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Ukraine Risking Nuclear Conflict

It remains murky why Ukraine attacked Russia's strategic radars.  The Ukrainians say that these radars play a role in Russian air attacks on Ukrainian territory.

4 mins read
BMEWS solid-state phased-array radar at RAF Fylingdales

On May 23rd drones launched from Ukraine hit a Russian strategic radar station in Armavir, Russia.  This attack is not the first time that nuclear facilities in Russia have been targeted and hit, but it represents a significant escalation that could trigger Russian retaliation on NATO suppliers or even a nuclear response by Russia.  The core of Russian angst about Ukraine is that the country would become a NATO base for nuclear missiles.

It isn’t clear if the attack was entirely on Ukraine’s initiative or whether Ukraine’s NATO partners were involved in the attack.

Armavir consists of two long-range phased-array radars for warning of a nuclear attack.  This site is in southern Russia in Krasnodar, Krai and is on the grounds of the Baranovsky Air Base located there.  One of the radars covers the southwest, and the other faces southeast.  This radar site replaces earlier strategic radar sites in Ukraine that were abandoned around 2012, and another one no longer operational in Azerbaijan.

Officially the radar is listed as UHF which means either 1ghz or below in frequency, which includes L Band at 1 Ghz.  L Band radars offer a means of detecting stealth aircraft. Stealth platforms are optimized to have a reduced radar signature in the X-band frequency range. These radars also can detect small objects that fly low to avoid radar detection, such as  US-Tomahawk cruise missiles.  US B-2 bombers, F-22 and F-35 aircraft, and the new long-range B-3 strike bomber are stealth platforms and all are nuclear mission capable.

Names of Russian Strategic Radar Sites

Russia has 10 strategic radars to protect the country.  These radars date from 2017.  They have a range of 6,000 km (3,728 miles) and are known as Voronezh-DM. The radars are designed to detect cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and attacks from space.  The radars are linked to the new S-500 air defense system and to other air defenses.

The drones fired at the radar flew 1,800 km (1,118 miles).  This is well beyond Ukraine’s surveillance capabilities, although the radar site could have been located through commercial satellite imagery.  The location of Russia’s strategic radar sites is public information.

Initially Ukrainian sources claimed that the drones launched at Armavir were HUR type, that is, Ukrainian built.  However, the Russians have recovered partially destroyed drones that are not local, Ukrainian products.  The recovered drones are Portuguese-made Tekever AR3 drones. Portugal announced it was supplying these drones last June after the UK agreed to pay for them.  The fact that NATO weapons were used in the attack is deeply concerning should the Russians decide to retaliate.

So far Russia has said very little about the attack.  News reports and Telegram-supplied information says that the drone crashed into a building adjacent to the radar. Photos show damage to that building which houses the operating personnel for the radar that likely includes its communications for Russia’s air defenses.  The radar also appears to be damaged.

It isn’t known how many drones were used in the attack and how many were shot down.  It appears at least one or two of the drones were hit, judging from photos now appearing on the Russian defense channel on Telegram.

The US also has ballistic missile radar warning sites known as PAVE-PAWS maintained by the U.S. Space Force and recently replaced by the Solid State Phased Array Radar System

The Ukrainian attack represents the first time that strategic nuclear defense installations have been attacked in Russia or any other country.

There has long been a debate among defense experts on the issue of “launch on warning.”  Had the Russians believed this was a NATO attack on their nuclear facilities, that could have triggered a nuclear response.

The nuclear issue is extraordinarily sensitive nowadays as Ukraine’s army appears nearing collapse.  US legislators and NATO’s leader are urging Ukraine to fire long range missiles at Russian territory means that the Russians will not be able to distinguish if a missile has a conventional or nuclear warhead.  The Russians have been concerned, especially since 2019, that the US was secretly preparing a nuclear arsenal in eastern Europe, primarily in Poland and Romania.  Recent Polish requests for NATO nuclear weapons to be positioned in that country, partly in response to Russian deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, is concerning.

In 2019 Russian President Putin warned that the US was installing MK-41 vertical launchers in Romania and Poland that could fire either air defense missiles or launch Tomahawk cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.  Officially Tomahawk cruise missiles have conventional warheads, although they originally were nuclear.  The US says that it first stored the nuclear warheads after replacing them with conventional munitions, and eventually got rid of them.  MK-41 launchers are part of the AEGIS-Ashore air defense complexes for Romania and Poland. and the same launchers are used on US AEGIS cruisers and destroyers.

Europe and Russia were protected by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between the US and USSR that went into effect in December, 1987.  INF restricted all missiles with a range between 500 to 5000 km (310 to 3,106 miles) and featured a strong verification and inspection scheme.  The US claimed the Russians were developing a new cruise missile called the 9M729 in Russia (NATO SSC-8), said to be based on the Kinzhal naval missile, which allegedly violated the INF Treaty.  The Russians said the 9M729 operated below the 500 km threshold, although the US claimed it had evidence the Russians were cheating.  It was on this basis that in 2018 President Trump announced the US would withdraw from the INF Treaty. The withdraw officially took place in August, 2019.  The Russians then also formally pulled out of the treaty.

Concern about nuclear weapons in eastern Europe and, potentially in future in Ukraine, plays an outsized role in Russia’s strategic outlook and their assessment of US and NATO intentions.  This was made clear in late December, 2021 in the run up to the Russian army invasion of Ukraine, when President Putin addressed both President Biden and NATO proposing that Russia, NATO and the United States consider removing US and NATO weapons from eastern Europe, especially Poland and Romania. The Putin appeal went nowhere and Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

It remains murky why Ukraine attacked Russia’s strategic radars.  The Ukrainians say that these radars play a role in Russian air attacks on Ukrainian territory. More likely a case can be made that the Russian radars could track ATACMS missiles or even, in future, German Taurus missiles.  Taking out these radars, for Ukraine, would help expose Russia to long range missile attacks launched from Ukrainian territory.

While the Ukrainians may see such an attack as preparing the ground for more attempts to target Russia, trying to offset losses at home, such attacks also raise anxiety levels in Russia that could lead to attacks on NATO facilities or even tactical nuclear weapons use. 

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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