If we’re lucky, Biden will hold fast, and continue down the prudent path of trying to manage this crisis without sparking off global thermonuclear war, even though this means we all have to keep watching the unbearable horror show, and that’s awfully, awfully hard to do. It’s a terrible thing to see. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’ll accept, too, that we’ll draw no comfort from the near certainty that what we’re actually witnessing is Putin making blunder after blunder while he hangs himself, and sets his nation back fifty years. He can’t win this war. Even if he seems to win, for a while, he loses. But that’s a long-term thing, and we’ll all want action now, today. Even I will.
As I write this, and imagine all that’s yet to come, I can feel us being sucked into world war, as if history itself wills it, and there’s nothing we can do. It fills me with dread. Yet there is something we can do, indeed must do. We have to stay the course. We have to resist the visceral urge to do more. We have to muster the moral courage to sit here and watch as Russia exhausts itself, doing its worst, while Putin leads his country down the road to ruin, while also, hopefully, engineering his own downfall.
This Blog, March 16, 2022
The war in the East grinds on. The Russians had to abandon their positions to the West of the Dniepro in Kherson Oblast – another brutal setback for Putin, in a foolish war of aggression that’s netted him little else – but now they’re digging in on the other side, after a Ukrainian attempt to cut off their escape seems largely to have failed, though there are reports that Russian casualties have been awful, and their losses of equipment and materiel almost catastrophic. Still, assaulting them across that very broad river, those that made it, would be a tall order for any army. Expect the Ukrainians to try anyway.
Meanwhile, tough as they are, and as skilled as they’ve proven themselves to be, the Ukrainians are suffering terrible losses for the ground they’re taking back; we aren’t really sure how terrible, but if they’re only half as bad as those taken thus far by the Russians, that’s something like 50,000 casualties. They’re also wearing down equipment, burning out artillery tubes, and chewing through stocks of advanced NATO-supplied munitions at such a prodigious rate that they’re beginning to deplete the American armoury, problems only somewhat mitigated by the repeated capture of enormous stores of inferior equipment and ammunition left behind by fleeing enemy units.
Still they press on, relentless, determined, now, to push the Russians off of every square inch of ground they’ve seized since 2014. The Ukrainians want the Donbas. They want Crimea back, and if the Russians want to capitulate and withdraw, fine, but otherwise negotiations are out of the question. After all that’s been suffered, there can be no appetite for any sort of political settlement, no face-saving compromise that would allow the Russians to sell their mindless escapade as some sort of victory back home, not now. Putin’s thuggish armies must be routed, whatever it takes, and that means fighting throughout the winter.
That sounds terrible, but from a tactical standpoint, winter isn’t all bad, provided your troops have the proper cold weather gear (which the Russians, ironically yet almost certainly, do not); it’s surely a hell of a lot easier to move armour and heavy vehicles over frozen ground than through the waist-deep muck that mires everything up to its wheel wells during the muddy season. This is what it’s been like until recently:
The soggy, miserable trench battles of the past few months, so very reminiscent of the First World War, may soon give way to a mechanized war of maneuver, characterized by rapid thrusts and encirclement operations (though there’s little sign of this yet, the ferocious, largely static artillery battle around Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast in particular looking like a re-enactment of Verdun, or Passchendaele). Any shift towards a war of mobility would almost certainly favour the Ukrainians, who seem far more adept at the planning, organization, and command and control needed for combined arms operations. If they can get across the Dniepro, the long-anticipated Russian collapse might finally begin. One can imagine well equipped, highly motivated, NATO-trained Ukrainian soldiers slashing through what are likely to be very cold, very hungry, very demoralized masses of poorly armed conscripts wearing recycled summer uniforms, many on death’s door from hypothermia, perhaps many others resorting to instinctive but ill-advised measures to stay warm, lighting bonfires that will serve only to draw drones and artillery strikes. Compared to that, stalemate must seem to Putin like an agreeable alternative, and might indeed be the best he can hope for.
On the Ukrainian home front, though, it’s a different story, and this is where Putin seems to perceive his last, best chance to pull out some sort of victory, or at least force the Ukrainians to the bargaining table. He means to break the civilian population by attacking its energy infrastructure, a campaign that would cause dire hardship in the summer months, and may be positively lethal in the East European winter. After several weeks of sustained drone and missile bombardment, the goal is already within reach, with about a third of the electricity grid disabled at any given time despite the Ukrainians’ best efforts. All Putin needs to finish the job are the massed quantities of long-range weapons that his own industry can’t seem to provide.
When the war began, the Russians, whose air force has underperformed scandalously, relied mainly upon three types of long range missile for deep strike against strategic targets. First there was the Kalibr, a cruise missile that can be launched from the air, from mobile ground-based launchers, and also from warships of the Black Sea Fleet, broadly equivalent to the U.S. Tomahawk, but not as accurate or versatile:
Second is an air-launched cruise missile designated “KH-101”, again similar to the U.S. Tomahawk, which, typically, is released against Ukrainian targets from Russian strategic bombers flying deep within Russian airspace:
Third was the Iskander ballistic missile, typically launched from large wheeled vehicles, but also available in an air-dropped version called Kinzhal:
These are expensive, complex, impossible to mass produce in a hurry (especially given the sanctions regime that has cut Russian industry off from sources of Western components, though the Russians are doing their best), and in many cases amount to overkill for the mission at hand. Moreover, stocks are running dangerously low, getting close to the red line of a minimum essential strategic reserve, which they don’t dare expend in Ukraine lest they be left with nothing for any other contingency. Sadly, an alternative has been found in the acquisition from Iran of scores of cheap and unsophisticated drones, poor man’s cruise missiles really, that cost little by comparison to something like Iskander or Kalibr, yet pack enough punch to do serious damage. Here’s one in action, a “Shahed-136”, powered along by a small piston engine to a paltry 115 MPH, and guided by satellite navigation. Its warhead is about 50 Kg of high explosive, which may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind that something like the U.S. Hellfire missile, powerful enough to lay waste to a 70-ton main battle tank, does the job with only a fifth of that.
Plodding, rather clunky drones like these are in some ways quite easily shot down – a soldier with an assault rifle can bag one if he’s in the right place at the right time – but that doesn’t matter, because they’re so utterly expendable, and they’re also difficult to acquire on radar. Launched by the dozen, they overwhelm defences, and “leakers” are inevitable, while those that are downed tend to soak up very sophisticated, western-supplied anti-aircraft missiles, the costs of which massively exceed what the Russians are spending to saturate Ukraine’s defences. The drone pictured above, practically a flying lawnmower, can be had for about $20,000. An interceptor missile like the European IRIS-T, recently acquired by Ukraine from the Germans, will run you about $430,000 per shot. Anti-aircraft guns are the obvious alternative, and given time, the Ukrainians will adjust, and learn better how to blunt the drone assault, though the threat can never be entirely defeated. For now, an unexpected lull in the drone attacks has given the Ukrainians a bit of reprieve, perhaps because the Russians have used up the first batch acquired from Iran, but more are certainly on the way. The attacks will resume before long.
More worrisome, though, is the other item on Putin’s shopping list: ballistic missiles. For decades now, the Iranians have assiduously developed a whole series of short and medium range ballistic missiles of increasing accuracy and hitting power, the better to intimidate their Gulf rivals and threaten Israel. We got our own taste of just how effective they can be following Trump’s assassination of Revolutionary Guard commander Qasem Soleimani, in response to which the Iranians launched strikes on American bases in Iraq, as discussed a while back in this space:
Western intelligence has concluded that the Russians are on the cusp of acquiring several hundred Iranian ballistic missiles, probably of the types designated Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar, the former able to loft a 500 Kg. warhead out to a range of about 300 Km., the latter able to to do the same thing out to a much greater distance of approximately 700 Km. This is a video clip which will give you some idea:
These are powerful weapons, with a “circular error probable” – a calculation of the radius within which half of the weapons fired can be expected to land – of something on the order of five metres, quite a bit less accurate than the vaunted U.S. HIMARS, but with much greater reach. Given their massive warheads, they’re more than up to the task of destroying soft targets like electrical generating stations and the numerous critical substations that compose any modern electrical power grid. There are so many points at which these vital lifelines are vulnerable.
Worse, these Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles, like the Russian Iskanders that preceded them, are almost entirely immune to interception by any system currently deployed by Ukraine. A ballistic missile is, essentially, a rocket-propelled artillery shell, wholly unlike the drones and cruise missiles that fly to their targets in the manner of small airplanes. When fired, short and medium range ballistic missiles arc high into the upper atmosphere, adhering to the same Newtonian laws of physics that govern cannonballs and hurled rocks, before arcing back earthward at speeds approaching the “hypersonic” realm of Mach 5, at anything from 4,000 to 6,000 KPH. While Ukrainian air defences have been bolstered mightily over the past few months, with various Western systems that provide excellent capabilities against the “air breathing” threat posed by both manned and unmanned aircraft, nothing in their arsenal, save a diminishing stock of older Soviet-era S-300 systems, has any ability to take out a plunging ballistic missile. The S-300 was well-regarded in its day, but it has its limits, and the Ukrainians don’t have anywhere near enough left at this point to provide an effective defence.
For that, Ukraine will need Patriot.**
Readers of a certain age will remember the Patriot missile system from Operation Desert Storm, when early versions were deployed amid much fanfare to Saudi Arabia and Israel to defend against Iraqi attacks using older Soviet ballistic missiles, referred to within the NATO code system as “SCUDS”. There was a lot of ballyhoo surrounding their use, and wild assertions were made about their successful interception rates, with Patriot earning the nickname “SCUD-Buster”, but this was mostly politically useful hype. In fact, later (albeit controversial) analysis indicated that Patriot had a very low success rate, perhaps lower than 10%, with some experts concluding that there probably wasn’t so much as a single successful SCUD interception, despite dozens of engagements. This was no surprise to those in the know; the first iterations of Patriot were meant for conventional air defence, and weren’t really optimized for anti-ballistic interception.
That, most emphatically, is no longer the case. The current production variant of Patriot, PAC-3, benefits from three subsequent decades of painstaking and hugely expensive development, resulting in a weapon of what can only be described as exquisite sophistication, sharing little beyond its name with the missiles that underperformed in the Gulf. They work, and are now thoroughly combat-tested, mainly by the Saudi Arabians, who’ve expended them by the hundred in their ongoing dirty little war with Houthi rebels in Yemen, who lob Iranian-supplied missiles at Saudi targets on a more or less weekly basis.
Here are PAC-3s in action during a test conducted a few years ago:
Just what the doctor ordered, no doubt, but here’s the rub: a single PAC-3 Patriot round costs about 4 million US dollars. Yup – that’s $US 4 million a pop. Here’s another: Patriot is an extremely complicated system that can only be operated by highly trained professionals, supported within a complex logistical operation staffed by experienced technicians and supplied with ample, and amply expensive, spares and replacement parts. Providing all this to Ukraine would cost an unholy crapload of money, and it isn’t as if the Ukrainians will be able to operate the things without months of intensive training. This is not a plug-and-play system. If we want Patriot to defend Ukraine when it matters, this winter, starting right now, the only option (barring some already ongoing secret training program that hasn’t been made public) will be to man the systems with NATO personnel, most likely Americans, as was the case 30 years ago when the first systems were rushed to Israel to counter the SCUDs.
Thus we could find ourselves in a terrible dilemma. As the opening quote from my own prior column makes clear, I’ve long argued that Western powers, and especially the United States, would be foolish to run the profoundly escalatory risk of direct military intervention in this conflict. Like the Admiral said most famously in the filmed version of The Hunt for Red October, this could get out of control, and we’d be lucky to live through it. Prudence surely dictates that we remain on the sidelines, propping up Ukraine as best we can with money, ammunition, and the weapons systems they already know how to use.
Are we really going to stand here like disinterested spectators with our thumbs lodged firmly up our own backsides, watching while Putin lays waste to a Western-leaning, democratic civil society? Will we be happy, taking months upon months to train Ukrainian forces in the use of our systems, while Kyiv goes dark and the innocent civilians crouching under the withering Russian barrage freeze en masse in the cold? That’s a hell of a thing to contemplate, isn’t it, especially after all we’ve seen already?
On the one hand, if my own prior advice had any merit, that might still be the smart thing to do, indeed probably is the smart thing to do. It might also be smart, from the standpoint of cold geopolitical calculus, to deny Ukraine the Patriot system altogether, even if the idea is to take the time needed to train them to man it themselves. There’s always the chance that the Russians might manage to capture some examples and compromise one of our most vital military assets (and even the scattered pieces of detonated missiles can betray secrets, as can a weapon’s operational success rate against various threats in different scenarios). We rely on Patriot for defence against strategic attack, particularly of the sort we now anticipate coming from China and North Korea in the Pacific theatre. The risk that it might be compromised is a grave one. I can’t really argue with that logic.
On the other hand, what, then? Is that really it? Just let the Ukrainians take their lumps? Maybe help them out as much as we can with infrastructure repair, and hope they can ride out a protracted game of ballistic missile Whac-A-Mole with Vlad the Impaler?
I have to say, I just don’t know any more. At a certain point, prudence starts to feel like cowardice, and by God, the prospect of watching those Russian bastards hammering a helpless civilian population into the Stone Age seems more than enough to spur even the most coldly calculating heart to action. At this point, I almost don’t care what prudence dictates – I just don’t see how we can bear it. Perhaps against my better judgment, I’m feeling that if ever there was an escalatory risk worth taking, the deployment of NATO forces for the limited purpose of manning Patriot batteries, and saving innocent civilians, has got to be it. After all, the mission wouldn’t involve the killing of any Russian personnel, any attack on Russian-held territory (let alone Russia proper), or any direct confrontation between opposing forces at all, but only the interception of their missiles, with our best machines pitted against theirs in a technological clash which for them would be bloodless. This would certainly be preferable to another more reckless idea being bandied about, arming the Ukrainians with some of our most potent long range offensive weapons, like the guided Army Tactical Missile System (a sort of super HIMARS) and the Tomahawk cruise missile, giving them the ability to strike deep into Russia and respond in kind. Compared to that, sending in a few of our troops to man purely defensive anti-missile systems seems a lot more, well, proportionate, doesn’t it? Perhaps even prudent?
Well, maybe. And maybe that’s just a convenient rationalization. Maybe, having thus far restricted ourselves to a carefully calibrated series of measured responses to myriad atrocities and outright Russian war crimes, the sudden drawing of an arbitrary line at massed Russian ballistic missile attacks on electrical systems is, logically, an emotional overreaction, and a dangerous one. Putin might take it as a declaration of war by NATO, with God knows what consequences. Remember, too, that once you have assets in a combat zone, they can come under attack, and may need more protection than they can provide for themselves, with the attendant risk of what the military refers to as “mission creep” – you go in to accomplish one thing, and wind up getting pulled into a wider campaign, something that augurs against taking that fateful first step. I could make a good argument that deploying defensive missile batteries well behind the front lines presents a special case, and doesn’t attract the usual risk of being pulled into a quagmire, but you never know, and I won’t fault the American policy community if that’s what drives an undoubtedly reluctant decision to hold back. Yet when it comes to this sort of pitiless mauling of defenceless victims, I guess I’ve reached the point where I’m inclined to ignore my own sage advice. I can’t take it any more. Leave it up to me, and there’ll be Patriot batteries all over the theatre just as fast as we can place them, screw the expense, and screw Putin too if he can’t take a joke, frankly.
So much for all that sophisticated analysis based on years of higher education.
NATO leaders are meeting right now to discuss how best to support Ukraine and keep the lights on, and it’s said that Patriot is, in one way or another, “under consideration”. Yeah, well. Lots of things have been “under consideration” for a while now, from M1 tanks to F-16 fighters, but nothing’s come of it, and that’s been more or less fine by me, convinced as I have been that it’s always best in such fraught situations to keep playing it safe. Perhaps cooler heads will prevail again, but if so, they’ll be cooler this time than mine can be any longer. I honestly don’t know what’s best. I just know what feels right, and that’s not always the same thing, as I once went to such lengths to make clear. What can I tell you? That was then.
**For reasons involving delicate Russo-Israeli diplomacy over the ongoing mess in Syria, and Israel’s repeated interventions in that nation with the tacit permission of Russian forces in theatre, Israel’s highly capable Iron Dome system is, for now at least, off the table. Which is a pity.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 14 2022