Why Poland's Air Defense Didn't Take Down russian Kh-55 in December, Polish Media Explains

Practice firings of Polish Poprad air defense systems / Open source photo
Practice firings of Polish Poprad air defense systems / Open source photo

The issue is not only the density of air defense assets around the border but also too "careless" mode of operation during peacetime

After the outrage in Poland related to the russian missile being "missed" by the country's air defenses, Polish military media outlet Defence24 finally raised the most important question. Namely, what was the reason this missile wasn't shot down by Polish air defenses despite being notified in advance and spotted by radars?

The general conclusion is, technical failure or a mistake was not the case, most likely, the problem is how Polish air defense operates during peacetime.

Read more: Poland Admits It Missed a russian Missile That Went 450 km Deep into the Country and Explains the Reasons
Polish Patriot medium-range missiles
Polish Patriot medium-range missiles / Photo credit: Wojsko Polskie

Defence24 journalists assume the events of December 16, 2022, were unfolding the following way: during another round of russian missile attacks on Ukraine, the Polish military may have received information about a cruise missile straying from its intended course towards the border with Poland.

But since there is no system providing the exchange of target data between Ukrainian and Polish air defense systems, the notice might have come by phone. It was enough to raise the alarm and get the systems ready but not enough to make contact with the russian Kh-55 and take it down.

When an operator looks at a radar display, all he sees is a signature, a "dot." He can define the object with parameters and characteristics of its movement but only an experienced operator can properly identify what exactly he is looking at – be it an enemy jet aircraft, a UAV, or a cruise missile – based on these supplementary data.

If we take the hypothesis it was a Kh-55 flying at an altitude of 100 to 1,000 m with an average speed of about 700 km/h, then it could have been spotted approximately 47 to 148 km (depending on the altitude) into the detection range of Polish air defenses.

Wreckage of the russian missile found near Bydgoszcz, Poland
Wreckage of the russian missile found near Bydgoszcz, Poland. Reportedly, Kh-55, but the type was never confirmed by Polish officials / Photo credit: Onet

Given that the russian missile was also seen by Ukrainian radars, i.e. it was within their range, the Kh-55 could come from no further than Brest in belarus. The missile fell near Bydgoszcz, that is, the trajectory could have put one of Poland's strategic facilities in danger, the Świnoujście LNG terminal. So the Polish air defense reacted appropriately, but if they had the capabilities to eliminate the threat, is another question.

The general vector of the russian missile flying across Poland and the LNG terminal in Świnoujście
The general vector of the russian missile flying across Poland and the LNG terminal in Świnoujście / Map credit: Google Maps; photo credit: Radosław Drożdżewski , Wikimedia Commons

The Polish Ministry of National Defense stated that contact with the russian missile was established initially but then lost. It means the radars don't cover the entirety of the airspace of Poland. It became a problem for the American and Polish duty fighters who were raised into the air but ultimately couldn't find the target.

Another paradox is that the norms of the Polish military require that the airspace is monitored only at altitudes higher than 3,000 m which doesn't help in the case of low-altitude hard-to-see threats such as cruise missiles.

But that is not the only issue. Defence24 recalls that in December 2022, Poland tried to protect itself from russian Kh-555 and Kalibr missiles by deploying Poprad and Osa-P systems near the border. However, these very systems weren't able to shoot down the Kh-55 coming from belarus. The conclusion is, there were probably too few of them, or the border wasn't covered completely.

Polish Osa-AKM-P air defense system
Polish Osa-AKM-P air defense system / Open source photo
Read more: ​Ukrainian Military Repelled Another russian Air Attack, Destroyed 25 Drones and 3 Cruise Missiles on Night of Sunday