Russia has leveraged its diverse array of long-range missile weapons to bombard targets beyond the frontlines in Ukraine for nearly six months now. By August 8, that reportedly totaled 3,650 missiles launched at Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began on February 24, implying an average of nearly 22 missiles daily.
But a steep decline in attacks in August suggests the bottom may be falling out of Russia’s missile campaign as it runs out of hi-tech weapons, which it can only replace very slowly.
Since early in the war, Tu-22M and Tu-160 bombers approaching from different vectors have daily lobbed new Kh-101 and older Kh-555 cruise missiles while safely outside the range of Ukrainian air defenses. They were supplemented by Kalibr cruise missiles fired by ships, and submarines. Russia also had in its arsenal truck-launched Iskander-M ballistic missiles, Iskander-K cruise missiles, and even old Tochka ballistic missiles Moscow claimed to have retired.
Earlier in the war, these attacks occasionally achieved militarily relevant results by knocking out fuel depots, weapons factories, hangars with non-operational aircraft, or barracks full of sleeping Ukrainian personnel.
But just as often, and seemingly with increasing frequency, the attacks went astray – or were deliberately targeted against the civilian population – and demolished apartment buildings and shopping malls, performance halls, and civic centers, killing between them hundreds of civilians.
Strikes also sporadically targeted Ukraine’s agricultural sector – on which many impoverished countries depend to avoid starvation – with two missiles striking port facilities in Odesa on July 23, the day after Moscow agreed to a deal giving Ukrainian ships laden with grain free passage. Then at night on July 30-31, eight Kalibr missiles plastered the Odesa home of Ukrainian agro-export tycoon Oleksiy Vadatursky. One precisely struck his bedroom, killing him and his wife Raisa.
But Russia’s missile campaign always had a major sustainability problem: cruise and ballistic missiles are expensive weapons and Russia’s inventory only ran so deep, particularly given Moscow’s need to set aside a reserve in case of a war with NATO.
U.S. intelligence officials also alleged in March they had observed a failure rate varying daily between 20 percent and 60 percent for Russian air-launched cruise missiles, an unverified claim which may relate to severe accuracy problems earlier observed in Russian missile strikes in Syria.
Russia began using weapons not primarily designed to attack land targets, including brand new Bastion anti-ship missiles, old Soviet-era Kh-22 carrier killers cruise missiles, and even S-300 air defense missiles. This rendered the attacks even less accurate and more prone to inflict collateral damage than before.
Now in August, the once-furious missile campaign seems to have petered out, with missiles hurled at Ukraine more sporadically and in smaller numbers. Russia may have finally exhausted most of the missiles not held in its war-with-NATO reserve.
Aviation historian Tom Cooper writes “Russians have run their stocks of ballistic- and cruise missiles ‘dry’. That is: they’ve had much less than [the Kremlin] were claiming, and have spent nearly everything … Net result: they’re down to using whatever their factories manage to assemble.”
Cooper concedes that shorter-range Kh-31 and Kh-59M missiles are still being used effectively for tactical strikes and that Russia also carried out its second-ever strike with the Kh-47 Kinzhal ballistic missiles, air-launched by a MiG-31 fighter on August 7 targeting a factory in Vinnytsia following an initial attack in March. Though the Kinzhal is highly difficult to intercept, it’s only available in pre-production quantities, and therefore can only be employed on a limited basis.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian air defenses have become more effective at shooting down the incoming missiles, forcing Russia to launch larger salvoes to guarantee some make it through the gauntlet. Cooper notes that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed all four Kalibr missiles launched at Odesa on August 8 (including one shot down by a fighter), and three out of four on July 24.
Rocket science: not as easy as you’ve been told
Can’t Russia just spend the money needed to increase missile production to compensate?
According to analysts, the answer is basically, no—even though Moscow is trying to.
A June article by Maxim Starchak spells out how slowly Russia will be able to replace its exhausted cruise and ballistic missiles despite attempts to increase the pace of production by working three shifts and hiring more workers. Shortages of skilled workers, inability to purchase Western microelectronics and failure to develop domestic components are all culprits.
Based on his figures, monthly missile production rates are as follows:
– Novator plant: 8-10 Kalibr naval cruise missiles* per month
– Novator plant: 3-6 Iskander-K cruise missiles per month (“several dozen [annually]”) per month
– Votkinsk plant: 5 Iskander-M ballistic missiles per month (increased from 4)
*The Kalibr comes in faster, shorter-range anti-ship variants; and slower, longer-range land-attack models. Depending on how production is allocated, not all may be built in the land-attack configuration.
According to Starchak, Moscow’s measures will not increase output beyond 20 percent due to a lack of skilled workers. And by June those measures had yet to be implemented at the Tactical Missiles Corporation, a manufacturer of air-launched cruise missiles – which he believes are built at a similar rate as the Kalibr or Iskander missiles.
Furthermore, as Russia scrambles to source alternatives to Western components, the changes will require costly testing and likely reduce reliability and accuracy. Meanwhile, stocks of old Kh-555, Kh-22, and Tochka missiles liberally will of course not be replaced at all as they are obsolete and out of production.
Some believe Russia’s productive capacity may be even more limited. An article by Pavel Luzvin estimates ponderous production by United Engine Corporation of the two variants of TRDD-50 turbojet engines used in missiles will limit annual output to just 45-50 Iskander-K and Kh-59 cruise missiles; and 45-50 Kh-101 and Kalibr cruise missiles.
He more broadly concludes that Russian production of all land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles caps out to 225 annually or about 19 per month. That said, Luzvin’s calculations are in part extrapolated from labor productivity statistics, not directly reported production rates.
He concludes: “In these circumstances, Russia may be limited to carrying out singular but regular missile strikes designed mostly to have a psychological effect, while every few months or so, firing off salvos of tens of missiles against industrial and/or infrastructure objects.”
However, improvements to Ukrainian air defenses (such as Ukraine’s eventual deployment of Western NASAMS and IRIS-T air defense batteries) could render even that limited strategy ineffective, requiring large volleys to over-saturate air defenses.
Ironically, Ukraine has proven more capable of carrying out a missile campaign that delivers militarily impactful results with accurate strikes on Russian ammunition depots, headquarters, bridges, airbases, and air-defense sites well behind the frontline.
These have caused heavy casualties, drastically reduced the volume of Russian artillery fire, and forced Russia to relocate its supply hubs and warplanes even further from the frontline, significantly decreasing logistical efficiency.
Of course, Ukraine’s standoff-strike campaign has been enabled by GPS-guided rockets/missiles and extensive intelligence assistance for target acquisition supplied by the United States and its NATO allies.
Nonetheless, Russia has burned through over 3,000 expensive long-range missiles with relatively limited results for the effort besides the many Ukrainians angered by death and devastation visited more often than not on civilians in commercial and residential areas as plausible military targets—whether due to inaccuracy or out of a deliberate strategy to shock and terrorize.
Expert Biography: 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.