How Ukraine Can Use Polish-Delivered NSM Missiles in its Offensive [COMMENTARY]

Najbardziej bojowy pojazd wystawy czyli wyrzutnia rakiet przeciwokrętowych NSM z Nadbrzeżnego Dywizjonu Rakietowego.
Photo. Jarosław Ciślak/Defence24

Ukraine stands a chance to receive a major reinforcement in the form of the Coastal Missile Squadron assets from Poland - this refers to the NSM missiles. It was more than a year ago when we first discussed the pros and cons of such a scenario. It is worth revisiting the arguments made back then, and considering the benefits that the Ukrainians would gain, by acquiring the NSM system.

One of the key changes in the circumstances in Ukraine, as opposed to the last year, relates to the purpose of the armament transferred from abroad. Earlier on, the assumption had been that NATO and democratic states' support was only to help the Ukrainians to defend themselves from Russian aggression.

As the attack has also been possible from the Black Sea, we proposed a potential transfer of one of the four coastal missile batteries from Poland to Ukraine, with those batteries forming the Naval Missile Unit (MJR element) of the Polish Navy. Armament as such was considered to be a defensive system, and it could have, indeed, hamper the Russian landing operation, primarily in the Odessa region.

Landing operation as such was very much probable last year, as the Russian land offensive progressing along the Black Sea coastline was effectively stopped near Mikolayiv. The naval option was the only way the Russians could take when it comes to Odessa. The matter became urgent, as the quantity of the proprietary Ukrainian Neptun anti-ship missiles launched from the land was limited. This does not change the fact that two missiles as such were enough to sink the Black Sea Fleet flagship, the "Moskva" cruiser.

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The decision on the transfer of one of the four MJR batteries to Ukraine was not made back then. Fortunately, the Ukrainian coastal defence units received reinforcements back then, in the form of the Danish Harpoon launchers, and British Brimstone launchers - which also proven to be an effective countermeasure that was used to neutralize small, but fast watercraft.

Why Ukraine would need NSMs?

Missiles currently operated by Ukraine are entirely sufficient to keep the Russian vessels away from the Ukrainian coast. However, that armament is insufficient for offensive operations, for example, involving keeping the Russian vessels at their bases, or destroying them - at the naval bases. This is prevented by range shortage, and by the fact that the anti-ship systems currently operated by Ukraine are not "smart" enough.

To attack the port in Sevastopol, a range of at least 230 kilometres is needed, if the missiles are deployed to optimum launch sites, in the area controlled by the Ukrainians, near Kherson. Selecting a specific target is yet another challenge here. Even though at sea this is easy, as the seeker's radar can easily distinguish a warship there, harbours may be a lot more troublesome in that regard. The vessels staying there are concentrated, and they are also placed over the background made out of the "metal" harbour infrastructure. Finding a specific vessel with the use of the missile's radar may be challenging, or even impossible in this environment.

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Such circumstance is not that big of a challenge for the NSM effectors, for two reasons. First, their range probably exceeds 220 kilometers (thus, they can engage targets at distances longer than the Danish Harpoons). They can even reach Sevastopol, with a proper selection of launch sites. Secondly, NSM is a smart munition. The missile can distinguish the designated warship, or even hit a specific element of that warship during the engagement. This is possible thanks to the thermal imaging seeker of the missile, which can use an encoded thermal signature of the engaged warship, with sensitive points also being designated here. A seeker unit as such is passive, it cannot be detected by the ship's radar warning receivers.

The stealthy design of the NSM missile is another advantage of the "Polish" coastal batteries. The low RCS of the missie diminishes the probability of detection by the missile defence radars. This is pushed even further by the terminal phase of the NSM engagement, where it operates as a sea skimmer.

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If the MJR assets are transferred, the Ukrainians would obtain the capability to covertly engage the key Russian warships hiding in Sevastopol. The above does not concern solely the surface combatants, but support vessels, transporting ammunition, or fleet tankers, as well.

NSMs, sea-skimming, would not be hampered by anything when engaging targets as such in ports. The ships at the pier would not be able to defend themselves on their own, due to their lack of situational awareness, and due to the sensitive surroundings that, should the missiles miss their targets, could also suffer from significant damage. It is really difficult to imagine 30 mm CIWS, with a rate of fire of 4,000-5,000 rounds per minute are used in a crowded port, trying to shoot down missiles flying one meter above the water.

The only way to defend them would be to deploy Ground Based Air Defence assets there. The experience shows, however, that systems as such would even find UAVs to be a challenging target. Here, they would be tasked with acting against sea-skimming stealth missiles.

That may be a major threat for the Russians, as a single hit in the harbour may provoke a chain reaction (as in the case of the sinking of the "Saratov" 1171 landing craft on 24th March 2022, in the port of Berdiansk). The explosion was strong enough to destroy the engaged target, damage the pier, and also damage two Ropukha-class vessels moored nearby.

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Furthermore, one should remember that NSM missiles can also be used against land targets, thanks to the GPS guidance unit. Not only would the vessels be facing a threat, but the same could be said about the harbour's critical infrastructure. The Ukrainians would face an easy task, as they are perfectly aware of the layout of the fuel storage, or munitions storage areas, as well as the arrangement of areas where hazardous goods are handled.

The above means that a single NSM battery could easily eliminate the Sevastopol naval base. That would not be a lethal blow, as the Black Sea Fleet already enjoys a very limited capability to operate in the Black Sea, west of Crimea. However, it would be a major blow to the Russian Navy's reputation, unexplainable for the Kremlin propagandists.

The real value of the "Polish" coastal battery would be exposed, should an operation be launched, aimed to liberate the Crimean Peninsula. An operation as such would be preceded by the destruction of the Kerch Strait Bridge. Ukraine already has some assets to do that - such as the Storm Shadow cruise missiles. The Russians would try to fill in the gap by sea transport, moving supplies, and reinforcements by warships and transport vessels.

To cut off this line, specialized long-range assets would be required, such as the NSM launchers. A strike as such, targeting the transport vessels would be tragic for the Russians - fuel and munitions transported by them would amplify the destructive power of the missile's warhead. The Polish battery could potentially cut off the maritime supply routes, accelerating the decline of the Russian garrison in Crimea, and the process through which the war could come to an end.

What could be transferred to Ukraine?

The Polish Naval Missile Unit currently operates 4 coastal missile batteries, 3 fire units each, including 1 launcher, and 1 C2 vehicle. As one launcher carries 4 NSMs, the whole Naval Missile Unit has 48 missiles as such ready for launch and another 48 on the transporter vehicles (2 full sets of missiles).

Transferring a single battery to the Ukrainians, with up to 24 missiles (12 on the launchers, 12 in the stockpile) would be the least problematic scenario. That would not create any chaos, as two operational batteries would remain ready to defend the Polish coast. The third battery could ask as an expeditionary force, dealing with allied commitments e.g. in the Baltic States.

The transfer method remains identical to the one we proposed last year. Three processes need to be launched here: technical, training, and organizational. It needs to be determined as to what would need to be changed in the system, before transferring it to a non-NATO state (which is quite simple), training methodology for accelerated training would need to be defined (for the Ukrainians, adopting systems that remain much more complex, that matter would also be easy), and finally, the optimal transport method for the fire units would need to be chosen, for them to reach Ukraine.

A decision is the only step to the made - and it is closer and closer.