HIMARS intercepts — My Rant

After listening to the latest video by Alexander Mercouris, a few points regarding Ukrainian strikes on the bridges in Kherson oblast made me want to address a few points.

Alexander is talking about Russian inability to intercept all of the Ukrainian rockets and missiles. While the technical ability to intercept individual targets of this type was present for a long time now, the problem is in defending against a massive volley of such targets simultaneously.

Military short and point air-defence systems were designed to intercept only a few targets at any given time. Fighter jet, attack helicopter, reconnaissance drone, a anti-surface missile… Those aren’t the targets that are expected to present themselves at large numbers all at once. So while the much more capable air/missile-defence systems are in development (and been for a long time), the army didn’t see a real need to promote this capability.

The only country that did is Israel, which developed the Iron Dome short-range rocket defence system to defend its cities and critical facilities against barrages or rockets launched by HAMAS or Hezbollah. It differs from the military oriented air-defence systems like the Russian “Tor” and “Pantsir” systems in that it was designed with defending against large numbers of targets simultaneously.

This is principally done by using a more capable radar and a guidance system which allow for a greater number of available “fire channels”. The fire channel in Russian military terminology is the capability of the system to engage one target at any given time. So if a basic Pantsir-S1 system has 2 fire channels (using both its fire control radar and its optical targeting system), it can engage up to 2 targets at once, but not more than that. By the way, those targets must lay in the same direction (+/- 45 degrees) the turret is oriented towards. Also, since the intercept probability isn’t 100%, some, more difficult targets, require not one, but 2 or more missiles to be fired at them. So the battery of Pantsirs, consisting (for example) of 4 units, can engage simultaneously up to 8 targets. Given the probability of some of the rockets passing through (failed intercept) or more than that number or rockets being launched at once, the number of Pantsirs required to repel an MLRS attack is quickly becoming unmanageable. So a specialized system is needed — hence the Iron Dome.

Still, even the Iron Dome can’t provide a 100% intercept probability, and it also has its limits. For example, if a single HIMARS launcher with 6 GMLRS (i.e. GPS-guided 240-mm MLRS/HIMARS) missiles is being used together with a single Uragan launcher with 16 unguided rockets, the total salvo will result in more rockets and missiles a four-launchers Pantsir battery can handle even theoretically, much more in reality.

As mentioned above, another problem is that a dedicated system is needed to integrate all the available air-defence systems into one coherent complex of systems. While Russian air-defence units have some kind of an integrated air-defence solution, it doesn’t necessarily means this solution is intended for use against MLRS. For example, such integration system must not only provide each launcher with a clear picture of the air situation and distribute the targets between each battery for optimal engagement. This is not enough. It must have full control of each system and full awareness of its position, orientation, ammunition etc. This kind of integration is probably doesn’t exist in the Russian Army, since the idea is to provide the batteries’ HQ’s with a situational awareness and distribute targets, but from there on each HQ will develop its own fire solutions independently. This is fine for defending against enemy air forces, but not for defending against MLRS salvos. And since each Pantsir launcher, or at best battery command vehicle has its own fire control computer and develops its own fire solutions, they are not integrated to the extend needed to intercept dozens of targets simultaneously. They just haven’t been designed for that.

The next few paragraphs are intended to demonstrate this issue with some basic calculations and a lot of assumptions, so if you aren’t interested, you are welcome to skip this part.

To explain it farther: lets assume we have two dozens of rockets/missiles coming at one target, defended by a battery of Pantsirs. Lets also assume we have a 6 vehicle battery of Pantsir-S1 (the maximum numbers of launchers per battery allowed). (While the newer and more capable models of Pantsir exist, such as SM or S2 variants, the Russian industry and Army is slow in inducting new weapons into wide service.) One of the vehicles serve as a battery command post and is able to distribute the targets amongst the rest of the battery’s launchers. Let us also assume, the effective maximum range against ~200mm rocket type targets is about 10 km, its minimal effective range is 1 km, and the probability of a successful intercept is 50%. Furthermore, let’s assume for simplicity reasons the speed of the Pantsir missile is equal to the speed of the rocket’s terminal velocity.

If so, the first intercept will happen at the distance of 10 km, while the second at 5 km. There will be no time for the third intercept attempt. At first salvo Pantsir-S1 battery will launch 12 (2×6) missiles, intercepting 6 rockets. At second salvo the battery will launch another 12 missiles, intercepting another 6 rockets. 24 – (6 + 6) = 12. Twelve rockets/missiles passed the defence.

Now let’s assume Russians are using their latest Pantsir variants, capable of simultaneous engagement of 4 targets by each. In that case, the first salvo will consist of 24 missiles (4×6) and will intercept 12 incoming rockets. The second salvo will consist of 24 missiles against 12 remaining rockets. 2 missiles per one target. In this case, the success rate will become 75%, which means 3 rockets will penetrate the defences. After that, the battery will only have 24 ready to fire missiles, and then its out of ammo and needs to be reloaded.

As we see, the attacker has the advantage. This calculation is extremely basic, but it gives us some kind of understanding of the situation. For every HIMARS with 6 rockets Russians need around 3 Pantsir-S1 systems, to have a good chance to intercept them all. For every Uragan MLR system with 16 rockets, Russians need to position a full 6 launchers battery of a latest Pantsir variant, and one or two rockets still have a chance of getting through. Anything above that is just unpractical, even if we assume Russian Army has the ability to distribute specific targets among more than one battery of Pantsir systems.

If so, why did I stated in my earlier posts that MLRS rockets are not a new nor unusual threat for the Russian air-defence systems? Because the capability is present, but not against a large number of targets at once. Even before that, Russians have successfully intercepted Ukrainian rockets, but rarely (if at all) they intercepted all of them. This is exactly the case with the HIMARS strikes. Still one difference remains, and it is giving me a pause.

Namely, my understanding was that GPS guided ammunition, such as GMLRS 70km ranged MLRS/HIMARS missiles and the 155-mm M777 howitzers’ rounds won’t be dealt by intercepts but by the jamming capabilities Russians posses. If the guidance to become jammed, all those rounds and missiles will fall all over the place, tens and hundreds of meters apart. Obviously, in such case, there will be no real danger for military or critical infrastructure targets (such as a bridge). But the very precise impact on the bridges held by Russians have demonstrated that the GPS jamming just isn’t working as intended. This is the real failure here.

Another one is the inability of Russian Air Force to effectively hunt and destroy the HIMARS launchers and other high-value artillery weapons of the Ukrainian Army. Despite the air superiority it posses. This is probably due to the high saturation of Ukrainian troops with MANPADS (man-portable air-defence systems) of the Western and Eastern origin. Since this MANPADS threat isn’t something new, we can assume some kind of a failure on the Russian part.

There are a few options to deal with MANPADS. One is using a large number of drones. The enemy will either have to expend its anti-aircraft missiles on the drones, ultimately exhausting their stocks, or, if it will ignore them, the drones can do the targeting and engagement instead of the manned combat aircraft. The other option is to develop an anti-MANPADS defence systems to be installed onboard the combat aircraft. This is the path Russia heavily favored, with its L-370 “Vitebsk” electronic countermeasure system. Russian Mi-8/17, Mi-24/35, Mi-28, Ka-52 helicopters are equipped with this system. But it seems it doesn’t do its job as expected. The Su-25 attack jets are relying on their armor and rugged construction and the usual chaff and flares to survive an odd hit from a Stinger, but not more than that. The fighter jets such as Su-30 or Su-35 have their own countermeasure systems, but it is intended against radar-guided missiles, a threat which is present at medium or high altitudes.

So, basically, Russian Air Force have found itself with its pants down so to speak, with not enough reconnaissance and armed drones, and with its anti-MANPADS defence suite being practically useless. It this situation it cannot hunt for the high-value targets such as HIMARS, as it should have been.

To summarize. Air-defence systems are performing as expected. The problem is with the jamming capabilities against the GPS-guided munition, as well as the lack of sufficient quantity and quality of drones and the deficiencies of the anti-MANPADS countermeasure systems.

It is said, the Army is getting ready to fight the last war it fought. I guess the Russian Army was in great shape to fight in Georgia of Syria, but obviously not in Ukraine. Still, every failure is a chance to improve.

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