Russian missiles in the Polish sky, forty seconds of alarm during the night

Not even forty seconds, two-thirds of a minute, is the time a Russian cruise missile aimed at a Ukrainian target would have spent inside Polish airspace some thirty hours ago (at the time of writing).

An event for which Poland immediately asked Moscow for explanations. The Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces tweeted (on Russian; the object flew near the village of Oserdow and spent 39 seconds there, constantly observed by military radar systems during its flight. All necessary procedures to ensure the safety of Polish airspace have been activated; the Polish army constantly monitors the situation on Ukrainian territory and remains on constant alert to ensure the safety of the national airspace.”

In fact, the Warsaw Defense report came after some Ukrainian officials claimed that Russia had launched around twenty missiles and seven attack drones of the Shahed type against the western Ukrainian region of Lviv, near the Polish border. Specifying that this time it was not an error like a few months ago, when it was discovered from the wreckage that a missile that fell in Poland was actually Ukrainian. Confirmation of yesterday's event also came from Maksym Kozytskyi, head of the Lviv regional military administration, who said: “There were two attacks on the same critical facility that the Russians had targeted during the night.”

The last time Russia had violated Polish airspace was on December 29, 2023, when an unidentified aerial object entered from Ukrainian territory. To understand how it could happen and what happened in those 39 seconds we need to recall some characteristics of cruise missiles. They have on board a navigation system equipped with geographical memory (terrain mapping), and have a sort of automatic pilot capable of optimizing the route (precisely the cruising phase towards the target) designed specifically to avoid reliefs and other types of obstacles. They fly at low altitude, typically below two thousand meters, to limit the possibility of tracking by air defense radars, and change orientation if the navigation system captures energy coming from anti-missile batteries. To orient themselves, those supplied to Russia typically use the Glonass positioning system (very similar to the US GPS) or inertial sensors and on-board radar. The first has the drawback of being vulnerable to jamming and spoofing (to simplify, radio jamming from electronic countermeasures); while the second is immune to it but has the characteristic of losing precision as time passes. Finally, the radar can also be the subject of electronic countermeasures. The missile in question certainly also had stealth capabilities and map memory which allow it to lower itself to an altitude of up to 30 meters and to accelerate in the last kilometers of the route (it travels about 1.2 km per second), making interception complex. The Russians, despite knowing well that radars controlled by Poland monitor the airspace even within the Ukrainian border – essential for detecting threats in advance – may still prefer routes of this type that temporarily “encroach” to avoid the so-called “saturation of anti-aircraft defenses” activated by the Kiev military and to shorten flight times. A shorter route therefore means less chance of being intercepted and more precision, also because, if the trajectory is such that the bomb is destined to enter and exit Polish airspace in a few seconds, even if the shooting down by the Polish side would be justified , it would still constitute a risk and a costly waste of resources.

In the case of the launch which took place yesterday morning, it appears to have been a Kalibr missile equipped with an active radar and GPS/Glonass guidance system, as well as sensors capable of giving a target precision of less than three metres. The war load is approximately 400 kg, the autonomy of the most advanced variants reaches 2,500 km and the flight speed can be subsonic or supersonic depending on the version. The Kalibr, which can be launched from land, ships, submarines or aircraft, are considered the Russian answer to the US Tomahawks. Their design took place in the mid-1980s, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but has since undergone Deep updates to stay effective.