Update on the war in Ukraine: the air and missile front

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

The second most important dimension of the Russo-Ukrainian War, after the naval one, is the air and missile one. This aspect of the conflict represents one of those that have created the greatest debate both among professionals and among the general public of “more or less interested” also due to the fact that it has received one of the worst media coverage.

In the past, we had already dedicated ample space to the aero-missile dimension of the conflict in the course of the previous update analyzes, therefore today's one will fit on the path already traced by the previous ones. Here it is necessary to emphasize once again the fact that, both in journalistic reports and in specialist newspapers, there remains a substantial ignorance (in the traditional sense of "not knowing") with respect to the tactics and operational doctrines of the V-VS which have conditioned the whole existence, influencing also the modus operandi in the present conflict. This state of affairs permeates the meaning of a myriad of documents, reports, videos published everywhere during these almost 9 months of war. Based on this "popular belief", which now lives a life of its own regardless, and which has also infected numerous professional military personnel and specialist journalists, for some strange reason "the Russian Air Forces should operate according to the guidelines established by Western doctrine, and therefore they should be evaluated in the light of these guidelines ".

This approach is METHODOLOGICALLY WRONG. In fact, it assumes that the V-VS behaves like an air force of a western country but, as already abundantly explained in the past, this is not the case.

Small parenthesis; many have written to me on LinkedIn asking me why in my past and present analyzes I have used and use the apparently obsolete terminologies of "V-VS" and "Russian Air Forces" instead of the contemporaries "VKS" and "Russian Aerospace Forces" . Here an explanation is in order. It is true that, formally, from 1 August 2015 the blue weapon of Moscow has officially adopted the new designation of "VKS" (acronym which stands for "Aerospace Forces" - "Воздушно-космические силы" in Russian language) born from merger of V-VS (the "Air Forces" - "Военно-воздушные силы" in Russian language) with VVKO (the "Aerospace Defense Forces" - "Войска воздушно-космичесрой обоной" in Russian language). However, it is also true that the so-called VKS is de facto a sort of "umbrella organization" which is itself structured in three different and distinct branches managed by three independent chains of command.

These branches are:

- the "Space Forces"(" Космические войска России "in Russian language, abbreviated to" KV ");

- the "Air and Missile Defense Troops"(" Войска противовоздушной и противоракетной обороны "in Russian language, abbreviated to" PVO-PRO ");

- the "Air Forces"(Ie the never really dead" V-VS ").

Since the focus of Russian air operations in Ukraine falls on the shoulders of the "airline branch", it is no coincidence that I use the abbreviation of V-VS in place of VKS which has now become improperly fashionable; closed parenthesis.

Therefore, always keeping in mind what was stated in the course of the previous analyzes, we can affirm that, starting from the beginning of April of this year, with the decision by Moscow to withdraw from the Kiev area and much of eastern Ukraine , the modus operandi of the V-VS has assumed a posture in some ways predictable and in line with its traditional "support" mission, or rather in technical language "of air artillery". In fact, in the very first period of the war, the air operations of all types of the V-VS ranged far and wide over the whole Ukrainian territory located east of the line comprising from north to south Korosten'-Zhitomyr-Vinnitsa-Yampol and, occasionally , even to the west of it. This state of affairs was justified by the fact that the initial Russian offensive, with the aim of quickly submitting the entire Ukrainian territory, required a massive presence of air power over the entire territory of the theater of operations. It is obvious that this state of affairs has put pressure on the resources of the Russian Air Forces, but this can also be said for the Ukrainian Air Forces (PSU), which instead found themselves on the other side of the fence, in a defensive position. compared to the Russian offensive.

The narrowing of the battlefield, carried out in early April, allowed the V-VS to focus and streamline its efforts, as well as gave the PSU some respite. In this new tactical-strategic framework, Russian air operations can be summarized as follows.

Every day, the V-VS launches three waves of attack against the entire Ukrainian front line. Each attack wave is composed of 4 regiments, and each regiment is in turn composed of 4 squadrons. Given that according to the Russian military organization a squadron is made up of between 12 and 18 aircraft, this means that every single day the Russians send a number of fixed-wing tactical aircraft to attack the Ukrainian skies (thus excluding helicopters ) who carry out a total of between 576 and 864 mission flights (the number of sorties then depends on the amount of armament they have to drop on the previously selected targets). The purpose of these composite attack waves differs depending on the types of aircraft involved.

The Su-24s and Su-25s (photo) are used on the battle line to "soften enemy positions" often in concert with the artillery. Although they have so far used the entire arsenal of conventional bombs and rockets that they can drop, the Su-24s and Su-25s have been mostly seen using the FAB-250 and FAB-500 free-fall bombs, respectively (the Su- 24) and the unguided S-13 rockets (the Su-25s).

Su-34s are also used in softening missions, however, given their advanced electronic equipment and the ability to employ a plurality of air-to-ground weapon systems in a wide range of scenarios, they are more profitably used for attacks of the type stand-off using mainly Kh-29, Kh-38 and Kh-59 missiles. Particularly interesting so far has been the career of the Russian interceptor fleet, which aligns the Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35. The Sukhoi's mighty twin-engine fighter aircraft were originally intended solely for air supremacy missions. Subsequently, with the drastic reduction of air operations by the PSU, the Russians had seen fit to reassign them to air-to-ground missions by sending them to attack armed with unguided rockets such as the S-8, S-13 and S-25 . With the narrowing of the front area many of them have returned to their original task, but not all of them.

We have said in the past that, according to Russian operations manuals inherited from the Soviet period back to the 40s, fixed-wing aircraft with the red star are intended to bomb areas of enemy territory ranging from the true front line. and its own up to a maximum of 150 kilometers in depth from it. In recent months, too, we have seen the Russian side scrupulously adhering to this strategy, leaving the rest of the Ukrainian territory instead to the attacks carried out by long-range weapons, which we will refer to later.

During this war, the Mig-31 (photo) finally had its "baptism of fire" both in the air-to-air and air-to-ground role. As for the missions of the Mig-31 in its original and primary role as a long-range piloted interceptor, unfortunately at the moment no reliable data are available to be able to describe them in an exhaustive manner, except for the suspicion that the photos of R- air-to-air missiles 37M surprised to "fly" over the Ukrainian skies on several occasions in recent months indicate that these bombs were launched by the Mig-31BM.

On the other hand, the presence in the theater of operations of the Mig-31K was documented with certainty, which on 3 different occasions used as many specimens of the Kh-47M2 supersonic air-to-ground missile Kinzhal (photo).

The first confirmed launch of the Kinzhal already occurred on March 18 when a missile of the above type was launched against an underground ammunition depot located in the town of Deliatyn followed by a second launch the following day against a fuel depot located in Kostantinovka. Finally, a third launch took place at the beginning of April (to be precise, on the 11th) against the bunker of the command of the Ukrainian forces engaged in the Donbass area located in Chasov Yar, not far from Kramatorsk.

On the other hand, the rumors that claim that the attack conducted by the Tu-22M strategic bombers against the city of Odessa on May 9th was carried out by means of Kinzhal. In fact, a careful study of the frames of the published video shows very well from the trajectory and behavior of the missiles that they are ex-Soviet Kh-22.

While it is possible to gather a fairly satisfactory picture as regards the operation of fixed-wing aircraft, the very intense use of rotary-wing vehicles does not allow up to now to produce even partial statistics, however the abundance of video material published on a regular basis. daily in numerous Telegram channels suggests a total and generalized use of helicopters by the Russians, following an evolutionary trend that began over 40 years ago in Afghanistan and then continued in Chechnya and, more recently, in Syria.

As already stated in one of the previous analyzes, the Russo-Ukrainian War represents, after the Vietnam War and the Iran-Iraq War, the third example of a total and generalized use of helicopters and it would not be surprising if, once it is over the conflict, military historians discovered, by consulting the archives and statistics produced by the military authorities, that the Russian helicopter pilots had accumulated a quantity of flight hours and sorties even higher than that of their American and Iranian colleagues in the two aforementioned conflicts.

SEAD / DEAD missions have acquired increasing importance for the Russians, especially since the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses have raised their heads. At the beginning of the conflict the Ukrainian Armed Forces could align a massive anti-aircraft deployment articulated on no less than 500 batteries of different models of Soviet / Russian origin which, although not strictly state of the art and not organized in an IADS (acronym which stands for for "Integrated Air Defense System") properly so called, however, constituted a source of painful headaches for Moscow strategists. For this reason, the campaign to suppress the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses started immediately at the same time as the other air operations and the land war itself.

Also in this case, the Russian military doctrines differ from those of the West which envisage carrying out a range of separate missions assigned to a class of aircraft dedicated to this type of action (also called “Wild Weasel aircraft”). From the Moscow side of the hill, however, after the decommissioning of the Mig-25BM (photo), the only aircraft of oriental origin specifically designed to carry out this type of mission, now the task of proceeding with the suppression of enemy anti-aircraft defenses is assigned in a manner generalist to the attack departments which are however equipped for this purpose with anti-radiation missiles to be used as soon as the enemy anti-aircraft defenses are activated.

At the beginning of the air campaign of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the Russians organized their attack waves in such a way that each squadron of each regiment participating in the combat sorties organized within itself a "zveno" (section) of four specially equipped aircraft. for the "hunt" to enemy systems through the use of various anti-radiation missiles among which the Kh-31P stand out.

Despite what various "authoritative" voices say, the Russian SEAD / DEAD campaign against the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses has been successful and, to date, we can say that 80% of the Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems in service on the eve of the war have been completely destroyed. However, the Ukrainians managed to preserve part of their batteries and, subsequently, to rebuild a fairly effective defense system thanks to new supplies from their Western partners.

But be careful! Those who, in approaching this particular topic, focus their attention solely on systems of Western origin so trumpeted by the press, such as the MIM-23, are wrong. hawk, Asp 2000 (photo), i Crolate NG, NASAMS or IRIS-T, all interesting and performing systems but which are coming and will be delivered with the dropper and in a staggered manner over time. The real "reinforcements" for the Ukrainians came from an important number of batteries of Soviet / Russian origin that the United States and its Western allies bought in every corner of the world (especially in the Middle East) and then transferred them to Ukraine.

Despite this important injection of "lifeblood", the Ukrainians are no longer able to deploy a single and continuous anti-aircraft deployment all around their country as on the eve of February 24, 2022, however they have strengthened the so-called "local defenses" around specific crucial nerve centers to preserve the functioning of the "country system". Furthermore, to increase the survival chances of their precious forces, they have resorted to the so-called "Serbian tactics", that is, turning the radars on and off and moving the batteries from position to position in order to avoid their location.

The use by the Ukrainians of these extremely ingenious and flexible tactics has forced the Russians to change their strategy by pushing them to organize real "hunts" through groups of 20 aircraft or more (usually Su-34 and Su-35, but Su-24M, Su-25, Su-27SM and Su-30SM) were also seen armed with anti-radiation missiles and preceded by small reconnaissance Su-24MR patrols charged with "finding" the enemy batteries.

Precisely the war against enemy radar and anti-aircraft missiles saw an interesting development on the Ukrainian side when news emerged during the summer that Russian forces had found fragments of shrapnel traceable to AGM-88 HARM missiles near their positions (photo). This came as a surprise to everyone, including myself, given the sulphurous reputation that aircraft of Soviet origin have when it comes to installing avionics and weapons systems of Western origin. Although it was later established that a small number of Mig-29s and Su-27s were accidentally modified to launch the AGM-88 HARMs, there is not enough reason to believe that this admirable engineering effort produced nothing more than platforms. SEAD postpones and not able to obtain decisive results on the battlefield, if not the pure and simple deterrence effect against the Russians previously basically accustomed to acting with impunity.

The last element to consider in our narrative is that of the missile attacks that affected Ukraine during the month of October and which are continuing into this November as well. These massive attacks, which began on 10 October and are still in progress, have seen the use not only of the Kh-55, Kh-101 missiles and of the different variants of the 3M-54 family Kalibr but also - and this was the absolute novelty - gods Geran-1 e Geran-2, Russian copies of loitering munitions shahed-131 e shahed-136 (next photo) of Iranian design and production.

The effectiveness that these kamikaze drones have had (beyond the trumpets of Ukrainian propaganda that do not help at all to understand and take note of the extreme danger of these bombs if Iran decides to proliferate them even in crisis areas close to ours borders!) have shocked more than one insider, including myself who in the past had never allowed himself the luxury of underestimating the Iranians, net of the inevitable propaganda of the Tehran regime.

Contrary to what one may be tempted to believe, the most recent round of Russian long-range bombing is by no means the most violent of those we have witnessed since the beginning of the war to date, but unlike the others, it was concentrated specifically on the Ukrainian energy sector in order to cause it such damage as to permanently disarticulate it. Many have claimed that behind this change of strategy there is the hand of General Sergey Vladimirovich Surovikin, commander general of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and today commander-in-chief of all the Russian forces engaged in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Although this theory is in my opinion risky, as there are numerous indications that the aforementioned strategy was planned long before the assignment of Surovikin to the command in Ukraine, nevertheless as a well-known proponent of the autonomous role of air power it is to be bet that he will carry out this bombing campaign vigorously in order to literally inflict on the Ukrainians "a winter without electricity, gas and water".

It is obvious that the effects of a prolonged and unscrupulous use of air-missile power not only declined at a tactical level but now also expanded at a strategic level to bring the entire country-system into crisis during the very delicate winter months can in the long run prove, if not decisive, at least very paying for the Russian war strategies in the coming months.

Photo: MoD Russian Federation / Rostec / web / MBDA / US Navy