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Ukraine Missile-Development Programs Are Challenge for Moscow

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine is developing indigenous missile capabilities aimed at deterring Russian military action in the future—and that increasingly worry Moscow.

Kyiv has revived a defense industry that once churned out advanced weapons for the Soviet Union and is now working on a series of missiles, including one that can travel up to 600 miles to hit its target—potentially putting Moscow within range of a Ukrainian strike.

Ukraine’s national-security authorities say they intend to invest billions of dollars in the projects over the coming decade, and they are triggering alarm bells in Russia.

“In the future, a Ukrainian missile attack on Moscow is quite real,” Russian Lt. Gen. Valery Zaparenko, a former senior member of Russia’s General Staff, told, a Russian media outlet. “Ukraine has the scientific, technical and production potential.”

Kyiv is now carrying out final tests of its first domestically produced medium-range cruise missile, dubbed the Neptune, which is designed for use primarily against warships. Ukrainian defense officials expect the first Neptunes to be deployed to vulnerable coastal areas by April.

An extension of a Soviet-era missile, the KH-35, which was fired from ships and planes, the Neptune is modified to strike from truck-mounted launchers at targets on both land and water. Its range is estimated to be 200 miles and its main quarry would be cruisers, destroyers and other warships.

“Ukraine having its own armament is important,” said an official from Ukroboronprom, Ukraine’s state-owned defense conglomerate, which controls the companies that designed and manufacture the Neptune.

“The country is doing everything possible to ensure that its own weapons are produced in a closed cycle on the territory of Ukraine, which poses a threat to its opponents,” the official said.

Russia has overwhelming naval superiority in the Black Sea, giving it the ability to fire at targets onshore in Ukraine from coastal waters and to conduct amphibious landings. The Neptune is aimed at raising the costs of any Russian effort to do that.

“The difference in capabilities is substantial,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister now with the Centre for Defence Strategies, a Kyiv think tank.

With Neptune squadrons settled around the coastline, “we can pretty much hit any target within our territorial waters,” he said. “Essentially, this is about being able to block the capabilities of the Russians if they try to attack.”

Western officials say an amphibious landing near Odesa and Kherson in southern Ukraine would be one option for Russian President Vladimir Putin if he widens his military campaign against Ukraine.

The U.S., NATO and Russia are caught in a diplomatic standoff over Moscow’s buildup of troops at the border with Ukraine. WSJ looks at what Russia wants and how Ukraine and its allies are preparing for a potential crisis. Photo: Andriy Dubchak/Associated Press

While Washington warns that a Russian invasion may be imminent, Moscow—which has massed more than 100,000 troops around Ukraine—denies that it plans a war. Several Russian military vessels capable of amphibious landings are currently sailing into the Black Sea from bases in the Baltic.

Ukraine used to house a significant part of the Soviet Union’s defense industries, including its ballistic missile manufacturers. During the first two decades of its independence, however, Kyiv neglected domestic defense research and development, relying on security assurances and longstanding relationships with Russian arms manufacturers.

When war broke out between Ukraine and Russian proxies in 2014, Kyiv found itself fighting with outdated technologies. Ukraine lost much of its navy after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula that year.

Illustrating Ukraine’s inability to defend its maritime borders, Russia seized Ukrainian ships and sailors in the Kerch Strait between the Azov and Black Seas in 2018 and continues to charge merchant ships to navigate the strait.

By 2018, Ukraine had redoubled efforts to revitalize its Soviet-legacy arms industry, focusing on missiles and drones that could help offset Russia’s massive advantage in aircraft and ships.

Russian fighter jets flew above a bridge over the Kerch Strait, at the entrance to the Sea of Azov, in 2018.


pavel rebrov/Reuters

Some defense analysts have called the Neptune a next-generation missile, saying that its technological characteristics create issues that Russia will have to take seriously.

Neptune’s navigation and target-acquiring signals distribute across a broad frequency band, making them difficult for ships to recognize, and the missile’s low flight profile frustrates conventional air-defense systems, said Reuben F. Johnson, an aerospace and defense technology analyst in Kyiv.

“If you’re 100 kilometers-plus, you’re going to have to start to think about how you deal with these batteries,” said Douglas Barrie, a defense fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank. “They become a priority if you’re going to try and mount any kind of maritime operation in the littoral region around Ukraine’s coast.”

Write to Brett Forrest at

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