Ukrainian military expert explains threat from gliding air bombs, and how to counter it

8 April, 01:40 PM
During the day, the occupiers use up to 20 aerial bombs along the entire demarcation line (Photo:DR)

During the day, the occupiers use up to 20 aerial bombs along the entire demarcation line (Photo:DR)

The enemy has changed its tactics in the war for the sky, with Russian forces recently using gliding air bombs in their attacks on Ukrainian border and frontline areas. 

These bombs, due to their extended range and navigation systems, pose a new threat to Ukraine. Oleh Katkov, the editor-in-chief of Defense Express, has explained to NV about the danger of such bombs, and what weapons the Ukrainian military needs to defend against the new threat.

What is the principle of operation of gliding bombs, and how do they differ from regular bombs?

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“These are bombs that have better aerodynamic characteristics and can glide a significant distance. A regular bomb in theory can fly even tens of kilometers, but it will not provide the accuracy of hitting the target. In gliding bombs, the attachment of wings allows for an increased distance (from point of release to impact) with the use of correction, i.e., navigation systems. Usually, satellite and inertial, or only satellite navigation, are used now.”

Gliding bombs first appeared during the Second World War with the Germans. Since the early 2000s, the Russians have been promoting the development of the UMPK (universal gliding and correction module) by the NPO Bazalt. It is an analogue of the U.S. JDAM-ER, which converts a regular bomb into a gliding one. JDAM makes it high-precision, while JDAM-ER or similar kits with wings allow hitting targets at distances of up to 80 kilometers. The bomb is dropped from a high-altitude and high-speed aircraft, (so it can travel) the necessary distance. JDAM-ER or a similar kit is much more accessible and cheaper than a new weapon like a bomb or missile, with a shorter production cycle and lower cost.”

How exactly are the Russians using them against Ukraine now?

The first reports about the presence of serial UMPK products in the Russian Federation appeared in early February. However, besides these inexpensive UMPKs, there are other gliding bombs in their arsenal, and the most dangerous one is the hybrid rocket and bomb Grom-1E. They first used it in Ukraine in March, along with UPAB-1500. It’s possible that this happened earlier, but isolated cases with bomb fragments and all other evidence only began to appear a month ago.

It is now known that the enemy is using gliding aerial bombs not only in the border areas of Sumy and Chernihiv oblasts, but also in front line positions. Moreover, the range of dropping these UMPKs is unknown. Even with reduced capabilities compared to JDAM-ER, it will be at least 60 kilometers, which is already enough to avoid entering the zone of action of the Ukrainian Air Force’s air defense systems. A hypothetical Su-35 or more likely, a frontline bomber Su-34, can ascend to an altitude of 12-15 kilometers and drop this UMPK with a powerful 500 kg high-explosive aerial bomb, such as the 500-FAB, without entering the air defense zone and hit a target whose coordinates are known. They can effectively target strong points, communication centers, and other military objects at a depth of 10-15 kilometers from the front line.

What is the main danger of guided air bombs?

Their use presents a negative scenario for Ukraine. Firstly, the enemy can use them with impunity, without entering the Ukrainian air defense zone. To provide some context, the most common SAM (surface-to-air) system with relatively good characteristics, the Buk, has a range of 30 kilometers. This means it cannot reach the target if it is dropped from a distance greater than 30 kilometers.”

Even if we bring S-300 SAM systems up to the front line, it’s still an unrealistic scenario because it could come under fire from enemy artillery. Even if Ukraine finally receives the NATO Patriot SAM system, which consists of only three batteries, it will still need to be brought into the engagement zone. At this distance, it will be detected by all means available to Russia and become a primary target. Therefore, it’s highly likely to be hit by everything they have, including guided air missiles, anti-radiation missiles, Kinzhal missiles, and Iskander ballistic missiles. Due to the large number of such launches, it’s uncertain that the Patriot will be able to cope. The Russians may spend enormous resources to destroy one Patriot, which will be advantageous for them because Ukraine has a limited number of them, and they can achieve a propaganda effect.

How can Ukraine resist such bombings?

Shooting down gliding bombs is a non-starter. Our main task is to fight against the (aircraft that drop them) themselves. The only scenario that will allow us to repel enemy aviation with all of these high-precision weapons is to obtain modern Western fighters. We need not just Mirage-2000 or Panavia Tornado, but full-fledged 4+ generation fighters such as F-16, F/A-18, Eurofighter, Rafale, or Gripen. Only they have the corresponding range of radar stations that can detect the enemy at a greater distance and launch AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles with effective air combat ranges. Even if we have only a few of these aircraft, it will enable us to repel enemy aviation to some extent.

And why did Russia resort to using gliding bombs now?

Firstly, their tactics have changed. There is no need to underestimate the enemy’s intellectual abilities — they learn, adapt, and adjust. The tactic that they wanted to implement initially was to gain full air superiority through a huge number of tactical aircraft and their technological level. Because when we talk about Ukrainian fighters, these are machines with an average age of far more than 30 years and significantly less range for detecting targets and launching air-to-air missiles. The enemy’s tactic did not work only because of the saturated air defense. Otherwise, every Ukrainian city would have been in the same situation as Mariupol when it was simply bombed with FAB-3000 bombs from Tu-22 (strategic bombers.

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But the Russian Aerospace Forces are a huge number of warplanes with pilots who have combat experience honed in Syria. Since the enemy still cannot feel free in the Ukrainian airspace, they are looking for new ways: these UMPCs or other gliding bombs mean they don’t have to enter the zone of activity of (Ukraine’s) air defense systems.

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