Russia Isn’t Going to Run Out of Missiles
Long-range missile strikes against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure have been a prominent and persistent aspect of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. Earlier this year, the CSIS report Putin’s Missile War found that Russian missile attacks in 2022 had caused major damage to Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure but had failed to achieve the kind of decisive strategic effects that Moscow had likely sought. Into 2023, Russia has persisted in expending expensive, long-range missiles in regular attacks against a variety of civilian and military objects across Ukraine. The focus of these strikes regularly shifts and their intensity has ebbed and flowed, as has the quality of employed munitions.
However, 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. 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. Ukraine’s air defenses have performed remarkably well under challenging circumstances. Nevertheless, the Russian military has continued trying to identify gaps and seams to exploit to gain an advantage.
There is no one-off fix for this problem. Sanctions and export controls can, at most, limit the quantity and quality of strike assets Russia can acquire. The most reliable counter is sustained Western support for Ukrainian air defense forces for the duration of the conflict. The continued, steady provision of air defenses into the foreseeable future will save lives, reduce costs of future reconstruction, and help end the war more quickly by enabling Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the face of superior Russian airpower. Moreover, providing air defenses has also forced Western countries to scale up production of these systems, which could have long-term benefits for Western defense readiness.
Russia’s Latest Assault
In May, Russia renewed its long-range drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities. This surge in activity came after a relative period of lull in March and April, following Moscow’s furious yet unsuccessful strike campaign aimed at collapsing Ukraine’s electric grid last winter. Unlike that singularly focused effort, Russia’s recent spate of missile and drone attacks since May has been aimed at a seemingly broader and less predictable target set.
For instance, Russia has used some of its most advanced and expensive missiles in a failed bid to destroy one of Ukraine’s U.S.-German-provided Patriot batteries protecting Kyiv. Moscow likely believed that the prompt destruction of a Patriot battery—one of the costliest weapon systems Ukraine has received—would discourage continued Western military aid. However, this line of attack backfired as the Patriot battery survived nearly unscathed. The Patriot battery reportedly shot down 100 percent of the 34 Iskander and Kinzhal quasi-ballistic missiles Russia has fired at Kyiv as of June 28, weapons that Moscow had once touted as impervious to air and missile defenses.
In other instances, assessing what Russia has been aiming at has been more challenging since most projectiles get shot down. Targets, though, seem to include a mix of critical infrastructure, command and control installations, and other military and civilian targets. Kyiv has borne the brunt of Russia’s latest assault. Still, Russia has, in more recent weeks, expanded its scope to other areas, possibly looking to exploit areas of Ukraine where air defense is thinner. On June 10, Russia struck a Ukrainian air base in Poltava with a complex barrage of eight ballistic and cruise missiles and as many as 35 Shahed-36 one-way attack munitions. Ukraine says it shot down only two cruise missiles, while 15 Shahed-136s made it through Ukrainian defenses. Russia has not carried out a major missile attack on a Ukrainian air base since the early months of the war, and likely that the area lacked the same level of air defense as Kyiv. Poltava probably lacks protection from Patriot, currently Ukraine’s only defense against ballistic missiles.
As with much of Russia’s air campaign against Ukraine, civilians have suffered the most. In many cases, damage to civilian areas has resulted from falling debris from intercepted missiles. Although much less destructive than allowing a missile to strike its target, debris from intercepts can still kill, maim, start fires, and otherwise damage property. In other instances, Russia appears to be attacking civilians directly. On June 13, Russia launched a cruise missile attack against Kryvyi Rih. At least one of the four missiles that got through Ukraine’s defenses struck an apartment building, killing 11.
Overall, the performance of Ukraine’s air defenses has steadily improved since the start of the war, particularly against Russian cruise missiles. Throughout much of Russia’s winter campaign against Ukraine’s electric grid, Ukraine’s Air Force reported intercepting around 70–80 percent of Russian cruise missiles. Since May, Ukraine has reported intercepting around 90 percent of Russian cruise missiles and drones (see below). Ukraine has reported downing nearly 80 percent of air and ground-launched ballistic missile attacks nationwide and 100 percent of ballistic missiles attacking areas where ballistic missile defenses (Patriot) are present. Ukraine only has two Patriot batteries. As such, most of Ukraine lacks any protection from ballistic missiles, as shown by the June 10 Iskander-M strike in Poltava and the June 22 Kh-47 strikes around Dnipro, which Ukraine could not stop.
While lacking the focus of prior phases of Russia’s long-range strike campaign, Russia’s current objectives seem primarily aimed at keeping Ukraine off balance during its counteroffensive operations in the South, to force Ukraine to divert air defense capacity to defend its cities. Given the limited supply of Ukrainian air defenses, a generalized and unpredictable strike campaign forces Ukraine to make difficult tradeoffs between defending its cities and critical infrastructure and providing thicker air defense for its troops on the front lines.
As Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive has gotten underway, observers are concerned that Ukraine is facing a gap in short-range air defenses (SHORAD) for its advancing troops. Russia’s use of attack helicopters like the Ka-52 armed with laser-guided 9K121 “Vikhr” missiles has been of particular concern to attack advancing Ukrainian armor. These missiles have a range of upwards of 12 kilometers, outside the range of many of Ukraine’s SHORAD systems like Strela, Stinger, StarStreak, and Igla variants. Ukraine’s medium-range air defenses, like IRIS-T, Buk, and NASAMs, are stretched between frontline duty and defending rear areas against long-range attacks. UK Defence Intelligence recently noted that Russia had deployed 20 additional attack helicopters to Berdyansk, and that “in the constant contest between aviation measures and countermeasures,” Russia had temporarily gained the upper hand.
Ukrainian Air Defense Performance by Threat Type, May 1–June 26, 2023
It is unclear how long Russia will be able to maintain this advantage, however. Ukraine already seems to be adapting, claiming to have shot down six Ka-52s and one Mi-24 attack helicopter since June 16. Moreover, Wagner forces shot down as many as seven additional Russian helicopters during its recent mutiny, including one Ka-52. To be sure, Russia’s attack helicopters are not a plentiful asset. Russia started the war with around 150 Ka-52s. It is doubtful that all of these were mission capable. In October 2022, UK Defence Intelligence estimated Russia to have had no more than 90 Ka-52s in service at the war’s commencement. Based on visual analysis by independent observers and reports from the Ukrainian Air Force, Russia has lost as many as 60 Ka-52s since the start of the war from enemy fire as well as accidents. The Ka-52 problem is not insurmountable, and Russia’s attack helicopter force cannot sustain the rate of losses they have sustained over the past week. However, ensuring that Ukraine has adequate medium- and short-range air defenses to support its counteroffensive over the coming months will be vital to its success. Moreover, additional long-range strike assets, such as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) ballistic missiles, would enable Ukraine to better target the bases Russia is using to house and maintain its attack helicopters, many of which are within the borders of Ukraine.
Russia’s Evolving Strike Complex
As early as March 2022, there was much conjecture that Russia’s supply of precision-guided missiles was dwindling. These reports may not have been entirely off the mark. Russia probably did quickly expend the portion of its long-range missile that it had initially allocated to its “special military operation.” Nevertheless, Russia maintained a steady drumbeat of missile strikes against Ukraine, likely by pulling munitions allocated to other theaters and drawing down its strategic reserves. Moreover, Russia has repurposed various surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles for land attack roles. Russia has also continued to manufacture missiles throughout the war, and evidence suggests that most (possibly all) Russian cruise missiles it has in its current inventory come from postwar production.
The exhaustion of prewar missile stockpiles has impacted the composition of current Russian strike salvos. Compared with previous phases of Russia’s air war, the composition of Russian missile attacks has trended away from high-end missile systems like cruise missiles toward cheaper, less capable “low-end” systems like Shahed-136 one-way attack munitions (see below). In the first three months of 2023, during the tail end of Russia’s strike campaign against Ukraine’s electric grid, Shahed-136s accounted for around 40 percent of long-range projectiles fired at Ukraine. Since April, 61 percent of long-range munitions Russia has employed have been Shahed-136 one-way attack munitions. Compared to cruise and ballistic missiles, Shahed-136 are generally easier to shoot down and more vulnerable to cheaper defenses like the German-made Flakpanzer Gepard and other gun-based systems. The Shahed-136’s warhead weight is also only between that of a cruise missile like Kh-101, and therefore causes less damage when they do make it through defenses.
However, the decline in the quality of Russian long-range strike salvos is unlikely to continue. Rather, the overall composition of Russian strike packages will likely level off as Russian missile use becomes fully tethered to how many missiles it can produce. But it is improbable that Russian production of higher-end cruise and ballistic missiles will ever fall to zero. Despite Western sanctions and export controls of key microelectronic components, Russia has been able to find workarounds to continue producing missiles. In May, Ukrainian intelligence estimated that Russia currently manufactures around 60 cruise missiles, five Iskander ballistic missiles, and two Kinzhals monthly. In June, President Zelensky noted that Ukraine continues to find Western-made microelectronic components amongst the wrecks of Russian missiles. These components are likely finding their way into Russia via friendly third parties such as China.
The United States and Europe can and should seek ways to further restrict the flow of dual-use tech components to Russia. It is, however, unrealistic to expect they will be able to completely deprive Russia of the components it needs to manufacture missiles. Sanctions and export controls have never prevented proliferation by a determined state, let alone one with Russia’s size and economic reach. What they can do is make it harder and more expensive, which would limit the number of missiles it can produce. Regardless of how many missiles the Kremlin produces today, it wishes it could make more. Export controls can help limit that potential.
But the upshot is that Russia will continue having the capacity to build missiles and drones and will continue to fire them at Ukraine. This reality will not change until the war ends. Meanwhile, active air defense remains the most reliable counter to Russian missile attacks, requiring continued support and replenishment from Ukraine’s international partners.
Composition of Russian Missile Attacks on Ukraine, January 1–March 31, 2023
Composition of Russian Missile Attacks on Ukraine, April 1–June 22, 2023
Folks Are Getting It
The good news is that Ukraine’s partners seem to understand the air defense imperative and are responding. Ukraine’s most recent military aid packages have been heavy on air defenses.
Since May, the United States announced it would supply Ukraine’s Armed Forces with additional rounds for NASAMS and Patriot, Avenger air defense and Stinger missiles, and HAWK air defense systems. The United States is also supplying Ukraine with older AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, which have been made compatible with Ukraine’s Buk M2 systems, for which Ukraine has ample launchers though few remaining interceptor missiles.
On June 15, the United Kingdom announced a new multinational fund that would be used to procure “hundreds of short and medium range air defense systems” for Ukraine, noting these deliveries would consist “largely of Soviet-era missiles.” The United Kingdom had also announced in mid-May that it would provide additional air defenses to Ukraine, though it did not specify the type.
French president Macron also recently announced that a French/Italian-provided SAMP/T system is now active in Ukraine, protecting “key installations and lives.” Germany delivered the second of four promised IRIS-T SLM air defense systems in April, along with an additional TRML 4D radar. Berlin also announced on June 24 that it plans to provide Ukraine with 45 more Gepard Flakpanzer systems, more than doubling the number Ukraine currently operates.
These contributions to Ukraine, while reducing national stockpiles of munitions in the short term, have the added benefit of bolstering the production lines of several key air defense systems. Having warm production lines for these complex systems could boost U.S. and allied defense readiness in the long term over and above the risks of near-term drawdowns.
For instance, the U.S. Army expects Stinger production to rise by 50 percent by 2025. As part of that ramp-up, at least one critical component of the Stinger has been redesigned in such a way as to overcome current supply chain issues. The United States is also increasing the production of Patriot systems. There are also significant increases in NASAMS production, and the United Kingdom recently announced it was restarting production of its Starstreak air defense system.
No Permanent Fix
Looking ahead, there is no simple solution to the Russian missile problem. Russia will continue to produce and acquire missiles and one-way attack munitions and use them to target Ukraine. Sanctions and export control can make this harder and costlier for the Russians, but they will not stop them. As long as the war continues, Ukraine must maintain a robust air and missile defense, which will require steady support from the United States and its many other international partners.
To this end, Western defense industrial capacity for everything from air defense interceptors to precision-guided munitions needs to be scaled up and new supply chains built. This process will not only help the United States maintain the steady support that Ukraine needs to win the war as quickly as possible, but it will also leave the United States and its allies in a stronger position to deter and defeat future threats.
Ian Williams is a fellow in the International Security Program and deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.