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Russian Missile Command: The game where 60 percent of your missiles don’t work

A Russian missile in the ground in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. (Sedat Suna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

One of the limitations that Russia has faced in its effort to subdue Ukraine is that it is exhausting its supply of precision-guided munitions. It’s easy to target something like a military training facility, but without precision munitions it’s much harder to actually hit what you’re aiming for. The result is that a lot of intended targets are missed and a lot of unintended targets are hit.

But there’s another problem, too, one that Reuters identified this week: A lot of Russia’s missiles simply don’t work.

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“Three U.S. officials said the United States estimated that Russia’s failure rate varied day-to-day, depended on the type of missile being launched, and could sometimes exceed 50%,” Phil Stewart reported for the wire service. “Two of them said it reached as high as 60%.” The errors included everything from failures at launch to failures to detonate.

I am not a military expert, but I feel confident saying this: 60 percent is a lot. If you’re bowling and you consistently missed 60 percent of the pins, you’re going to close out the game with a robust score of 40 points.

But let’s demonstrate this another way. If you are of a certain age, you might remember a game called Missile Command. It was a very 1980s/Cold War video game involving nuclear missiles (small dots) raining down on a city (little blocks) with your task being to fire countermeasure missiles (other little dots) in hopes that you could detonate the incoming nukes (with little circles) before they hit the ground.

What I’ve done here is adapted that game (adapting code shared by Straker on GitHub) to represent Russian missile command. Choose to use Russian missiles to defend your city and you’re going to get an error rate of something around 60 percent. (It’s randomized, so the rate might be higher or lower.) Or you can choose flawless munitions and see how you fare.

Try it out.

Russian missile command

Use missiles.

If your city survived intact while using Russian-60-percent-error-rate missiles, congratulations. But it probably didn’t.

Of course, from the standpoint of Ukraine, this is not a bad thing. The fewer missiles that work, the less destruction that results. The less destruction that results, the sooner the war ends. The conflict in Ukraine is not a game, and the repercussions are real.

But those cheering for fewer deaths and less wanton obliteration of cities might appreciate how difficult Russia’s missile failure rate makes its success.

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