The Kremenchuk shopping center strike claimed the lives of at least 18 people, 59 were injured. Russian actions have been condemned by many 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 increase.
Many signs suggest that the strike was a deliberate war crime. Even if the Russians were not targeting the mall (which cannot be completely ruled out, given the use of the Kh-22 missile), the use of a missile with a warhead weighing almost a ton in a urbanized area, with a precision radius measured in kilometers (in the oldest variants), could anyway be considered a war crime.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to try to define the objectives of such an action. Especially given the involvement of these very specific assets. The Kh-22 missile has been part of the Soviet, then Russian, arsenal since the 1960s. Similar consideration could be given to the Tu-22M3 carrier platform.
The Kh-22 missiles were developed early in the history of the Soviet Union, to provide Soviet aviation with the ability to effectively counter US aircraft carriers, considered one of the main threats in a potential scenario of an aggressive campaign that could be launched by the USSR in Europe.
The assumptions behind the use of the Kh-22 missile (NATO code name: AS-4 Kitchen) were relatively simple. Supersonic bombers Tu-22 (NATO reporting name “Blinder”) and later Tu-22M (NATO reporting name “Backfire”) were to, once carrier strike groups were detected and located , approach where the missiles could be launched from, launch a salvo (maximum range about 500 kilometers), then return to base avoiding US air defense assets.
The missiles, launched at an altitude of up to 14 kilometers, were to climb up to 22 kilometers, move at a speed of 1000 meters per second or more, then several tens of kilometers from the target, initiate a steep dive to hit the target. The latest variants of the Kh-22 missile could also have been launched in flight at low altitude.
Three main variants of the Kh-22 were developed, differing in their aim and guidance systems. The first had an active radar seeker. It was designed as an anti-ship missile, and in particular – to conduct strikes against aircraft carriers. The second variant featured a radiation-seeking passive guidance unit for SEAD missions. The third featured an intertial navigation system – it was designed to destroy stationary, strategic targets.
The Kh-22 missiles underwent upgrades in the 1970s, their trajectories and speeds being increased. The guidance system has also been modified, to improve accuracy. Sources claim that the Kh-22 (possibly the older version) can hit an area of 5 kilometers in radius, depending on how far the missile is launched. It may sound absurd now, but for a missile that could (in its previously designed mode of operation) carry a multi-megaton nuclear warhead, that might be enough.
For a fast, heavy missile using its radar in the terminal phase of flight, to find an aircraft carrier or other target as such, or with a radiation-seeking passive guidance unit – the said performance figure is not not surprising. It should be noted that the Kh-22 system, during the Cold War era, was considered one of the most serious threats that US Navy carrier battle groups could have faced. The aforementioned 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 defense system. It should be noted that a Kh-22 missile strike targeting a carrier battle group was used by Tom Clancy in his novel “Red Storm Rising”.
After the end of the Cold War, the Kh-22/Tu-22M3 combo became less important, but it was not forgotten. In the late 2010s, the Kh-32 derivative of the Kh-22 missile was put into service. The missile has an improved guidance unit, it also has an extended range and higher speed, but a smaller warhead. It was assumed that 1000 kg of explosive was not required for a PGM.
Many symptoms, however, suggest that Russia used Kh-22 missiles in Ukraine, dating back to the USSR (not the more modern Kh-32s). From Moscow’s point of view, the quantity, speed, range and lethality can be listed among the main advantages of the Kh-22 missile. A few days after the infamous Kremenchuk strike, the Russians restarted their strikes using the Kh-22 missiles, hitting targets deep in Ukrainian territory, including Kyiv. The missiles were also launched over Belarus. The Kremenchuk strike is not an isolated event involving this weapon system. Why did the “killer aircraft carrier” become a civilian killer?
There are a few possibilities here, and they should also be considered collectively, not as individual scenarios only.
The first possibility is an attack aimed at instilling a sense of terror among civilians, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure.
That wouldn’t be a surprise, given the patterns of Russian activity we’ve seen so far. Contrary to what it may seem, the Kh-22 has a much higher capacity.
An unsuccessful strike against critical infrastructure may be another explanation here.
The refinery and industrial plants are located in Kremenchuk. These could have been the main targets that were not hit, either due to the use of an outdated and low accuracy missile or due to the faulty guidance unit (which was 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 was illegal (as was the Russian invasion of Ukraine). It is now considered highly probable that another missile hit an industrial facility in Kremenchuk, in parallel.
As much as you’ll hate me…these videos actually prove that Russian Kh-22 missiles did indeed hit the Kredmash plant in #Kremenchuk.
A no: I do not justify anything, I simply describe what is visible in the images. The supermarket was either taken by the explosion or also affected. https://t.co/YyW37olc5T
— Julian Roepcke🇺🇦 (@JulianRoepcke) June 28, 2022
The third possible hypothesis may involve activities aimed at overwhelming Ukrainian air defenses – and this could also include, but not exclude, options 1 and/or 2.
Kh-22 missiles are fast and heavy. During most of their trajectory, they fly at high altitude. The above means that valuable air defense means must be used against them, such as S-300P SAM systems. And even better if the S-300’s effectors are fired in salvoes, as a miss may mean there would be no time at hand to conduct another engagement. In addition, we are dealing with a short reaction time, unlike other assets. This might have been the main reason for the high number of casualties in Kremenchuk. Finally, the fact that Russia is carrying out massive airstrikes against Ukrainian cities obliges Ukraine to be less flexible in its management of the means of air defense available. Were it not for strikes targeting civilians, air defenses would mainly be deployed in areas conducive to the protection of military infrastructure. If they were less protected, they would be much more exposed to losing their capabilities, given the attacks carried out with the use of means other than the inaccurate post-Soviet Kh-22 missiles that Russia may have in large quantities. Especially given the fact that as Ukraine depletes its stockpile of SAMs, the West would struggle to replenish those assets. The “what should we defend: cities or military means?” A dilemma sometimes arises in Polish discourses on air defence.
Let’s go back to Ukraine first. The massive entry into service of the Kh-22 missiles is bad news for Ukraine. On the one hand, this deployment would entail the loss of human lives and infrastructure (civilian and military), on the other hand, it would pose a major challenge to the already struggling Ukrainian air defenses. which effectively hinders the effort of the Russian Air Force deep into Ukrainian territory.
Some strikes do happen there, but if so, ranged munitions are involved – and Russia has a limited supply of it. This is also seen in the use of legacy missiles which are quite fast and have sufficient range.
There has been little activity from tactical aviation and army aviation assets so far, in the case of Russia. Also closer to the front line, the Russian Air Force is very cautious, often launching unguided rockets using ballistic trajectories, to immediately exit the engagement zone at a low level. Whether Ukraine receives appropriate support to counter new or old Russian engagement tactics could have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war.