Russia firing unarmed missiles to deplete Ukraine air defense, says U.S. military official

FILE PHOTO: A missile is seen stuck in the ground after destroying an electricity line with part of the electric wire caught in it’s tail, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the Russian border in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, October 21, 2022. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia is firing unarmed cruise missiles that were designed to carry nuclear warheads at targets in Ukraine to try to deplete Kyiv's stocks of air defenses, a senior U.S. military official said on Tuesday.

The official, who declined to be named, was asked about a Nov. 26 assessment by Britain's military intelligence which said that Russia was "likely" removing nuclear warheads from cruise missiles and firing the unarmed munitions into Ukraine.

That intelligence update cited open source imagery showing wreckage of an air-launched cruise missile fired at Ukraine that seemed to have been designed in the 1980s as a nuclear delivery system.

The British defense ministry said a ballast was probably being substituted for the warheads, a system that will still produce damage through the missile's kinetic energy and unspent fuel.

Asked about the assertion, the U.S. military official told Pentagon reporters: "It's certainly something that they're trying to do to mitigate the effects of the air defense systems that the Ukrainians are employing."

These are the first comments by a U.S. official about the assessment.

The Pentagon has said that Russia's surge in missile strikes in Ukraine is partly designed to exhaust Kyiv's supplies of air defenses and finally achieve dominance of the skies above the country.

For that reason, the United States and other allies have focused on providing air defense supplies for Ukraine. That ranges from everything from legacy Soviet-era systems to more modern, Western ones.

A senior U.S. defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity in Tuesday's briefing, acknowledged that the Patriot missile defense system was one of the many capabilities being considered to help Kyiv protect against Russian missiles.

The United States has already provided a range of air defense capabilities to Ukraine, including NASAMS air defense systems as well as more than 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems and counter-artillery and air surveillance radars.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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