A Ukrainian operator prepares a Patriot battery for action.
Patriot vs. Kinzhal
Text: Miro Barič
Photo: Ukrainian defence forces, social networsk and other public sources
This instalment covers the May period and picks up exactly where the previous instalment ended. The Ukrainian attacks against important targets in the Russian rear and the Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities continued without pause. Patriot air defence systems, which have just arrived, have been heavily involved in their defence. Another major weapon from the West has also appeared on the scene, and there has been another black day for the Russian air force.
As we noted at the end of the previous instalment, the Ukrainian capital Kiev has enjoyed almost two months of relative calm. But then the Russian attacks resumed and continued throughout May. This time, however, with a big difference – the Russian missiles were countered by Patriot batteries. The first arrived on April 21 and the second on April 27. One of them was delivered from the USA and the other from Germany. In addition, the Netherlands provided two additional launchers to reinforce these batteries. The Russian forces decided to destroy the Patriot batteries at any cost. After a month of continuous attacks, Putin officially announced the destruction of five Patriot batteries of the two supplied ... This probably needs no further comment.
On contrast, the Russian Ch-47M2 Kinzhal missiles have lost their aura of invincibility. These were put into service by the Russians at the turn of 2017/18. Officially, they have a range of 2,000 km, reach a speed of Mach 10 and can carry a conventional or nuclear warhead. According to Russian propaganda, they are hypersonic weapons. In reality, they are ballistic missiles developed from Iskander surface-to-surface missiles and modified for launch from aircraft – specifically Tu-22M3 and MiG-31 types. With ballistic missiles, all you have to do is calculate their trajectory and send the missile their way, so to speak. Real hypersonic weapons are able to maneuver in such a way that there is no time for the defense to react to a change in trajectory.
Moscow claimed that it had deployed Kizhals against Ukraine from the very beginning of the war. However, they have only used them in small numbers. The reason for this is their high cost (reportedly $10 million) and the small number of units produced. The biggest attack took place on March 9 this year, when the Russians fired six missiles of this type at Ukraine. At least two missiles were lost last year. One Kinzhal apparently crashed due to a malfunction while still on Russian territory, another was destroyed when its carrier, a MiG-31, crashed last October while taking off from Belbek airfield in occupied Crimea.
A long list of achievements of the Ukrainian air defense battery.
The first kill
Now, for the first time, Ukrainian air defences have also destroyed Kinzhal. It happened early in the morning of May 4 over Kiev. The Economist magazine talked about it with 30-year-old Ukrainian Patriot operator Vyacheslav. He said that according to the manual, it was possible to destroy the Kinzhal, but he was only convinced when the order was given to fire the missile and the shoot-down was confirmed. Applause, joy and much swearing followed. Vyacheslav also noticed that the Kinzhal was flying about three times slower than the Russian propaganda communicated. “We have understood Patriot works. The next time, when we saw not one but six Kinzhals on our displays, it was just a matter of routine,” he told The Economist.
Vyacheslav underwent a shortened training that lasted three and a half months. He first trained in Oklahoma, USA, and then in Poland. However, according to the Ukrainians, even this training was too long. After all, Western systems are more automated and there is nothing exceptionally complex about their operation. “The IRIS-T is much less complicated system than the Buk system I was operating before. It’s like switching from a calculator to a MacBook Pro. Western air defense batteries basically do the work for you," The Economist quoted Denis Smazny, training coordinator for IRIS-T and NASAMS, as saying.
A Ukrainian operator prepares a Patriot battery for action.
The debris of the Kinzhal, whose shooting down on May 4 was mentioned by Vyacheslav, fell on a playground. Photos of the debris appeared on social networks. At first, Kiev denied the shoot-down because it did not want to reveal its capabilities to the enemy. However, the Ukraine officials eventually confirmed it. The wreckage of the Kinjal was put on display in Kiev. According to some doubters, they do not correspond to the outer shape of the missile, but according to others, they are part of the internal assembly of the Kinzhal and therefore have nothing to do with the outer shape.
What’s interesting, is the hole in the body of the downed rocket. This corresponds to the hit by the Patriot system. This is because the PAC-3 version missiles do not primarily use an explosive warhead with shrapnel that, when exploding near an enemy missile, might not destroy it. When the first versions of Patriot were deployed, it happened that the enemy missile was merely damaged and kept falling along the ballistic curve. The PAC-3 was therefore developed specifically to destroy ballistic missiles. There are 180 small nozzles on the body of the PAC-3 missile, which are used for fine maneuvering. It also has an improved active radar, so it guides itself to the target. This allows it to react quickly to the movement of an enemy missile and destroy it with a direct hit by its kinetic energy.
Illustrative photo of a MiG-31 with a Kinzhal missile underneath.
Wreckage of the Kinzhal on display in Kiev.
Six more kills
After this setback, Russia sought to destroy the Patriot batteries at all costs, or at least deplete their ammunition supply. During the course of May, Kiev faced as many as twenty attacks. Not only did their number increase, but also their intensity. In the period under review, Russia fired 16 % of the number of missiles it had fired in the previous 15 months. This is three times the average. Attacks have also been intensified. The aim was to keep the Patriot batteries in place, detect their location and then destroy them by continuous shelling. Therefore, the attacks mostly started with suicide drones, continued with cruise missiles, and ended with Kinzhals. One of the strongest attacks came on Tuesday, May 16 – this is the one where Vyacheslav mentions shooting down six Kinzhals.
Ukrainian anti-aircraft unit with Humvee vehicles and Stinger missiles.
This unit also carefully marks its achievements on its Humvees.
The Russian goal that night was clearly to overwhelm the Patriot. They fired a large number of different missiles from the north, south and east all at once. Aircraft fired Kinzhal missiles, ships fired Kalibr missiles from the Black Sea, and Iskander missiles were fired from the ground. The Ukrainian side claimed to have destroyed all the missiles despite the extremely intense attack. The Russians, on the other hand, boasted that one of their missiles destroyed a Patriot system. However, the latter cannot be destroyed in one hit because it is made up of individual elements spaced far apart. In addition to the launchers themselves, there are the control and command modules with radars, which can be several kilometres away. The Russian claim can thus be described as wishful thinking. The US Department of Defense later said that the Patriot system had suffered light damage but was repaired and fully operational again in a few days.
The activity of the Patriot system on the night of May 16 was also captured in videos that were posted live on social media. Recognizing the importance of Patriots for the protection of its cities, Ukraine’s secret service cracked down on the bloggers who posted the videos. This is because they can provide the Russians with information about the current location of the batteries, which is very sensitive. The Russians did not give up for a whole month. At the end of May came a series of attacks that took place at night, during the day, and then again at night – that is, virtually continuously. They had hardly attacked during the day until then. They also tried different tactics. For example, in addition to the different directions and heights of the attacks, cruise missiles and suicide drones circled the site near Kiev, just to lure the air defense forces into action. However, none of this led to success. Other cities, however, are not as well protected, and this is causing damage and loss of lives in them.
Ukrainian soldiers at the front with portable rockets.
Black Day of the Russian Air Force
However, despite all the workload, Ukraine was able to use its air defence systems to attack, or rather to set a trap for the Russian air force. The latter has made a habit of attacking with glide bombs from its territory into northern Ukraine with impunity. However, this changed on Saturday May 13, which became a truly black day. In fact, an entire strike group preparing to launch its deadly payload on Ukrainian targets was shot down in the Bryansk region.
Two Mi-8 helicopters, a Su-34 bomber and a Su-35 fighter hit the ground in succession. They all went down engulfed in flames and smoke. Photographs of the wreckage showed shrapnel holes and all nine crew members of these aircraft lost their lives.
To this day, it is unclear what exactly happened. Initial reports spoke of a mistake by the Russian air defenses, but official Russian sources said that the destruction of the Russian air force machines was the work of saboteurs and launched a large-scale ground operation to catch them. Unofficial Russian military bloggers, however, have been writing from the beginning about the trap set by the Ukrainian air defenses. Indeed, the Russian air force had let its guard down and was always conducting operations from its territory in the same way. The Ukrainian side has studied the Russian procedures thoroughly and has brought air defense missiles to the border of the Chernihiv region. The next time the Russian air force attempted an attack, it shot down the entire group involved. Officially, however, the Ukrainian side is silent about the whole incident. It is clear that it does not want to provide any information to the enemy.
The Russian group consisted of a Su-34 bomber preparing to drop guided glide bombs on the Chernihiv region just inside the border. At least one of the Mi-8 helicopters was in the electronic warfare version and was tasked with jamming the Ukrainian radars, creating a brief window that would allow the Su-34 to carry out its deadly mission unimpeded. The Su-35 provided fighter cover for the entire group. It is possible that the second Mi-8 was also the electronic warfare version, or was ready to rescue crew in case of an aircraft being shot down.
The first Mi-8 crashed in flames after being hit near the town of Klincy, about 50 km from the Ukrainian border. Three crew members were killed. One woman on the ground suffered burns from the falling burning debris. Another Mi-8 crashed in the Unechsky district east of the town of Klincy. Again, the entire crew of three was killed. A Su-34 crashed near the village of Nizhneye, south of Klintsy, close to the Ukrainian border. Both pilots lost their lives. Finally, the pilot of the Su-35 was killed near the village of Suretsky.
It was the worst day for the Russian Air Force since March 5, 2022, when two Su-34s, two Su-30s, two Mi-24/35 helicopters and one Mi-8 helicopter were visually confirmed downed in Ukraine. Heavy casualties are also known to have occurred in the repeated Ukrainian shelling of the Russian-occupied Chornobaivka airfield in Kherson area. The worst day for the occupiers there was March 16, 2022, when at least seven Russian helicopters were destroyed, according to satellite images.
A falling Russian Mi-8MTPR-1 from the 15th Army Aviation Brigade shot down in Bryansk Oblast on May 13.
Burning wreckage of a Russian Mi-8MTPR-1 on the ground near the village of Klincy.
A photo of this Russian Mi-8, which had crashed sometime earlier under unknown circumstances, also surfaced during May.
More Russian losses
In addition to this major incident, however, the Russian Air Force lost several other aircraft during the reporting period. On Wednesday, May 10, one Kamov Ka-52 was shot down in the Avdiivka area in the Donetsk region. Both crew members were killed. At the same time, the Ukrainian 110th Brigade reported a helicopter shoot-down in the area, apparently the same incident.
On Friday May 12, a Mi-28 helicopter crashed in the Dzhankoy district of Crimea. The cause of the crash was apparently a technical failure. The least information is available on the loss of a Ka-52, which occurred on Monday May 22 in Russia’s Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine. The circumstances of its crash are not known, all that is known is that both pilots were killed this time as well.
Among the casualties related to the war in Ukraine, one Su-24 may be counted, which was damaged on the ground of an aircraft factory in Novosibirsk, far away from the front line. The undercarriage of this aircraft was set on fire and damaged in a guerrilla attack on Monday May 8. However, it was there for a long time parked and not used. It was therefore more of a symbolic attack.
A Russian Su-24 that had been grounded for a long time in Novosibirsk.
A decommissioned Su-24 was damaged by landing gear ignition on May 8.
Storm Shadow in action
On the Ukrainian side, only one helicopter was damaged in combat missions in May. The Mi-24 returned to its base with a large hole in the vertical fin on Wednesday, May 17.
Ukrainian Mi-24 damaged on May 17 with the hole in the vertical fin.
Other Ukrainian losses are related to the delivery of new Western weapons. This is a bit of a mysterious story, so we’ll take a closer look at it. On Thursday, May 11, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that Ukraine had received Storm Shadow cruise missiles, capable of hitting targets at a range of more than 250 km. This range is enough to hit virtually all Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine. Wallace praised the scientists and engineers who made it possible to integrate them onto older Soviet-era aircraft used by the Ukrainian Air Force – in this case, the Su-24.
Storm Shadow missile was jointly developed by France and the UK in the 1990s and entered service in 2002. The French use the name SCALP-EG. The missile has a length of 5.1 m, a span of 3 m and a weight of 1,300 kg. Once launched, it drops and follows the terrain at low level. It is powered by a jet engine, with which it reaches a speed of Mach 0.8–0.9. It is guided by GPS and target information is entered on the ground before launch. Once launched, it cannot be changed. Just before the target, the missile starts to climb, drops the warhead cover and is guided by an infrared camera that is hidden under this cover during approach. Thanks to it, it recognizes the target it has entered. If it can’t find it, it aims for an open area to limit collateral damage. Storm Shadow is designed to destroy fortified targets like command posts, airfield shelters, ammunition depots, as well as ships and bridges. It has a twin warhead – the first punches a hole in the target, the second detonates with a delay until inside.
The missiles were successfully deployed by Ukraine the following day. On Friday May 12, they were used to destroy a fuel depot in the city of Luhansk, which until then had been out of range of Ukrainian weapons. Moreover, the depot was not destroyed by a direct attack – the missiles flew in an arc, turned behind Luhansk and struck unexpectedly from behind, from the east. Another interesting means supplied from the West, the ADM-160 MALD deception targets, were also used in the attack. These flying decoys amplify their image on radar and can pretend to be attacking aircraft of various types, or cruise missiles. They thus draw the attention of air defenses and allow a real attack vehicle to stealthily penetrate.
Ben Wallace undoubtedly had a hand in delivering these powerful weapons to Ukraine. His colleague Oleksiy Reznikov therefore gave him a postcard of a Su-24 with Storm Shadow missiles at a joint meeting. Reznikov published it on Thursday, May 25, in an unretouched form. This is strange because the Ukrainian Air Force tries to remove the aircraft’s identifying features in all published images. In this case, both the aircraft number and unit insignia were left. The postcard is also decorated with a large emblem of the 7th Tactical Air Force Brigade. It did not take the Russians long to launch a major missile attack on Sunday May 28 on the Starokostiantyniv airbase in Khmelnytskyi region, which is home to this unit. Stranger still, the Ukrainians, who almost never report their losses, immediately confirmed the destruction of five Su-24s. Thanks in part to these oddities, there was speculation that the destroyed planes were in fact grounded, unairworthy wrecks, and the whole action was just a decoy for Russian missiles.
Ukrainian Su-24 with Storm Shadow missiles on a postcard signed by British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
Drones over the Kremlin
Attacks similar to those on Luhansk have been taking place all month across the occupied territory in preparation for the Ukrainian offensive. In addition, however, drone strikes deep inside their territory have also attracted the attention of the Russians. On Wednesday, May 3, two drones even attacked the Kremlin directly. Both were reportedly shot down by air defenses, but one crashed into the dome of one of the buildings and caused a small fire. Moscow was also targeted at the end of the month, on Wednesday May 31. According to the official Russian statement, eight drones were attacking, five were shot down and three were disabled by jammers. What is certain is that some of the “disabled” or “downed” drones crashed on homes in an upscale neighborhood in the south of the Russian capital.
To distract attention, Russian legions operating in Ukraine also launched attacks across the border in late May. Their aim is to overthrow Putin, but these are strange bedfellows who are close to neo-Nazis. However, they are up to the task of unleashing chaos in the border area. The Russian border guards were unable to stop them, so they occupied several villages near the border. They had to withdraw troops from Ukrainian territory and deploy the air force to dislodge them. However, this did not prove very successful. An attack by a pair of Su-34s on an occupied border guard building was caught on a security camera, and the Russian pilots certainly won’t put that mission behind them. The planes attacked with a ground flight with unguided bombs and instead of hitting the building, they properly plowed the field far away from it.
Despite the intense fighting, both sides continued to exchange prisoners on a regular basis. Some of these were also interesting from the point of view of the air war over Ukraine. For example, on Saturday, May 6, it was announced that 45 soldiers had returned to Ukraine, including 42 defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. They were exchanged for three Russian pilots. In this case, therefore, the ratio for the exchange of prisoners was one to 15.
ADM-160 MALD decoy target used on 12 May in the attack on Luhansk.