The demand for victory in the air defense war is primarily driven by the political imperative to reduce suffering among Ukraine’s civilian population but carried through to its logical conclusion, it will prove prohibitively expensive.
In the global information war, Ukraine is under considerable pressure to demonstrate that it can defeat Russia to avoid a cut-off in foreign arms supplies. Most donor democracies have substantial political movements on both the Left and Right that want Kyiv to settle peacefully with Moscow. One aspect of this is the perceived need for Ukraine to prevail against the constant Russian strategic bombing attacks against Ukrainian civilian, energy, and water purification targets. These attacks, which rely on precision-guided cruise missiles and drones, accelerated in October and November.
However, the prevailing historical evidence is that for Ukraine to win the war, paradoxically, it must ensure that Moscow continues its barrage of missiles against civilian, rather than military targets. The demand for victory in the air defense war is primarily driven by the political imperative to reduce suffering among Ukraine’s civilian population but carried through to its logical conclusion, it will prove prohibitively expensive. This imperative is also the result of four common miscalculations regarding the effects of strategic bombing.
First, there is concern that the destruction of Ukraine’s electricity-generating facilities during the winter will demoralize the Ukrainian people and undermine their support for the war. Democracies are far more resilient to the punishment of bombing because they have already created a consensus of accepting shared suffering. Ukraine is nowhere close to desperation when compared with the 23,000 civilians killed in Great Britain during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Democracies can bear significant losses but in Ukraine, Russian missile strikes against civilian targets have inflicted relatively light losses of probably less than 1,000 casualties. Missile strikes represent a dramatic drop in marginal returns given the costs compared with artillery, which accounts for 80 percent of the over 5,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths. As of November, there is no rationing, no industrial mobilization of women, or shuttering of non-essential businesses. Despite the scale of destruction in the British Isles inflicted by bombing, far more scarcity was produced by German submarine warfare against British maritime imports
The second miscalculation is the diplomatic impact of missile attacks. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s onslaught of missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia, however tactically irrelevant, diverted coalition air missions for fear that Israeli retaliation would wreck the delicate alliance. In Ukraine’s case, because air defenses are seen as a defensive weapon, countries like Germany, France, and Italy, which are otherwise reluctant to provide assistance, are paying a significant portion of the cost of Ukraine’s air defense.
The third miscalculation results from how one calculates the offense-defense balance in a strategic bombing campaign. The first-order calculus is the replacement value of the target. Since February, Russia has launched 1,305 missiles, against energy and water facilities in Ukraine, as well as civilian-dense locations like shopping centers. These include mobile ground-launched SS-26 Iskanders with a range of 500 kilometers, air and sea-launched Kalibrs with a range of fifty kilometers, and aircraft-launched Kh-55 cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers (including the KH-101 variant). The conventional high-explosive warhead payloads are 700 kilograms, 500 kilograms, and 1,200 kilograms respectively, as compared with 985 kilograms for the SCUD-D, and 975 kilograms for the German V-2/A-4, although the newer Russian systems all strike within twenty meters to thirty meters of their target. Also, somewhat less than fifty Kh-22s (AS-4 Kitchens) were fired, as these would be reserved to strike U.S. aircraft carriers. Russia has also acquired at least 450 Shahed-136 suicide drones from Iran, half of which have been launched. These systems carry a fifty-kilogram payload up to 2,500 kilometers and the Russian-modified optical guidance is very accurate.
By virtually any measure, Russia is inflicting greater costs on Ukraine’s infrastructure than it is expending on missiles, despite some repairs being funded by NATO members. However, these facilities are in the process of decentralization and dispersion as Ukraine ratchets up its war mobilization and optimizes its energy grid, making future destruction much costlier for Russia. The lavish support provided by the West, which acted as a moral hazard and delayed wartime mobilization, has now been politically unlocked by the Russian attacks.
However, the second-order calculus is whether the cost of the intercepting missile is cheaper than the cost of the attacking missile it is intended to stop, plus the cost of repair of the intended target. The Kalibr missile, which each cost $1 million, has been intercepted by Ukrainian S-300 air defense rockets, which cost greater than $1 million each, and by the German IRIS-T, which costs $430,000 per missile. Ukraine also only has 250 S-300 missiles, not including some sent from former Warsaw Pact states (now NATO allies), and it does not manufacture the system. Russian Kh-55 missiles, which cost $1 million each, were shot down over Kyiv by unknown systems. The National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System’s (NASAMS) Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile(AMRAAM), delivered in early November, cost $1.2 million each. Shahed-136 drones cost about $20,000 per unit and although they are easily destroyed by point defense systems, they are cost-effective to use against much more expensive area defense missiles. None of these prices include the sensor and launch systems, valued between $23 million to over $100 million per battery, which are exposed to destruction by other systems like artillery and aircraft. Despite grand claims by the Armed Forces of Ukrainian, it is likely only a fraction of missiles are being intercepted, and not the seventy-three out of ninety Russian cruise missiles shot down on November 15. On the same day, the United States claimed that NASAMS missiles intercepted ten out of ten unidentified Russian missiles. Ukraine is likely spending the same amount on interceptors as Russia is spending on attack missiles because Kyiv is unable to intercept the majority of incoming volleys, particularly outside of its largest cities where it has a reduced missile defense capability.
The fourth and most critical miscalculation is the military opportunity cost. By striking economic targets, what military targets are being neglected by the Russians? Despite the world’s horror at the 1937 German bombing of Guernica, Spain during the Spanish Civil War, commemorated by artist Pablo Picasso in his 1937 painting, the Germans realized how useless these attacks were on non-combatants and instead focused on using scarce air power resources to achieve victory on the battlefield by supporting the army’s advance which produced results faster and cheaper. In effect, every Russian rocket fired strengthens Ukrainian resolve, saves a vital military target in Ukraine from being attacked, brings victory closer for Kyiv, and drains Russia’s rapidly diminishing arsenal.
So far in the conflict, Russia has expended 70 percent of its total air-to-ground and non-strategic surface-to-surface missile arsenal. Since February, Russia has launched 1,305 missiles out of its total inventory of 1,844, leaving only enough missiles (539) for at most six more days of strikes. There remain only 121 SS-26 Iskanders, 248 Kalibrs, and 170 Kh-55 rockets. Nor will Russia likely be able to replace them given its dependence on imported foreign microchips.
Russia’s arsenal of missiles and drones would be far more usefully applied against concentrations of Ukrainian artillery, air bases, railyards, and supply depots. This indicates that Russia’s bombing campaign is being conducted for theatrical effects by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s entourage rather than a rational plan implemented by a politically uncompromised military staff. Bombing gives the Russian public some satisfaction that the Kremlin is able to strike back at the Ukrainians, whose battlefield victories and stubborn resistance are otherwise sapping support for Putin’s war.
The politically satisfying temptation to inflict retribution and engage in theatrical strikes against civilian targets contributed to two of Germany’s most critical errors during World War II. The German Luftwaffe attacked Great Britain in July 1940 to neutralize the Royal Air Force (RAF) and expose the Royal Navy to aerial destruction. Absent a British air force and navy, a successful German amphibious invasion and conquest of the British Isles (Operation Sealion) was a foregone conclusion and would have led to a German victory against the Soviet Union.
Between July and August 1940, to build up its fighter strength, Great Britain chose not to defend the channel coast against German bombers and abandoned aerial control over its southern coast. This resulted in considerable losses of merchant ships, ports, and coastal radar facilities. For three weeks between mid-August and early September, the Luftwaffe targeted British air bases and aircraft factories and was on track to inflict catastrophic losses that would lead to an inevitable British defeat.
Due to poor staff work and short-sighted retaliatory measures against a deliberately provocatively RAF August 25 bombing raid on Berlin, the Germans lost confidence in their plan and proverbially flinched. The intervention of Nazi authorities to counter the appearance of impotence in the face of a British air raid shows how politics can often take precedence over prudent military strategy. On September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe shifted over 1,000 aircraft to attack civilian and symbolic targets in London, allowing the British RAF to recover its strength. The turning point occurred on September 15, when a 1,000-plane Luftwaffe raid was savaged by the RAF, leading Germany to cancel the invasion three days later and allowing the British to shift the battle to the French coast. The Germans changed to night-time bombing of non-military targets in the cities of Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Southampton, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Plymouth, and Sheffield, hoping to inflict residual costs as they bowed to strategic defeat.
Later in the war, unable to respond to the onslaught of Allied strategic bombing of German cities, Adolf Hitler pushed for a vengeance rocket program of cruise missiles (V-1) and ballistic rockets (A4/V-2), to be launched against Great Britain. Germany launched 23,172 V-1 cruise missiles (each costing 2 percent of a two-engined bomber) and 3,172 V-2 ballistic missiles (each costing 50 percent of a two-engined bomber). Together, both programs together half of the entire volume of explosives used by the German army in 1944. This was an enormously inefficient allocation of resources, given that only 16,000 persons, mostly civilians, were killed by these weapons. As a measure of resource expenditure, Germany’s rocket program ranked third after the Manhattan Project and the Anglo-American investment in radar research. Though the rocket attacks compelled a substantial diversion of Anglo-American aerial resources and urban evacuations in London and Antwerp to protect the morale of workers, their military impact was negligible. Because of the scale of the program, the opportunity cost likely shortened the war by several months.
Similarly, Russia is exposing itself to great strategic vulnerabilities once it nears the exhaustion of its SS-23 Iskander missile arsenal, which was originally designed to deliver tactical and theater nuclear weapons. Missiles are surprisingly more expensive and difficult to replace than the conventional or nuclear warheads they carry. The Soviet Union manufactured far more nuclear warheads, 55,000, than missiles, during the Cold War. Once Russia’s winter or spring offensive fails, it will have exhausted its theater missiles and be unable to conduct more than a few isolated strikes. It will have to depend on its unreliable air force to strike targets, use its poorly-tailored strategic weapons for isolated nuclear demonstrations, or concede defeat on the battlefield.
Ukraine’s success depends on Western support contingent primarily on battlefield victories that inflict unsustainable casualties on Russia. This will either lead to a negotiated solution with Vladimir Putin or his overthrow. To this end, democratic Ukraine can far better sustain the privation, losses, and brutal atrocities than Russia can. Kyiv should emphasize passive defenses like air raid shelters, despite the heart-breaking non-military devastation that will follow, and make the necessary sacrifices to focus on achieving battlefield victory. If Putin’s regime decides to make a dramatic display of power or pursue a strategy based on a shallow appreciation of Ukraine’s commitment to victory, then Kyiv should encourage these delusions as much as possible.
Attila Arslaner is a Master’s student studying Security and Defense at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. He has been invited to conferences at NORAD, and completed research contracts for the Department of National Defense. His research focus is on nuclear weapons and arms control.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.