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Why Russia Can’t Bomb Its Way To Victory over Ukraine

Russian Tu-160 bomber. Image Credit - Creative Commons.
Russian Tu-160 bomber. Image Credit - Creative Commons.

What You Need to Know: Russia is placing a lot of hope in the fact that it can use bombs and missiles to pound Ukraine into submission. That is a mistake. 

In the global information war, Ukraine is under considerable pressure to demonstrate its ability to ultimately win the war against Russia, in order to avoid a cut-off in foreign arms supplies. Most donor democracies have substantial political movements on both the left and right that want Kyiv to settle peacefully with Moscow. One aspect of this is the perceived need for Ukraine to prevail against the constant Russian strategic bombing attacks against Ukrainian civilian, energy-production, and water-purification targets, particularly by the high-precision cruise missile and drone attacks accelerated in October and November of 2022.

However, the prevailing historical evidence is that for Ukraine to win the war, it must paradoxically maneuver to ensure that Moscow continues its barrage of missiles against civilian, rather than military targets. The demand for victory in the air defense war is primarily driven by the political imperative to reduce suffering among Ukraine’s civilian population, but carried through to its logical conclusion, it will prove prohibitively expensive. This imperative is also the result of four common miscalculations of the effects of bombing.

First, there is concern that the destruction of Ukraine’s electricity-generating facilities during the winter season, will demoralize the Ukrainian people and undermine their continued support for the war. Democracies are far more resilient to the punishment of bombing because they have already created a consensus of accepting shared suffering. Ukraine is nowhere close to desperation, when compared with the 23,000 civilians killed during the Great Britain during the 1940 Battle of Britain. Democracies can bear significant losses, but in Ukraine, the Russian missile strikes against civilian targets have inflicted relatively light losses of probably less than one thousand Ukrainian casualties. Missile strikes represent a dramatic drop in marginal returns on cost compared with artillery, which account for eighty percent of the over five thousand Ukrainian civilian deaths. As of November 2022 in Ukraine, there still is no rationing, no industrial mobilization of women, or shuttering of non-essential businesses. Despite the scale of destruction in the British Isles inflicted by bombing, far more scarcity was produced by German submarine warfare against British maritime imports.

The second miscalculation is the diplomatic impact of missile attacks. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam’s onslaught of missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia, however tactically irrelevant, diverted coalition air missions, for fear an Israeli retaliation would wreck the delicate alliance. In Ukraine’s case, because air defenses are seen as a defensive weapon, countries like GermanyFrance and Italy, that are otherwise reticent to provide assistance, are paying a significant portion of the cost of Ukraine’s air defense.

The third miscalculation results from how one calculates the offense-defense balance in a strategic bombing campaign. The first order calculus is the replacement value of the target. Since February, Russia has launched 1,305 missiles, against energy and water facilities in Ukraine, as well as civilian-dense locations like shopping centers. There include mobile ground-launched 500 km range SS-26 Iskanders, air and sea-launched 50 km range Kalibrs, and aircraft-launched 2,500 km range Kh-55 (including the KH-101 variant). The conventional high-explosive warhead payloads are 700 kg, 500 kg, and 1200 kg respectively, as compared with 985 kg for the SCUD-D, and 975 kg for the German V-2/A-4, although the newer Russian systems all strike within 20 meters to 30 meters of their target. Also, somewhat less than fifty Kh-22s (AS-4 Kitchens) were fired, as these would be reserved to strike U.S. aircraft carriers. Russia has also acquired at least 450 Shahed-136 suicide drones from Iran, of which half have been launched. These systems carry a 50 kg payload, up to 2,500 km, and Russian modified optical guidance is very accurate.

By virtually any measure, Russia is inflicting greater costs on Ukraine’s infrastructure than it is expending on missiles, despite some repairs being funded by NATO allies. However, these facilities are in the process of decentralization and dispersion as Ukraine ratchets-up its war mobilization and optimizes its energy grid, making future destruction much costlier for the Russians. In fact, it was a combination of the lavish support provided by the West, which acted as a moral hazard and delayed wartime mobilization, which has now been politically unlocked by the Russian attacks.

However, the second order calculus is whether the cost of the intercepting missile is cheaper than the cost of the attacking missile it is intended to stop, plus the cost of repair of the intended target. The Kalibr missile (US$1 million per unit) has been intercepted by Ukrainian S-300 air defense rockets, which cost greater than US$1 million each, and by German IRIS-T, costing US$430,000 per missile. Ukraine also only has 250 S-300 missiles, not including some sent from former-Warsaw Pact, now NATO allies, and it does not manufacture the system. Russian Kh-55 missiles (US$1 million per unit) were shot down over Kyiv by unknown systems. The NASAMS’ AMRAAM missiles, delivered in early November, cost US$1.2 million. Shahed-136 drones cost about US$20,000, although they are easily destroyed by point defense systems when available, but are cost-effective against much more expensive area defense missiles. None of these prices include the sensor and launch systems, valued at between US$23 million, to over US$100 million per battery, which are exposed to destruction by other systems like artillery and aircraft. Despite grand claims by the Armed Forces of Ukrainian, it is likely only a fraction of missiles are being intercepted, and not the 73 of 90 Russian cruise missiles shot down on November 15. On the same day, the U.S. claimed that the NASAMS missiles intercepted all 10 of 10 of unidentified Russian missiles. Ukraine is likely spending the same amount on interceptors as Russia is spending on attack missiles, because Kyiv is probably unable to intercept the majority of incoming volleys, particularly outside of its largest cities where it has a reduced missile defense capability.

The fourth miscalculation, and this is the most important, is the military opportunity cost. By striking economic targets, what military targets are being neglected by the Russians? Despite the world’s horror at the 1937 German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, commemorated by artist Pablo Picasso in his 1937 painting, the Germans realized how useless attacks were on non-combatants, and instead focused their scarce air power resources on achieving victory on the battlefield by supporting the army’s advance, which was much faster in producing results, and consequently cheaper. In effect, every Russian rocket fired strengthens Ukrainian resolve, saves a vital military target in Ukraine from being attacked, bringing victory closer for Kyiv, and drains Russia’s rapidly diminishing arsenal.

Thus far in the ten-month conflict, Russia has expended seventy percent of its total air-to-ground and non-strategic surface-to-surface missile arsenal. Since February, Russia has launched 1,305 missiles out of its total inventory of 1,844, leaving only enough missiles (539) for at most six more days of strikes. There remain only 121 SS-26 Iskanders , 248 Kalibrs, and 170 Kh-55 rockets. Nor is Russia likely to be able to replace them given their production dependence on imported foreign microchips.

Russia’s arsenal of missiles and drones would be far more usefully applied against concentrations of Ukrainian artillery, airbases, railyards and supply depots. This indicates that Russia’s bombing campaign is being conducted for theatrical effects by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, rather than by rational planning by a politically uncompromised military staff. Bombing gives the Russian public some satisfaction that the Kremlin can strike back at the Ukrainians, whose battlefield victories and stubbornly resistance are otherwise sapping support for Putin’s war.

The politically satisfying temptation to inflict retribution and engage in theatrical strikes against civilian targets contributed to two of Germany’s most critical errors of the Second World War. The German Luftwaffe (air force) attacked Great Britain in July of 1940 in an attempt to neutralize the Royal Air Force (RAF), thereby exposing the Royal Navy to aerial destruction. Absent a British air force and navy, a successful German amphibious invasion and conquest of the British Isles (Operation Sealion) was a foregone conclusion, and would have led to German victory against the Soviet Union and Europe.

Between July and August 1940, in order to build-up its fighter strength, the British chose not to defend the channel coast against German bombers, abandoning control of the air over its southern coast, and losing considerable number of merchant ships, ports, and coastal radar facilities. For three weeks between mid-August and early September, the Luftwaffe targeted British airbases and aircraft factories, and were on track inflicting catastrophic losses that would lead to inevitable British defeat.

Due to poor staff-work, and a poorly-thought through retaliation against a deliberately provocatively RAF bombing raid on Berlin on August 25, the Germans lost confidence in their plan, and proverbially flinched. The intervention of the Nazi authorities, to counter their appearance of impotence in the face of a British air raid, shows how politics can often take precedence over correct military strategy. On September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe shifted over 1,000 aircraft to attack civilian and symbolic targets in London, critically allowing the British RAF to recover its strength. The turning point occurred on September 15, when a 1,000 plane Luftwaffe raid was savagely intercepted by the RAF, leading Germany to cancel the invasion three days later, and the British were able to shift the battle to the French coast. The Germans changed to night-time bombing of non-military targets in the cities of Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Southampton, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Plymouth, and Sheffield, hoping to inflict residual costs as they bowed to strategic defeat.

Later in the Second World War, unable to respond to the onslaught of Allied strategic bombing of German cities, Adolf Hitler pushed for a vengeance rocket program of cruise missiles (V-1) and ballistic rockets (A4/V-2), to be launched against Great Britain. 23,172 V-1 cruise missiles (each costing 2 percent of a two-engined bomber), and 3,172 V-2 ballistic missiles (each costing 50 percent of a two-engined bomber), were launched. Both programs together consumed half of the entire volume of explosives used by the German army in 1944, in effect, an enormously inefficient allocation of resources, given that only 16,000 persons, mostly civilians, were killed by these weapons. As a measure of expenditure of resources, the Germany’s vengeance rocket program ranked third after the Manhattan project and the Anglo-American investment in radar research. Though they compelled a substantial diversion of Anglo-American aerial resources and urban evacuations in London and Antwerp to protect the morale of workers, their military impact was negligible. Because of the scale of the program, their opportunity cost likely shortened the war by several months.

Similarly, Russia is exposing itself to great strategic vulnerability once it approaches exhausting its SS-23 Iskander missile arsenal, originally designed to deliver tactical and theatre nuclear weapons. Missiles are surprisingly more expensive than their conventional or nuclear warheads, and are more difficult to replace. The Soviet Union manufactured far more nuclear warheads, 55,000, than missiles, during the Cold War. Once Russia’s winter offensive, or 2023 spring offensive fails, it will have exhausted its theatre missiles, and will be unable to conduct more than a few isolated nuclear missile strikes. It will either have to depend on its unreliable air force to make it to the target areas, or to use its poorly tailored strategic weapons for isolated nuclear demonstrations or concede on the battlefield.

Ukraine’s success depends on Western support, which hinges primarily on battlefield victory inflicting unsustainable casualties on Russia, either leading to a negotiated solution with Putin, or his overthrow. To this end, Ukraine, as a democracy, can far better sustain the privation, losses and brutal atrocities than Moscow. Kyiv should emphasize passive defenses like air raid shelters, despite the heart-breaking non-military devastation that will follow, and make the necessary sacrifices to focus on achieving battlefield victory. If Putin’s regime needs to make a dramatic display of power or wants to pursue a strategy on the basis of a shallow appreciation of Ukraine’s commitment to victory, then Kyiv should inspire these delusions as much as possible.

Attila Arslaner is a Master’s student studying Security and Defense at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. He has been invited to conferences at NORAD, and completed research contracts for the Department of National Defense. His research focus is on nuclear weapons and arms control.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years.

This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

Attila Arslaner is a Master's student studying Security and Defense at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. He has been invited to conferences at NORAD, and completed research contracts for the Department of National Defense. His research focus is on nuclear weapons and arms control. Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO).  He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.