Lessons in Missile Warfare: Russia–Ukraine Conflict
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 25 Jul , 2023


While there is mention of use of missiles at numerous places in the Vedic literature and other prehistoric epics of India, the modern use of missiles is attributed to the Germans who extensively used the V1 and V2 missiles in WWII and the employment philosophy  developed in parallel with Douhet’s philosophy of strategic bombing. The missiles provide obvious advantages over manned aircraft to achieve similar aims. Post the Cold War, the Gulf War I & II witnessed deft use of missiles to achieve military aims during the initial stages of conflict viz isolating the forces from senior commanders and political leaders, decapitating command control systems  as also destroying critical infrastructure.Missiles and other precision guided munitions will continue to play a crucial role in any future conflict as it carries all the advantages of an aircraft without the attendant risks.

Missiles, precision guided munitions and explosive ordnance carrying drones have been used by both sides with devastating effect during the ongoing Russia Ukraine Conflict. While the Russians used the Iskanders, Kaliburs and Kinzhals alongwith their Krasnopol, terminally guided munition, Ukraine had the Tochka, NNATO supplied Neptune, Hellfire and Brimstone and US supplied M982 Excalibur GPS guided 155 mm munitions with M777 Ultra Light Howitzers.

Russian Missile Strategy

Since February 2022, Russia is assessed to have fired thousands of missiles and loitering munitions at Ukrainian frontline military targets, command and control centres and infrastructure. These attacks have killed thousands and wounded a similar number of Ukrainian military personnel and civilians. Despite the incessant barrage of Russian missiles on Ukraine, the attacks have, fallen short to produce desired strategic effects – mainly the capitulation of Ukrainian political and military leadership. Even military command and control apparatus has remained more or less as it was ab initio.

Last winter Moscow had mounted an intense fire assault with missiles to takeout Ukraine’s electric grid, to cripple the command and control centres and break the morale of the Ukrainians.In May 2023, earlier this year, Russia renewed its long-range drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities. This uptick followed a relative period of calm in earlier months of 2023. This indicates the deficiency in precision strike capability of the missile as a weapon of choice to take out major infrastructure facilities as also its limitation in terms of the very large quantity of resources required to achieve the desired aim.

This points towards, among other factors, a lack of cohesion in Russia’s missile strike strategy. The aims of these strikes have varied during different stages of conflict and the intensity of these strikes has varied haphazardly. It appears Russian strategists have failed to learn the appropriate lessons from the missile warfare during the last major armed conflict in the Gulf, where missiles were used extensively by the US and to telling effects. Russia has gravely underestimated the scale of missile strikes required to achieve the aims during the various stages of the conflict as also the recuperability of the targets. The gap between the various stages allowed Ukraine to call upon its western allies for resupply of military hardware to replace losses. Russian strategists also failed to take into account the efficacy of Ukrainian air defences. It would be apt here to mention an important tenet of missile warfare,although said in a maritime context by Robert Rubel, who noted that missile-centric warfare “requires … new ways of ‘feeding the fight’” and that the number of missiles fired is central to the outcome. He further states,“in missile warfare, it is critical to get missiles into shooting positions as economically as possible, to maximize their number.” It appears Russia frittered away its missiles on picayune targets.

Lessons for India

Importance of Missile Strike Strategy.  Russia initially lacked a cohesive missile strike strategy in the conflict with Ukraine.The missile strikes with the right mix of missiles at any given stage of the war should conform to the aim for that stage of the war. Enemy air defence will play a critical role in selection of targets and the type and number of missiles to be used for the task. Timely and actionable target intelligence in a dynamically changing war scenario will remain critical to achieve the desired effect in missile strikes. Thus, a meticulously planned strike can give results in battle which many weeks of infantry attacks may not give.

Strikes should Augment the Aim of Phase of Battle.  Ideally, missiles should be used to maximum effect in the early stages of conflict to inflict high losses early in an attempt to set in psychological dislocation and break the will of the combatants by isolating them from their command and control centres, destroying their means of sustenance and their reserves, their fire delivery means, air bases and dual use infrastructure. This would make the task of own ground forces easier to defeat a psychologically dislocated enemy forces while they are in disarray.

Psychological Effect of Missile Strikes. Any strike in the depth areas beyond the battle zone will have a profound psychological impact on the citizenry creating despondency and turn public opinion against the war.The depth areas are easily accessible to the media and public with fewer restrictions and the damage and destruction in depth areas is amplified by both the mainstream and social media. This has a demoralizing effect on the public opinion; it causes a terrorized passivity and hopelessness. This would not happen to that an extent if the destruction is limited to the frontlines. Public opinion effects the regimes decision making about the war and may help in early realization of the political aim of the war. As far as the military aim is concerned, the depth battles or attack by missile in depth areas affects the enemy’s capability to continue to wage war as his material resources, reserves and production centres are located in depth. The destruction of these can severely limit his capability to continue waging the war.

Surveillance and Targeting Capability. Enhanced Surveillance Capability is a prerequisite for long standoff engagement using missiles. Russia is assessed to have adequate surveillance and targeting capability. India needs to develop sufficiently redundant, almost real time, integral satellite based imaging resources in addition to the inputs that may be available from commercial entities as well as from friendly foreign states.

Vulnerability of Own Forces. As missiles have greater engagement ranges, lethality, and accuracy, own assets must be widely dispersed to ensure survivability. This fact, coupled with the weapons’ efficiency, will result in lower force densities, which causes the phenomenon Tofflers have called the “vanishing front.” Some theorists have used the term “empty battlefield” for this; both terms however, reflect the effects of increased dispersion, camouflage, cover, concealment and deception necessitated to counter the effect of long standoff missiles.While India is geographically  vast, it’s equally vast population and habitation centres make any concealment and deception measures a challenge.

Prelaunch Survivability of Own Missile Systems. Due to the quantitative and qualitative proliferation of ISR systems with our adversaries Prelaunch survivability is likely to become a challenge. This can be enhanced through active and passive measures and basing missiles on mobile platforms and moving them frequently. We have a huge rail and road network but also need cross country mobility on our missile platforms to enhance prelaunch survivability. In addition we need to develop and adopt technical and operational countermeasures in our missile systems.

Realistic Expectations from Missile Strikes. Despite the extensive use of missiles by the opposing sides and significant damage and destruction caused by these strikes, there have been stages of conflict reminiscent of the industrial age attrition warfare thereby proving attrition to be a reality of war despite the evolution of hitech weapons. Territory will remain a critical objective of any conflict and ultimately boots will be required on ground to defend own territory and hold captured territory and this process will entail human casualties. All objectives of the conflict cannot be achieved by missile strikes despite their immense potency.The political leadership should in any such conflict be prepared to accept and justify the high human losses due to attrition in such conflicts.

Production Capacities. Missiles are hi-tech ordnance and not cheap to produce therefore adequate techno- industrial capacities must be developed during peace time. Missiles are complex systems and need an entire ecosystem of large medium and small industries to make India truly self-reliant in consonance with the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” mission. Indian security planners need to analyse if our  existing production capacities are adequate and what else needs to be done to optimise or remedy this situation. One solution is to maintain a large stockpile but the finite shelf life of the many electronic and chemical assemblies necessitate that they are regularly replaced, something that is financially draining. Another solution is to maintain a steady drumroll of production with capacity for surge production in times of crisis. India may also like to consider having an ‘Emergency Defence Production Act’ to make it legally binding on Indian industries to have arrangements to be able to produce military hardware to augment the national war effort if required. There may also be a case in point to transfer the missile technology to the developing defence private sector as the Indian experience with public sector manufacturing has been one of inefficiency and incompetence.

Adopting Latest Missile Technologies. China has the world’s largest missile force and Pakistan despite its economic crises maintains a significant stockpile of missiles of various types. Not only the numerical superiority, China also has technological lead in R&D and is constantly replacing its older, cumbersome liquid fuelled missiles with better solid fuelled ones. In addition, China has demonstrated capability of hypersonic missiles capable of flying upto Mach 15. The least we need to do is to catch up with China in the niche field of Hypersonic technology either through indigenous efforts or through joint collaboration with friendly states having this technology.Another aspirational lesson from current conflict and related to development of Hypersonic missile is the development of the reusable launch vehicle technology. The feasibility of reworking the technology used in the Vikram Lander of Chandrayan-3 be explored to develop a reusable vehicle to propel glide vehicles to hypersonic accelerations, as it can provide an inexpensive way of launching hypersonic missiles.

Missile Threat Analysis. The only way to beat a missile assault is by having gap free and effective active air defences. Ultimately it’s only a missile – a faster, more manoeuvrable and more agile one that can kill a missile before it reaches its intended target. Therefore we need to densely populate our air frontiers and vital areas in the hinterland with missile defence systems. With two belligerent neighbours in possession of significant missile systems, continually improving existing missiles in their inventories and developing newer ones, India can noway ignore the potent threat it faces. India needs to come up with its own Missile Threat Analysis on a regular basis to align its technological focus, production capacities and update its operational plans to address the existing as well as emerging threats. For a country as huge as India and given the competing development priorities for the same financial resources it would certainly be a daunting task to populate the entire air frontiers in a gap less fashion with missile defence systems. However, it is possible to achieve this in a phased manner.


Overall, the threats posed by ballistic missile delivery systems are likely to continue to increase and grow more complex. Adversary’s missile systems are becoming more mobile, survivable, reliable, and accurate. Hypersonic glide vehicles delivered by ballistic missile boosters are an emerging threat that adds an altogether new dimension to the threat paradigm. This can only be ignored at grave perils to the national security and thus needs to be addressed earnestly. The politico- military advantages of missile strikes are amply clear; they can be used for political signalling as well as to convey intent of escalation. To achieve and maintain this strategic capability India needs to have adequate stockpiles, upgrade its technology to prevent interception, field ASAT systems.

The future cannot be foreseen with perfect clarity and exact predictions about the nature of conduct of war cannot be made as those made earlier have proved untrue. Neither can the entire panoply of future threats facing a state or military be predicted. It’s only the lessons of last war learnt with an open mind and applied judiciously to the evolving framework of the future war that can give us an edge over the enemy.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Deepak Kumar

an artillery officer who has operated in counter insurgencies in Nagaland, Assam and Jammu & Kashmir and also in Line of control environment. His academic qualifications include a double Masters, a Diploma in Business Management and an MPhil in Defence and Strategic Studies. He has been the Chair of Excellence for Defence Services at Observer Research Foundation.

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