Russia's growing missile arsenal threatens to tip the scales of war

Russia is reportedly about to receive hundreds of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles from Iran for its war against Ukraine.

The deliveries will include Iran's Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with a declared range of 300 and over 700 kilometers, respectively.

They are very difficult to take down and have the potential to seriously impact the Ukrainian military effort. Not for the first time, a lazy Europe has allowed its enemies to dictate the pace of a war it cannot afford to lose.

While Ukrainian officials have so far not detected the use of Iranian missiles by Russia, their possible deployment would pose a serious challenge to Kyiv's forces at a time when they are already strained by severe ammunition and manpower shortages.

Conversely, Russia currently has the upper hand in both of these critical areas and is taking advantage of this situation to conduct offensive operations and slowly advance into the Donbas areas.

The reduction of forces has become the driving force and the most characteristic feature of this conflict. This is largely due to near-ubiquitous surveillance, made possible in particular by aerial sensors associated with artillery, which favors indirect fire over maneuvers. With both countries vying for fire superiority, a batch of several hundred ballistic missiles would give Russia a significant advantage both quantitatively and qualitatively.

First, they will replenish Moscow's ballistic missile stockpile with the equivalent of more than a year's domestic production, as Russia has managed to increase production of its Iskander-M ballistic missile system from seven to 30 munitions per month by 2023. Thus the Russian military will have enough missiles to increase its use and expand it over time.

Second, they will diversify Moscow's missile arsenal and allow more frequent strikes at greater distances, delivering very powerful warheads with good accuracy.

This means that Ukrainian critical infrastructure and military facilities (ie logistics and training facilities, air bases, command posts, etc.) will be seriously threatened. The impact on operations, particularly in terms of proper command and control and stable supply to the front line, could be significant.

Third, given their supersonic speed and flight profile, ballistic missiles are more difficult to intercept than air defenses and require high-tech air defense systems such as the US Patriot and the Franco-Italian SAMP/T, of which Ukraine possesses only a few.

Therefore, Iranian ballistic missiles would not only pose a significant threat but would also deplete Ukraine's stockpile of high-tech interceptors, creating potential air defense vulnerabilities that Russia could exploit with other means of attack, such as cruise missiles and cruise missiles.

It's an approach Russia has already tested with random salvos combining large numbers of slow-moving Shahid one-way attack munitions and air- or ship-launched cruise missiles.

However, the consequences of Iran's increasing arms shipments to Russia go beyond the immediate impact on the battlefield.

The sale of missiles benefits Tehran not only because it receives money, but also because it can indirectly test its capabilities in real conditions and gain access to valuable data on their performance against some of the most advanced air defense systems in the West. This would allow Iranian forces and engineers to learn important lessons and refine their missile arsenal ahead of potential conflicts in the future.

Moreover, the ability to supply vast quantities of fairly good military equipment to Russia, despite long-standing international sanctions, raises the profile of Iran's defense industry and strengthens Iran's image as a world leader among anti-Western states.

In addition to the ability to defend against continuous missile and drone attacks and attack Russian frontline forces with artillery, Ukraine urgently needs the ability to intercept and destroy targets in depth, including within Russia's borders.

Reducing the threat of Ukrainian strikes allows the Russian military to move personnel and equipment without fear of attack, rotate units, create training and storage facilities, and free up valuable air defense assets for more important areas.

Although Ukrainian drones have achieved important successes against energy infrastructure, industrial facilities, and airfields in Russia, they cannot replace the capabilities offered by the missiles, which fly much faster, are harder to intercept, and carry larger and more destructive warheads.

For these reasons, Western countries urgently need to (re)invest in missile production capacity and provide Kiev with more long-range land-attack cruise missiles (such as the Anglo-French Storm Shadow and the German Taurus.) After two years of brutal Russian aggression and clear lessons on the battlefield, however, it seems that many European governments have not yet fully realized the urgency of this need and have not acted urgently.

This political lethargy in Europe goes hand in hand with self-imposed red lines on how missiles should be used. The German government's ban on providing Kiev with Taurus missiles is a case in point, as it significantly limits Ukraine's military capabilities and ultimately works against the same political goal often repeated by Western politicians: a Ukrainian victory.

Members of the German government, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, often justified their position by explaining the possible risks of expanding the war and alleged technical problems with Taurus integration. The first reason proves that Putin's de-escalation strategy is working, while the second is questionable, to say the least.

In comparison, France and the United Kingdom were able to integrate the Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, using TERCOM (Terrain Contour Matching) maps and DSMAC (Digital Scene Mapping and Area Correlation) imagery, into Ukrainian Su-24 aircraft in a matter of months. It's certainly not forever.

However, there is also good news. France announced the creation of a coalition to help Ukraine, and French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu recently confirmed to the parliamentary defense committee that the government is working to "move to a military economy in the capability segments, including long-range strikes," including a possible increase of the production of SCALP-EG missiles.

This means that contracts must be concluded with SCALP's manufacturer, the European missile consortium MBDA. Yet missile production is particularly complex given the complexity of the systems in terms of know-how and components.

According to defense industry sources, challenges include a lack of orders, supply chain issues, and a shortage of skilled manpower, among others, all of which contribute to the lengthy production process.

Hopefully, these decisions will also encourage the Biden administration to eventually lift its controversial ban on providing Ukraine with the 300-kilometer version of the longer-range ATACM quasi-ballistic missile.

The longer this takes, the higher the price Ukraine will pay.

The West gambles and gamblers can lose. /BGNES


Federico Borsari, Center for European Policy Analysis