Espreso. Global

48N6 missiles for S-400 air defense systems used by Russia to attack Kyiv: threats, characteristics and how to deal with them

18 December, 2023 Monday

An attacked children's hospital and dozens of wounded are the consequences of the recent nighttime strike against Kyiv by Russian troops. According to the Presidential Office chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, the attack was carried out with 48N6 missiles from the S400

Espreso explains what kind of missiles these are, why attacks on ground targets with 48N6 can be equated with terrorism, and whether Ukrainian air defense can protect against attacks with these weapons.

On the night of Wednesday, December 13, explosions were heard in Kyiv, followed by an air raid alert. The Russians attacked the capital with ballistic missiles from the S400 system, and fires broke out in several districts as a result of debris falling on residential buildings. More than fifty people were reported injured.

The first use of these missiles to strike Kyiv took place in January 2023. At that time, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, reported a massive strike against Kyiv with anti-aircraft-guided missiles from the S-400. The missile debris, which Ukraine had not yet been able to intercept, was identified as 48N6DM.

What is the S-400 system used to attack Kyiv and Kharkiv?

The S-400 (Triumph) is a Russian long- and medium-range air defense missile system. The system is designed to defeat air attacks (reconnaissance aircraft, strategic and tactical aircraft, ballistic missiles, hypersonic targets, etc.)

Photo: from public sources

One system consisting of eight SAMs can simultaneously fire at 80 targets. The manufacturers declare a target detection range of 600 km and a hit on a target moving at an altitude of 30 km and at a speed of 4,800 m/s. In addition to air targets, the S-400, like its predecessor, the S-300, developed in the USSR, can hit ground-based fixed targets with known coordinates. 

"The missiles have a semi-active homing head. The warhead of the missiles is filled with ready-made warheads in the form of metal cubes. They can be effective against immovable ground targets, such as unprotected warehouses, personnel and vehicles in open areas, and infrastructure," explains the Militarnyi portal. The cost of the Triumph complex is $1.2 billion. The number of such systems in Russia is almost a hundred. S-400 systems are also in service in Belarus, China, Turkey, and India.

48N6 - old missiles for new air defense systems

Among the missiles used by the S-400 systems are 48N6 and its variants. Such missiles are difficult to detect because they fly on a ballistic trajectory. That's why the air raid in Kyiv sounded later than the explosions. The 48N6 family of anti-aircraft missiles was put into service in 1990, 27 years before the S-400 was introduced. The 48N6 missile and its modernized versions have a semi-active homing warhead. 

Different modifications differ in range and warhead size. Thus, the range of destruction of air targets for the 48N6 is 150 km, for the 48N6M 200 km, and for the 48N6DM 250 km. The warhead of the 48N6DM, which was used to hit Kyiv in January, weighs 180 kg. The 48N6M weights 150 kg, and the basic 48N6 weights 145 kg.


For the 48N6E missile, the manufacturers provide the following specifications:

  • Mass of the rocket - 1800 kg,
  • The mass of the missile in the transport and launch container is 2400 kg,
  • Length - 7.5 m,
  • Diameter - 0.52 m,
  • Span of rudders - 1.13 m

Why are 48H6 missiles dangerous and why are they called a weapon of terror?

To fire anti-aircraft systems at ground targets, radio command guidance is used. "The coordinates of the ground target and the height of the missile detonation are entered into the SAM. The warhead is also detonated by a command from the illumination radar. Therefore, the range of the S-300 system is limited to about 30-40 km," Militarnyi writes. 

For targeted firing, the radar system must be located at a distance of 25-30 km from the ground target fired by the SAM. However, Russia fires at a distance of 200-250 km. This means that the missile loses the radar signal at a certain altitude and actually falls in the area of the approximate location of the selected ground target. When fired at long ranges, anti-aircraft missiles do not hit a specific object. It is a free fall from an altitude of several kilometers to the target area. The greater the distance, the greater the error. The Russians use the 48N6 exclusively for missile terror of the population of large cities.

The Kharkiv shelling. Photo: Terekhov's Telegram

"The 250-kilometer radius of the missile's strike zone, if launched from the Belarusian border, allows it to target not only the capital of Ukraine but also Zhytomyr, Rivne, Lutsk, and Lviv," Defense Express emphasized. The weight of the 48N6DM missile, its speed, and the size of the warhead allow it to easily penetrate walls or roofs and cause significant damage if it hits a residential building. The warheads of anti-aircraft missiles are designed to be highly fragmentable, so they can cause great harm to civilians as indiscriminate weapons.

According to the Research Center for Trophy, Advanced Weapons and Military Equipment of Ukraine's General Staff, it is simply impossible to use missiles of this type from a distance of more than 250 kilometers from where Kyiv is being struck.

"The enemy's use of these guided missiles against ground targets is extremely chaotic. By using them, the Russians primarily aim to exert psychological pressure on the Ukrainian population," the General Staff explained.

The Center also said that the S-400 anti-aircraft guided missile travels at a speed of approximately 1300 m/s. Therefore, it covers the distance from the SAM to the capital of Ukraine in less than 2 minutes. This time is enough for Ukrainian air defense to detect and destroy the air target, but the warning system does not have time to process the data so quickly, so sometimes the airborne alarm is triggered with a delay.

How many more 48H6 missiles does Russia have?

Since 48N6 missiles began to be manufactured in Soviet times, the Russians have a fairly large stockpile of these weapons. According to Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimates, as of April 2023, the Russians have already fired 50% of the stock of anti-aircraft missiles for the S-300. At the same time, Defense Express editor-in-chief Oleh Katkov advises not to count the Russian anti-aircraft missiles used to attack Kyiv. The aggressors have thousands of 48N6 missiles, which Russia used to attack Kyiv, the military expert said on Espreso TV channel.

"These missiles are still Soviet-made. Therefore, their number in Russia is significant. Although the 48N6 missile was produced in the Soviet era, Russia continues to produce them. The exact number of these missiles is difficult to say. However, most likely, we are talking about a range with three zeros, that is, a thousand units. And Russia continues to produce them. Therefore, there is simply no point in counting them," Katkov said.

In January 2023, the American analytical institution Jamestown Foundation reported that the Russian military-industrial complex could produce up to five hundred new missiles of this type every year. In October of this year, Moscow completed the construction of a new building for the Almaz-Antey company, which manufactures 48N6 missiles for the S-400. The mass production of anti-aircraft missiles, according to the authors of the publication, also points to Russian problems in other industries, in particular in the production of cruise missiles.

Can the Ukrainian Armed Forces destroy 48H6 missiles and S-400 air defense systems?

Militarnyi calls an anti-aircraft-guided missile a rather difficult target to destroy by air defense systems. This is due to its high flight speed and low radar visibility. For example, the flight speed of a 48N6 missile after launch reaches 2.1 km/s. Therefore, the outdated Soviet air defense systems in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not capable of dealing with such targets

Patriot air defense system. Photo: Getty Images.

Whereas the American MIM-104 Patriot systems can cope with this task with difficulty. For example, during the attack on the night of December 13, the capital's air defense system shot down all 10 missiles fired at Kyiv. The SAMP/T air defense system, which was announced by France and Italy, can also shoot down air targets flying at high speed along a ballistic trajectory. However, the use of this SAM system has not been officially confirmed in Ukraine. 

The problem in defending against 48H6 missiles may be the limited number of Patriots and SAMP/T.

SAMP/T air defense system. Photo:

"These systems cover Kyiv and the region. Missiles are being shot down. After all, we can also hunt for the launchers. To hit a target in the Kyiv region, the Russians need to bring the S-400 to the border in the Bryansk region. And this location allows us to strike at these launchers using, for example, drones," said Oleksandr Kovalenko, a military and political observer at the Information Resistance group.

Ukrainians already have successful experience in destroying or damaging expensive S-400 systems. Thus, on August 23, 2023, the Triumph was destroyed in the temporarily occupied Crimea. According to intelligence reports, the explosion destroyed the system itself, the missiles installed on it, and enemy personnel. Newsweek reported that, as of September 2023, Ukraine had hit at least five Russian S-400 systems. In October, SBU drones fired on a Triumph in the Belgorod region, severely damaging it. 

The destruction of the billion-dollar systems is complicated by the restrictions that Western allies have imposed on Ukraine by providing it with weapons. Thus, given the range of the S-400, the defenders know that the Russians are shelling Kyiv from installations located no further than 45 kilometers from the Ukrainian-Russian border. However, they can only hunt the aggressors with drones, not with the HIMARS. The Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot use these weapons on Russian territory.

Defense Express devoted a separate article to explain that, in addition to humanity, there is also a financial component. Experts provided an economic justification for the fact that destroying launchers is much cheaper than shooting down missiles. "It costs $60 million to intercept 10 ballistic missiles from Patriot, and $1.3 million to launch one round from HIMARS. But so far, the inhumane condition of not using Western weapons on the territory of the Russian Federation continues. And what could have been solved with one single launch of GMLRS with HIMARS leads to more than fifty casualties, only because of the attack on the night of December 13," the article says. The authors calculated that destroying one S-400 with a HIMARS launch is 45 times cheaper than shooting down the missiles it fired. The methodical destruction of the installations, which cost more than $1 billion, will eventually force the enemy to stop shelling civilians in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

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