of cruise missile salvoes regularly.
However, Russia’s missile attacks on Ukraine have taken a tragic toll. Failing to hit its initial military targets, Russia has focused its missile strikes on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and industry, including the power grid and transportation infrastructure.
In the long term, the damage caused by the Russian missiles will likely hamper Ukraine’s economic recovery and make additional foreign aid essential for reconstruction.
The continued supply of air defenses will mitigate these future costs and reinforce a sense of security that could encourage Ukrainian refugees to return home. These refugee repatriations will be important for Ukraine’s post-war economic recovery and for its future self-sufficiency.
In its fight against Russian missile attacks, Ukraine has shown that Russian missiles are dangerous but not unstoppable. Even under dire circumstances, Ukraine has defeated advanced Russian cruise missiles with high-tech counterweights, such as active air defenses, and low-tech practices like dispersal, mobility, deception, and camouflage.
It cannot be assumed that Russia or other countries will repeat the same operational mistakes in a future war. But the Ukrainian experience shows that air and missile defense works and that, combined with passive measures such as dispersal and deception, it can mitigate even a close adversary’s many advanced missile threats.