Changing Shades of Russian Weapon Deployment in Ukraine War
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM
Picking up the Thread- the Premise

The recent reports in the open source have stated that in the massive missile strikes on Ukraine between 06-10 Mar 2022, Russia has used ‘new age weapons’, namely the Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missiles unstoppable by any known defences[1].

Starting from this and going backwards up to the start of the war, this work analyses the following:-

- How the Russian weapon deployment has changed from one identifiable pattern to the other over the year?

- What have been the compulsions/ rationale driving each change

Initial Punch Short of Expectation

In the wee hours of 24 Feb 2022, a presumably confident President Vladimir Putin may have allotted just a few days for the completion of the so called Special Military Operation. There were reasons for such confidence. A solid initial punch had been got readied along the Eastern and SE border with Ukraine which was expected to do a ‘Crimea’ and crush Ukraine to submission in a matter of days.

Suited to the task at hand, the weapon line up was huge and varied. A brief glimpse of the same is presented:-

- Main air threat vehicles composed of Sukhois and Migs to carry out pre-emptive strikes – SU 25 SM, SU27, SU30, SU 35, MiG 29.

- Follow up strikes by deadly attack helicopters- KA 52 Kamov, Mi35, Mi 24P, Mi28N, Mi8 etc.

- Long range Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs) to include Kalibr ballistic missile (range 1500-2500 km), 9k720 Iskander SSM (range 400-500km), OTR 21 Tochka Tactical ballistic missile (range 120 km)etc[2].

In variance to the President’s expectations, the initial pre-emptive strike carried out mainly with the weapons as mentioned above remained short of achieving its aim of destroying a major chunk of the enemy’s air assets on ground or crippling its air defence capability by striking out its battle control nodes, sensor systems, communication and connectivities all together called the air defence control and reporting system or ADCRS.

Many a reasons are cited for this outcome. Some salient ones are mentioned below:-

- Gradual strengthening of air defence systems by Ukraine and building underground structures and networks for the same. This started right after the first rebellion in Donbas region in 2014.

- Putting much of the air strike assists (aircrafts and AHs) under concrete.

- Sub-optimal outcome of Russian strike owing to the reported lack of precise targeting information and poor strike accuracy.

Whatever may be the reason(s), the mighty Russian pre-emptive and follow up strikes failed to achieve even a local ‘favourable air situation’(FAS) leave aside ‘air supremacy’ of gaining a complete mastery over the skies. The Ukrainian aircrafts, attack helicopters (AHs) and air defences survived to fight another day keeping the skies over the battle zone contested. The same situation prevails to this day with both sides having taken huge casualties.

In the months and weeks that followed, besides air to air combat, maximum casualties especially of Russian AHs were caused by man-portable Missiles (called MANPADS). Besides its own inventory of MANPADS (Igla, Igla 1S, Strela 2M) Ukraine got thousands of MANPADS supplied by the western countries. These mainly include the US Stingers (some 1400 shipped as of May 2022[3]), Star Streak MANPADS from UK and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands. [4])

The air combat over contested skies and deadly strikes by hundreds of MANPADS stuck unobtrusively in the nook and corner of the tactical battle area (TBA) piled up significant losses on both sides. As per one open source report, the Russian losses between the period 24 Feb to 27 Jun 2022 totalled up to some 39 combat aircrafts and 26 AHs[5].

Even after making major correctionson count of misinformation campaign, even if half or 3/4th of this number is true, it is a huge loss. While the Ukrainian losses are equally huge (figures vary depending on the source) only the Russian ones have been mentioned here being relevant to the premise.

The Unrolling War Machine Taking the Brunt

Given whatever situation (fait-accompli) that emerged post the pre-emptive strikes, started the ground offensive with the unrolling of the Russian war machine. Huge and unwinding convoys of tanks and armoured vehicles could be seen in many a streaming videos headed to the gut of Ukraine – towards Kyiv. Some of these included - T 62, T 72, T 72 B3, T80, T80 BVM and the top of the line T90Ms along with the BMP and BTR series of armoured vehicles and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs)[6].

If the pre-emptive strikes had succeeded as desired and an FAS/air superiority was achieved, the crushing roar of the tanks and BMPs would have has a blitzkrieg type of a dream run towards their intended targets, but that was not to be. In effect, the following happened:-

- The unwinding convoys of tanks and APCs took big hits from the US Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) and the UK-Swedish Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAWS)[7].

- In addition, many of the Russian tank kills were attributed to Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drone and the US switchblade kamikaze drone held by Ukraine. Bayraktar is equipped with IR and laser guided weaponry that includes L-UMTAS ATGM, MAM-C, MAM-L laser-guided munitions. These drones were seen to be taking hits on scores of Russian tanks and APCs bringing them to a grinding halt.

- Another peculiar thing that was seen in some Russian convoys was that Ground Based Air Defence Weapons (GBADWS) such as the self-propelled guns (Schilka ZSU 23 m/4B1 or Tunguskas) or the short/medium range SAMs (Strela 10M, OSA-AK, Kvadrat etc.) were not deployed in a leapfrogging manner to protect the convoys but were moving along un-deployed as convoy vehicles and taking hits!

- The tank and APC losses mounted. According to one open source report published in Jun 2022 some 1700 tanks and other armoured vehicles were reported to have been destroyed[8].. Even if half of this number is true, it will count to be a very significant loss.

- It was not only the combat vehicles; the more crippling losses were of the trained crews both by way of combat pilots and tank-men simply because these are difficult to be replaced in a quick time frame. An open source report of around the same period claimed that out of Russian personnel casualties (23,367 killed as of 19 Jul 2022)[9]. some 6% belonged to the men from the ‘tank regiments’[10]. Also, out of some 100 Kamov AHs some 25% suffered fatal kills.

Shift in Tactics- The God of War Takes Prominence

Faced with the situation as enumerated above, a shift in tactics became evident sometime Jul-Aug 2022. Hereinafter, the battlefield saw a preponderance of heavy artillery (Chairman Stalin once referred to artillery as God of war) fire aimed to pulverise the target before the ground offensive went in. This obviously was to avoid debilitating losses of combat equipment and crews that faced the adversary upfront.

The massed artillery attacks sometimes even forced the Ukrainians to abandon the defended areas without a fight. Case in point was the attack on city of Lysychansk in Eastern Ukraine on 04 Jul 2022. The Russian Artillery pounded the city with so much fire that it forced the defenders to evacuate without the fight simply to avoid annihilation.[11].

The artillery pressed into effect mainly included the following:-

- Towed and self-propelled (SP) guns and howitzers:-

  • 2S19 Msta 150mm SP Howitzer. This howitzer fires a rocket assisted shell with a range of 30-40 km.
  • 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV SP Howitzer. The weapon has a range of 40 km.
  • 2A36 Giatsint towed and SP howitzer. Range 30-40km.
  • Heavy 2S7M Malka 203mm SP Howitzer Range 37.5 km range.
  • Heavy artillery Mortars. Caliber 81/82/ 122 mm. 122mm etc.[12]

- Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs), also called Multi-Launcher Rocket System (MRLS)[13]. :-

  • BM 21 GRAD P MRLS. Range 20 KM.
  • BM30 Smerch MBRL. Range 70-90 km.
  • 9A 52-4 Tornado MRLS. Range 90 km.
  • TOS-1 220mm heavy MRLS. Range 5-10 km.

Besides regular ammunition, some guns, howitzers and MBRLs also used special-effect ammunition like the thermo-baric ammunition. Such ammunition has white phosphorus incendiary component which on impact with the target releases a dense cloud of explosive that permeates the target area as an aerosol. Immediately thereafter, the second explosion is designed which ignites this cloud causing enhanced kill effect.

The Cold and Dark Winter Knocking

As the bloody duel between the adversaries was raging, the cold and chilly winter was just about knocking the door. Amidst this imbroglio arrived the 31st Independence Day of Ukraine on 24 Aug 2022. Reading the on-going pattern of massive artillery strikes at point in time, President Zelensky warned of a ‘vicious’ and ‘particularly ugly’ strike from Russia. [14].

While the impending artillery barrage did not arrive as expected on the Independence Day, hell broke loose after an incident that was allegedly triggered by Ukraine about a month and a half later

On 08 Oct 2022, a bomb explosion (assessed to be a truck bomb) destroyed a portion (two vehicular lane spans) of the Kerch Strait Bridge[15]. This was the only road bridge connecting Crimea to Russia. Not only it affected the Russian logistic supplies to southern Ukraine where fierce fighting was going on, it also was an affront to President Putin who personally inaugurated this bridge on 15 May 2018.

A massive retaliation followed from the Russian side. On 10 Oct 2022, Russia launched a massive missile and rocket attack targeting the cities of Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Zhytomyr and Kropyvnytskyi[16].

The above attack was followed by drone swarms attacking a large number of targets. The main target of the strikes in Oct/Nov 2022 was the power grid of Ukraine. On 22 Nov 2022, a statement by the head of Ukraine’s power grid in the open source stated that almost no thermal or hydroelectric power station remained unscathed due to colossal Russian attacks[17].

Around this time was reported a small tactical pull back by the Russian ground forces reportedly pulling out the Ukrainians in bare open areas in stark winters with power outages back home totally crippled.

Cutting to Bakhmut

The above duel continued with sustained ferocity and destruction around the turn of the year. As the war neared its first anniversary, large scale amassing of war waging resources was reported along the Eastern Ukrainian border along the areas of Bakmut, an industrial town in the Donetsk region.

Bakhmut is important to Russia not only as a transport and logistics hub, but it also provides a gateway to two bigger cities in the Donetsk region, namely, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk[18]

Whether it be the Wagner mercenaries or the Russian MoD, the might of the entire spectrum of weapon systems (heavy artillery, missiles, heavy infantry weapons and more) are currently playing out in one of the deadliest and the blood-soaked battles of this war. It is here that the Russians have reportedly used the Kinzhal hypersonic missile. Some media reports have reported that about 20,000-30,000 Russian soldiers and 8000-13000 Ukrainian fighters have perished in Bakhmut battle alone.[19]

Dangerous Turn of Events

Cutting to the current day, the war is not only showing no signs of ebbing any time soon, it is taking a dangerous turns. While the detailed analysis of each of these events will be a matter of a separate article, these are stated in brief:-

Downing of US MQ9 Reaper

On 14 Mar 2023 a Russian SU 27 downed a US MQ 9 Reaper (also called Predator B) drone over the Black Sea. This machine developed by M/s General Atomics is a front line unmanned combat aerial vehicle capable of carrying upto 4 AGM 114 Hellfire anti-armour fire-and-forget missiles and up to two GBU 12 Paveway laser-guided bombs. Alternatively it can carry 500lbs GBU 38 Precision Guided Munitions (PGM). It was the same vehicle which was used to eliminate the Iran’s Maj Gen Soleimani on 7 Jan 2020.

Conflicting media reports give an account of the crash. As per CNN the SU 27 and Reaper were both flying in the international airspace. After about 30-40 minutes of such flight the Russian jet intentionally flew in front of the drone, dumped fuel on it several times and hit the propeller of the drone forcing the US controllers to down the machine in international waters[20].

The Russian account is one of eliminating a serious combat threat dangerously close to the war zone. A statement from Kremlin said that the incident has proved yet again that Washington is ‘directly involved in fighting in Ukraine’[21].

Allegations and counter allegations notwithstanding, following points become noteworthy:-

- While the US has openly supported the Ukraine war effort all along in proxy, this is first one-on-one provocation of a very serious nature. (As per one open source dated 03 Mar 2023, USA till date has sent more than 30 Bn USD worth of gear to Ukraine.[22])

- There is substance in the question – what was a combat aerial vehicle of the stature of Predator B doing so close to the active war zone? What weapons it carried on board? That it was a ‘purely surveillance’ sortie may find only a few takers?

- While the on-going war is very much a ‘global war in the local scenario’, this one-on-one confrontation between the two superpowers is not only unprecedented, but also, it has a potential of a serious escalation, which if triggered, will fast spiral out of control. Both players are fully aware of this.

- Only the time will tell how it pans out in the near future.

Wings of Freedom

President Zelensky in Feb 2023 made a bid to EU leaders and US for fighter jets to fight the Russian aggression (calling it ‘wings of freedom’). His whirlwind tour took him to Germany, France, UK and Washington[23]. President Putin warned that Russia will be at war with any country hosting Ukrainian jets.[24]

The above bid has not yet found favour either EU or with US (Statements: President Biden- US will not send fighter jets; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – Germany will not send fighter jets; French President Macron – nothing is ruled out; others- debating)[25].

Above notwithstanding it has been reported on 18 Mar 2023 that two countries, namely Poland and Slovakia have agreed to provide Mig 29 fighter jets to Ukraine[26]. Russia has threatened to destroy Ukraine jets after Poland and Slovakia pledge to provide them to Ukraine.

Such are the dangerous and unpredictable times the world is going through.

While the brief mention of the above two events were aimed to provide the taste of times as it unrolls today, the preceding narrative aimed to provide a glimpse of the changing shades of the Russian weapon deployment each driven by its own compulsions.

Endnotes

[1] “Why would Russia use hypersonic missiles to strike Ukraine, “ atwww.voanews.com. Accessed on 12 Mar 2023.
[2] “The power of the God of war.” at www.vifindia.org.Accessed on 13 Mar 2023.
[3] “US buys more stingers after missile success in Ukraine,” at www.reuters.com.Accessed on 13Mar 2023.
[4] “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at www.thehindu.com.Accessed on 13 Mar 023.
[5] ibid
[6] “Tank losses in Ukraine raise strategic question for Russia,” at www.themoscowtimes.com.Accessed on 14 Mar 2023.
[7]ibid
[8] “Russia has lost 50,000 troops in Ukraine..,’ at www.rferl.org.Accessed on 14 Mar 2023.
[9] “Casualties of the Russo-Ukraine war..,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org.Accessed on 14 Mar 2023.
[10]10 ibid.
[11] “War in Ukraine-BBC News,” at www.bbc.com.Accessed on 15 Mar 2023.
[12]5ibid. Accessed on 15 Mar 2023.
[13]Ibid.Accessed on 15 Mar 2023.
[14]ibid
[15] “Key bridge linking Crimea to Russia hit by huge explosion,” at www.the guardian.com.Accessed on 17 Mar 2023.
[16] “Ukrainian cities hit as Russia retaliates after the Crimea Bridge collapse,” at www. Theindianexpress.com. accessed on 17 Mar 2023.
[17]Ukraine’s power grid destroyed on a colossal scale..” at www.theguardian.com. Accessed on 17 Mar 2023
[18]Bakmut: why Russia and Ukraine are battling so hard for one small city,” at www.indianexpress.com.Accessed on 17 Mar 2023.
[19]Ukraine war: Heavy casualties reported in Bakhmut as battle for city rages,” Accessed on 18 Mar 2023.
[20] “Russian fighter jets force down the US drone over Black Sea,” at www.cnn.com.Accessed on 18 Mar 2023.
[21]US and Russia ratchet up rhetoric over downing of drone,” at apnews.com. Accessed on 18 Mar 2023.
[22] “Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 Feb 2022, USA has sent more than $30 Bn worth of gear to Ukraine,” at www.defense.gov>article. Accessed on 20 Mar 2023.
[23] “Ukraine war :Zelensky visits UK amid battles with Russia,” at www.cbsnews.com.20 Mar 2023.
[24] “Russia warns it is at war with any country hosting Ukrainian fighter jets.,” at www.dailymail.co.uk. Accessed on 20 Mar 2023.
[25] “Biden says US will not send fighter jets,” at www.rferi.org. Accessed on 20 Mar 2023.
[26]Slovakia sends MiG 29 fighter jets to Ukraine,” at www.reuters.co,.accessed on 21 Mar 2023.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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