Analysis: Ukraine rebels claim Tochka ballistic missile shoot-down

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Nicholas de Larrinaga, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly
02 February 2015


East Ukrainian rebels claimed to have shot down a OTR-21 Tochka (SS-21 'Scarab'/9M79) short-range ballistic missile near Luhansk on 1/2 February Source: LifeNews
Ukrainian rebels claim to have shot down a 9M79-series tactical ballistic missile (TMB) fired from a 9K79 Tochka (SS-21 'Scarab') series missile system near Luhansk on the night of 1/2 February.

The claim, if true, would indicate that anti-Kiev forces have an operational missile defence capability. However, analysis byIHS Jane's indicates the rebels are unlikely to have downed the missile.

The news does, nevertheless, appear to confirm that Kiev is using TMBs, possibly armed with submunitions, in its 'anti-terrorism operation' in east Ukraine.

Russian news website/television channel Life News broadcast video footage showing the damaged but intact tail (control) and propulsion section of a 9M79-series TBM, with its guidance section nearby but no warhead or nose section present. The Tochka system is known to be in Ukrainian service and has reportedly been used by Kiev as early in the conflict as July 2014.

Rebels interviewed by the channel stated that "the missile was intercepted by missile defence troops in Bryanka" before landing near the Alchevsk Metallurgical Plant.

The missile "was flying from the southwest and it can be said that it was Luhansk-bound. Parts of the missile were scattered across the area, but they will be collected for international organisations to examine," the rebel added.

This story, first published 3 February, has been updated.

ANALYSIS

In order to successfully shoot down a TBM, which travel at very high terminal velocities (850 m/s and above), the rebels would need to be operating advanced air defence systems of the kind not seen in east Ukraine since a 9K37 Buk-series (SA-11 'Gadfly') or a later Buk-M2 (SA-17 'Grizzly' ) was used in July 2014 to down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Most later (including and after Buk-M1-2) variants of the Buk offer some degree of counter-tactical ballistic missile capability, as do variants of the S-300P (SA-10 'Grumble'), while the most modern version of the 96K6 Pantsyr-S1 (SA-22 'Greyhound') is also claimed to offer a limited missile defence capability. Although they may be present, no confirmed sightings of such systems have been seen in east Ukraine since last July.

The most likely scenario then is that rebel claims of shooting down the missile are mere bluster.

Two key pieces of evidence support this view. Firstly, the wreckage shows no evidence of damage by either a blast/fragmentation warhead, as used by various missiles of the Buk or S-300 P systems, or the kind of fragmentation/continuous-rod warheads used by the 57E6 missiles of the Pantsyr-S1 system.

Secondly, the wrecked tail and body section seen on 2 February in Ukraine is almost identical to the wreckage of several 9M79/9M79-1 series missiles fired during Russia's short 2008 war with Georgia. With Georgian forces never having claimed to have downed Tochka missiles during the conflict, another factor must be in play.

Photo evidence of the impact of 9M79F /9M79-1F missiles armed with the 9N123F/9N123-1F unitary high explosive (HE) warheads from the Georgian conflict indicate that very little of the missile's fuselage remains recognisable after detonation. However, during the Georgian war, the wreckage of several missile tail and body sections were found (often showing signs of having landed on their base), indicating that the missiles had either broken up in mid-air or had been the 9M79K/9M79-1K submunition variants of the missile.

One explanation given for this is that a fault in the missiles themselves has been causing some to become unstable in flight and to break up. This could be due to age, with the original 9M79-series of missiles mainly built in the 1980s - although some in service may date from as early as the late 1970s - or it could be from a manufacturing or design fault. That Russian forces are not known to have modernised or upgraded their Tochka inventories following the Georgian conflict indicates that the missiles were functioning as designed.

The most likely explanation is that Russia in Georgia and Ukraine in this instance have been firing one of the submunition-armed versions of the missile, which, after dispensing its submunitions, becomes unstable and breaks up in the air.

Although often perceived to only mount unitary warheads - whether the 9N123F HE blast/fragmentation or 9N39 nuclear - a conventional submunition warhead , the 9N123K, is also available. The 9N123K warhead, which arms the 9K79K missile, uses a RF proximity fuze and is armed with 50 9N24 blast/fragmentation submunitions, each weighing 7.45 kg (1.45 kg of HE). The warhead actively dispenses its submunitions and the warhead skin panels using a pyrotechnical (propellant) charge at a height of approximately 2 km above the target. This operation appears to make the remainder of the missile aerodynamically unstable, shifting its centre of gravity and pressure. The result is that the missile tumbles soon after dispensing operation has concluded. The high drag experienced as it tumbles results in the forward sections (nose and empty warhead) shearing off from the rear sections (guidance, motor, and control). What is left of the forward and rearwards sections tumble to the ground as two separate high-drag pieces. The high drag greatly reduced the terminal impact speed, lessening the damage to the pieces on impact. The separation also results in the pieces landing in completely different areas.

With a circular error probable of up to 150 m the original 9M79-series is by no means a precision-strike weapon and even the later 9M79-1 series only improves on this figure, lowering it to 95 m. The missile's relative inaccuracy, in conjunction with either a large unitary HE or a widely scattered load of submunitions, makes their use in a conflict often involving civilian areas is undoubtedly controversial. While Ukraine is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, using such weapons with a relatively inaccurate delivery mechanism will do little credit to Kiev on the international stage.
Analysis: Ukraine rebels claim Tochka ballistic missile shoot-down - IHS Jane's 360
 
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