Unleashed power: Russia’s Kh-50 missile attains combat-ready state
Recent whispers suggest that Russia has begun to utilize the Kh-50 missile operationally, a development that could send shockwaves through Ukraine’s leadership.
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These reports first emerged within the Russian language blogosphere before making their way into the mainstream media. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, on August 3, echoed these rumors, attributing its source to anonymous media outlets, and discussed the increased production and active deployment of the Kh-50.
Why is this significant?
Despite boasting an array of potent cruise missiles, Russia’s arsenal has inherent limitations, especially considering the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The available options are either too heavy (Kh-101, Kh-55), lack stealth (3M14 Kalibr, Kh-55), or suffer from both drawbacks (Kh-55).
Some, like the Onyx, are limited by their range. The truly effective ones – devastating and unassailable like the Kinzhal and Iskander-M – come with astronomical costs, limiting their use.
The issue with heavy missiles, such as the Kh-101 and Kh-55, lies in their need for large, slow-moving bombers to launch them. The heat signatures from these bombers’ four engines can be detected by US SBIRS satellites as soon as they begin taxiing, providing Ukraine with a warning time of 1 to 2 hours!
Once launched from these bombers, the heat signature from the turbojets powering these massive missiles is also likely to be detected by US satellites, despite the low observable (LO) shaping of the missile.
Lighter, non-LO missiles are easily tracked by Ukrainian surveillance and air defense (AD) radars, as well as by US/NATO AWACS. Many of these are intercepted and destroyed before reaching their intended targets.
What Russia really lacks, and desperately needs, is a missile that mirrors the capabilities of the Storm Shadow/Scalp-EG, one with a range of 1500 km. Enter the Kh-50, which fits this exact description!
Exploring the veracity of Kh-50 usage reports
The credibility of recent reports suggesting the reactivation of Russia’s Kh-50 missile project can be tied back to a mid-April 2023 statement by the Ukrainian General Staff. They were the first to claim that Russia was breathing life back into this previously dormant missile project.
According to Yuriy Ihnat, the spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force, Russia is showing an interest in revisiting old projects, specifically with an eye toward the production of Kh-50 missiles. He pointed out that, “In the past, the Kh-50 project was deemed unfeasible for Russia due to the existence of a superior missile – the Kh-101.”
Oleksii Hromov, the Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, shed some light on Russia’s intentions. He asserted that Russia plans to commence mass production of Kh-50 cruise missiles by the fall of this year. He further warned that an inventory of these missiles could eventually be built up and subsequently deployed against Ukrainian targets.
Exploring the Kh-50
The Kh-50, a product of the esteemed Raduga Design Bureau in Dubna, was conceived as part of the Kh-SD (Sredney Dalnosti, medium-range) program. This ambitious project, which kicked off in the early 1990s, was temporarily paused before its eventual resumption.
Janes reports that the Kh-50, a turbofan-engine missile powered by an OMKB izdeliye 37-04 (or TRDD-50B), measures approximately six meters in length and weighs around 1,600 kg.
The missile’s impressive specifications include an estimated range exceeding 1,500 km and a cruising speed of 700 kph, which can peak at 950 kph. However, higher cruising speeds would result in a reduced range. Additionally, the Kh-50 is believed to carry a 450 kb warhead.
The design of the Kh-50’s airframe is unique, featuring a flattened cross-section and faceted sides. This shape meets the dual needs of a low radar cross-section and efficient utilization of the heavy bomber’s weapon bay capacity when the missile is loaded on a six-round rotating launcher.
Interestingly, the Kh-50 shares many similarities with the miniaturized Kh-101. Both missiles are considered to be at the forefront of cruise missile technology, boasting features such as:
- Low-observable (LO) shaping
- A composite airframe for reduced radar signature
- INS navigation with SATNAV / TERCOM (Terrain Comparison) fixing
- Optical / IR target recognition
The Kh-50 utilizes an electro-optical digital correlating system for navigation and target recognition, known as “Otblesk,” comparable to the US DSMAC.
Although the Kh-50 is around 1.5 meters shorter and approximately 800 kg lighter than the Kh-101, both missiles carry a 400-450 kg warhead.
Due to its smaller size, the Kh-50 has a lesser fuel capacity, which translates to a shorter range. While the estimated range for the Kh-101 is 5500 km, the Kh-55 is expected to reach just 1500 km.
The edge of the Kh-50 missile
Despite its smaller size, the Kh-50 missile boasts a potentially lower radar signature, making it less detectable to enemy radar systems. Moreover, it is specifically engineered for low-altitude flight and is equipped with an advanced defensive suite, including Electronic Warfare (EW) and flare heat traps.
This allows the missile not only to evade radar detection but also to safeguard itself from air defense systems and air-to-air missiles armed with Radio Frequency (RF) and Imaging Infrared (IIR) seekers. As a result, the Kh-50 outperforms other Russian cruise missiles in penetrating heavily fortified airspace.
In response to the dominance of Russian fighters, Western powers have been generous in equipping Ukraine with their top Air Defense (AD) systems. However, the Kh-50 is specifically designed to navigate through airspace guarded by NASAMS, IRIS-T, and Patriot systems unharmed.
Within the Ukrainian context, the Kh-50’s shorter range of 1,500 km is not a disadvantage but rather an asset. The reduced range not only enhances the missile’s stealth capabilities but also makes it more affordable and cost-efficient.
The smaller size and superior speed of the Tu-22M3 are likely to make detecting missile launches more challenging. This could enable the launch platform to approach closer to the battlefront, thus reducing flight and warning time.
While the features of the Kh-50 missile remain largely unseen and unbriefed to the public, its capabilities can be inferred much like the blind men in the fable of The Five Blind Men of Hindustan. We could hypothesize that the Kh-50 is a miniaturized Kh-101 or a turbocharged Storm Shadow, and we wouldn’t be entirely wrong in either case.
Regardless of how one perceives the missile, its operational deployment in Ukraine’s special military operations is likely to provide Russia with a significant advantage, much like the Ka-52 helicopter, Lancet Kamikaze drone and FAB-500M62 glide bomb have done.
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