Precision-guided missiles have been one of the weapons of choice for the Russian armed forces since the invasion of Ukraine in late February.
These locally produced missiles have been responsible for some of Russia’s deadliest attacks in Ukraine, including against the Ukrainian port city of Odessa and a train station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, where a Tochka-U missile would have killed 57 people and injured at least 100 fleeing civilians.
In total, Russia has fired 2,154 missiles at Ukraine since the start of the invasion, according to a statement last week by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky.
But such attacks have become rarer in recent weeks, leading to speculation from Western officials, analysts and media that Russia’s missile stockpiles are running low.
We look at Russia’s use of missiles, whether supplies are truly depleted, and what the lack of such ammunition could mean for Russian tactics in Ukraine.
What is a “precision-guided missile”?
Precision-guided missiles, also known as “smart munitions”, are designed to be extremely accurate. They are equipped with “seeker” systems, which allow them to change flight path after launch and hit specific targets at long range. The Russian Iskander-M missile, for example, can travel up to 500 kilometers and hit an area the size of a paddling pool.
What missiles is Russia using in Ukraine?
Russia has used a number of smart munitions in Ukraine.
These include the Kh-101 and Kh-55 cruise missiles, which are launched from fixed-wing aircraft such as the Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. Such missiles have been regularly Point flying over Ukraine en route to their targets, and were used in April, the attacks on Odessa, according to military analyst Rob Lee.
In addition to cruise missiles, Russia has fired a number of ground-launched ballistic missiles at Ukraine, including the Tochka-U and Iskander-M. While cruise missiles are self-propelled at subsonic speeds, ballistic missiles are much faster – they use an initial rocket motor to propel them in a virtually unpowered arc towards their target.
One of Russia’s most famous ballistic missiles, the Iskander-M, is a short-range ballistic missile system manufactured in the town of Kolomna near Moscow. Capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads, the Iskander-Ms fly at an altitude of around 50 kilometers. This is much higher than cruise missiles such as the Kh-101, which travel at treetop height.
The Russian Ministry of Defense last month published footage of soldiers firing an Iskander-M into Ukraine. According to the official TASS news agency, an Iskander-M was responsible for an attack on a Ukrainian training base for foreign volunteer soldiers in March.
Additionally, Russia also fired a small number of Kalibr-M cruise missiles. Frequently used by the Russian military in Syria, the Kalibr-Ms are launched by ships and have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers. The Russian Navy launched Kalibr missiles from a submarine in the Black Sea earlier this month, according to at TASS.
Why use precision-guided munitions?
Precision-guided munitions are preferred in modern warfare due to their effectiveness and ability to minimize collateral damage.
“Using precision munitions, you can send two planes to service a target, whereas in World War II you would have had to send 100,” said James Lewis, an analyst at the Strategic and International Studies Institute in Washington, D.C. Moscow Times.
Precision missile attacks should also result in fewer civilian casualties.
However, serious questions arise about the effectiveness of Russian missiles. The Russian Kh-101 proved highly unreliable in Ukraine, with US officials estimating that Russia suffered a 60% failure rate, according to at Reuters.
Many Russian missiles do not even achieve their goalsaccording to US officials.
Where does Russia get its missiles from?
Throughout the war, Russia chose to strike Ukraine with precision weapons from areas firmly under Russian control.
“Their tactic has been to operate offshore, or out of the country, using long-range cruise missile strikes from aircraft orbiting over Belarus, Kalibrs from the sea or Iskanders coming in from Russia. itself,” said Robert Bell, a former NATO official.
Is Russia running out of missiles?
Russian tactics in the early months of the war mean their stocks of precision munitions are now seriously depleted, according to some Western analysts and officials.
“There are no longer volleys of long-range cruise missiles, and there are almost no more Iskander strikes,” independent military analyst Pavel Luzhin told the Moscow Times.
A US official Told journalists at a briefing earlier this month that Russia “has inventory issues with precision-guided munitions.”
These reports are corroborated by a change in Russian tactics, in particular an increasing reliance on conventional unguided bombs, especially in the port city of Mariupol. Unguided munitions were reportedly used in attacks in Mariupol against the Azovstal steel plant, defended by Ukrainian soldiers, as well as against a maternity and one theater.
Can’t Russia just produce more missiles?
Many analysts believe Western sanctions mean Russia will struggle to replace its precision missile reserves.
In particular, precision missile guidance systems require semiconductors and transistors that are neither made in Russia nor available in China, according to expert Lewis.
“So unless the Russians have planned ahead and stockpiled ammunition or western microelectronics, or ramped up pre-war production, they’re going to run out of gas when it comes to guided munitions. precision,” Lewis said.
What if Russia lacks precision weapons?
Falling precision munitions stocks will likely mean Russia will turn to alternatives.
For example, there was a recent rise in Russian air sorties, with pilots operating in Ukrainian airspace with unguided munitions.
That will likely mean a corresponding increase in civilian casualties, analysts said.
Zelensky said 60 civilians were killed in Russian airstrikes last week, including one that hit a school in the village of Bilohorivka where 90 civilians had taken refuge.
“They’re going to use the Air Force to hit the ground forces… [and use] unguided munitions, which will cause a lot of collateral damage,” said Dara Masicott, senior policy researcher at the US-based Rand Corporation.