With all the speculation about Russian missile stockpiles put into service, a US-based think tank concluded earnestly after the war that Moscow would not run out of missiles in its “military operations” in Ukraine.
In no uncertain terms, the report, written by Ian Williams, a fellow at the International Security Program and deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), stated that it was “unrealistic to expect Russia to run out of missiles” in the ongoing Russian campaign.
The report further noted that Moscow is likely to be able to build or acquire the long-range strike capability required to inflict significant harm on Ukraine’s population, economy and military “despite sanctions and export regulations”.
Russian missile war and repeated predictions
Russia is relentlessly launching missile attacks on Ukraine, which have intensified over recent months. In the second half of 2022, Russian missile strikes inflicted severe damage on Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure and sought to destroy its combat capability by crippling its energy infrastructure.
With the help of its Western partners and the acquisition of new and advanced air defense systems, Ukraine has managed to hold out. However, as Russia continues to spend its missiles on Ukraine, speculation has been raised about its depletion.
When Russia began acquiring and deploying Iranian-origin Shahed kamikaze drones to strike targets inside Ukraine, some unnamed U.S. officials and Ukrainian officers said the change in tactic was likely influenced by the Russian military’s depleting missile stocks.
By the end of the year, such speculation began to become increasingly widespread. After more than nine months of war in Ukraine, the Pentagon announced in December 2022 that Russia was increasingly reliant on damaged artillery and rocket-propelled grenades, some of which were manufactured more than four decades ago.
At the time, media reports said that US officials expected Russia to fully deplete its stocks of serviceable munitions by early 2023. Those stocks were depleting rapidly, the official warned, likely prompting them to use defective munitions.
Russia, for its part, has shifted from launching more advanced and precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles to drawing Soviet-era munitions from storage that would cause massive destruction, but do not guarantee successful precision strikes. This led to the credibility of predictions made by officials and experts alike.
As the war enters its second year, these predictions are becoming more common among Ukrainian intelligence. For example, in January 2023, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, Yuriy Ihnat, cited Ukrainian intelligence as claiming that Russia had fewer than 100 modern Iskander ballistic missiles in its arsenal.
At that time, Russia stepped up the use of S-300 and S-400 missiles to launch missile strikes on ground targets in Ukraine. This suggests that this was Moscow’s new tactic to avoid using up its already low supply of precision ballistic missiles.
Many such reports based on Ukrainian intelligence and Russia’s changing battlefield tactics were published over the course of the six months of this year. It was also indicated that the Russian forces will run out of missiles within three months. Yet, after all these months, Russian missile attacks have continued unabated.
The report confirmed that until 2023, Russia regularly attacked a range of military and civilian targets across Ukraine with costly long-range missiles. The goals of these missile strikes changed over time, as did the density and quality of the ammunition used.
In May this year, weapons experts obtained examples of newly-made Russian cruise missiles launched against Ukraine, which they claimed indicated that Russia’s arsenal had become so depleted that weapons were being used in conflict only a few months after they were made.
Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, and other U.S. officials previously predicted that rebuilding Russian stockpiles would be “much more difficult” due to international export regulations, particularly with regard to obtaining chips used to manufacture missiles and long-range precision-guided weapons.
However, a recent CSIS report said that export restrictions and sanctions have not had the desired effect on Russian missile production. “There is no single solution to this problem. At most, sanctions and export controls can limit the amount and quality of strike assets that Russia can acquire.
Regarding speculation about Russia’s dwindling missile reserves, the report asserts that Russia likely quickly used up a portion of the long-range missiles it had originally earmarked for its “own military operation”. Despite this, Russia continued to fire missiles at Ukraine, possibly by withdrawing ammunition from other theaters of operations.
Russia has modified many surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles for ground strike missions. In addition, it has continued to produce missiles during the conflict, and evidence indicates that the majority (perhaps all) of the Russian cruise missiles in Russia’s current inventory are products of post-conflict manufacture.
The report indicates that the depletion of missile stocks before the war has changed the composition of modern Russian offensive missiles. Russian missile attacks have shifted from advanced missile systems such as cruise missiles to less effective and less expensive “low” systems such as one-way attack drones such as the Shahed-136. This is in contrast to the previous periods of the Russian air war.
“However, the decline in the quality of Russian long-range strike missiles is unlikely to continue. Instead, the overall composition of Russian strike packages is likely to stabilize as the use of Russian missiles becomes strictly related to the number of missiles they can produce. But it is unlikely that Russian production of advanced cruise and ballistic missiles will drop to zero.
Moreover, the report noted that despite export controls on key microelectronic components, Russia continued to manufacture missiles by acquiring these Western-produced components via friendly third parties. This was confirmed by the Ukrainian forces, who recovered and examined the wreckage of these missiles.
The report notes that sanctions and export controls could make missile production more difficult and more expensive, limiting the number of missiles Russia can produce.
“But the result is that Russia will continue to have the capacity to build missiles and drones and will continue to launch them into Ukraine. This reality will not change until the war ends.”
Analyzing the recent Russian missile attack, the report said that unlike the targets the Russians focused on last year, Russian missile and drone operations since May have been directed at targets that are broad and less predictable.
For example, he noted Russia’s use of “some of its most advanced and expensive missiles in a failed attempt to destroy one of the Ukrainian Patriot batteries provided by the United States and Germany to protect Kiev.” The Patriots survived the attack and shot down 100% of the missiles launched by Russia,” Ukraine claims.
Furthermore, the report notes that “in other cases, assessing Russia’s target was more difficult since most of the projectiles were shot down. However, the targets appear to include a mix of critical infrastructure, command and control facilities, and other military and civilian targets. Kiev bore the brunt of the latest Russian offensive.
However, Russia has expanded its influence in recent weeks, perhaps to take advantage of Ukraine’s weaker air defense systems in other less well-defended regions such as the capital Kiev or other frontline cities that frequently see attacks.
The report indicates that Russia’s current goals are primarily to maintain Ukraine’s balance during counter-offensive operations in the south and to force Ukraine to redirect its air defense capability to defend its cities.
He praised Ukraine’s defenses against relentless Russian missile attacks by saying that Ukraine’s air defenses have done remarkably well under difficult conditions. However, at the same time, the report emphasized that the Russian military was constantly looking for openings and vulnerabilities that could be used to their advantage.
“Given Ukraine’s air defenses’ limited supply, the generalized and unpredictable strike campaign is forcing Ukraine to make difficult trade-offs between defending its cities and critical infrastructure and providing more intense air defense for its frontline forces,” the report says.
However, she stressed that active air defense would be the most reliable in countering Russian missile attacks, which would require continued support and renewal from Ukraine’s international partners.