How “Aircraft-Carrier Killer” Became a "Killer of Civilians": Russian Missiles Strike Ukraine

Russian Tu-22M Backfire taking off.

The Russian missile strike that resulted in damage inflicted on a shopping mall by the Kh-22 air-to-surface missile has evoked voices of rage in the west. Many signs suggest that this has been a war crime. One however should also consider the actual objective of such an action. There are several possibilities on the table.

The shopping mall strike in Kremenchuk took the lives of at least 18 persons, 59 were wounded. The Russian actions were condemned by numerous representatives of Western states and structures, including POTUS Joe Biden, and Joseph Borrel, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The number of victims may go up.

Many signs suggest that the strike has been a deliberate war crime. Even if the Russians were not targeting the shopping mall (which cannot be ruled out entirely, given the use of the Kh-22 missile), the use of a missile with a warhead weighing almost a tonne in an urbanized area, with an accuracy radius measured in kilometers (in the oldest variants), could be viewed as a war crime anyway.

Despite everything, one should try and define the objectives of such action. Especially given the involvement of those very specific assets. The Kh-22 missile has been a part of the Soviet, and then Russian arsenal, since the 1960s. Similar consideration could be given to the Tu-22M3 carrier platform.

The Kh-22 missiles have been developed early in the Soviet Union's history, to grant the Soviet aviation a capability to effectively counter the US aircraft carriers, considered to be one of the primary threats in a potential scenario of an aggressive campaign that could be launched by the USSR in Europe.

Tu-22 “Blinder” - the first carrier of the Kh-22 missiles.
Photo. Bernhard Gröhl/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0.

The assumptions underlying the use of the Kh-22 missile (NATO codename: AS-4 Kitchen) were relatively simple. The supersonic Tu-22 (NATO reporting name "Blinder"), and then Tu-22M (NATO reporting name "Backfire") bombers were to, once carrier strike groups were detected and located, approach the location from where the missiles could be launched, launch a salvo (maximum range of approx. 500 kilometers), and then, return to base, avoiding the US air defence assets.

The missiles, launched at an altitude of up to 14 kilometers, were to climb up to 22 kilometers, travel at a speed of 1000 meters per second or more, and then several dozens of kilometers from the target, initiate a steep dive to hit the target. The later variants of the Kh-22 missile could also have been launched when flying at a low level.

Three main variants of Kh-22 were developed, differing in purpose, and their guidance systems. The first one had an active radar seeker. It was designed as an anti-ship missile, and in particular - to conduct strikes against the aircraft carriers. The second variant featured a passive, radiation-seeking guidance unit for SEAD missions. The third one featured an intertial navigation system - it was designed to destroy stationary, strategic targets.

Russian Tu-22M3 escorted by a Belorussian Su-30SM, long before the start of the war.

The Kh-22 missiles underwent upgrades in the 1970s, with their trajectories and velocities being increased. The guidance system was also modified, to enhance the accuracy. Sources claim that the Kh-22 (possibly the older version) can hit an area of 5 kilometers radius, depending on the range at which the missile is launched. This may seem absurd now, but for a missile that could (in its previously designed mode of operation) carry a megatonnes-powerful nuclear warhead, this could be sufficient.

For a fast and heavy missile using its radar in the terminal phase of flight, to find an aircraft carrier or other target as such, or with a passive radiation-seeking guidance unit - the said performance figure shall not be surprising. One should note that the Kh-22 system, back in the times of the Cold War, was being considered as one of the most serious threats that the US Navy's carrier strike groups could have faced. The aforesaid missiles were the first, among the group of targets defined for the F-14 Tomcats and their Phoenix missiles, as well as for the Aegis missile defence system. One should note that a Kh-22 missile strike targeting a carrier strike group has been used by Tom Clancy in his "Red Storm Rising" novel.

Kh-22NA displayed at a Museum in Ukraine.
Photo. David Holt/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

Following the end of the Cold War, the Kh-22/Tu-22M3 combo became less important, but it has not been forgotten. In the late 2010s, the Kh-32 derivative of the Kh-22 missile was commissioned. The missile features an upgraded guidance unit, it also has extended range, and higher speed, but a smaller warhead. It was assumed that 1,000 kg of explosive is not necessary for a PGM.

Many symptoms suggest, however, that Russia has been using the Kh-22 missiles in Ukraine, dating back to the USSR (and not the more modern Kh-32). From Moscow's standpoint, the quantity, speed, range, and lethality can be listed among the key advantages of the Kh-22 missile. A couple of days after the infamous strike in Kremenchuk, the Russians restarted their strikes using the Kh-22 missiles, hitting targets deep in the Ukrainian territory, Kyiv included. The missiles were being launched over Belarus as well. The strike in Kremenchuk is not an isolated event, involving this weapons system. Why did the "aircraft carrier killer" become a killer of civilians?

There are a few possibilities here, and they should also be viewed collectively, not as individual scenarios only.

The first possibility is an attack aimed at inspiring the feeling of terror among the civilians, and at the destruction of the civilian infrastructure.

This would not be a surprise, given the patterns of the Russian activity we have seen so far. Contrary to what it may seem, the Kh-22 has a far greater capability.

An unsuccessful strike against the critical infrastructure may be another explanation here.

Refinery and industrial plants are located in Kremenchuk. These could have been the primary targets that were not hit, either due to the use of an obsolete, low-accuracy missile or due to the faulty guidance unit (which has been a common scenario even for modern Russian missiles). Both options combined could also be the case here. This does not change the fact that the use of this weapon in an urbanized area has been unlawful (as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been). It is now deemed highly likely that another missile has hit an industrial facility in Kremenchuk, in parallel.

The third possible hypothesis may involve activities aimed at overwhelming the Ukrainian air defences - and this could also include, not exclude, options 1 and/or 2.

The Kh-22 missiles are fast and heavy. Throughout most of their trajectory, they fly at a high altitude. The above means that valuable air defense assets need to be used against them - such as the S-300P SAM systems. And best if the S-300 effectors are fired in salvos, as one miss may mean that there would be no time at hand to conduct another engagement. Furthermore, we are dealing with short reaction time, as opposed to other assets. This could have been the main reason behind the high victim count in Kremenchuk. Finally, the fact that Russia carries out massive air strikes against Ukrainian cities forces Ukraine to be less flexible in its management of the available air defence assets. Had it not been for the strikes targeting the civilians, the air defences would be deployed primarily in areas that are suitable to protect the military infrastructure. If these have less protection, they would be far more exposed to losing their capabilities, given the attacks carried out with the use of assets different than the inaccurate, post-Soviet Kh-22 missiles that Russia may have at its disposal in high quantities. Especially given the fact that as Ukraine depletes its SAM stockpile, the West would find it challenging to replenish these assets. The "what should we defend: cities, or military assets?" dilemma sometimes emerges in the Polish air defence-related discourses.

Let us go back to Ukraine first. Massive fielding of the Kh-22 missiles is bad news for Ukraine. On one hand, this deployment would result in loss of human lives and infrastructure (both civil, and military), on the other, it would pose a major challenge for the already struggling Ukrainian air defences. that effectively hampers the Russian Air Force’s effort deep in the Ukrainian territory.

Some strikes do happen there, but if so, then stand-off munitions are involved - and Russia has a limited stockpile of those at hand. This is visible also in the use of the legacy missiles that are fast enough, and have sufficient range.

There has been little activity of the tactical aviation and army aviation assets so far, in the case of Russia. Also closer to the frontline, the Russian air force is very cautious, often launching the unguided rockets using ballistic trajectories, to leave the engagement area immediately at a low level. Whether Ukraine would receive proper support to counter the new, or old-new Russian engagement tactics may have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war.