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Russia Is Demolishing Ukraine With Tactical Missiles

March 21, 2022
Ruins of a barracks in Mykolaiv after being struck by cruise missiles. Via Ukrainian media.

On March 19 a salvo of missiles struck a barracks in Mykolaiv, a city Russian forces have been struggling to capture for the past two weeks, and killed almost a hundred occupants. These were members of an elite airborne unit. The exact casualty figures are difficult to ascertain but the devastation was horrific enough. Photos showed an entire building reduced to twisted debris. This was probably the worst mass-casualty incident suffered by Ukraine’s armed forces since the March 13 airstrike on another barracks in Yavoriv–a location suspected of housing “international volunteers” who arrived from Poland.

With its ground forces held back outside Ukraine’s largest cities Russia expanded its catastrophic air campaign against the country’s infrastructure. The attack on Yavoriv’s “International Center for Training and Security” in the previous week killed three dozen soldiers and left a hundred wounded. The latest attack on the Mykolaiv garrison had a larger body country, from 50 to a hundred dead, and many injured are unaccounted for. On both occasions air-launched Kalibr cruise missiles were reported as the munitions used. The Kalibr is best understood as a family of subsonic missiles adapted for air, ground, and naval launches. When deployed in a surface-to-surface role the missile variants known as the 9M728 and the 9M729 are loaded on the Iskander-K weapon system; the same transporter as the Iskander-M SRBM but with missiles that have a range estimated between less than 500 to 2,000 kilometers depending on the variant. Russian strategic bombers such as the Tu-95M, the Tu-22M, and the Tu-160M are all suited for delivering salvos of air-launched Kalibr cruise missiles that travel beyond 2,000 km.

On the same day when the Mikolaiv garrison was leveled Russia’s defense ministry announced it used the air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile on a Ukrainian arms depot. The accompanying footage of the alleged attack has drawn criticism for its authenticity. The Kinzhal is a very large diameter munition shaped like a ballistic missile that travels at hypersonic speeds once launched in mid-air. Its warhead and kinetic impact gives Russia’s air force a superb precision strike capability at ranges up to 1,000 km against static and moving targets. If the Kinzhal is loaded on a strategic bomber such as the Tu-22M the aircraft’s flight range enhances how far the munition travels. (Since 2018 the Kinzhal was introduced together with a new generation of Russian missiles including the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, the Avangard hypersonic glider vehicle for ICBMs, the Burevestnik cruise missile that has nuclear propulsion, and a “smart” nuclear-armed torpedo meant for detonating nuclear warheads near coastal regions.)

The selective bombardment of sensitive targets by various air and ground-launched missiles began on February 24 to degrade the Ukrainian armed forces’ response to the invasion. The earliest footage of a cruise missile strike on that day was a single Kalibr gliding towards the airport in Lviv, which is in western Ukraine. Targets in Lviv have been struck by Kalibr missiles multiple times since then. Russia does export its Kalibr missiles, albeit with limited ranges, as the Club-A, Club-S, and Club-N depending if the end user wants a ground-based or naval cruise missile. If the Pentagon’s own assessment of Russian attacks throughout Ukraine are accurate by March 17 there were more than 1,000 missiles launched since February 24. No specifics were given on the exact types of missiles–it was assumed these are all tactical weapon systems that aren’t large diameter rocket artillery–but it’s certain Iskander-M SRBMs are being used as intended. Aside from demolishing airports and bases there’s at least one verifiable attack with Iskander-M’s that left catastrophic damage on the facade of the Retroville shopping mall in Kyiv on March 21.

Ukraine’s embattled military have returned the favor with their own launches of the older Tochka SRBMs. But their destructive impact in the last three weeks varied from limited to nil. As the war now reaches its first month a bloody attrition has set in with cities being the main objectives for either side. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 3.48 million Ukrainians have fled their country while between five to six million are internally displaced.

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