Ukraine Now Using Donated Shore Defense Missiles Against Land Targets

It would seem that Ukrainian Forces are using Sweden’s RBS-17 missile system designed to fend off amphibious landings against ground targets.

byEmma Helfrich|
Hellfire Ukraine
Swedish Armed Forces/Twitter Screencap

In what appears to be the weapon’s first documented use in Ukraine, footage of the Swedish RBS-17 coastal defense missile system being used in an inland attack role by Ukrainian forces has emerged online. 

The RBS-17, sometimes referred to as ‘Robot 17’ and ‘Hellfire Shore Defense System’ (HSDS) uses a derivative of the U.S. AGM-114C Hellfire anti-tank missile and was sent to Ukraine by Sweden in an aid package early this summer, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone report

Primarily designed for the close-in shore defense role — defending against amphibious landings and shallow water threats — what’s most notable about the recently surfaced clip is how Ukrainian forces seem to be instead employing the RBS-17 against land targets.

The video shows an RBS-17 missile being fired from its position in the middle of a nondescript field in Ukraine. Before the missile is launched, its operator runs back toward cover behind a nearby treeline where the person filming is already waiting. Before the operator makes it back, the missile launches toward an unknown target, but considering that no bodies of water appear to be immediately close by, the clip all but confirms that Ukrainian forces are using the otherwise RBS-17s in a secondary application against ground targets, marking the introduction of the system, and the Hellfire family of missiles, to the land war in Ukraine. It is worth noting that Brimstone, which shares some similarities with Hellfire, including its overall shape, but is really a different missile, has been used in a similar manner in Ukraine for some time.

The RBS-17 is designed with a number of characteristics that make it useful in the land attack role due to its anti-armor Hellfire missile-inspired origins. For instance, the system is man-portable and requires minimal set-up with its tripod-like ground firing and targeting system and compact launcher. 

RBS-17 is also a laser-guided missile system designed for precision and features a laser designator and associated optics used to spot and lase the target at which the missile is being fired. RBS-17 missiles are configured with a 20-pound (9 kg) warhead and can strike a target at a range of around five miles (8 km). 

The RBS-17 sighting and laser designation system. (Swedish Armed Forces)

When Sweden first announced that it would be sending the RBS-17s to Ukraine, the country specifically cited a request made by the Ukrainian government early on in the conflict for a system that could help address the increasing Russian presence in the coastal regions of southeastern Ukraine and the fears of a beach landing there. RBS-17 seemed a logical choice for Sweden to send as the system is designed for defending coastlines against just those kinds of operations.

A demonstration of the Robot 17. Credit: Swedish Armed Forces

Now, with Russia on its back heels, the threat landscape has changed and shoreline defense isn’t as high a priority as it once was, which likely prompted Ukrainian forces to get creative with the weapons they have been given, including exploring the RBS-17’s secondary role against ground targets.

Norway also uses a similar version of the system and pledged in September to donate approximately 160 Hellfire laser-guided missiles to Ukraine. These can be used against Russian armor and other vehicles, as well as softer targets, and could be especially useful with setting up semi-static defenses of key areas, as well as in ambushes. The delivery will come with the system’s launchers and guidance units as well.

Hellfire missile launch from a ground-based launcher. Credit: Norway Ministry of Defense

Knowing this, the missile seen in the video could potentially even be Hellfire as opposed to its Swedish RBS-17 derivative. However, it's unclear if Norway’s delivery has officially made it to Ukraine since being announced. 

Either way, Ukrainian forces seem to be putting the donated Hellfire-based systems to use.

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