At around 3:45 PM on June 27, a Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ supersonic bomber of Russia’s 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment was flying over Russian airspace near Kursk when it released two huge missiles measuring nearly 12 meters from under its wings. Rocket engines, powered by highly toxic liquid propellant, accelerated the 6.4-ton weapons to supersonic speeds.
In around five minutes the missiles flew 200 miles southwest before plummeting down at a 30-degree angle at four-to-five times the speed of sound. The target: the city of Kremenchuk located on the Dnipro river in central Ukraine. The weapons steered toward their target using a gyroscope-based inertial navigation system and crude radar developed in the 1970s known for its limited accuracy: only half of the shots land within 600 meters of the aiming point.
One of the missiles slammed into the bustling Amstor shopping mall in Kremenchuk’s city center. Its 2,200-pound shaped-charge warhead – designed to punch a hole 12-meters deep and 5-meters wide in the hull of a U.S. Navy supercarrier – created a firestorm that gutted the mall’s interior, causing the roof to collapse.
At least 21 civilians were killed (including one in hospital) and 59 injured. Days later, another 36 remain listed as missing.
The second missile landed roughly 450 meters away, smashing into the northeastern edge of what may have been the intended target, the Kredmash Road Machinery Plant, which primarily manufactures asphalt and concrete mixers. The missile shattered glass and injured two of the 100 employees present.
Civilians strolling in a serene park northeast of this plant were buffeted by an overpressure wave visibly rippling across the park’s pond, followed by a rain of falling debris.
In the strike’s aftermath, Russian officials dutifully made contradictory and easily disproven claims: the blast was a false flag staged by Ukraine, or that the mall’s destruction was caused by a Ukrainian ammunition dump blown up by the Russian missiles, or that the mall was no longer in civilian use and being employed as barracks by the Ukrainian military.
Russia’s Strategic Missile Campaign
In fact, this Amstor mall was not the first shopping center struck by Kh-22s. Nor was the incident the first time Kremenchuk had been struck by the half-century-old munitions.
On May 9, seven Kh-22s were fired at Fontanka near Odesa in southern Ukraine. Several slammed into the Riviera shopping mall at 10:35 PM (fortunately after curfew) obliterating several stores, warehouses, and nearby houses, killing one and wounding five.
On May 11, Russia’s military itself released a video recorded from a Tu-22M’s cockpit of Kh-22 missiles being launched at night.
Some other Kh-22 strikes reported in media include:
- May 9: 6x Kh-22s aimed at targets in Donetsk
- May 12: 8-12x Kh-22s(fired from over Kursk) targeted Kremenchuk, four hitting its oil refinery, the largest in Ukraine (capacity 368,550 barrels/day). This was already disabled by prior strikes.
- May 20: a Kh-22 destroys the City Palace of Culture in Lozova, south of Kharkiv, injuring 7.
- May 25: Russian MoD claims Tu-22M ‘high-precision strikes’ in Donbas sector
- May 27: 2x Kh-22 claimed launched targeting Donetsk
- May 30: a Kh-22 was shot down by a Ukrainian SAM over Odessa
- June 3: 10x Kh-22s claimed launched at Kyiv, Lviv and Mykolaiv
- June 12: 2x Kh-22s strike Mykolaivka in Donetsk, reportedly damaging 31 homes and administrative buildings, as well as power lines (cutting power to neighboring cities) and a railway line (the likely target)
- June 16: 2x Kh-22s streak towards Crystal Works office building in Mykolaiv, falling behind it and killing one civilian and wounding six in nearby building (see video here)
- June 18: 3x Kh-22 struck an oil depot in Novomoskovsk, reportedly killing one and injuring 13. The blaze additionally killed one firefighter and injured two.
- June 23: 3x Kh-22s allegedly hit sunflower oil depot in Mykolaiv, then 3x more strike facility in industrial zone. Presumably both attacks were launched by one Tu-22M each.
- June 25: 12x Kh-22 reportedly launched by six Tu-22M3 over Belarus used in attacks targeting Chernihiv, Kyiv, Sumy and Zhitomir and apparently strikes an industrial facility in Konstantinovka, in conjunction with 20+ missiles of other types (Iskander, Oniks etc.) Ukrainian air defense missiles allegedly down 10-12 missiles of all types. The attack killed at least one Ukrainian soldier. (Read more here.)
This is not a comprehensive accounting, excluding numerous incidents where the type of missile was not conclusively identified. Some Kh-22 identifications may also be in error.
Nonetheless, the incomplete survey suggests the Kh-22/Tu-22M3 strikes are often aimed at oil depots, warehouses, factories, and other strategic infrastructure. The combination of large warheads and poor accuracy results in frequent collateral damage.
A substantial minority of attacks struck the Donbas and Mykolaiv areas closer to the frontline, possibly targeting tactical/operational military assets. At least one strike appears to have accurately and deliberately targeted a purely civilian site (the Lozova Palace of Culture) for terror purposes.
Recently there has been a trend toward larger-scale Kh-22 strikes, often coordinated with other types of missiles, likely to oversaturate Ukrainian air defenses, which are reporting shooting down more incoming missiles.
As I first wrote in March, Russia has turned to long-distance missiles to strike static targets behind the frontlines in Ukraine. (Locating and attacking moving logistical targets appears largely beyond Russian aviation.) A variety of launchers and missiles are used: Kalibur and Oniks cruise missiles fired by Russian warships and submarines, truck-launched Iskander and Tochka-U ballistic missiles, and cluster-munition laden BM-30 Smerch rockets, and cruise missiles delivered by Russian bombers, particularly the long-range Kh-101 and Kh-555, and medium-range Kh-59.
Russian bombers often release cruise missiles from over Kursk or Belgorod, Russia (approaching from the northeast), the Sea of Azov (from southeast), and on at least one occasion, via Belarussian airspace (from the northwest).
Such weapons enable deep strikes beyond the reach of retaliatory fire. But they’re highly expensive, available in only modest numbers, and can only be manufactured relatively slowly – if at all given the sanctions imposed on critical electrical components sold to Russia.
In that context, Russia’s aging Kh-22 inventory fills the gap as it runs low on modern cruise and ballistic missiles, some of which are surely kept in reserve in case of war with NATO.
The Kh-22 was an expensive asset in its time (estimated cost of $400,000) and Russia likely retains only the more modern subset of the nearly 3,000 built. Gassing up Kh-22s with their toxic fuels also requires extreme, time-consuming safety precautions including rubber suits for armorers and EMTs on standby. A next-generation Kh-32 missile to succeed the Kh-22 ostensibly entered Russian service in 2016, but it remains unclear today if it has been issued in any meaningful numbers.
Still, the Kh-22 offers long-range, high speed (complicating interception), and a powerful one-ton warhead. But poor accuracy means multiple Kh-22s are required to achieve decent odds of a hit. That combined with the large warhead results in a high likelihood of collateral damage.
Cold War Carrier Killer Finds New Employment
The Kh-22 Burya (“Storm”) was first developed in the early 1960s as Soviet defense planners sought a way to sink U.S. Navy aircraft carriers well defended by fighters and escorting warships.
Their solution was to strap a supersonic Kh-22 missile (codenamed AS-4 Kitchen by NATO) to an also supersonic Tu-22 Blinder bomber, which could dart forward and launch the missile from about 180 miles away, giving carrier-based fighters little opportunity to intercept. The Kh-22 would climb above the bomber and then dive towards the target at over three times the speed of sound, directed by an inertial navigation system until its radar seeker locked onto the moving aircraft carrier’s huge radar signature – or alternatively a ground structure roughly the size of a carrier. As accuracy was expected to remain low, early Kh-22s mostly were armed with powerful nuclear warheads to ensure even a near miss would cripple the target.
As detailed by aviation historian Tom Cooper, the Tu-22/Kh-22 combo was scary enough to compel the U.S. Navy to develop sophisticated air defense capabilities, including the F-14 Tomcat interceptor, E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning planes, and Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers. Working in concert, these expanded and layered a carrier battlegroup’s air defense zone far enough to likely defeat a Tu-22 assault.
The Soviets responded with an improved Kh-22M missile – the type used recently over Ukraine – armed with one-ton conventional warheads and the swing-wing Tu-22M Backfire bomber. a new design despite its misleading designation. The faster Kh-22M could be fired from further away (370 miles) and a Tu-22M could carry three, meaning massed Soviet bombers again posed a formidable threat to U.S. carriers.
Fortunately, the bomber-vs-carrier showdown never happened. Today Russia retains only around 65 Tu-22M3s, which it’s slowly attempting to upgrade. Ironically, Kyiv initially retained 60 Tu-22Ms and 423 Kh-22 missiles too but scrapped them all save for a few preserved by museums.
Barring unusual circumstances, Ukraine’s air defenses are unlikely to have a shot at the Backfire bombers lobbing missiles from the safety of Russian-controlled airspace. Kyiv instead can only improve efforts at shooting down a higher percentage of incoming missiles. As the U.S. moves to provide Kyiv with modern NASAMs medium-range air defenses, interceptions of Russian missiles may increase.
Moscow’s dilemma meanwhile is that its supply of Kh-22Ms and similar standoff-range weapons is finite. Lacking such high-value targets as aircraft carriers, it’s debatable whether most Kh-22 strikes are achieving militarily useful results: destroying fuel supplies, disabling transport links, etc. rather than simply devastating cities and killing and traumatizing civilians – a common problem in the history of strategic bombing.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.