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Anatomy of Storm Shadow Interception
I had originally meant to write this up before all the Wagner lunacy occurred. Now we have another lull, so it’s perfect timing to delve into some interesting technical breakdowns.
First, as many have seen, a video appeared last week of a Russian Pantsir S1 system engaging a British Storm Shadow missile:
You can clearly see the Storm Shadow’s outline on the Pantsir’s IR tracker. The video has generated a lot of argument over whether the Pantsir actually shot the missile down or not. But before we get into all that, let’s show one possible list of the world’s top cruise missiles. It’s not a definitive/authoritative ranking, but rather simply a convenient graphic for showing the missiles’ characteristics:
The first thing to note is that the Storm Shadow is extremely fast for a cruise missile. The vast majority of cruise missiles are very subsonic, and only specialized anti-ship missiles are typically supersonic, which is why I don’t fully agree with the rankings of the list above, because the Brahmos/P-800 are really anti-ship missiles. For normal ground-target cruise missiles, the top speed is typically around Mach 0.5 to Mach 0.7 at the most. Russia’s Kalibr and Kh-101, which have been the bane of the AFU in the SMO, are both in the Mach 0.6 and slightly higher range. The most advanced variant of Kalibr can reportedly accelerate to supersonic at terminal phase but I’m not sure if that’s even in production yet and is likely not what Russia has been using in Ukraine.
The bread-and-butter Kh-101 tops out at about Mach 0.6. Tomahawk cruise missiles are about Mach ~0.7 also. So the Storm Shadow’s Mach ~0.9 is very fast, and means it hits almost supersonic cruising speeds.
One example of that is the footage of the recent hit on north Crimea’s Chongar Bridge:
Did you see how fast that comes in? That’s extremely fast for a cruise missile. In fact, that more closely resembles footage of Iskander missile hits I’ve posted before.
Now compare that to Kalibrs and Kh-101s:
In fact, you’ll note that the Storm Shadow’s speed more closely resembles the legendary Soviet Kh-22, seen here hitting Kremenchug last year:
The Kh-22 famously goes nearly Mach 5, though it’s unclear what its terminal velocity at sea level is.
Now, to get an important thing out of the way: the Storm Shadow (from here on called “SS”) missile footage is filmed much closer, which will always give the appearance of higher speed. With that said, it’s still noticeably faster. Is speed everything? No, there’s other things like electronic countermeasures, which the most advanced variants of Kh-101, for instance, are known to have and which likely makes it more advanced and makes up for the slower speed. There’s also range, types of guidance, warhead size, etc.
But this isn’t about which missile is better, it’s simply to establish an important groundwork. Not only is the SS very fast it’s also designed to be ‘low observable’ or ‘stealthy’. For the record, so is the Kh-101, even though it often gets confused for its non-stealthy brothers and export versions like Kh-55SM, Kh-555, Kh-65SE/SD, etc. One of the reasons for the speed differential, by the way, is because Russia chose range over speed, for which you have to use different fuel types and economies. While the SS is fast, its range is very tiny for a cruise missile (CM), comparatively speaking, whereas the Kalibr and Kh-101 have the world’s longest CM ranges. It’s a difference in philosophies: the Russian missiles were made to be able to hit the U.S. homeland, amongst other things, while the SS is made to hit the Empire’s enemies in the Middle East from nearby bases.
Either way, a missile that is both stealthy and very fast for its class is a major problem for obvious reasons.
Now, let’s take a look at the interception video again step by step. I’ve seen nothing but misinformation even from people claiming to be ‘experts’ or having served in air defense units so let’s clear some things up:
The first thing to know: each concentric circle/ring on the monitoring display represents 5 kilometers. You’ll note there are 8 rings, meaning the outermost represents 40km, which is the max detection range of the Pantsir 2RL80 search radar.
At the very start of the video, we have two contacts appear on the innermost circle, which means they have been picked up by the search radar at 5km. The spinning line on the monitor is the search radar which continually rotates 360 degrees to find new contacts.
Right after the contact is made at the 0:02 second mark you can hear the tower rotate and the cone-shaped yellow lines now envelops the targets. This is the actual fire-control radar facing and engaging the targets.
The camera then pans to the IR monitoring station which has already locked onto the missile’s infrared/heat signature. A 57E6 Pantsir missile is fired at the target but misses. Why? The answer comes a few seconds later when the screen pans down enough for us to see that the distance to the SS is only ~700 meters. The problem is: the Pantsir missile has a minimum range of 1.2 to 1.5km. The below says 1.2 but other sources have it at 1.5km.
Below that range, you’re supposed to use the 30mm guns.
So, whether the crew was nervous or perhaps poorly-trained, they fired at a bad solution. Not only was the oblique angle of the incoming SS missile not great for interception, but they fired past the minimum distance, which doesn’t give the Pantsir missile enough time to arm itself and stabilize after its initial boost phase, which lasts about 1.5 to 2.5 seconds.
They appear to fire another missile shortly afterwards, but the effect is inconclusive. We see an explosion some time later, but the tracking camera seems to have jerked around. The pro-Ukrainians claim the ‘explosion’ is of the missile hitting its target, the Chongar bridge in Crimea, while the pro-Russian side claims the missile was successfully intercepted and blew up. The more I watch it, it does appear to me that the missile hits the ground so perhaps it hit its target. Although it’s also possible it crashed after being hit. Particularly if they’re hit from the rear rather than head on, large cruise missiles like the SS won’t just “explode” in the air but may fall to the ground mostly in one piece. This can be seen when similarly-sized Russian Kalibrs were hit for instance:
It’s difficult to tell for sure because of the jarring way the tracking IR camera jumped around. The counter argument is why would they upload a video of a failed interception?
Furthermore, I’m not sure why the pro-Ukrainians assumed this video has anything to do with the Chongar bridge strike. It came out roughly a few days apart in time, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this video has anything to do with the Crimean attack.
The point, though, is to demonstrate the difficulty of shooting down such missiles, owing to how thin the margins of error are in the small amount of time available to act upon first contact. If you notice, the crew did not hesitate upon the very first contact, they immediately swiveled the tower to face the target and engaged. Yet by the time they turned the fire-control/engagement radar onto it, the SS missile had already gone from 5km to under the 1.5km engagement envelope.
And once it passed by after the first miss, they were already playing ‘catch up’, having to swivel the tower after it, and now being forced to fire another technically unfavorable “chasing” shot. An AD system never wants to be fired at a target that’s already flying away from it. Even though the Pantsir missile can go much faster (Mach 3.8 at boost phase and Mach 2.3 after it levels off), it’s still not a preferable attack angle as the passing missile is pulling away at nearly Mach 1 and every second brings it closer to simply going beyond engagement range.
Also, let’s get one other thing out of the way. Some claim the missile could have been an ADM-160 Mald decoy, which Ukraine was rumored to have gotten. But if you look at the Mald, its much thinner front looks nothing like the SS and the video signature matches the SS much more accurately, so that to me is easily debunked.
But let’s take a closer look under the hood to truly evaluate the Pantsir’s performance characteristics against one of the West’s most potent cruise missiles. Firstly, here is one researcher’s comparisons of median frontal RCS (Radar Cross Section) between a few of the to CMs.
As one can see, the Russian Kalibr provides a good baseline. It’s not stealthy nor was it designed to be, as one can easily see:
With that said, its estimated RCS of 0.150 is still extremely small. A regular fighter jet like an F-16’s RCS might be around 4-6 square meters, as an example. But according to the above, the Storm Shadow achieves around 0.025 square meters, which would be about the size of a small bird. However, there’s rumor that the RCS is even smaller, with people throwing around claims of an RCS the size of a small pebble. It’s impossible to know for certain, but it gives us an idea of its stealthiness.
Now, let’s look at the literature and what Pantsir is supposed to be able to intercept to see if it matches up:
Notice the graphic above tells us that detection range for a 0.03 square meter RCS target is 7km. Since we’ve just established that the Storm Shadow’s RCS is even smaller than that, at about 0.025, this means a slightly lower detection range of 5km perfectly lines up with the literature. If you’ll recall, 5km is exactly the point at which the Pantsir 2RL80 search radar made initial contact in the video.
Thus, so far we can say that the Pantsir is operating at the exact parameters the literature tells us against low observable targets. What’s most interesting is that having confirmation of this one important data point allows us to extrapolate the Pantsir’s performance against other known missiles. For instance, we know that the Tomahawk is not designed to be low observable and has a much higher RCS than the SS, not to mention travels much slower. Its RCS is probably similar to the Kalibr as they are shaped similarly which would mean the Tomahawk would likely allow the Pantsir to both detect and engage it at upwards of 15-20km or even beyond, as 0.150 is several times larger than 0.025. And the fact that it’s slow means the crew would have plenty of time to kill it unlike in the SS video here.
Also, something like a JDAM glidebomb is said to have upwards of 0.2 RCS, which is even higher and would be detected at even greater ranges. In essence: the confirmed detection of Ukraine’s most difficult to detect object at 5km basically confirms to us that Russian systems would detect everything else Ukraine has to offer at far greater ranges.
But before we move on, in the interest of being as thorough as possible, there’s one other thing I’d like to mention.
You’ll notice that when the opening video first begins, the crewman is already filming the screen as if he’s expecting a contact despite there not being one on the monitor yet. That tells us one of two things:
That some kind of other forward detection method had already notified the Pantsir crew by radio that a missile was in fact headed their way and they should look out and expect it to arrive shortly, or:
As the search radar first makes contact, the camera moves over to the IR monitoring screen and we notice that the IR tracker is already tracking the IR signature. This appears to imply that the IR tracker had in fact already picked up the contact on its own (either by randomly scanning the sky, or because advance warning came to expect an object from that direction, as stated earlier).
The reason that’s interesting is that it proves an age old argument in the field of ‘stealth’ technology. It appeared to prove that the IR scanner can actually track the ‘stealth’ missile even long before the radar picks it up. Watch the video again and you’ll notice that when the camera moves to the IR tracker the thermal view of the target is already fairly large and noticeable. Just going off the visual, it seems to me that the IR was likely tracking it already from at least the 10km mark, or perhaps more, seeing as how “hot” it appeared at 5km.
Even though you can argue it may be pointless because the system still can’t engage the target without its fire-control radar being able to track it first, it still shows that the crew can visually track the target and get into a ready-to-fire position.
As I mentioned, this has ramifications for the arguments over stealth fighter detection; for instance, the fact that the Russian 5th Gen fighter philosophy was to invest in a lot of auxiliary anti-stealth detection systems like IRST (Infrared Search and Track) and L-band radars on the Su-57, neither of which are available on the American F-22 counterpart.
Several other self-professed experts on Twitter and elsewhere covered the incident up to this point with most of the same data points. However, one major omission on their part was that for some reason none of them had obtained the second video of the series. Two videos were actually released together, though unfortunately with no real attribution so it’s difficult to parse their exact connection. But judging by the second one, we can assume it could be from the same crew/unit. And here is where things get interesting. First, watch the video below:
The first thing you’ll note, is that on the actual radar grid, the contacts are made at 15km. Count the concentric rings and recall that it’s 5km per ring. Note the 1RS2 fire-control / engagement radar is already locked onto it as well. Also interesting is that on the thermal/IR view, you cannot see the contact yet which gives us a baseline for how far the missiles can be seen. Recall that I said earlier the IR tracker can likely see it much farther than the 5km radar contact in the first video, but wasn’t sure how far exactly. Here, at 15km we don’t see much so it gives us the upper ceiling.
Furthermore, on the bottom of the IR screen you can see the distance to target, which is just over 15km at the start of the video, and yet they’ve already picked up the contact with the radar and are tracking it. So it appears they’re able to track it at a minimum of 15km but aren’t able to engage it until about the 8.5km mark. The Pantsir missile hits and destroys the target at 6.5km.
Question is: how do we know this is also a Storm Shadow missile and not some random target? Well, apart from the fact that the two videos were released at the same time and appeared to be of concurrent or related events, there are a couple other things. While the computer’s exact target velocity calculation is blurred out (it would usually be listed on the right side of the screen), we can do our own timing of the given distance. In the very first video at the top, the time it takes for the missile to go from the first 5km ring to exactly when it passes transversely to the launcher is roughly 15 seconds. A little basic math gives us that 5km in 15 seconds = 20km per minute. 20km x 60minutes = 1200km per hour. And guess what? That’s exactly Mach 0.979556652659004 according to a web km/h to Mach converter. Recall that the Storm Shadow’s official literature lists it at exactly Mach 0.95.
So, the velocity of the missile in video 1 matches the Storm Shadow’s known profile very closely. In video 2 it’s a little harder for the following reason: in the first video we can see that the missile flies in a fairly direct path at the launcher, just slightly offset to the side. However, if you look carefully at video 2, the missile actually flies at a slight diagonal trajectory. This would skew the velocity calculations. We can see the distance parameters in the bottom left and I timed it doing about 1000 meters per 4.3 seconds give or take. Basic math gives us a speed of 837km/h which is almost Mach 0.7. So it doesn’t quite match but, like I said, the diagonal trajectory makes it appear slower as the calculation we’re using is not a raw-calculated m/s velocity but rather taking the raw distance from the launcher/radar. And this distance is being reduced slower because the missile is not coming directly at the launcher but at a slight angle—its actual velocity is a bit faster. So we can assume in reality it is likely going Mach 0.9+ just like the object in the first video.
If you’re confused, here’s an example: an object passing completely at a right angle to you, going west to east from your north-facing perspective, will show a mostly fixed distance to you, because it’s not coming any closer to you but simply going left to right. The reason we know this missile is going slightly askew like this is because if you’ll notice, it starts off to the left of the north/south median line of the radar monitor, but by the time it’s hit, it’s either directly ON the line or even slightly to the right of it.
This almost certainly is a Storm Shadow because Ukraine has nothing else with that speed profile. AGM88 Harm for instance is exponentially faster at over Mach 2 and even a generous margin of error in our calculations would not give that possibility. Same goes for HIMARs: not only do they travel upwards of Mach 2.5+, they usually travel in bunches and can be seen in a straight track of several missiles on the monitor. On the other hand, we know it’s not a plane or drone because planes would be detected even much farther out, as they have very large RCSs.
And drones would have a far slower velocity. No drone can even approach Mach 0.6 - 0.9, which is equivalent to about 800-1200km/h. Most drones go something like 100-150km/h at the most, and that’s being generous.
One other thing of interest: you’ll notice a blue tracking mark of some sort to the rear of both units in video 1 and 2:
This could give us an idea of the relation of the videos. That marking could be some type of friendly unit designator, and given that it appears at different locations on each video could signify that these are from two separate Pantsir systems positioned in the same vicinity of each other, with two different distances/orientations from the blue marked position. Judging by the concentric rings, the first video/unit is about 15km from the blue mark, the second is over 25km. This could mean that the Pantsirs are part of an integrated/layered AD network and may be about 10km from each other.
So, what can we take away from the second video? It appears to prove that the Pantsir is capable of detecting and tracking a stealthy Storm Shadow at around 15km, while successfully engaging and destroying it at nearly 10km, which is a big deal for such low-observable craft. Why then did it only detect the first one at 5km and appeared unable to hit it?
There are numerous possibilities:
There could be a variety of atmospheric or environmental conditions that prohibited it from seeing the missile earlier. There could have been some natural barrier or obstruction like hills, mountains, buildings, trees, etc., that were blocking the flight path. Normally you’d position the system in such a way as to give it maximum line of sight, for obvious reasons. So usually, this is not a realistic excuse. However, that’s an ideal circumstance. Sometimes the high value object that you’re protecting is simply positioned in an area where it’s not possible to cover everything, thus the need for other systems positioned elsewhere. If this was a bridge in a very hilly area for instance, there may have been no choice than to have some part of the pathway have its line of sight restricted.
The other possibility is that both videos show different systems. In fact, the Pantsir has several variants like Pantsir SM, Pantsir S2, etc., which have upgraded radars (like RLM SOC variant rather than 1RS2-1) that have much greater increased range of up to 50-70km rather than the 30-40km of the older systems. So it’s possible that video 1 shows an older system that can only detect the SS at 5km, while video 2 is an upgraded Pantsir variant with a better radar.
User error or input settings. Though the initial search radar is automatic, there are still a variety of settings and filters that can be manually inputted that can drastically change its parameters and cause it to not detect objects at the proper distance.
Ultimately, though, using the 5km detection window as an example, it would look like this near the Chongar bridge:
To build a wall of Pantsirs that can cover everything from there to the Dnieper would take nearly 30+ Pantsir systems.
This is just to give you an idea of why there are ‘gaps’ in the coverage, and how Ukraine can sometimes work around them to slip a missile in unawares.
Of course, Russia has an integrated AD network and there are other types of AD units covering the same region. For instance, an S-300/S-400 would likely be positioned at Dzhankoi military airfield about 35km away.
But take a look at the detection range estimates for S-300/400 systems on the low RCS Storm Shadow:
As you can see, the S-300/400 could potentially detect the missile as far as 60-75km. The problem is, that’s under the hypothetical assumption the target is flying at high altitude. But a low flying cruise missile will be detected at far shorter ranges due to the simple physics of radar horizon. Here’s what we get when we plug in a hypothetical 100ft altitude for the missile hugging the ground:
As you can see, at such a calculation, the target would be picked up at around 38km give or take, which once again would likely create large gaps that can be exploited if you know the positioning of the radar systems, which Ukraine will often know from U.S. satellite ISR.
As can be seen below, it’s possible to pick up S-300/400/Patriot, etc., radar systems’ emissions via satellite:
The Ukrainians have apparently identified a specific emission pattern and radar band wavelength for Russian AD systems.
The U.S. can easily do this and design a custom flight path for the cruise missile which goes just at the edges of each radar’s detection zone.
Yes, Russian S-300/400s have the 40V6M masts specifically to detect low flying targets at as great a distance as possible:
They add about 25m in height to the radar and increase detection range of the low flying SS to ~55km; though even this can be hampered by the environment/topography, greatly reducing the range if there are hills and other obstructions the missile can be programmed to fly behind. Also, it’s unclear how many of these systems Russia has or uses in the region to begin with.
And by the way, if you’re wondering: why can’t each side easily destroy each other’s radars if they are so visible from satellite recon? In Ukraine’s case: they usually operate their AD in cold/passive mode with radars turned off and only turned on if and when forward spotters have already notified them that targets are inbound. This keeps the radars from emitting signals all the time which can be located. How does the forward spotting work? Well, here’s one example:
❗️ Advisor to the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Yuriy Ignat once again confirmed the participation of NATO intelligence in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the side of Kiev.
" Our allies support Ukraine constantly. The information that comes in about the take-off of strategic aviation from distant airfields, long-range aviation, and other data is provided to us by our partners, " Ignat said on the air of the telethon.
Their spokesman confirmed that NATO provides all information about Russian missile launches, aviation take-offs, etc. And the key cities are surrounded with groups of forward spotters on the ground who watch for missiles at the deep outskirts, then notify the AD operators in the city if and when they spot something coming in.
And as to the Russian side: even if Ukraine knows the exact positions of Russian premier systems there’s not much they can do about it because any missiles they try to shoot at the systems will be shot down, and any tiny FPV style drones that may be difficult to detect would not make it that far because the S-300/400 systems are typically in the distant rear and far away from the range of small frontline drones. So yes, the U.S. can feed them the exact coordinates of Russian S-400s, but the best Ukraine can do is use those coordinates to find ways to circumvent their coverage zones rather than futilely attempting to destroy them. Not to mention that Russia can also play the ‘passive’ mode game and move their systems around a lot so that by the time U.S. satellite data comes in, the system is no longer in the same place.
That should give you a good idea of the challenges of defending against a low and fast flying, stealthy missile. But as I said many times before, even with these limitations, Ukraine appears only rarely capable of carrying out a strike once every week or two, or less, and never against any real defended targets. For instance, the Berdiansk airfield overflowing with Russian aviation, the aforementioned Dzhankoi airbase not far from the Chongar bridge itself—none of these have yet been struck because they possess a much denser integrated network with actual S-300/400 systems layered with Pantsirs, Buks, Tors, etc.
As to the bridge itself, we should note that it’s already being, or has been, repaired as this video from several days ago shows:
And, even prior to that, Russia had already immediately pontooned it, impressing even the doomer crowd with how swiftly they acted:
This actually showed why Russia was not that worried about this particular bridge being hit. The water of the Chongar Strait there is fairly narrow and not a problem to pontoon, unlike the Dnieper and Antonovsky Bridge situation which was a big nightmare, and made Russia’s forward deployment untenable because of the Dnieper’s width.
This means that the strike on the Chongar Bridge was merely a performative stunt by Ukraine and poses no real threat as Russia can indefinitely re-pontoon the waterway even if the pontoon itself is hit. The Storm Shadow is said to cost in the range of $4-7 million USD, while the cheap pontoon sections can be replaced for a few hundred bucks—it’s a war of attrition Ukraine would never win.
Also, while one of the hits was right on target, the Storm Shadow’s accuracy was brought into question given the fact that one of them landed in the mud on the side of the bridge:
Perhaps Russian jamming gave it problems.
To conclude, the importance of these videos is that they are one of—if not the—first ever looks of a modern air defense system attempting to track and engage a low observable or stealth target. For decades there has been the endless debates and mysticism behind the questionable power of stealth craft. The West’s claims of their stealth technologies formed one extreme, while the other side argued that their systems could detect stealth objects. No one actually knew the truth as such engagements were either rare or nonexistent, and likely classified if and when they might have happened
But what’s eye-opening here, is that not only do we have one of the first ever looks, but it has confirmed the figures from the actual literature. And this has major ramifications for other systems. If Russian figures on the Pantsir are accurate, that means their figures on other systems are likely accurate as well. Which further means that all the years of ‘speculation’ about the near-mythological S-400 and other systems have likely not been in vain because these systems actually live up to their fabled capabilities. We can extrapolate this out not only to things like the S-400 but also Russia’s Nebo-M and other such VHF/UHF radars which are meant to detect stealth craft at extremely long ranges. Recall that prior to this, some people claimed Russian radars would be completely incapable of even detecting the Storm Shadow at all, no matter the distance. With that said, the U.S.’s JASSM and LRASM variant are said to be even stealthier than the Storm Shadow.
Lastly, if anyone’s interested in more on the Pantsir system, here’s a full in-depth program from Russia’s premier military show ‘Combat Approved’:
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