Analysis of the progress of the war in Ukraine: "the air and naval front" (first part)

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
05/04/22

For more than five weeks now, the Russo-Ukrainian War has been bleeding the wastes of Eastern Europe north of the Black Sea in what has rapidly morphed into the largest conventional conflict in the world since the end of World War II.

Continuing in our path of monitoring the ongoing conflict, we now pass to analyze the events of the third, fourth and fifth week of the conflict together with the latest events, while trying to take stock of the situation from its beginning and to glimpse future developments.

As already done in the past, we will begin by talking about the progress of air and naval operations and then move on to the fronts of land warfare and overall strategic considerations. The fronts of air and naval warfare are those where the Russians have so far obtained the best results and are evolving following the guidelines that we had already illustrated in previous updates.

It must be said that both internationally and at the Italian level a sort of "information black hole" persists today regarding Russian air operations (as well as their Ukrainian counterparts, to tell the truth!) And having the author of the this analysis dedicated time and resources to monitoring these activities, the overall picture that emerges is light years away from what was affirmed by the main international press organs as well as (and this is frankly incomprehensible) by the press itself specialized in military matters.

The Russian Air and Space Forces have firmly conquered the dominion of the skies and are exercising it both strategically and tactically. As we had correctly predicted, there is also a progressive shift in the center of gravity of Russian air operations in the western part of Ukraine, the one west of the Korosten-Zhytomir-Vinnitsa-Yampil line. While in the first two weeks of the war, in fact, the V-VS concentrated most of its offensive power in the eastern, central, southern and northern part of the country and the incursions of Moscow's aircraft to the west were much more sparse, preferring the Russian strategists to entrust to the ballistic missiles and cruise missiles the task of hitting targets located there, now the fixed-wing aircraft with the red star have begun to strike the western part of the country with the same regularity as the others.

The success of the Russian air campaign is largely attributable to the experience gained during the Syrian Civil War. In fact, a report published in 2018 stated that, at that time, 2/3 of all the personnel of the Muscovite blue weapon had served for at least one operational shift in the Syrian campaign. The intense use on the Levant front has allowed the V-VS personnel to accumulate a very precious baggage of experience "in the field", to use new weapon systems and to develop innovative tactics for the use of both fixed-wing aircraft than those with rotary wing.

The Russian air campaign is very poorly documented in the Western press and even less understood, probably due to the fundamental "lack of knowledge" (read: ignorance) of how the Russians understand the role of "air power" in their complex war strategies.

As already mentioned in the past, the Russians have always placed the accent on the tactical dimension of the use of aviation for what would be called the "role of air artillery". It goes without saying that for the Russians the greatest offensive effort in the aeronautical field is expressed along the front line and only secondarily in the long-range air campaign aimed at destroying the infrastructure, the economy and the industrial and productive complex of the enemy. As evidence of the fact that in the course of this military campaign the emphasis of the Russian air offensive is still placed on the tactical dimension, one can bear in mind the fact that in the skies above or in the vicinity of each of the Ukrainian cities located close to the various battle fronts the V-VS constantly maintains in flight 15-20 fully armed aircraft orbiting in the sky and ready to intervene and offer the tactical support required by the troops on the ground.

It is well understood that, in such a situation, the ability of Russian aircraft to remain in flight even for long periods of time is fundamental. For aircraft designed from the beginning to enjoy considerable range, such as those of the Su-27/30/33/34/35 family, characterized by large dimensions and powerful engines, the problem does not arise. Another story is instead that of the short range attackers, such as the Su-25, and of the various types of helicopters, which have often been glimpsed equipped with 2-4 auxiliary tanks in order to increase their autonomy.

The division of war tasks between the different classes of combat aircraft deployed by Moscow noted in the first period of the war, with the Su-27SM and Su-35 (photo) offering cover, the Su-30 and Su-34 addressed to hit particularly important targets located in depth with respect to the front line and the Su-25s engaged instead in direct support to the troops, has now given way to a much more fluid and osmotic situation with a less clear division of roles, as when the Su-27SM and Su-35s were armed with rockets of various sizes to attack targets located on the ground. The use of helicopters by the Moscow forces has been intense and generalized since the first stages of the conflict and shows no signs of diminishing.

Among the models used that have been positively identified by observers on the ground we can mention the various Mi-24P / V, Mi-35M, Mi-28N and Ka-52 for attack and anti-tank missions (until now there is no confirmation with respect to the use of the reduced number of Ka-50s available to the Russian Armed Forces) while the helicopters of the Mi-8/17/171 and Mi-26 series were used above all for the helicopter landing of paratroopers or Spetsnaz and the transport of men and equipment (but not infrequently even the former were armed with rockets and sent to lend a hand to their attack "colleagues").

At the moment it is impossible to provide precise data regarding the flight hours and combat sorties carried out by Moscow's rotary wing aircraft but, it is not rash to say that the Russo-Ukrainian War represents one of the very few examples (together with the Vietnam War and to the Iran-Iraq War) of "total and generalized" use of helicopters and probably the use of this fundamental component of the Russian military instrument will far exceed that recorded in the previous conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia and Syria combined. However, this state of affairs must absolutely not lead to believe that the bombings carried out by Russian aircraft are "less intense" than the purely "strategic" ones that instead characterize the "Western" war doctrines and that we have seen an infinity of times.

By way of example, it will be enough to remember that at the end of the Second World War it was the Soviet planes that held the record for both the number and tonnage of bombs dropped in war actions. Such a statement may at first glance seem like a nonsense shot, but this is not the case at all.

In fact, we all have in mind the strategic bombing campaigns by the Allies which progressively reduced the German and Japanese cities to ashes; war events on which there is an immense literary and documentary production. Yet on the war front in Eastern Europe, the Soviets decided to decline the theory of "air power" in their own way and, starting with the battles of Kursk and Kuban where they finally managed to wrest control of the skies from the Germans, they embarked in a mammoth campaign of "tactical support" that led them to have dropped twice the tonnage of bombs until the end of the conflict than that dropped during the whole war by the United States and the British Empire taken together; and this also considering the fact that the bombs dropped by Soviet aircraft were smaller in size and tonnage than their counterparts used by the Western Allies.

Given that the long-range bombing missions carried out by the small number of Soviet strategic bombers were very small, it goes without saying that almost all of the "explosives" were dropped in tactical support missions. This experience had a very important reflection on the development that the Soviet Air Forces and then the Russian Air Forces had in the post-war period, as well as the blue weapons of all those countries which, sooner or later, in one way or another, are been wholly or partly influenced by Moscow. From this point of view, the Ukrainian War is not an exception and indeed confirms the rule.

Continuing the thread of what has been said in the course of previous updates, currently the V-VS constantly maintains in the theater of operations up to a maximum of 4 aircraft of the type AEW & C Beriev A-50 “Mainstay”. Developed from the Ilyushin Il-76 "Candid" transport cell, the A-50s orbit in the airspace of Belarus and in the skies of Rostov Oblast 70-100 kilometers from the border line in order to stay outside the envelope of the surviving batteries of Ukrainian S-300s (the longest-range anti-aircraft systems in Kiev's possession).

The "Vega-M" radar, with a diameter of 9 meters, positioned on the backs of the aircraft has the ability to detect aerial targets up to 650 kilometers away, naval targets up to 400 kilometers away, and land targets up to 300 kilometers away. distance. Being able to identify and "follow" up to 150 targets at a time, the A-50 is the ideal aircraft both to capture the offensive bets of the surviving Ukrainian fixed-wing aircraft and to identify large concentrations of enemy mechanized forces on the ground.

Once the targets have been identified, the A-50s pass the information to other slower aerial platforms but equipped with sensors more suitable for ELINT missions such as the Ilyushin Il-20M, Ilyushin Il-22, Ilyushin Il-22M, Ilyushin Il-22PP and Tupolev Tu-214R already mentioned in the past.

Beyond the "strategic" objectives, the work of all these other platforms is to monitor the activities of the headquarters of the Ukrainian ground units and transmit the data to the Headquarters of the Russian Armed Forces as well as to the Russian ground units engaged on the ground. The latter are also widely equipped with UAVs (completely absent in the first days of combat but, from March 1 to now, used extensively) suitable for tactical reconnaissance and have FAC ("forward air controller" departments, translatable as "operators for advanced on-the-fly control ") aggregates.

All these assets constantly supply information to the aforementioned A-50s, which then assign the objectives in order of priority to the fighter-bomber departments.

The latter are used both on the front line and to hit targets located in depth; in the latter case, the operations acquire connotations similar to those of the strategic bombing understood in the western sense of the term (Gulf War style-Desert Storm). In that case the Russians attack preselected targets usually on three main waves every single day.

Each "zveno" is open by the Su-24MR who have the task of "finding" the surviving Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems. They are accompanied by Su-34 and Su-35 optimized respectively for bombing and air superiority operations but which for the occasion are also equipped, among others, with Kh-31 missiles in their "P" version, developed specifically for anti-radiation missions, which are activated only if the enemy anti-aircraft defenses come into action.

The other departments of fighter-bombers in flight are armed exclusively with air-to-ground bombs which may or may not be "intelligent".

Although the Kh-31 is not the only anti-radiation missile in service with the Russian Armed Forces, it has nevertheless become the weapon of choice for the SEAD / DEAD missions thanks to its flexibility and ability to be installed on 8 aerial platforms in service at the Russian Air Force and Navy Aviation. Over time, new details have emerged regarding the SEAD / DEAD missions conducted by the Russian Air Forces.

We had you already told that in order to disrupt the Ukrainian anti-aircraft deployment, the Russians (inspired by the "Party of Puba" tactics used by the Americans during Desert Storm) had initially sent "flocks" of ENIKS E95M target drones into the Ukrainian skies with the aim of attracting enemy surface-to-air missile batteries to facilitate their destruction. This tactic proved to be a great success in the early days of the war but then the Ukrainians got smart and learned to distinguish the traces left by the small E95Ms, ignoring them and focusing on the emissions of the larger aircraft. At that point the Russians changed tactics and, this time inspired by the Azerbaijani operations during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, this time they sent old Antonov An-2 biplanes transformed into drones and weighed down by installing dispensers. for electronic noise so that they could simulate larger transport aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-76. Failing initially to distinguish them, the surviving Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses attacked them again and were once again obliterated by successive waves of red-star fighter-bombers.

Having learned the second bloody lesson, after the third week of the war the Ukrainians began to ignore even the An-2 and have significantly reduced the use of their anti-aircraft missile batteries, activating them only for limited intervals of time and trying to move them as much as possible. possible. The response of the Russians was not long in coming and this coincided with the third change of strategy: not to use multiple target drones of any kind and instead send in "free hunting" formations of Su-30 and Su-34 equipped with a massive jammer called SAP-14 hooked in the central part of the fuselage and combined with two smaller jammers called SAP-518 positioned instead on the wing tips. Aircraft equipped in this way can "flush out" enemy SAMs and then attack them again with anti-radiation missiles.

The Ukrainians ran for cover again and essentially stopped attacking Russian planes, focusing instead on helicopters and cruise missiles, which are also used in abundance by the Russians.

For the fourth time, the Russians have changed tactics and, as emerged from several videos posted on the Internet, they are now using their reconnaissance UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), especially the Forpost, to identify the positions of the anti-aircraft defense systems and then obliterate them with the 9K720 missiles Iskander (photo). There is nothing left to do but continue to monitor this particular aspect of the air war to understand what the next twists will be.

As regards the bombing missions, as stated in the previous analyzes, the vast majority of these operations on the Russian side are carried out using free-fall bombs of the "FAB" type belonging to the so-called "1954 series" and "1962 series" however over the days (and contrary to what most of the media claims) the Russians have begun to use the so-called "smart bombs" in an increasing manner. Television images and remains found near the bombed targets have made it possible to identify the following models so far: bombs of the KAB-250 family, in particular the laser-guided KAB-250LG-E and, more rarely, the guided KAB-250S-E satellite, TV-guided KAB-500KR, laser-guided KAB-500L, satellite-guided KAB-500S-E, laser-guided KAB-1500L, satellite-guided KAB-1500S-E and PBK-500U Satellite-guided Drel.

In the course of the recent attacks on Ukrainian airports, the BETAB-500s with predominantly antipathetic tasks but also usable against other types of "hardened" targets have made an appearance again (after their debut in the Syrian Civil War). To use all the aforementioned weapons it seems that the Russians relied solely on the Su-34s, although many of these devices are compatible with other aircraft in service at the V-VS.

In tactical support missions, the Russians generally use a large amount of unguided bombs belonging to the aforementioned "FAB" series but we have also seen a wide use of OFAB-100-120, the latter ideal for use against infantry and light armored vehicles, as well as KMGU and KMGU-2 submunition dispensers. A separate discussion must be made for the "cluster bombs" also called "fragmentation bombs" such as the RBK-250 and RBK-500.

Although the Russians have always used such devices as an integral part of their war strategies, their use on the Ukrainian front has further contributed to exposing Russia to international public condemnation. Here it is necessary to open a parenthesis relating to war crimes and indiscriminate bombing of civilians caused by the Russian Air Forces. First of all it is necessary to specify that, starting from a study of the training manuals of the V-VS, the pilots of Russian aircraft do not actually bomb "targets" but bomb "coordinates".

As already explained in a previous analysis, the Russian pilots use the SVP-24 as a navigation system and computerized bombing aid Gefest. When the pilots, usually already in flight, receive the list of targets to be bombed from the A-50s, they do so through spatial coordinates that they must enter into the computer so that it programs the route and the subsequent automatic release of the bombs once the aircraft has reached the optimal release point. However, throughout the procedure, Russian pilots do not receive any kind of "briefing" on the nature of the target they are going to bomb. Only when things are done will they know if the "coordinates" they hit with their bombs were located in correspondence with an enemy command center or a school for children. The Russian pilots therefore have the task of flying their aircraft and returning them to the base subtracting them from any enemy reaction but as regards the actual bombing they are little more than "pass cards at the orders of a computer".

At this point, a question that comes naturally is: how much this system is prone to errors and can it cause “collateral” losses? In reality, no more than any other system adopted by other countries such as the United States, Israel, France, etc ... However, it is necessary and necessary to add that, often, the Russian bombing of hospitals, schools, administrative offices, etc. ... they are not "collateral damage", but "intentional damage". If, as I said before, the Russian pilots do not actually know what they are bombing until the end of their missions, this is not the case for the operators of the A-50s and other ELINT aircraft that collect intelligence data on the targets, just as it is not the case. for the officers in command (especially of the Headquarters) who physically draw up the lists of targets to be hit; they know very well what and where their pilots are bombing, and for this reason they limit themselves to supplying them with only the "coordinates" without further information.

The origin of this "modus operandi" dates back to the war in Afghanistan when at a certain point in the conflict the front line flight departments refused to act as a "club" to continue the work of "depopulation" against Afghan civilians . The reason why hospitals, schools, residential areas and civilian objects in general fall into the case of "legitimate targets" exactly on the same level as military objectives must also be sought in the operational manuals of the Russian Armed Forces which, having remained essentially unchanged in the guidelines with respect to the experience of the Second World War are still anchored to a concept similar to the "total war" in which military and civilians tend to be substantially equated, so that the bombing of civilians contributes according to the Kremlin strategists to "bend the morale of the enemy ". Hence, when the enemy's resistance becomes particularly stubborn and the game gets tough, in the Russian military doctrine a harsh response becomes not only acceptable, but even meritorious and the inevitable civilian casualties are "acceptable".

Obviously, this approach is unthinkable in the eyes of an Italian today but, in hindsight, various criticisms that the so-called West moves today to Russia regarding the conduct of its operations towards Ukrainian cities should make us remember for example (but of examples if they can really do plenty!) the events of Raqqa in 2017, when the United States ordered the inhabitants of this once thriving Syrian city, at that time "guilty" of having been elected as the de facto capital of the Islamic State whose cutthroats they held the local population hostage, to go away under pain of being bombed until annihilation, and the Kurdish SDF fighters themselves certainly did not go into the subtle way when it came to "freeing" the rubble after the flood of fire. This is to remind us all that the life of the Syrians then was not worth less than that of the Ukrainians today just because the Ukrainians are "beautiful", "white", "Christian" and "European", closed the parenthesis.

The UAV sector and the so-called “circulating ammunition” sector, better known by their English name of “loitering munitions”, is turning out to be increasingly important for the war effort in Moscow.

After an initial total absence, starting from March 1st the Russian UAVs began to be used systematically and in large numbers so that today even each regiment of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in Ukraine has its own autonomous unit of UAVs.

It is no coincidence that, of the approximately 20 types of UAVs and UCAVs officially in service with the Russian Armed Forces, 10 have already been positively recognized as employed in war operations. Unfortunately (and for obvious reasons) we do not have a complete and detailed map of all the operations conducted by the Moscow drones, but it seems that until now the models that have been used most widely have been the Forpost, the Orlan-10 and the Eleron-3SV.

Russian UAVs are used for reconnaissance missions, artillery fire support and damage control, however Forpost they also demonstrated unprecedented attack capability by bombing Ukrainian armored units using specially developed X-BPLA anti-tank missiles.

As for the actual UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles), the Russo-Ukrainian War has so far seen a considerable use of the Kronshtadt Orion, despite it being a relatively new system and up to now in service in no more than about thirty units. In particular, the Russian Orions are being used very intensively in the fighting around Mariupol where they have achieved some important successes hitting both armored vehicles and enemy command centers.

There is no news instead of the use of the brand new UCAV Luch Korsar but since it is an absolutely experimental weapon and far from being put into service yet, it is almost certain that it will not participate in this war.

The Russians approached the operational concept of "circulating ammunition" relatively late but after the shock of the successes achieved by the Azeris during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, they ran for cover by developing two types: the ZALA Aero KUB-BLA and the ZALA Aero LANCET-3, both already employed in Syria and which are now finding their new employment scenario in the Ukrainian operating theater. We also recall that starting from the abundant evidence resulting from the analysis of the videos coming from the war fronts it is clear that both the Russians and the Ukrainians are using, alongside their military UAVs and UCAVs, also a large number of civilian drones which, on the model already seen in Syria with ISIS and various Syrian rebel groups, they have been "militarized" and are used for a wide range of missions, including the release of improvised ammunition.

However, our analysis of Russian air operations in the present war would not be complete if we forgot to talk about the use of ballistic and cruise missiles. As already mentioned in the past, this war was immediately characterized by a wide use by the Russian side of 9K79 OTR-21 ballistic missiles Tochka (Photo) and 9K720 Iskander launched from the ground and a limited use but from the very strong media echo of the Kh-47M2 air-launching ballistic missile Kinzhal.

Since the first day of the war, both i Tochka that Iskander they were launched at a rate of 50/55 missiles per day with a progressive tendency to increase, so much so that they have now exceeded 2000 bombs launched. The targets targeted were among the most disparate, with a particular predilection for airports, arms depots and fuel depots and, in the general economy of the war we can undoubtedly say that the operational yield of Russian ballistic missiles based on land was excellent.

The operational debut of the Kinzhal, used on 18 March to hit an underground ammunition depot located in Deliatyn and on 19 March this time instead to hit a fuel depot located in Konstantinovka.

Up to now, the use of cruise missiles to hit those areas of Ukraine not routinely "hit" by tactical aviation has also been very intense. Again, the Russians benefited from the experience accumulated during the Syrian Civil War.

Cruise missile attacks inflicted some of the most serious losses on Ukrainians, such as during the bombing of the Yaroviv military base on March 13, which wiped out an entire unit of foreign volunteers who had come to fight alongside. of the Ukrainian forces, and that to the detriment of the base of the 36a brigade of the Navy Infantry which resulted in the deaths of several Ukrainian marines.

As mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, the front of the air war is the one where Moscow has so far managed to obtain the best results thanks to the massive use of both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Although the attention of most international observers is currently shifting to monitoring the negotiations that should lead at least to a ceasefire between the parties, the much more prosaic reality must lead us to note that, on the contrary, Moscow is further strengthening its aerial potential in the theater of operations with a view to further escalation.

At the beginning of the invasion it seemed that the V-VS had deployed about 230 tactical fighter planes around Ukraine but it seems that this figure is being reinforced to reach 500 (with helicopters excluded from the total!). At the same time we are also witnessing an escalation in the use of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and "smart bombs" in dramatic contrast with the reports which instead stated that the stocks of these devices were "very limited". Evidently the information provided by Western intelligence agencies in this sense must be considered as incorrect.

Before concluding, it is now necessary to take a look at the losses the V-VS has suffered so far. According to the bulletin issued day by day by the Headquarters of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the losses that the Air and Air Defense Forces have inflicted on their Russian counterparts since the beginning of hostilities amount to 147 planes and 134 helicopters, for a total of 281 aircraft. , as well as 92 between UAVs and UCAVs. Yet, from the analysis of photos and videos from the various fronts of the war, the Russian losses documented and verified so far amount to 19 aircraft and 38 helicopters, for a total of 57 aircraft, as well as 31 including UAVs, UCAVs, circulating ammunition and even a target drone.

There is therefore a huge gap between the losses of aircraft and drones declared destroyed by the Ukrainians and those that have been absolutely verified by several independent sources.

Analysis of the progress of the war in Ukraine: "the air and naval front" (second part)

Photo: Russian MoD Fed / RIA Novosti