The fighting didn’t stop on Christmas Day either. Ukrainian pilots at least remembered them like this.
A Ukrainian pilot sent a Christmas greeting to the Russians in the form of two HARM anti-radar missiles.
Drones against strategic bombers
Text: Miro Barič
During December 1, 2022, through January 1, 2023, the operations in Ukraine were affected by the weather. The mild winter in Europe did not allow Putin to use the energy crises for political pressure. On the other hand, the muddy ground in Ukraine did not let any large scale movements of the heavy weaponry take place. That allowed for the time to re-group, rest and re-organize the troops while the large operations were postponed.
This lull in combat did not concern two things. The Russian drive on Bachmut which continued since August and, also the Russian air campaign against the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure continued. During this period two strategic bomber bases, located deep in the Russian territory, were repeatedly hit. The first attack took place on the early morning of December 5. The explosions were heard at Engels base near Saratov and Dyagilevo base near Ryazan. The first airbase is located nearly 500 km from the Ukrainian border and is a home of two squadrons of the 22nd Guards Division of the heavy bomber aviation. Its 184th Squadron is equipped with Tu-95MS and 121st Guards Squadron operates Tu-160M. Both units fly attack missions against Ukraine on the regular basis. According to the initial reports the strong explosion damaged two Tu-95 bombers and wounded two people. The following satellite images did not reveal serious damages, but it seems that at least one Tu-95 was actually hit.
At the same time the explosion took place at the Dyagilevo airbase which serves as a training center of the strategic bomber aviation. It is located approximately 450 km from the Ukrainian border and only some 200 km from Moscow. The series of photographs of this incident show that the explosion took place behind one of the parked Tu-22M3 marked RF-34110. The tail surfaces and exhausts were damaged and the vehicle with ground power source, parked next to the airplane, was set on fire. Three Russian soldiers were killed. The Russians got lucky that the Kh-22 missile, attached under this Tu-22 wing, was not hit. Its one-ton warhead would have caused significantly more serious damages.
The Ukrainians officially did not claim this attack. The Russians made a bizarre claim that it was a terrorist attack against the defenseless peaceful airports. However, the aircraft bombing the Ukrainian cities take off from these bases. And the lack of defenses was contradicted by Russians themselves claiming that the attacking drones flying close to the ground were shot down by the AA fire. The damages were only caused by their debris. The greatest value of these Russian claims is in the information that the old Soviet unmanned air vehicles Tu-141 and Tu-143 respectively, were used for these attacks. These are originally the reconnaissance jet drones modified by Ukraine to carry explosives. They fly the pre-programmed route and land by a parachute. For kamikaze style attack the parachute is of course not considered.
On Monday, December 26, the Engels airbase became a target of yet another attack. The air raid sirens blared and the AA rockets’ smoke trails raised to the sky. Two explosions from the direction of the airport were heard. According to the Russian official statements the low flying drone was destroyed the AA fire. Its debris however fell on the airbase and killed two ground personnel. The information about a larger number of casualties and more aircraft destroyed could not be confirmed. The names of three victims are known – Major Andrei Voronov, 1st Lt. Maxim Anufrienko and 1st Lt. Alexander Pampukhin. All of them belonged to the 121st Guards Squadron of the heavy bomber aviation equipped with Tu-160M aircraft. According to the Russian side another attack against the Engels airbase was also attempted on Thursday, December 29.
The incident with a Tu-141 drone carrying explosives did occur in the beginning of war on March 11, 2022. Then the unmanned air vehicle having exhausted its fuel crashed on the parking lot in front of the student dorms in Zagreb, Croatia. It flew over from Ukraine over Hungary. The Russian media ridiculed the NATO AA defenses which let the drone fly hundreds of kilometers over its territory. The Russian AA defense did not excel either. If the drone were shot down, as the Russians claim, they also had flown undisturbed hundreds of kilometers and regardless, hit the bases where they caused damage. And it seems that the Russians are not confident in their AA defenses because after the attack they transferred majority of their bombers to the more remote bases.
An explosion at Diaghilevo Airbase destroyed a ground source and damaged a Tu-22M3 designated RF-34110. The bomber has a Ch-22 missile under its wing.
Three Russian soldiers died in the explosion and subsequent fire.
Detail of the damage to a Tu-22M3 marked RF-34110.
Patriots from the USA and Germany
Thanks to the Allies, Ukrainians strengthen their AA defense. Having received various systems from several countries in October and November, on December 21 the USA announced that they will deliver the Patriot system battery. Germany joined right after and committed to deliver another battery. The American one is the PAC-3 version primarily designated to destroy the ballistic missiles. PAC-3 missiles feature the improved guidance and maneuvering capabilities with the range of 30 km. The modernized PAC-3 MSE can reach as far as 60 km. The disadvantage is the shorter range when deployed against the aircraft. It can be resolved by using the older PAC-2 missiles with 160 km range if deployed against the airplanes. It was confirmed that the German version will use both PAC-2 and PAC-3 rockets. Training of the Ukrainian soldiers manning Patriots supposedly started during January in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The continued Russian attacks against the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure requires strengthening of the AA defense. Th attacks took place during the holidays as well. Ukraine inclines to celebrate Christmas in the European traditional period of time. They are off on both December 25 and January 7, and they can choose the date. This year approximately 60 per cent of Ukrainians chose the first date. The Russians did not care and shelled tens of cities and villages in Kharkov and Zaporozhye areas. At least 13 civilians died in Kherson. On New Year’s Eve more than 20 cruising missiles were fired at Kiev and hit a hotel and a multi-family building.
Some of them crash by themselves
The largest attack came between Christmas and New Year’s, on Thursday, December 29. The Russians, according to the initial reports, launched 100-120 missiles. Approximately 70 of them hit the Ukrainian territory and 54 were shot down by the AA defense. Several videos appeared showing Ukrainians destroying the cruise missiles with shoulder mounted portable rockets. Thanks to the early discovery of the launched rockets, they can estimate their hundred of kilometers long route and intercept their flight by teams equipped with Stinger missiles. Most of the time they fire several Stingers at the same time so as at least one of them hits the Russian rocket. The last of these teams are positioned on the house roofs in the suburbs of the supposed targets of the Russian attacks. The missiles that do penetrate the defenses cause massive damage on the energy infrastructure.
There is an interesting discrepancy between 100-120 Russian rockets reported in the morning that day, probably based on the Allied reconnaissance aircraft data, and 70 missiles that actually hit. It may not be a mistake, at least partially, and Russians indeed launched more missiles than actually struck. In the following days at least three videos appeared capturing the wrecks of the Russian rockets which failed after the launch and crashed on their own territory. Two of them were lying in the fields but one hit a house and set it on fire. We can only guess how many more malfunctioning missiles crashed without any trace somewhere in the vast Russian countryside.
A Ukrainian Mi-24P helicopter with a traditional painting from the village of Petrykivka in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, where such motifs decorated houses and household items.
Are they going to obtain JDAM sets?
Besides the AA defense equipment, Ukraine of course receives other weapons. To list all the types of AFVs, artillery and recently tanks as well, would be sufficient for a standalone article and moreover it is not linked to the main theme of this series. One new weapon which is being discussed lately is however directly associated with the air war. According to Washington Post the USA plan to supply Ukraine with JDAM sets which can transform the classic unguided bombs into precision guided weapons. The acronym means the Joint Direct Attack Munition. Joint means that in 1990s both USAF and USN cooperated on the weapon’s development. JDAM set consists of three parts – guiding system based on GPS coordinates, longitudinal fins attached to the bomb’s body improving its ability to glide and control surfaces installed on the bombs tail. The sets are manufactured in three sizes and USAF or USN use them on the bombs from 500 lbs to 2000 lbs. That means they should be easily adapted and the modifications for application on the Soviet-made Ukrainian bombs should not present any obstacle (as far as the measurements is concerned). The Washington Post article indicates that the USA will not supply the bombs, only these sets.
A bomb with JDAM set can be deployed in three different ways. Carried by an airplane which simultaneously carries a container for searching and aiming at the targets (for example Sniper or LITENING II). The container transmits the coordinates to the bomb which is then released by a pilot. The accuracy is within five meters. In case GPS signal is lost the bomb “remembers” the target with 10 meters accuracy. There is another option when a pilot manually enters the coordinates during the flight according to his target identification or according to the coordinates supplied by the ground control. In both situations the integration of the aircraft’s electronic systems is necessary.
The third option is the easiest one. The target coordinates are entered into the bomb while it is still on the ground before the take off and pilot only delivers it to the designated area. It is quite probable that the Ukrainians will deploy JDAM exactly in this way. It requires the minimal modifications of the aircraft – just adding GPS and control component to release the bomb.
In the preceding months the Ukrainians successfully adapted the HARM anti-radar missiles for Mig-29 and Su-27 fighters. HARM is capable to actively search for the targets itself and so the Ukrainians only added GPS and a tablet to their fighters which helps to launch the HARM rocket and it locks on the enemy radar itself. And it seems to be working. It is possible that if JDAM bomb is linked to the aircraft tablet (for example via Bluetooth) the Ukrainian will be able to enter the target coordinates by a pilot during the mission.
It is possible that the Ukrainians will drop the JDAM bombs from Su-24 and Su-25 fighter bombers. When dropped from the high altitude and speed this munition can glide as far as 20 km. The Ukrainian aircraft however cannot afford flying at high altitudes in the vicinity of the frontline. Therefore Su-25 will supposedly release the bombs in the same way they launch the unguided missiles – on the ballistic trajectory. The airplane will fly at the maximum airspeed close to the ground, then it will climb and release the bomb forward on the curved trajectory. As opposed to the unguided missiles the JDAM will be significantly more accurate. There is another detail in favor of JDAM supplies – a bomb equipped with this set is six times less expensive than the guided missile for the HIMARS rocket launchers.
Russian Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone shot down on December 30 in Chernihiv Oblast.
During our reporting period both sides claimed several enemy aircraft shot down but visually confirmed were only couple of them. It is possible that more of them will be confirmed later as it happened during the preceding months. All confirmed kills were related to the troops support at the frontline, mainly in Bachmut area. Two Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopters were lost. The first crashed on Sunday, December 11 while attacking the Russian positions with the unguided missile near Konstantinovka in Donetsk area. Pilots Vladislav Levchuk and Maxim Fedorov were killed. Another loss occurred on Monday, December 19 near the village of Tonenkov in Donetsk area. Two Mi-8 helicopters were flying in a column close to the ground. The camera in the rear aircraft captured the rocket hit on the leading helicopter. The thick black smoke billowed, and it crashed shortly afterwards.
Lieutenant Colonel Maxim Fedorov (pictured) was killed along with First Lieutenant Vladislav Levchuk on December 11 in a Mi-8. Note the message to Putin in the window of the helicopter and the machine gun mounted in its nose.
Despite the danger the pilots of the rear aircraft turned around and landed near the smoking wreck to try to help its crew. They did not manage to save two crew members – Lt. Col. Oleksandr Zubatch and Lt. Col. Vladislav Gulov perished.
A photo of the wreckage of a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter was released on December 24 and is believed to be from the Donetsk region. However, there is no other debris around. It is possible that this is a machine destroyed earlier.
New photos of a Russian Mi-8AMTS helicopter with the fuselage number “Blue 92” that was destroyed by Ukrainian forces on Snake Island as recently as May 7, 2022.
Two Russian helicopters were reportedly destroyed. They were Ka-52, a type that has suffered severe losses during the Ukrainian war. The first one was destroyed by Dnipro AA rocket brigade on Sunday, December 4. The Russian crew made a fatal mistake to fly at fairly high altitude. After the rocket hit, they exploded and had no chance for survival. The kill was captured on video which also showed the second Russian helicopter which however flew significantly lower and therefore escaped the fire.
This Ka-52 bore a warlike drawing of an alligator on the fuselage. It was shot down in Kherson Oblast in November 2022.
Another Ka-52 bort number “yellow 23” was hit on Monday, December 20. It supposedly fell victim to the Pancir-S1 system’s friendly fire. In this case however the crew survived. Yet another video surfaced showing the destruction of the third Ka-52. It seems to date back to March from the vicinity of Kiev and captured the helicopter after its emergency landing which the Russian soldiers blew up rather than let it be captured by the Ukrainian troops. Besides these helicopter losses the aforementioned Tu-95 and T-22M were damaged at the strategic bombers’ bases. On Sunday, December 4 south of Bachmut a Su-24M, bort number “blue 48” and marking RF-93798 was destroyed. Both pilots, the Wagner’s Group mercenaries, were killed.
The Russian Defense Ministry has published a series of photos of soldiers with the Mi-8 helicopter.