An Iranian Ballistic Missile Storm Is On Ukraine’s Horizon

Ukraine has little defense against Russia’s Iranian ballistic missiles, which could pummel the country’s energy infrastructure as winter hits.

byTyler Rogoway| PUBLISHED Nov 7, 2022 3:36 PM
An Iranian Ballistic Missile Storm Is On Ukraine’s Horizon
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It has become abundantly clear that absent battlefield successes, Russia is now going to make the Ukrainian people suffer as badly as possible — via conventional attacks on critical infrastructure — in an attempt to break their will. This strategy has been highlighted by the now constant strikes on Ukrainian power generation and electricity distribution infrastructure via cruise missiles and Iranian long-range suicide drones.

Now, just as we predicted, all indications point to Russia acquiring hundreds of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles, like the Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar types. This is a much bigger problem than many seem to realize, including for those living in the vast majority of Ukrainian territory that remains outside of Moscow's control. Simply put, these weapons will be very challenging if not impossible for Ukraine to defend against, they pack a major punch, and they can strike nearly anywhere in the country, putting Ukraine's already battered energy infrastructure, in particular, at extreme risk.

While the unsettling truth here is that Ukraine will have very little means of defending its electricity infrastructure, and other targets for that matter, from attacks by imported Iranian ballistic missiles, Russia's dwindling stockpile of cruise missiles, as well as Iranian-provided drones, have already taken their toll on the country's energy ecosystem. But Ukraine's defenses against these 'air breathing' weapons have been improving and they are now on the precipice of making a major capability leap.

Author's note: This post was adapted from an October 19th Twitter thread by the author.

The arrival of NASAMS will drastically improve Ukraine's ability to protect key population centers from these attacks, and the first German IRIS-T SLM systems delivered to the country are already hard at work doing so. Both are uniquely suited to localized area air defense against these threats. NASAMS, in particular, with its deep supply of ammunition in the form of AIM-120 AMRAAMs — a critical feature that you can read all about here — will be especially effective in this regard. But defending against low-flying cruise missiles and drones reliably is very challenging for even the world's most advanced air defense network, so even with these upgrades, significant numbers of these weapons could still leak through. Regardless, the key point here is that neither of these Western air defense systems provides any sort of robust ability to intercept the Iranian ballistic missiles that could arrive at any moment.

NASAMS is a very capable medium-range air defense system, but it will not be able to robustly defend against Russian attacks using Iranian ballistic missiles. (Raytheon/Kongsberg Defense)

Ukrainian air defenders have also done a highly commendable job with the limited means they already have at knocking down cruise missiles and drones before they reach their intended targets, with Kyiv often claiming that the majority of those launched get intercepted. But still, look at the damage they have done. Hundreds of Iranian ballistic missiles entering the equation will seriously bend those metrics in a very negative way.

Ukraine’s prized, but severely dated Soviet-designed S-300s, which continue to have their arsenal of interceptors whittled down over nine months of continuous warfare, have limited anti-ballistic missile capabilities, especially against modern types. The country's tiny handful of S-300Vs are the only ones that could really be charged with such a mission. Even then, they can only do so over a relatively finite localized area. It is unknown if even they could be able to effectively intercept Iran's latest SRBM designs even under the best of conditions.

LYSYCHANSK, UKRAINE — JUNE 12, 2022: A military rocket launcher drives on a highway towards Lysychansk, Ukraine, Sunday June 12, 2022. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images). Getty Images vio Marcus Yam

These air defense systems are also critical to keeping traditional Russian fixed-wing and rotary-wing airpower at bay — confined to very near or just beyond the front lines at the farthest. Keeping this pressure on Russian airpower is absolutely critical. Russia can not be allowed to gain air superiority, or even heavily contest Ukraine's claim on its own airspace over the territory it controls, and bring its conventional airpower to bear across Ukraine. So, relocating them in the hopes of providing some defense around key high-value targets is problematic. The delivery of additional Western air defense systems — even dated ones — could help free them up sometime in the future, but once again, it is unlikely they would provide an effective defense.

Iranian short-range ballistic missiles will be very challenging for Ukraine to counter. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

While Russia has Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles still in its inventory, their use has declined drastically. Russia needs to keep enough of these dual-use (conventional and nuclear) capable weapons for strategic purposes; they can't just wind the stock down to nothing.

The Iskander-Ms and Russia's standoff cruise missiles, complex and expensive weapons, are all very hard to replace with production taking time during the best conditions, let alone when the country is under crushing sanctions and technology embargoes. This is why Iran being a source of these types of weapons is so key to Russia, especially considering Tehran has developed organic production capabilities with supply chains that circumvent sanctions and much of the international community's interdiction efforts. You can read more about this unique situation in our initial piece on the possibility of Russia importing ballistic missiles from Iran.

Fateh-110 missiles entered mass production years ago in Iran and their stockpile is likely very plentiful. (FARS News Agency)

Also, it must be made clear that ballistic missiles hit much harder than cruise missiles and pack far larger warheads than long-range suicide drones. The accuracy of Iran's short-range ballistic missiles has become impressive, and their precision is more than adequate to pummel Ukraine's energy production and electricity distribution nodes into ruin, causing potentially catastrophic damage. They are also operationally proven, including against the U.S. and allied interests in Iraq. Iran's SRBMs are also known to be quite fast and, in some cases, maneuverable, making them harder to intercept and providing enhanced kinetic effects against even fortified targets. In our October 28th interview with Ukraine's intelligence chief, Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov highlighted similar concerns:

TWZ: How concerned are you about the Iranian short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) – Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar SRBMs capable of striking targets at distances of between 186 and 435 miles – that are coming to Russia? And when do you think those will get there?

KB: I believe that likely that next month we'll see them used here.

TWZ: And how concerned are you about that threat?

KB: It's a serious threat because Iranian missiles, unlike Russian ones, are quite high precision, very high speed and those features have been battle proven.

As a result of all these factors, the potential introduction of Iranian SBRMs puts Ukraine's electricity infrastructure at immense risk and that risk comes at the worst possible time, as the cold of winter begins to set in.

In order to have a good chance of countering Russia's Iranian-built ballistic missiles, Ukraine would need the MIM-104 Patriot air defense system, which is optimized for intercepting SRBMs and has done so repeatedly in the past. While it has been floated, even at the highest levels, that the Patriot is being considered for Ukraine, even if it were declared today that the United States would provide them, it would take many months of training to get them ready to deploy. Patriot is a highly complex system that requires unique technical expertise not just to operate, but also to sustain. While it's possible that 'contractors' could be provided to run and support Patriot batteries 'given' to Ukraine, such a move would seem unlikely as it can be viewed as outright involvement in the conflict beyond supplying weapons and external support. The U.S. and NATO have done everything possible not to cross that line so far and there are no indications that this is about to change, but it's always possible.

Patriot missile interceptor on its way toward its target. (US ARMY)

Beyond that, giving Patriot batteries to Ukraine would also represent a major technological risk that the U.S. may not be willing to swallow at this time. There are also not many surplus batteries just laying around. In fact, even for the U.S., Patriot batteries are relatively prized assets, especially for potential contingency operations, that it or its allies would have to relinquish. Considering the threat level in Europe for NATO and for the U.S., around the world, providing batteries to Ukraine could be seen as inviting unacceptable risk elsewhere.

Yes, I know this is a bleak outlook, but it's the reality Ukraine will face if indeed Iranian ballistic missiles show up as all indications point to at this time.

The questions of just how many ballistic missiles can be provided and how fast they can be resupplied remain outstanding, with estimates varying. At least a couple of hundred missiles are thought to be part of the initial series of deliveries, but Iran needs cash badly and they are sitting on a substantial stockpile of these weapons and could potentially ramp up production significantly with financial backing from Russia. License production/assembly in Russia is also eventually a possibility. Still, even a couple hundred of these weapons, reaching their targets unmolested, could spell disaster for Ukraine's already under-pressure electricity grid. And it's not just about electricity production, but even more so distribution, and Russia is well aware of this and will adjust its targeting accordingly.

KYIV REGION, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 04: Workers repair infrastructure in a power station that was damaged by a Russian air attack in October, on November 04, 2022 in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine. Electricity and heating outages across Ukraine caused by missile and drone strikes to energy infrastructure have added urgency to preparations for winter. (Photo by Ed Ram/Getty Images)

And of course, these weapons also pose a major threat to other targets, especially those in the western reaches of Ukraine where key supply routes and other essential logistics are established and have been able to operate under reduced threat since Russia failed to gain air superiority early on. Still, Russia's recent current focus on attacking Ukraine's electrical grid is clearly indicative of what these missiles will be used for.

The good news here is that Ukrainians have proven to be tough as nails and are highly adaptable to changing wartime conditions. Still, we could see another exodus west if power to major cities, including Kyiv, proves to be totally unreliable if available at all going into the depths of winter.

It has also been interesting to see the lack of international pressure on Iran for supplying these weapons to Russia. While the country is already under heavy sanctions, there are still levers to be pulled, even if primarily diplomatic ones. Interdicting them is a whole other escalation risk, but doing so really isn't possible as they would either be flown via airlifter and/or delivered via the Caspian Sea by ship.

The use of Iranian SRBMs, especially if they are used in part to destroy Ukraine's power grid, will only increase calls for the U.S. to supply MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles to Ukraine. While this system has already achieved almost legendary status without ever rolling onto the battlefield in Ukraine, the Biden Administration has made it clear they are not interested in supplying them, at least at this time.

ATACMS fired from an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launcher. (U.S. Army photo)

Even though Ukraine has said it will only use U.S. weapons inside its rightful territory, there are real fears that supplying them could lead to a major escalation between Russia and NATO, especially if they end up hitting targets in Russia. While the M31 guided rockets HIMARS and the M270 MLRS can fire have been hugely impactful on the battlefield, ATACMS has nearly four and a half times the range and roughly two and a half times the warhead size as those munitions. It also hits with much greater kinetic energy. So we are talking about a very different class of weapon that would put any target in Crimea in range and under threat.

So how can the potentially devastating use of Iranian SRBMs by Russia against Ukrainian targets be deterred? One possibility I mentioned a few weeks ago is to draw a line in the sand so to speak and tell Russia if they import and use Iranian SRBMs, the U.S. would supply Ukraine with ATACMS. While this sort of brinksmanship would be seen as clearly unfavorable by some, it could influence Russia's calculus and it would provide a clear pretext for supplying ATACMS to Ukraine. The messaging is simple, if Moscow is going to import SRBMs to use on the battlefield in Ukraine, then Kyiv should be able to do the same.

I do not endorse or reject such a move, but it is worth discussing as time for such messaging is quickly slipping away.

With the supposed timeline of delivery of Iranian SRBMs to Russia winding down, it's very likely we will see these weapons in action in the relatively near future. If they decimate Ukraine's power infrastructure, calls for more advanced anti-ballistic missile capable air defenses will grow very loud as will demands for giving Kyiv similar weapons so that such attacks do not go unchecked. No matter what, like the delivery of Iran's Shahed-136 suicide drones before them, these missiles’ use will mark a new phase of a war that so far has no end in sight and the devastation they could bring may change the calculus of the conflict on all sides.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com

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