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Putin’s ‘undefeatable’ missile was a costly illusion – the West can’t make the same mistake

As Western supplies of high-tech weapons flow into Ukraine in preparation for the anticipated spring offensive, Russia is also trying to bolster its arsenal.

It has resorted to trading SU-35 fighter jets to Iran in return for continued supply of Iranian Shahid 136 attack drones, and also fielded state-of-the-art missile systems for the first time.

But will these radical steps make a decisive impact on the course of the war?

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The Iranian attack drones are not sophisticated, or expensive, but do enable Russia to maintain nightly pressure on Ukraine’s limited supplies of air defence missiles.

However, such missiles are more of an “irritation” to Ukraine and have limited military utility.

In contrast, Russia’s latest generation of high-tech weapons – the KILLJOY Air-Launched Hypersonic ballistic missile, described by President Vladimir Putin as “undefeatable” – appeared to offer Moscow’s forces the chance to scythe through Ukrainian defences with impunity.

Before the KILLJOY was used, the West could only speculate as to the missile’s capabilities, and thus it held considerable mystique and deterrence capability.

However, the moment it was used, the West was able to analyse its capability, its limitations and its vulnerabilities – and on 3 May, it appears the Ukrainians managed to shoot one down, with several more suffering a similar fate over the following days.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, a sailor is on duty onboard of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate of the Russian navy. Admiral Gorshkov, which is armed with the top-of-the-line Zircon hypersonic missiles, set off on a trans-ocean cruise last week. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
Image:
A Russian sailor on a navy frigate said to be armed with hypersonic weapons

West can’t risk exposing their hand

The KILLJOY would have taken years – and billions of dollars – to develop, yet much of the value lay in its potential.

Nations invest in credible military capability to deter potential aggressors. Secret weapon programmes sow seeds of doubt in the minds of enemies, even if actual capability falls some way short of that anticipated.

As a result, the West is very careful to limit the level of combat capability deployed to avoid “exposing their hand”, and limit the potential for donated weapons to find their way onto the local black market – as is the risk in Ukraine.

Western war fighters routinely do not have access to the very latest capability in conflicts such as Afghanistan, to preserve state-of-the-art high-tech weapons for any future war of national survival.

The UK’s Storm Shadow is a very capable missile, but the technology is 25 years old, and the UK is planning a midlife upgrade in the near future.

As a result, although the British government’s decision to gift Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine offered them a unique long-range strike capability, the UK was limiting the risk of compromising national capability.

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What are Storm Shadow missiles?

Likewise, the US Patriot air defence system was first fielded in 1986, and although it has been upgraded regularly, the system deployed into Ukraine is very unlikely to be the latest generation.

Russia has claimed to have destroyed a Patriot system defending Kyiv, potentially exposing the limitations of this potent air defence system.

However, if indeed the Patriot was damaged in a Russian attack, the damage must have been light as the Patriot appears to be back up and running again.

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Holding back military capability is not a new concept. In the Second World War, the allies cracked the Enigma code, which enabled intercept of all German traffic.

However, the allies were very careful to limit exploitation of Enigma – as if Germany knew it had been compromised, this vital intelligence would be lost to the allies.

Lives were lost to maintain this most sensitive secret, and that same philosophy prevails today.

Technology provides the West an asymmetric military advantage, which must be protected.

Putin’s folly was to believe his own hype – the “undefeatable” missile has proven an expensive illusion.

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