Russia’s air power roars back into the war with devastating guided bombs

Russia’s air power roars back into the war with devastating guided bombs

KYIV — Russia’s air force has dramatically boosted its effectiveness in the Ukraine war with its increased use of “glide bombs,” contributing to Moscow’s recent battlefield successes, according to Western experts.

The plentiful Soviet-era bombs, which carry up to a half-ton of explosives, have been fitted with wings and guidance systems to fly long distances with some accuracy — allowing the Russian jets that release them to operate away from Ukrainian antiaircraft systems.

Along with Russian drones, missiles and artillery, the glide bombs have added new destructive firepower to Russia’s campaign in eastern Ukraine, as seen in the recent conquest of the city of Avdiivka, Russia’s first major victory in nearly a year.

Russia ramps up drone, guided bomb attacks to thwart counteroffensive

The most effective counter to this increasingly plentiful Russian menace, say Ukrainians, is still a long way off, the U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes the country has been clamoring for.

With the glide bombs, first deployed last year, Moscow has found an inelegant but effective solution to Ukraine’s denial of Russian air superiority since the early days of the war. Although Ukraine has both air defenses and some fighter planes, the glide bombs allow the Russians to attack from greater distances.

The bombs, “unfortunately, have a very high destructive power,” said Dmytro Lykhovii, a Ukrainian military spokesman in eastern Ukraine. These bombs “simply demolish, destroying houses and foundations that can be used for defense fortifications.”

Ukrainian forces also use guided bombs, including the U.S.-made Joint Direct Attack Munition system, or JDAM, which is more accurate than the Russian version but in much shorter supply.

The Russian glide bombs most recently proved their deadly usefulness last month in Avdiivka, playing a major role in the capture of the town and transforming it into a blackened, bombed-out shell.

In an account posted on the social media site Telegram during the battle, Maksym Zhorin of Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade described how 60 to 80 of the glide bombs were crashing into his area every day. “These bombs completely destroy any position. All buildings and structures simply turn into a pit after the arrival of just one.”

Russia claims ‘complete’ control of Avdiivka after Ukraine withdraws

Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan defense consultancy, said that since mid-December, the number of Russian airstrikes on Ukrainian positions — the majority of them by glide bombs — rose significantly, based on figures from the Ukrainian army general staff.

Since January, Russian airstrikes across the front line have routinely exceeded 100 a day, with nearly 160 occurring four days before Avdiivka fell, he said.

“It just costs [the Russians] nothing really,” Muzyka said. “I would imagine that they have a lot of these bombs and they are not going to run out of them quickly.”

“Russian glide bombs are good for urban warfare, striking places like Avdiivka where you more or less know which area you should be aiming at,” he said. “And at some point, you may destroy a building, but you have essentially no control over which building you will actually hit.”

The Russian military blogger “Military Informant” confirmed on Telegram in a March 2 post that Russian aircraft had “significantly increased rate of use of aerial bombs … on Ukrainian positions,” especially around Avdiivka, “which literally does not allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to survive and leads to noticeable losses in manpower and territory.”

These munitions are becoming more and more of a problem for the Ukrainians, said Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the government-run National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv.

The bombs’ heavy iron construction makes them nearly impossible to shoot down, Ukrainian officials have said, because air defense systems are calibrated to detect missiles and rockets that fly with a distinct trajectory, rather than to counter aircraft bombs.

“We try to counter them with limited means at hand,” Bielieskov said. Ultimately, one of the best ways to “remedy the situation for Ukraine” would be F-16s, which Ukrainian pilots are training to fly and which could be in use by summer.

F-16s “with latest modifications” of AIM-120 air-to-air missiles “might increase the risks” to Russian jets, “when they either release [the glided bombs] or go back,” he said.

Ukraine’s air defense forces say that in the midst of this increased use of Russian air power, they have scored a number of successes, claiming to have brought down 15 Russian military aircraft — including 10 Su-34s fighter-bombers, two Su-35s fighter jets and an A-50 early-warning and control aircraft just in February.

These claims could not be independently verified, however, and have evoked deep skepticism among some analysts, who caution against using the Ukrainian numbers.

“Over-claiming is consistently a problem in long-range engagement,” said Justin Bronk, an air warfare expert and senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He allowed that some of the aircraft could have been shot down, but said it was also possible that some dropped below radar range to evade Ukrainian fire, causing them to disappear from screens.

“We have not seen a major drop in airstrikes,” Muzyka noted.

British intelligence did, however, confirm the downing of the A-50, one of the most highly prized targets in the Russian air fleet, carrying a sophisticated radar to warn of incoming fire.

Russia did not report the downing of the aircraft, but the father of an A-50 navigator posted on the Russian social media site VKontakte that his son, Aleksandr, had died “in the performance of his military duty” two days earlier — the day that the A-50 was reportedly shot down.

“The disappearance of these aircraft, even temporarily, is a good sign for us,” Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said on Ukrainian television last week, adding that “to some extent” it helped the air force in targeting Russian jets.

The D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War said Wednesday that “Russian aircraft appear to be continuing to conduct a relatively high volume of glide bomb strikes” despite reports that Ukrainian forces have downed Russian aircraft.

This is “likely because the Russian command may have decided that the positive effects generated by such air operations outweigh the costs associated with flying such missions,” the institute said.

Russian forces are also increasing the use of glide bombs in the Kharkiv region, the area’s governor, Oleh Synyehubov, said on Ukrainian television Tuesday. Recently, in the town of Kupyansk, a guided bomb with cluster munitions was dropped for the first time, he said.

“If you take [the situation] 10 months ago, the enemy used guided aerial bombs quite rarely,” Synyehubov said. “Now it’s their priority.”

Siobhán O’Grady and Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv, Mary Ilyushina in Berlin, and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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