Does Ukraine Have A Stash Of Domestically Developed Ballistic Missiles?
A possible high-profile long-range attack on a Russian airbase has led many to wonder if Ukraine has a pocket arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Much about what caused a series of explosions earlier today that tore through Russia's Saki Airbase, situated near the village of Novofedorivka on the occupied Crimean Peninsula, remains murky. Russia had claimed what happened was an accident, and that the resulting damage was minimal and caused no casualties, but provided no hard evidence to substantiate this and ordered an evacuation of surrounding areas. Some Ukrainian officials claimed that the incident was a strike, with a subset of them further saying it was carried out using unspecified domestically-developed stand-off weapons. If it was indeed a standoff strike from outside Crimea, it would have had to involve a weapon that Ukraine doesn't officially possess, but they certainly were close to in recent years.
You can read more about what we know so far about the attack on Saki Airbase in The War Zone's initial reporting here.
Victor Andrusiv, who resigned from his position as adviser to the country's Interior Minister in July for unclear reasons, specifically claimed that Ukraine had missiles with ranges between 200 and 300 kilometers (approximately 124 to 186 miles) already in service in a post on the Telegram social media network. Andrusiv had previously called publicly for long-range strikes on the Kerch Strait Bridge that links Russia to occupied Crimea.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Ukrainian claims, to include the employment of some kind of weapon the country has developed itself, are ultimately confirmed. Ukrainian forces would need a ground-based weapon system with the kind of range that Andrusiv mentioned to hit Saki from areas they control in the southeastern end of the country.
Still, the blasts at the base could still have been caused by strikes carried out by manned aircraft, drones of various complexities, short-range missiles clandestinely launched from within Crimea or off its shores, sabotage, or a simple accident. Regardless, evidence is certainly mounting that Russia's initial claims as to how limited the destruction from the blasts was were a lie.
Whatever happened at Saki Airbase, especially in light of Andrusiv's Telegram post, has raised a key question: where are Ukraine's domestically-developed short-range ballistic missiles?
Hard details can be challenging to pin down, but what is undeniable is that Ukrainian rocket and missile firm Pivdenne, also known as the Yuzhnoye Design Office, has been working on some level on a short-range ballistic missile designed to be fired from a road-mobile transport-erector-launcher (TEL) since at least 2003. The roots of this project reportedly trace back to the end of the Cold War and Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. That decoupling spurred a desire to craft a domestically developed successor to the Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile that would be roughly equivalent to Russia's Iskander-M. Both sides of the current conflict in Ukraine have employed stocks of Soviet-era Tochkas.
The missile, and the complete weapon system that it is a part of, have been referred to over the years as Sapsan, Grom, Grim, Grim-2, and Hrim-2. Sapsan appears to be the name applied to a larger effort that this weapon, and other components of the complete system, including a 10-wheeled TEL that can be loaded with two containerized missiles at a time, were developed under. The Grom/Grim/Grim-2/Hrim-2 nomenclature appears to refer to versions of the missiles and/or systems, of which there appear to be domestic and export-specific variations. The different spellings largely seem to be a product of how Russian and Ukrainian have been transliterated into the Roman alphabet over the years, and they all translate to Thunder/Thunder-2 in English.
Pictures of solid-fuel rocket motors associated the with Grom/Grim/Grim-2/Hrim-2 design have emerged in the past, but there do not appear to be any pictures of prototype or production examples of the complete weapon. A model publicly displayed in 2016, which had the name "Grom" written on the side, showed a design that was similar, at least in broad strokes externally, to Russia's Iskander-M.
The initial Grom/Grim design at least had an expected range of around 280 kilometers (174 miles), would carry a warhead weighing 480 kilograms (around 1,060 pounds), was 6.4 meters long (just under 21 feet), and nearly a meter (3.28 feet) in diameter at its widest, according to a website with a 2015 copyright date for Ukroboronexport, which appears to have been supplanted since then by Ukrainian state arms broker Ukroboronprom. That same webpage said that the missile, as designed, would have an inertial guidance system assisted by a satellite navigation link, along with some kind of unspecified terminal homing capability.
It's not clear if any of those specifications apply to the subsequent Grim-2/Hrim-2 design. The Ukroboronexport webpage says that Grom would be launched from an eight-wheeled TEL capable of carrying just one missile at a time, which clearly did not carry over to subsequent iterations of the missile.
Reports have indicated that the range of the subsequent Grim-2/Hrim-2 variant had the same maximum range of 280 kilometers (174 miles), but this may actually only apply to an export version. Some sources suggest that the full range of the variant for the Ukrainian armed forces would be able to strike targets out to distances between 450 and 500 kilometers (some 280 to 310 miles). Saudi Arabia, which was reportedly directly involved in the development of the weapon on some level for at least a time, was expected to be the first customer for the export version. The Saudis do not appear to have taken any deliveries of these missiles to date, and have reportedly initiated work on their own domestic ballistic missile enterprise with assistance from China in recent years.
It's interesting to note that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary arms control mechanism that Ukraine is party to, places significant prohibitions on the transfer of missiles with ranges of 300 kilometers (186 miles) or more, and/or can carry payloads of 500 kilograms (approximately 1,100 pounds) or more. This would help explain the reason for the existence of an export-specific version with a reduced range. Russia also offers an MTCR-compliant reduced-range export variant of the Iskander-M, the Iskander-E.
The current state of the Grim-2/Hrim-2's development is unclear. Reports say that prototypes, which may have been earlier Grom/Grim versions, were test launched in 2016. The two-round, 10-wheeled TEL, or at least a mockup thereof, emerged the following year. In 2018, a TEL, or a mockup, with Ukrainian Armed Forces markings was publicly shown during that year's Independence Day parade in Kyiv, as seen in the picture below.
In 2019, it was expected that the Ukrainian military would reach an initial operational capability with the Grim-2/Hrim-2 weapon by 2022. Last year, Ukrainian officials announced that those plans had been scaled back to the acquisition of a single experimental battery with two TELs and two command-and-control nodes.
In addition, the Yuzhnoye Design Office has said in the past that it has also been developing a ground-launched cruise missile called Korshun, which is broadly akin to the Soviet-era Kh-55-series and that could be launched by a variant of the same TEL used to fire Grim-2/Hrim-2. The available details about any progress in the development of this weapon, which was reportedly also being eyed for air-launched and naval applications, are even more limited. Another 2015-copyrighted page from Ukroboronexport's website says this cruise missile was expected to have a maximum range of 280 kilometers (174 miles), have a satellite-assisted inertial navigation system guidance package, and be able to be fitted with multiple warhead types, including ones loaded with multiple submunitions. Again, it's not clear whether those specifications are in any way current.
While we can't say with any certainty that Ukraine may have now deployed even a limited number of Grim-2/Hrim-2 missiles it has for actual operational use, or used these weapons against Saki Airbase, there is certainly a number of different relevant precedents in the current conflict. Most notable, of course, is the sudden appearance of Ukrainian units armed with domestically-developed Neptune shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles to sink the Russian Navy's cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, in April. Prior to that incident, it was not commonly understood that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had any real operational capability with Neptune, and if it did, it was extremely limited.
Ukrainian forces have utilized other less complex experimental domestically-developed weapon systems in the fight against the Russian invaders. This includes the one-off Kevlar-E tracked armored fighting vehicle and the lone prototype of the 2S22 Bohdana wheeled self-propelled 155mm howitzer.
There is also the potential that Ukraine has received assistance from one or more of its international partners, especially the United States, since the conflict began to help field a more robust, if still small operational force armed with Grim-2/Hrim-2s or similar missiles. There is already substantial evidence that the U.S. military quietly helped integrate the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), primarily designed to home in on and destroy enemy air defense radars, onto Ukrainian aircraft, as you can read more about here. American authorities at least facilitated some kind of similar integration of 70mm laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) rockets onto ground and/or aerial platforms. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have helped the Ukrainian Armed Forces field additional non-ballistic ground-based surface-to-surface missile systems, as well.
That a single Grim-2/Hrim-2 TEL that can fire two missiles could also fit with pictures and video that have emerged so far that appear to show two near-simultaneous major explosions at distinctly separate parts of the base. If this was indeed a missile strike, using domestically-developed weapons would only add to its propaganda value, having already demonstrated an ability to penetrate past Russia's substantial air and missile defenses to hit a key target in occupied Crimea.
It remains unknown whether Ukraine fired Grim-2/Hrim-2 missiles at Saki Airbase, or if even a small arsenal of them exists at all. At the same time, striking this base is exactly the kind of thing that might be seen as a very worthwhile use of what could easily be a very limited number of these weapons.
But it really isn't just about even the low possibility that the Grim-2/Hrim-2 was rushed into service, even if that included just completing old experimental examples so they could be used in high-profile strikes. Ukraine has now been fighting off a brutal invasion for nearly six months. The lines have stabilized and billions of dollars in weaponry and other military assistance have poured into the country. Clearly, Ukraine needed as advanced weapons as it could get its hands on, and especially those that could put Russian targets at risk over long distances.
We have seen at least one confirmed form of an improvised long-range strike weapon used against a target in Russia. We have also seen Soviet-era Tu-141 and Tu-143 surveillance drones converted into crude cruise missiles. Both of these are more of an example of ingenuity through desperation than anything else and harder-hitting, more reliable, and more capable long-range weapons have certainly been sought.
The U.S. government has not been willing to supply such a capability in the form of land-attack cruise missiles or ATACMS ballistic missiles due to the risk of escalating and broadening the conflict. But, helping Ukraine build its own weapons would be a different story, and Ukraine had just such a weapon relatively deeply in development, as well as others.
So, whether the attack today on Russia's airbase in occupied Crimea had anything to do with a secretive advanced long-range weapon or not, it makes a lot of sense for Ukraine to be pursuing reanimating defunct weapons programs of this nature and fielding some sort of capability as fast as possible. Considering the country is in a fight for its very survival, anything less would illogical.
You can find our latest coverage regarding the explosions at Saki Air Base on August 9 here.
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