I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the fact that western military analysts – even among those not burdened with the epidemic strain of virulent antipathy towards Russia – have not spoken much (if at all) about what I consider to be quite arguably the most impressive revelation of the war in Ukraine.
In addition to imposing a virtual “you fly, you die” rule against the Ukrainian Air Force and the various drones they employ, the Russians are, with a formidable array of air defense systems of varying capacities, routinely shooting down: ballistic missiles, MLRS rockets, HARMS anti-radiation missiles, and even artillery shells.
They are also effectively employing a variety of electronic counter measures to: block signals to GPS-equipped ordnance; spoof the targeting radars of both satellites and radar-equipped missiles, and otherwise confuse the variety of targeting technologies employed in both older Soviet and American weapons being fielded by Ukrainian forces.
This is an absolutely unprecedented achievement on the battlefield.
Neither Israeli nor American systems have ever demonstrated the capability to routinely shoot down advanced missiles or rockets of any type.
Iraqi Scud missiles defeated the American Patriot missile defense system, as have much cruder missiles fielded by the Houthis in Yemen against Saudi targets ostensibly protected by American-provided US air defense systems.
More relevantly, Iranian missiles have proven to be much more formidable than was previously believed. And although it remains uncertain (or purposely unacknowledged) that US air defense systems were in the vicinity at the time, Iran dropped a couple dozen of their home-made ballistic missiles with 1000 lb. warheads within 5-meter circles at the US air base at Ayn al-Asad in Iraq during their “Vengeance for Soleimani” strike in January 2020. (Impressive drone video of the strike at that link.)
This is particularly embarrassing for the US, because they had prior warning, hours in advance, that a missile strike would be launched against Ayn al-Asad.
Even in strictly controlled tests against advanced ballistic missiles, the successful interception rate for US Patriot and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) systems falls far short of impressive.
And yet, after a handful of successful early strikes by Ukrainian forces, the Russians have now shot down the overwhelming majority of the Soviet-era Tochka-U ground-to-ground missiles Ukraine has fired over the course of the past six months.
The Tochka-U is a reasonably formidable weapon. Mach 5.3; 150 meter accuracy; variable warhead.
But other than a single ammo dump strike, there have been no successful Tochka-U hits on Russian targets since the third week of March 2022.
Dozens have been shot down.
By comparison, the US ATACMS missile is almost twice as large as the Tochka-U, with a longer range, but considerably slower speed (Mach 3+).
There is little reason to suppose the ATACMS can succeed where the Tochka-U has failed – at least if it is used against targets covered by Russian air defenses.
But, of course, it’s not just the ballistic missiles Russia is shooting down. They have been shooting down Ukrainian artillery rockets from the beginning of the war. And most recently, they are shooting down an impressive percentage of the HIMARS GPS-guided GMLRS rockets when they challenge air defense coverage areas.
And just in the past week, as yet unconfirmed evidence has emerged of a US HARMS (high-velocity anti-radar missile system) missile shot down by Russian air defenses. I suspect we’ll see additional evidences of that capability in weeks to come.
But what must be understood is that no military on the planet had, previous to the war in Ukraine, consistently demonstrated the capability to do what Russia has been doing routinely for the past six months: imposing from the ground what amounts to a reasonable facsimile of a no-fly zone over those areas of the battlefield where it has chosen to mass its air defenses.
To be sure, there have been missile and rocket strikes that have hit their marks elsewhere. And there have even been missiles/rockets that, when fired in large salvos, have, to varying degrees, successfully penetrated concentrated Russian air defenses, such as the batteries attempting to provide protection for the Antonovsky Bridge near Kherson. But even in these salvo attacks, the Russian are achieving interception rates of 50% — 80%.
[Update — October 10, 2022] Russia has now shot down hundreds of GMLRS missiles from the HIMARS, and dozens of the radar-seeking HARMS missiles, which have failed abysmally to make a dent in Russian air defenses.
The undeniable fact is that Russia is doing something that has never previously been done with any degree of regularity: shooting down incoming missiles and high velocity rockets.
I don’t understand why a bigger deal is not being made about this.
I am confident that Pentagon war planners are shaken to the casters on their fat leather chairs when they contemplate the significance of what they are seeing play out in Ukraine on an almost daily basis.
It is, in my estimation, a revolutionary development on the battlefield.
And it is a capability that no other nation has yet demonstrated.
Yes, yes, I know … there are some who will start shouting Iron Dome from the back of the room. But seriously … if anyone believes Israel’s Iron Dome is a proven system against advanced missiles or rockets, I'm sorry, but I've seen no evidence to support such faith. They have been used primarily to intercept the rather crude “bottle rockets on steroids” launched from the hapless Palestinians in Gaza – not hardly a glowing resumé.
It remains to be seen if Iron Dome can even stop the now-formidable arsenal possessed by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
As for Iranian missiles? I do not believe Iron Dome could intercept more than a minute fraction of them should a massed strike ever take place.
The bottom line is that Russia has now incontrovertibly demonstrated a reliable capability to intercept a large percentage of advanced missiles and rockets.
There is also very good reason to suppose they have not revealed their full capabilities in Ukraine, for fear of tipping off the US/NATO in advance of a potential confrontation against them.
In any case, the capabilities already manifest at this juncture appear to me to represent a likely war-winning advantage accruing to Russia in the event of a future conflict against the United States.