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Analysis: How Russia’s precision strike capability is evolving in Ukraine

31st May 2024 - 17:59 GMT | by Sam Cranny-Evans


The 9K720 Iskander has been used to strike Ukrainian assets ranging from warehouses to missile launchers. (Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Wikimedia Commons)

From the frontlines to power stations, Russia ability to target high-level targets in Ukraine has evolved significantly, as it expands missile production and deploys new systems to deliver lethal effects.

Prior to February 2022, Russia was known to be developing three forms of precision strike: two were related to the delivery of combat aims and known as the reconnaissance-strike and reconnaissance-fire (recce-strike/fire) contours. The third was essentially Russia’s selection of air-, ship-, and land-launched cruise and ballistic missiles, which were expected to be employed in a Strategic Operation for the Destruction of Critically Important Targets (SODCIT).

The SODCIT was intended to inflict material and psychological damage upon an opponent in the opening phases of a conflict in a bid to paralyse them, prevent further escalation or set better conditions for the following war.

All three are now used at scale in Ukraine, although often not in the original forms that were expected, indicating that Russia has adapted to the nature of the war. It is now able to inflict strikes against Ukrainian military targets throughout the country’s operational depth and has effectively delivered waves against critically important targets since the first day of the invasion.

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Prior to the war, recce-strike was understood to combine long-range precision strike systems like the 9M723 short-range ballistic missiles fired by the 9K720 Iskander complex, with targeting information from uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct engagements against high-value targets in real time.

To do this, Iskander employs a vehicle that can receive data from Russia’s Saggitarius reconnaissance command and control system, which is used by Russia’s reconnaissance formations to share data in real time.

The 9M723 has a range of 500km with a 700kg warhead and is reportedly capable of striking within 5–10m of a target. Iskander has been used to strike many targets in Ukraine, from logistics warehouses to the missile launchers used by Patriot air defence systems. Russian forces have added Tornado-S missiles to the recce-strike mix when dealing with multiple targets such as a group of helicopters on the ground. One munition used for this purpose appears to be the D-30SN, which is a glide bomb that can be deployed by air and fired from the Tornado-S.

Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine following Russian shelling by a 9M723 missile. (Photo: National Police of Ukraine)

Recce-strike actions were posted relatively infrequently by the Russian MoD, however, from November 2023 there has been a steady stream of videos showing successful strikes against Patriot batteries and HIMARS launchers on roads, Ukrainian helicopters and concentrations of equipment.

This has coincided with Ukraine depleting its short-range air defence interceptors, which may have provided Russia with a window for the use of long-range UAVs to range over Ukraine’s operational rear and locate targets.

The preferred engagement methodology appears to be to locate systems in operation before following them back to a static location, before conducting an engagement. This may be to allow for the preparation time of around one minute for the missile and flight time to the target. Russia has exploited this window of opportunity and it is unclear whether Ukraine will be able to push the UAVs back once it has received additional air defence missiles.

The evolution of Russia’s recce-fire contours

Recce-fire actions have been more frequent and consistent. The most prevalent combination of assets as originally envisaged by the recce-fire concept has been the Orlan-30 UAV with 2S5 Hyacinth and Msta howitzers firing the 9K25 Krasnopol laser guided 152mm projectile, which has a range up to 40km, depending on which system it is fired from. The 2S4 Tulip 240mm mortar has also been observed conducting engagements with the “Smelchak” or Daredevil laser guided round, with a range of 9km.

The Tulip is often used against fortified positions. The Daredevil round weighs 125kg at launch and has been proven to be very capable of destroying protected targets in the Soviet–Afghan war.

The 2S5 Hyacinth was developed in the late 1960s and featured enhance tactical mobility and greater survivability against counter-battery fire than comparable towed guns, according to Shephard Defence Insight. (Photo: Uraltransmash)

Krasnopol has a smaller warhead that means it is more suitable in a counter-battery role against Ukrainian howitzers, which is a role that it can frequently be observed conducting. The recce-fire contour, however, has been joined by the Lancet loitering munition which has been used to engage Ukrainian targets up to 50km behind the frontline.

Lancet comes in several variants and is a very accurate loitering munition that has been deployed at least 187 times in May, 159 in April and 176 in March of this year. It appears to have played a prominent role in disrupting Ukrainian reinforcements following Russia’s Kharkiv offensive in May.

Overall, it seems that Russia’s recce-fire contours have evolved significantly and are delivering lethal effects throughout Ukraine’s battlespace. Coordination through UAVs is pivotal, which indicates the critical role - once again - that short range air defence systems play on the modern battlefield.

Russian change of tactics heaps further pressure on Ukraine

Finally, Russia’s suite of long-range cruise missiles has been used extensively since the start of the war. They have been used to engage Ukraine’s defence industry and in targeting the country’s power infrastructure. This has had two purposes, one is to make life uncomfortable for Ukrainians, the other is to damage Ukraine’s defence industry by denying it power.

The SODCIT conducted at the start of the war was relatively effective in destroying Ukrainian air defences and its power infrastructure, however, much of the damage has since been repaired. An influx of air defence systems and more missiles for Ukraine’s S-300s reduced the efficacy of Russia’s strikes and led to the introduction of the Shahed one-way attack drones as a means to complicate Ukraine’s air defence challenge.

Much of Russia’s efforts were focused on Kyiv until mid-2023, which meant that air defences could be concentrated there too, and the impact was minimised. From mid-2023, however, Russia expanded the scope of its strikes and Ukraine began to grow short on air defence missiles.

In March 2024, a wave of Russian strikes decisively engaged much of the energy infrastructure serving the Kharkiv oblast, leading the CEO of one of the affected energy companies to comment on the unusual accuracy of the strikes. Russia has also expanded production of its cruise missiles and appears to have deployed new systems such as the Kh-69, which may be harder to detect than the older, Soviet-vintage missiles.

In sum, Russia has developed a suite of precision-strike capabilities that are a central element of its war effort in Ukraine. Altogether, they demonstrate the importance of layered and well-resourced air defences that can be deployed against large quantities of targets over a long period of time.

Ukraine will need to rebuild its short-range air defence capabilities if it is to degrade Russia’s precision strike from the frontlines to the power stations. Doing so will be critical as it has emerged as the primary means for Russia to exert pressure on Ukrainian society and its armed forces.

Shephard's Eurosatory 2024 coverage is sponsored by:

BAE Systems
Sam Cranny-Evans


Sam Cranny-Evans

Sam is a freelance defence analyst and consultant, as well as a RUSI Associate Fellow. …

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