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Analysis: Ukraine uses modified S-200 missile systems against Russian ground targets

According to an article from The EurAsian Times on July 30, 2023, Ukraine recently launched two modified S-200 anti-aircraft missiles towards southwestern Russia, potentially indicating an escalation in missile attacks within Russian territory. This article aims to examine the potential advantages and disadvantages of employing these modified surface-to-air missile systems for engaging ground-based targets.
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The S-200 surface-to-air missile was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s (Picture source Army Recognition)

According to a report, one of these modified S-200 missiles fell and exploded in Taganrog, a city located approximately 30 miles from the Russian border with Ukraine and less than 100 miles from the active front line between the two countries.

The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) stated that Kyiv carried out an attack on residential infrastructure in Taganrog using a modified S-200 surface-to-air missile converted into a strike version. The MoD claimed to have successfully detected and intercepted the missile, but the wreckage from the intercepted missile caused damage to several buildings in Taganrog. Additionally, a second missile was intercepted in the Azov region, with the specific outcome of that incident still under assessment and yet to be disclosed.

On October 2, 2023, a video surfaced online showing the launch of one of these modified S-200s, as reported in this article from the Army Recognition editorial team.

The S-200, also known as SA-5 Gammon, is a long-range, high-altitude surface-to-air missile (SAM) system that was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Its primary purpose was to defend large areas from high-altitude bombers and other airborne threats. The missile was officially accepted into service in 1966, and its operational regiments were deployed the same year. Over time, the number of S-200 sites and launchers increased, reaching a peak of 130 sites and 2,030 launchers in the 1980s to early 1990s.

The missile system comprises a two-stage missile with a semi-active radar-homing guidance system. it comes in different variants, including the 5V21, 5V28, and 5V28V. The 5V28V variant has specific specifications such as a mass of 7,100 kg (15,700 lb), a length of 10,800 mm (35.4 ft), a maximum operational range of 300 kilometers (190 miles), a flight altitude of up to 40,000 meters (130,000 feet), and a maximum speed of Mach 8 (9,800 km/h; 6,100 mph).

These events have brought to the forefront the use of modified S-200 missiles for ground-based targeting missions. This article aims to examine the potential advantages and disadvantages of employing modified S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) surface-to-air missile systems for engaging ground-based targets.

In the continuously evolving landscape of modern warfare, military strategists are exploring various ways to optimize existing weapon systems for different operational scenarios. One such approach involves repurposing air defense assets for ground-based targeting missions. This analysis will examine the potential advantages and drawbacks of Ukraine's targeting approach with modified S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) surface-to-air missile systems for engaging ground-based targets.

On one side, deploying modified S-200 presents some potential advantages. The S-200 missile system features an extended range, originally designed for engaging high-altitude targets like aircraft and ballistic missiles. This extended range capability allows engagements from considerable distances, potentially offering an advantage in striking enemy assets deep within their territory.

Additionally, countries that already possess the S-200 system may benefit from existing infrastructure and logistics that can facilitate its deployment. Leveraging these pre-existing facilities and expertise could potentially expedite the integration process for ground strikes and potentially lead to reduced costs.

Furthermore, the S-200 has a well-established track record of service, having served for decades. This proven reliability may inspire confidence in its consistent performance, which could be crucial when engaging ground targets in military operations. Moreover, adapting the S-200 for ground strikes adds operational versatility to its capabilities. The system can be employed both as an air defense weapon and a ground-strike weapon, allowing military forces to respond effectively to a range of potential threats. Additionally, employing the S-200 for ground targeting may introduce an element of tactical surprise, potentially enhancing the chances of a successful ground strike.

The integration of the S-200 for ground strikes might also promote improved interoperability between air defense and ground attack operations, potentially streamlining command and control during complex military engagements and leading to more effective and efficient operations.

However, using modified S-200 also presents some potential disadvantages. Firstly, employing decades-old S-200 missiles may indicate a significant depletion of missiles on the Ukrainian side when engaging Russian targets. This depletion could have consequences when targeting ground-based objectives, as missiles are precision-guided and possess destructive capabilities. A reduced missile inventory may lead to compromised operational effectiveness and an increased risk to ground forces engaged in combat.

On top of that, such depletion may result in a potential loss of deterrence, as adversaries may perceive a reduced threat, potentially influencing their behavior. To maintain a balanced defense and accomplish mission objectives, careful resource management, logistical planning, and technological advancements are crucial in ensuring an adequate and well-balanced missile inventory.

Another concern lies in the limited payload efficiency of the S-200 when repurposed for ground strikes, as its warhead is originally optimized for engaging aerial targets. This limitation may reduce its effectiveness against specific ground-based assets, particularly hardened installations that require more substantial warheads for successful destruction.

In addition, the S-200's targeting and guidance systems, primarily designed for air defense purposes, may not match the precision of dedicated ground-to-ground missile systems. This reduced accuracy raises the risk of collateral damage and poses potential threats to civilian populations in nearby areas.

Operating modified S-200 missiles at lower altitudes for ground strikes exposes them to higher vulnerability from ground-based and air defense threats. The system, originally designed for high-altitude operations, may lack the necessary protection and agility to evade countermeasures effectively. This heightened vulnerability could compromise mission success and increase the chances of the missiles being intercepted before reaching their intended targets.

While utilizing existing S-200 assets for ground strikes may help offset some costs, the overall expenses associated with modifying and employing the system for such missions could outweigh the benefits. Purpose-built ground-to-ground missile systems might offer more cost-effective alternatives, as they are designed specifically for ground attacks and may yield better results without extensive modifications.

Moreover, modified S-200 missiles may exhibit longer response times when tasked with ground targeting. This delay could grant ground targets more time to evade or counter incoming missiles, potentially affecting the overall success rates of ground-strike missions. Swift response times are crucial in military operations, and this constraint might hinder the effectiveness of the S-200 in ground attack scenarios.

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