N.R. Jenzen-Jones & Charlie Randall
Images shared via Ukrainian social media accounts on 4 March 2022 show the remnants of a cluster munition, reportedly documented in Pokrovsk—located in Donbas Oblast, eastern Ukraine—following a Russian strike. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to face stiff resistance, increased use of cluster munitions is being documented by ARES and many other organisations. In many cases, these submunitions are delivered by unguided rockets (or those capable of only limited course correction), including several documented incidents involving rockets which can be fired form the 9K58 Smerch (Смерч; ‘Tornado’) multiple-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL). The munition depicted in Figure 1, however, is a 9M54-series 300 mm guided missile. The 9M54-series cargo missiles (a type of cluster munition) are only known to be used by Russia. They are designed to be fired from the modernised 9K515 ‘Tornado-S’ MBRL. This is one of the most recently developed weapons Russia has employed so far in the conflict.
The most obvious feature of the munition that identifies it as an 9M54-series missile can be found in the markings on the lower part of the nose of the missile (see Figure 2). The markings read, in part, “9B706”, which is the GRAU index designation for the guidance system used in 9M54-series guided missiles. The control surfaces on the nose of the munition, shown in Figure 3, also distinguish it from the various earlier 300 mm rockets that can be fired by the 9K515. The exposed internal structures of the missile make clear that it is a cargo (cluster) munition, of a design broadly consistent with that used in earlier models of cluster munition fired by the Smerch series of MBRLs, such as the 9M55K series.
The 9M54 series of guided missiles are designed to be fired from the modernised Tornado-S MBRL, as described, offering a precision strike capability which one Russian source describes as “[putting] an end to the issue of Russian missile defence and artillery domination over the rocket artillery battalions of NATO ground forces, which have [G]MLRS and HIMARS.” The 9M54-series missiles reportedly have a circular error probable (CEP) of 7–15 m, whereas 9M55-series rockets, for example, are capable of only minor course correction and have a reported CEP of 150 m. Russia’s adoption of the Tornado-S has also been presented in terms of competition with Ukraine. Just last year, News Tula described the development of this weapon as enabling Russia to “fend off the capabilities of the Ukrainian MLRS ‘Alder-M'”.
At least two 9M54-series cluster munitions have been developed. From an examination of the munition remnant found in Pokrovsk alone, it is unclear whether the munition in this case is the 9M544 model or the 9M549 model. These look nearly identical, and are primarily differentiated by the submunition they deliver. The 9M544 reportedly delivers 552 HEAT-FRAG (what would typically be called DPICM in the West) submunitions, whereas the 9M549 delivers 72 HE-FRAG antipersonnel submunitions. An analysis of reported warhead weights, submunition weights, and submunition quantities—as well as an analysis of other remnants, see below—suggests that the 9M544 most likely carries 3B30 submunitions, which have previously been identified in Ukraine during the recent Russian invasion. Nonetheless, the details, including the number of submunitions, remain unconfirmed at the time of writing. Diagrams of the 9M544 and 9M549 guided missiles are presented in Figure 4.
An incident tracked by Bellingcat (shared by Eliot Higgins on Twitter) provides further evidence to support the conclusion that the munition shown in the 4 March photo is a 9M544 guided cargo missile. The images of munition remnants shared by Higgins were photographed in the aftermath of the attack on the village of Chornomorske, in the Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine (not to be confused with the village of Chornomorske in Crimea), and featured the 3B30 submunitions previously identified by ARES. Figure 5 shows the cargo munition remnant documented at Chornomorske; note its similarity to the munition shown in Figure 1.
The distinctive internal cargo frame (‘cage’) of the 9M544 missile (seen in Figure 4, top but absent from the 9M549 missile in Figure 4, bottom) was also documented in Chornomorske. This is shown in Figure 6, and includes 3B30 submunitions that were not successfully dispensed from the carrier munition. These, as well as the numerous unexploded submunitions scattered around the site, will pose an ongoing explosive threat to civilians and military forces alike.
At least two 9M54-series guided missiles have been employed by Russian forces against targets within Ukraine. This means that Russian forces have brought the 9K515 Tornado-S MBRL into the conflict, along with its broad arsenal of munitions—which likely includes a range of other cluster munitions as well as the the 9M55S thermobaric rocket. It is likely that the 9M54-series munitions employed thus far include the 9M544 cargo munition, which most likely contains 3B30 submunitions. Other as-yet-reported munitions and submunitions may also have been employed.
9M554 DPICM Guided Cargo Missile
Calibre: 300 mm
Range: 120 km (reportedly upgraded 200 km)
Projectile length: 7,600 mm
Projectile weight: 828 kg
Number of submunitions: 552
9M559 HE-FRAG Guided Cargo Missile
Calibre: 300 mm
Range: 120 km (reportedly upgraded to 200 km)
Projectile weight: 828 kg
Projectile length: 7,600 mm
Number of submunitions: 72
Special thanks to Patrick Senft, Eliot Higgins, and Erik Prytz.
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Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:
AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities