A special missile that destroys Russian radar has become a “critical factor” in Ukraine’s recent success after it was secretly armed on to their jets, military analysts have told The National.
Working covertly over the summer, US engineers overcame technical challenges to attach the High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) to Ukraine’s Russian-made fighters.
The technology has given the Ukrainian air force a potent counter-punch with the missile homing in on radiation transmissions at 3,200 kilometres per hour, destroying Russian radars or forcing them to shut down to avoid detection.
This has given Ukraine’s drones, missiles and aircraft safe airspace to launch attacks with the HARM system playing a significant role in Kyiv’s counter-offensive, during which government troops have retaken vast areas of occupied territory.
“What HARM does to Russian air defence is a critical factor,” said Sam Cranny-Evans, a specialist on the Russian military at the RUSI think tank. “Their radar was playing a really important role in reducing the damage from HIMARS missiles and drones which means that they really can't afford to lose them.”
Radar is vital in identifying incoming air attacks and to guide air defence systems such as the TorM2 missile system that is capable of shooting down the US-supplied HIMARS precision missiles.
Showing increased sophistication in modern warfare, the Ukrainians are sending in “strike packages” of drone and HIMARS salvos, after HARM attacks that either destroy radars or force the Russians to switch them off, blinding their defences.
The reappearance of the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, that were vulnerable to Russian air defence, also suggests the radiation missiles are restricting radar.
Key to this was the exceptionally fast adaptation of the American-made missiles to the MiG-29, Su-27 and Su-30 jets, something recently confirmed by the US Pentagon.
“That wasn’t an easy task,” said Nick Brown, director at Janes, the defence intelligence provider “Using HARM is not as easy as just strapping the missile on to a fighter and pulling the trigger. The software coding, avionics and sensors in a Sukhoi Su-30 or MiG-29 are a world away from the western fighters that the missile was designed to arm.”
Working in secrecy during the early summer, it is understood that American specialists fitted the missiles and tested them somewhere in the relative safety of western Ukraine
“It was quite a feat in that normally you would expect this sort of thing to take a very long time in terms of months or years of trials, especially in how the missile interacts with the flight control software,” said air warfare RUSI specialist, Justin Bronk. “It's highly impressive that they did it in a couple of months.”
However, he said, the attachment was like to be “extremely rudimentary” with the missile's homing abilities doing most of the work.
The National understands that HARM version being used is the AGM-88B model that has been successfully deployed during operations in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and Libya.
The 350-kilogram missile has a seeker with a range of 145km that is able to find and hit radars, sometimes even after they have been switched off.
“The anti-radiation missiles allow you to create windows of access for other aircraft to go in and do things within what would otherwise be in range of those defence systems,” said Mr Bronk. “There are certainly several Russian radars that have been pictured apparently destroyed by HARM as well as several SA15s self-propelled short-range missile air defence systems that have been damaged.”
“HARM’s entire purpose is to kill radars and the version that has entered the fight in Ukraine has a seeker set up to find radar emitters and home in on them at well over 2,000 miles per hour [3,200kph], delivering a fragmentation warhead designed to shred antennas and control buildings,” said Mr Brown of Janes.
Before the February invasion, the Russian air force was regarded as vastly superior but it then suffered losses to Ukraine's missile defence system.
Kyiv’s clever use of HARM has now resulted in almost a reversal of who controls the skies, giving it the ability to launch air strikes on Russian positions, something previously considered unthinkable.
“The presence of an anti-radiation capability in-theatre has forced the Russian forces to change their radar deployment plans and enact more complicated usage patterns, switching radars off and moving them around, degrading their situational awareness at a strategic level and enabling Ukrainian air assets a greater freedom of movement,” said Mr Brown.
That tactic, known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defence, has allowed Ukraine’s forces to deploy drones that can direct artillery fire with much greater accuracy, said Mr Bronk. “This also gives them more access to their fast jets to deliver unguided rockets and bomb attacks that will make things much harder for the Russians.”
It also shows the increased sophistication of Kyiv’s forces that has come from western supplied equipment and training, said Sam Cranny-Evans.
“The Ukrainians now have lots of different ways now to menace Russian systems whereas only back in July, before HIMARS and HARM arrived their options were to try not to die,” he said. “Now they can push back and start taking action to attack the Russians with real effectiveness.”