Calculating Missiles: Commentary on Alexander Mercouris’ latest video

Alexander Mercouris published his daily commentary video on Ukrainian war, where he talks, among other, about the stockpiles and production capabilities of the Russian Federation and Western countries in regard to the expected Patriot battery delivery to Ukraine.

Cruise missile production rate

Alesander tries to assess the rate of Russian cruise missile production based on their usage in the war. The problem is, stocks are created during peacetime in order to be used in the war, so any such usage should take them into account as well. Being the military superpower, USSR had extensive stockpiles of strategic and tactical weaponry. Among them, cruise missiles were of special importance, since they allowed for long strikes into enemy rear even if enemy (i.e. NATO) was expected to have an air superiority other the Soviet Air Force. In the situation of the full-scale conventional war, cruise missiles are practically the only available resource for such strikes. This is unsimilar to what is happening in UA, where cruise missiles are the only conventional means Russia possess to strike deep into its rear, being denied any access for its air force into enemy airspace. That is why Russia must possess not only stocks of cruise missiles it produced before the war, but also massive Soviet stocks of Kh-55, Kh-22 etc. The modern, Russian made Oniks, Kalibr, R-500, are used sparingly, deluded with much older Soviet era cruise missiles and Iranian drones.

I didn’t see any indication of the proportion of the newly build cruise missiles among the ones used for the strikes on Ukrainian electricity distribution networks. But it seems like the majority are Iranian Shakhed-136 and old Soviet Kh-55’s. Pre-war Russia was supplying quite a significant number of Bastion (Oniks) missiles in the effort to rearm and reinforce its borders in the Baltics, Black Sea, North and the Pacific. This required a long preparation of mass production of those missiles. So even before the 2022, Russia already produced enough Oniks missiles to rearm existing and raise new shore-defense batteries of anti-ship missiles. I would say about two new batteries at least there created, armed with Bastion missile anti-ship systems. Each battery can have around dozen ready to fire missiles, and probably twice or three times more in its arsenals. Those missiles were adopted and tested for engagement of land targets years before the war in UA. So, already, Russia possessed hundreds of Oniks missiles intended for their shore defence units alone. In addition, some of Russian surface and underwater combat ships are outfitted with launchers capable of launching Oniks missiles. It had also provided some foreign customers with an export variant, the Yakhont missile, for its shore-based launchers or naval vessels. In other words, not only Russia had a running production of these, but also a considerable stockpile.

But the same cannot be said for any other Russian cruise missile. The Kh-55 are long out of serial production, as well as Kh-22 and their variants. The Kh-101/102 are probably in a very low-rate production. The R-500 of the Iskander-K system were being introduced in small numbers into service for the last years, and being relatively new, their stocks shouldn’t be high. So, after exhausting the immense Soviet legacy of still conditional cruise missiles, the Russian ability to launch massive strikes would be limited. Hence the Iranian drones, which are intended to close this gape.

My point is, we cannot assume that the hundreds of cruise missiles launched by Russia somehow imply its ability to simultaneously produce the same number of missiles. During a previous West-led wars in the Middle East and Africa, hundreds and thousands of cruise missiles were launched, resulting in an urgent requirement to procure large quantities of them for the following years. If we to make the same calculation of ~100 cruise missiles launched in a single day against Syria, are we to assume NATO was producing a hundred such missiles each day? Of course not. So, we simply don’t know the rate of production in Russia. It could be as much as being used, or it could be much lower.

Patriot vs cruise missiles cost and manufacturing

Alexander makes an assumption that Patriot missiles are more complex, and therefore significantly harder to mass produce than the Russian cruise missiles, based on their speed. The fact is it’s the opposite that is true. Turbojet engines of cruise missiles are much more expensive and difficult to produce than a rocket engine used by air-defence missiles. Not only that, but cruise missile guidance and navigation system is many times more complicated that the semi-active radar guidance of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. (I assume PAC-3 variant with active guidance wouldn’t be supplied to UA, since it intended against short and medium range ballistic missiles, which Russia doesn’t possess as of now, Iskander being an aero-ballistic short range missile.)

I’ll expand a little on the engine and guidance technology. The rocket engine is basically a solid block of a chemical propellant (fuel + oxidizer). It gets ignited once, and then it uniformly (generally speaking) burns until all the fuel is gone. That is it. On the other hand, jet engine is an extremely complicated mechanism, consisting of a gas turbine and related equipment, made of thousands of precisely manufactured components and control equipment. It can be controlled in flight, it can change speed, and it is much more efficient and thus provides a much greater range in the thick lower atmosphere than a ballistic missile rocket engine. Rocket engine can be done by an amateur, while jet engines are made by only handful of nations.

Guidance system of the missile is arguably its most important part. The semi-active guidance, used by Patriot (and similar) missiles requires a radar receiver to locate the radio waves reflected from the target, illuminated by the fire control radar. Being only the receiver, it is called semi-active. This is the most basic self-guidance technology, known since the post WWII times. The First Western and Soviet air-defence missiles were radar semi-guided ones. Generally speaking, Patriot missiles use the same technology, but more refined one. The S-300 uses something similar, with additional data link which provides the information from the missile’s radar receiver to the ground control station, which can made additional refinement and calculations, and then feed it back to the missile as guidance control. On the other hand, more modern systems usually use active radar guidance, meaning they carry onboard the emitting and the receiving radar. This makes the guidance system much more complicated and expensive but provides some benefits. The cruise missile system can use a mixture of guidance systems: the active radar guidance (like Kh-22, for example), terrain-following radar system with inertial and/or GPS navigation, image correlation guidance system etc. The Russian Onix missiles of the later series use active radar guidance as well as datalink and GPS navigation systems. Those are much more complicated than an air-defence semi-active guidance system.

That is why a cruise missile is much more expensive and difficult to produce than an air-defense missile, similar to that of Patriot PAC-2 (or similar). In fact, technologically speaking, AIM-120 or MICA-IR or any of the advanced air-to-air missiles West supplies to UA with medium range missile systems are much more complicated than Patriot missiles, being actively guided ones. Those more technologically complicated missiles are already running out, since they are too expensive, and their production is more complicated. Especially if they are used to intercept primitive Iranian drones. On the other hand, radar semi-guided or command guided missiles like the Russian Buk, Tor and Pantsir, are relatively cheap and easy to produce. Which is why we see Russians shooting down not only Tochka-U and HIMARS rockets (including the unguided ones), but also old, dirt-cheap Soviet 300-, 220- and 122 mm “dumb” rockets without any fear of running out of missiles.

If Russia to exchange their cruise missiles to Patriot missiles one-to-one, it would have disastrous effect. Being close analogue to the S-300PM/PMU system, it would be the same as if Russia would exchange its cruise missiles for Ukrainian Soviet-era S-300 missiles. Luckly for Russia, Patriot system is ill-suited for cruise missile intercepts (even to the greater extend that S-300). Its strong suit, a long reach and a relatively large warhead, is effective against fast and high-flying targets such as fighter jets, bombers, and to some extend ballistic missiles. On the other hand, its effectiveness against cruise missiles will be similar if not worse to that of the more advanced medium-range air-defence systems already supplied to UA by the West (I talked about the reason for it in one of my previous articles).


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