Mystery US missile could be key to Ukraine retaking Kherson

US-supplied high-speed anti-radiation missiles are likely to play central role in any Ukrainian counter-attack in the south

DEFENCE AND SECURITY EDITOR 12 August 2022 • 6:05pm

high-speed anti-radiation missile

US officials say they have supplied high-speed anti-radiation missiles (pictured) to Ukraine CREDIT: Sgt Scott Stewart/Film

When Ukraine said earlier this month that it had destroyed four Russian S-300 air-defence systems and a radar station, military analysts were stunned.

These surface-to-air missile systems (SAM) are very sophisticated and deadly pieces of equipment. Their loss will be felt keenly in Moscow and experts have been left scrambling to explain how forces in the south of the country caused such destruction.

The mystery may have been answered earlier this week, when US officials said they had supplied high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) to Ukraine.

Little has been heard of this class of weapons so far in the war.

That may be about to change, given they will likely play a central role in any Ukrainian counter-attack in the south.

Like something from sci-fi

Anti-radiation missiles sound like something from science fiction; the response to a nuclear blast perhaps, used to shield civilians from atomic armageddon.

Alas, rockets such as the AGM-88 – thought to be the weapon supplied by the US – do not work against that kind of radiation.

Instead they are designed to home in on the radiated signals of ground-based SAM systems, searching the sky for incoming fighters.

Left intact, SAM systems deny a force air superiority and make it harder to attack other ground targets such as headquarters, airfields and ammunition depots. Destroying such sites, therefore, is a critical task in a military campaign and is called suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD).

Ukraine wants to turn recent small counter-attacks around Kherson into a broader counter-offensive to take back swathes of territory and perhaps threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea.

To be successful, Kyiv’s forces will need to own the skies, at least temporarily, so as to provide intimate support to colleagues on the ground pushing forwards.

For jets to operate unmolested, the SAM threat will first need to be removed, or at least reduced, which is where HARM missiles, travelling at around 2,300km an hour and therefore very difficult to shoot down, come in.

RC-135W Rivet Joint
The RAF’s RC-135W Rivet Joint is patrolling over the Black Sea and soaking up radar emissions from southern Ukraine to map Russian networks CREDIT: Sgt Si Pugsley /RAF

There are three versions of the AGM-88. Two require the jet to be able to share information with the missile, to choose a target or respond to a previously unknown threat.

Ukraine does not operate Western aircraft so cannot use these versions.

The third variant must be programmed before the jet launches. This is not ideal and relies on very good intelligence of where Russia has deployed its SAMs.

Western electronic surveillance aircraft, such as the RAF’s RC-135W Rivet Joint patrolling over the Black Sea and soaking up radar emissions from southern Ukraine to map the Russian networks, are probably helping in this regard. 

When it launched the February 24 invasion, Russia’s high-altitude Su-35S and Su-30SM fighter jets conducted regular anti-radiation missile patrols, hoping to destroy Ukraine’s SAM fleet.

However, the need to stay out of range of short- and medium-range SAMs meant the Russians launched their missiles too far away from their targets.

The Ukrainian SAM operators learned that to survive they had to briefly turn off their radars. They were rendered temporarily blind, but at least they got to fight another day.

Many expensive and sophisticated Russian missiles exploded harmlessly in the countryside as a result.

Russian missiles and rockets
Many expensive and sophisticated Russian missiles have exploded harmlessly in Ukraine CREDIT: Reuters

The Russians will have to adopt similar tactics, conducting only pop-up engagements by briefly turning their systems on to check the skies for threats.

Russia did have four battalions of long-range S-400 SAM systems in Belarus, and other such systems in the annexed territory of Crimea. Whether they are still there, or even still exist, is not known.

To defeat these systems and take back the south, Ukraine will need to plan intricate SEAD missions as the preliminary phase of any campaign.

These missions are some of the most important of any war, but they also carry great risk.

Ukrainian jets will be deliberately flying towards fully functioning Russian SAM sites.

The situation will be made even more dangerous given Ukrainian and Russian forces operate similar SAMs and aircraft, and Ukrainian forces may also be making use of captured Russian SAMs. There will be a significant risk of friendly fire.


Comment from DT reader Nigel Brown: “All very interesting, but is it not highly irresponsible, and a major threat to Ukrainian lives, to state such facts, that are useful to the Russians?

Did not President Zelensky mention this very point yesterday, when he criticised his own officials, and the global press for giving details of Ukraine’s military strategy, which will be useful to the Russians?

The press, such as this author, need to decide whose side they are on in this Ukraine vs Russia conflict and act responsibly in what they publish.

There is an alarming precedent to this.. Years ago, Time magazine proudly told the World that the CIA knew where Osama Bin Laden was, because they could track his satellite mobile phone. I wrote a letter to the magazine pointing out the irresponsibility of the article. What a surprise, Osama bin laden stopped using a satellite phone, and it took the CIA at least another 15 years to find him and 9/11 happened in the intervening period.”


  1. Although I like hearing what is being provided and talk about it.
    I also understand that not all that could be said, should be said. Surprise is a very useful tool in the battlefield. In our information age and media driven societies it can be difficult to keep something under wraps.

    • Yeah, there are a lot of military buffs out there and everyone (including me sometimes) wants to get their predictions in there. Most are just half-cooked.
      I’ve been writing back and forth through our Contact Page with a retired US military officer that predicts doom and gloom for Ukraine but I can tell from his letters that he gets info from the Kremlin. He says the UA army is “demoralized” and “hopelessly outnumbered”…
      You can lead a horse to water…;)

      • Sounds like the same stuff “Tokyo Rose” would say on the airwaves targeting the troops in the Pacific during WW2.

        I’m military buff too, and once it’s out there I look at what the stuff can do, tactics and logistics.

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