The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on November 26, 2022, that Russia is likely removing nuclear warheads from aging Kh-55 SM missiles and launching the missiles without warheads at targets in Ukraine.
The Kh-55 SM (NATO designation AS-15 “Kent”) is a 2,500 km range, air-launched, subsonic, strategic cruise missile developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Designed by MKB Raduga, the missile, carried exclusively by Russian strategic bombers, features a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead.
In the late 1980s Raduga began work on a replacement for the Kh-55 SM featuring greater stealth with either conventional (Kh-101) or nuclear (Kh-102) warheads.
Following the end of the cold war, because of restrictions on the deployment of long-range nuclear missiles, Russia started developing a conventional variant of the Kh-55 SM, and in 2001, the Russian Air Force is believed to have green-lighted development of the Kh-555 (NATO designation AS-15 Kent C).
The Kh-555 was conceived as a Kh-55 SM upgrade, not a replacement, as was the case with the Kh-101. The Kh-555 has similar dimensions to the Kh-55 SM with a drop-down turbojet engine.
The radar signature of the Kh-555 is smaller than the Kh-55 SM. However, the Kh-555 is not a stealth missile like the Kh-101. The first flight of the Kh-101 was in 1998, and evaluation trials started in 2000.
This Kh-555 was tested and approved for production in 1999. It was adopted by the Russian Air Force in 2004.
Both the Kh-555 and Kh-101 have been used by Russian bombers during the ongoing SMO. According to the General Staff of Ukraine, before the start of the SMO on February 24, 2022, Russia had 444 Kh-101 & Kh-555 missiles. By mid-October, the stock had reduced to 213.
UK MoD Claims
The UK MoD on November 26, 2022, in a Twitter thread, stated, “Russia is likely removing the nuclear warheads from aging nuclear cruise missiles and firing the unarmed munitions at Ukraine.”
The thread goes on to claim, “The warhead had probably been substituted for ballast. Although such an inert system will still produce some damage through the missile’s kinetic energy and any unspent fuel, it is unlikely to achieve reliable effects against intended targets.”
The intent of the UK MoD Twitter thread is to give the impression that having depleted its existing stocks of cruise missiles, Russia is so desperate to strike Ukrainian infrastructure that it is willing to sacrifice its strategic deterrent.
The thread goes on to state, more rationally this time, “Russia almost certainly hopes such missiles will function as decoys and divert Ukrainian air defenses. Whatever Russia’s intent, this improvisation highlights the level of depletion in Russia’s stock of long-range missiles.”
The US government-funded Institute for the Study of War parroted the UK MoD claims tweeting, “Russian military’s likely use of a more strategic weapon system in the role of a decoy for Ukrainian air defenses corroborates ISW’s previous reporting that the Russian military has significantly depleted its arsenal of high-precision missiles.”
MoD Report Based On Half-Truths
The British intelligence report is a crude attempt at disinformation. With the progressive induction of Kh-102 missiles, many Kh-55 SM missiles are being withdrawn from their strategic role.
There is evidence to suggest that following the induction of the Kh-102 long-range, low-observable, strategic cruise missile, Russia started fitting its Kh-55 SM missiles with inert warheads as far back as 2015!
For example, the Russian Air Force in 2015 announced that four MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors had successfully knocked down a Kh-55 cruise missile during a test with the help of an A-50.
Militaries all over the world try to put retiring weapon systems to some good use.
It’s likely that Russia is using Kh-55 SM missiles, withdrawn from the strategic role and fitted with inert warheads, as decoys to bait Ukrainian AD systems into lighting up to engage the missile, revealing their positions and exposing them to attack by Su-35S fighters armed with Kh-31 missiles, which according to RuMoD remain on patrol 24×7.
Painting the sophisticated Russian deception as desperation is typical of how Western disinformation is made to sound credible by basing it on half-truths.
There is no evidence to suggest that depleting stock of cruise missiles is forcing Russia to use Kh-55 SM cruise missiles with inert warheads. At best, it is wishful thinking that the West has engaged from the very start of the SMO.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
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