The Ukrainian decoys are made of wood, but cannot be distinguished from an artillery battery through the lens of Russian drones, which relay their locations to naval cruise missile carriers in the Black Sea.
“If the UAVs see the battery, it’s like a VIP target,” a senior Ukrainian official said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles encountering replicas of long-range artillery.
After a few weeks in the field, the decoys towed at least 10 Kalibr cruise missiles, an initial success that led Ukraine to expand production of the replicas for wider use, said the senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity like others. discuss sensitive military matters.
The use of decoys with missile systems, which has not been reported before, is one of many asymmetric tactics employed by the Ukrainian armed forces to fight back against a larger and better equipped invading enemy. In recent weeks, Kiev agents have blown up rail and power lines in occupied Russian territory, detonated explosives in Russian weapons depots and killed suspected collaborators.
The destruction of Ukrainian replicas may be partly responsible for the unusually boastful estimates of Russian combat damage to western artillery, particularly the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS.
“They have claimed to have hit more HIMARS than we sent,” noted an American diplomat.
Ukraine’s efforts to protect West-supplied missile systems underscore their importance on the battlefield.
The systems are credited with weakening Russia’s advance to the east and south by giving Ukraine the ability to strike from 80 miles away, destroying hundreds of high-value Russian targets, including supply lines, weapons depots, and logistics and support centers, U.S. defense officials say.
Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his generals to prioritize the destruction of long-range artillery systems after they hit key Russian supply lines.
Almost every week, Shoigu and other Russian defense officials announce new successful attacks on Western-supplied missile systems, including the lighter US-made HIMARS.
US-supplied HIMARS is changing the calculus on Ukraine’s frontlines
Earlier this month, a Pentagon spokesperson categorically denied Russia’s claims, stating that all US-supplied HIMARS were responsible.
“We are aware of Secretary Shoigu’s latest claims, and they are again manifestly false,” said Todd Breasseale, the acting Pentagon spokesman. “What is happening, however, is that the Ukrainians are using each of the fully accounted precision missile systems with devastating accuracy and effectiveness.”
The Pentagon says it has supplied 16 HIMARS to Ukraine since the start of the war. US allies have supplied M270 missile systems with similar functionality. It was not possible to independently verify how many are still operational or how many may have been destroyed.
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The Russian custom of beautifying battlefield performance is hardly new, but experts say the decoys are likely the cause of a dramatic disconnect.
“If the Russians think they hit a HIMARS, they will claim they hit a HIMARS,” said George Barros, a military researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “Russian troops are very much exaggerating their battle damage estimates after hitting HIMAR decoys.”
The use of decoys for deception has a long history for military personnel in the East and West.
The Russians call the tactics of disguise and deception “maskirovka”, which includes purchasing inflatable MiG-31 fighter jets and fake S-300 missile systems. Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav forces used counterfeit tanks and dummy targets against NATO forces during the Kosovo conflict. Allied powers during World War II used decoys and fake signals to mislead German forces in the run-up to the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Ukraine could turn the tide of the war again if Russia’s advance stalls
For Ukraine, the benefits of battlefield decoys are twofold, military analysts say.
In a protracted artillery war, finding ways to downgrade and exhaust Russia’s larger arsenal of missiles and missiles is critical to Ukraine’s smaller military.
US defense officials say Russia’s stock of precision-guided missiles is running low and US export controls on microchips are making it “a lot harder” for Russia to replenish those munitions, said Colin Kahl, deputy defense secretary for policy, earlier this month.
“A Kalibr missile launched at a fake HIMARS target in a field is a missile that cannot be used against a Ukrainian city,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Another advantage of decoys is that they can force Russians to take precautions and move their ammunition depots and command and control nodes further from the front lines – beyond the expected range of the HIMARS.
“Such a reorganization would reduce the Russians’ ability to make massive artillery fire — a tactic they have relied on to make a profit in eastern Ukraine,” Barros said.
The challenges ahead for the Ukrainian military remain daunting. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree last week to increase the size of Russia’s armed forces from 1.9 million to 2.04 million.
US officials estimate that Russia has lost up to 80,000 troops, but Ukrainian troops have admitted to losing 100 to 200 troops a day as the country braces itself for one of the coldest winters in decades.
In describing the country’s replicas, the Ukrainian official said his military had no choice but to resort to unconventional tactics to fend off a larger opponent. “A small Soviet army cannot defeat a large Soviet army,” the official said. “We have to fight asymmetrically.”