Ballistic missiles won’t make a difference in Donbass — drones will – POLITICO

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Russia’s enemies should think again.

That was the message from President Vladimir Putin as he watched the successful test-firing of an ultra-advanced intercontinental missile, dubbed Satan 2 by Western military analysts. It will be able to “defeat all modern means of missile defense”, Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian television.

But while that may make Putin muscular as his army struggles to achieve its war goals in Ukraine, this terrifying theater play the Russian military put on Wednesday will make no difference on the immediate battlefield.

Satan 2, officially named Sarmat, is the largest ballistic missile in history. It has been in development for almost two decades and is a fearsome weapon with a range of over 10,000 kilometers, a potential speed of Mach 20 and the ability to fool and dodge missile defenses by constantly changing speed and maneuvering. . It also has the capability to deploy 15 nuclear warheads in a single strike.

If, say, fired at Western Europe, a single missile could devastate 15 cities spread across several nations.

No doubt this test firing will sound the alarm among some in the West that Putin might “go nuclear”. But in the unfolding battle for Donbass, it is actually logistics and smaller and cheaper, albeit advanced, conventional weapons that will make the real difference – not intercontinental missiles.

Hence the constant public and behind-the-scenes pleas by Ukrainians for more weapons – demands that US President Joe Biden’s administration will respond to, with the announcement of $800 million in new arms supplies on Thursday. New US weapons deliveries will include 72 long-range howitzers and towing vehicles, as well as 144,000 artillery shells and more than 120 drones tailored to Ukraine’s needs.

As Russian forces seek to expand their control over Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and firmly establish a land bridge with Crimea, it is this type of weaponry — reconnaissance and armed drones, howitzers, weapons light anti-tank weapons, such as Britain’s new generation of light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs) – which will determine the outcome of future skirmishes.

Take the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was destroyed on April 14 by one of Ukraine’s Neptune missiles. The Neptune is an updated Soviet-era anti-ship missile that entered service just over a year ago. According to reports, a Turkish armed drone Bayraktar may also have played a role in the fate of the ship.

Ukrainian officials estimate that about half of the tanks the Russians have lost since Feb. 24 have been disabled or destroyed by British “fire and forget” NLAWs or the slightly heavier American version, the Javelin. Both weapons automatically guide themselves to their target after launch, allowing the shooter to move quickly after firing, and with their soft starts, it is difficult to quickly identify the launch point. Britain has sent more than 4,200 NLAWs and the Americans have provided more than 2,000 Javelins, with another 2,000 on the way, officials say.

However, the Ukrainian army recognizes that while these weapons were very effective in the battles of the first phase of the war northwest and east of kyiv, their usefulness may be reduced in the Donbass. The flat, open countryside of the region contrasts with the more forested landscape around the capital, which lends itself better to ambushes. Even Biden himself referenced the different landscape when announcing the fresh weapons shipments.

Thus, Western military strategists and Ukrainian military officials both agree that the struggle for Donbass will depend on drones. They will determine whether the Russian offensive is successful or repelled. But a big question is whether either side will have enough – although Russian forces are more likely to be short, a British military planner told me.

This importance of drones is underscored in the latest US weapons package, which includes 112 state-of-the-art and highly classified Phoenix Ghost drones. These can take out tanks and other armored vehicles, guide themselves to their targets, and are single-use. Little is known about their full capabilities, but they are relatively inexpensive to produce.

The Ukrainians say Russian forces are already deploying more Orlan-10 reconnaissance drones in the Donbass, which are used to map Ukrainian defenses and identify targets for artillery bombardment. But they fly low and risk being shot down. Similarly, Ukrainian Bayraktar drones supplied by Turkey are much more at risk in eastern Ukraine, as Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank, noted this week.

“The density of Russian ground air defense systems is also much greater here,” he says. And he warns that “Russia will likely have localized air superiority over much of Donbass in the next phase of ground operations.” Bronk predicts that Russian warplanes will have greater freedom of action in the skies above Donbass than they had near kyiv. They will be better protected by ground-based air defense systems, he adds.

But he and other military analysts question whether the Russian air force will really have the ability to exploit its greater freedom of maneuver, as it lacks precision-guided munitions and its crews have not had enough hours of training to acquire the complex skills needed. for effective close air support.

So maybe when it comes to the Ukrainian battlefield, Putin will regret not spending more hours training his pilots, or making more munitions and precision-guided drones, instead of spending billions to develop Satan 2.

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