It was business as usual early on Dec. 5 at Diaghilevo, a Russian bomber base situated 100 miles southeast of Moscow. Though primarily used by training units, pilots and ground crew were in the process of refueling a Tu-22M3 Blackfire supersonic bomber on the flight line, with at least one huge Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missile newly loaded underwing.
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Later that day several would take off and launch the supersonic weapons not at the U.S. Navy warships they were designed to destroy, but rather at the electrical and gas heating infrastructure of Ukraine, 280 miles away.
Unlike the strategic bombers that rained gravity bombs on cities in the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, in 2022 Russia’s bombers delivered their missiles well outside Ukrainian airspace, beyond the reach of even Ukraine’s long-range S-300 air defense batteries, and thoroughly insulated against Ukrainian fighters under their own air defense umbrella.
But at 6 AM, a jet-powered drone plummeted down into a refueling truck. The resulting conflagration shredded the rear fuselage and wings of the Backfire bomber and killed two ground crew and a bomber pilot with the rank of major. The bomber, RF-4110 (Red 02), was almost certainly put out of service for the foreseeable future.
At roughly the same time, another drone kamikazed into the flight line at Engels-2 airbase near Saratov, 400 miles from Ukraine. This was the home base of the 22nd Heavy Bomber Division’s huge Tu-160 Blackjack jet bombers and venerable Tu-95MS Bear turbo-prop bombers routinely pumping Kh-555/Kh-101 land-attack cruise missiles into Ukraine.
This drone attack wounded two and damaged at least one, possibly two of the nuclear-capable bombers. Security camera recordings show the loud blast set off car alarms up to four miles away. Subsequently, satellite photos showed scorched tarmac and one of the Bears washed over with firefighting foam, though the seriousness of the damage remained unclear.
Despite the strikes, eight Tu-95s took to their air later that day and launched 38 subsonic cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine, with another three Kh-22s contributed by Tu-22M3 jets, according to Ukraine’s air force.
The Ukrainian drone strikes weren’t over yet, though. While a kamikaze drone was downed near Kursk on Dec. 5, the following day another slammed into a fuel reservoir at Khalino airbase, starting a blaze. Russian sources alleged a fourth drone was downed attempting an attack on Belbek airbase on the Crimean peninsula.
Russian reports described the attacking munitions as Soviet jet-powered drones, an unambiguous reference to the turbojet-powered Tupolev Tu-141 and Tu-143 reconnaissance drones Ukraine had used in attacks earlier in the war, mostly without clear success.
Soviet recon drone makes mid-life career change
Strictly speaking, there still isn’t visual confirmation that Ukraine used Tu-141s for the strike, modified or otherwise. Prior to the attacks, Ukrainian officials had claimed they were readying a new long-distance kamikaze drone with a strike range of 620 miles and a 165-pound warhead. It’s possible that the new drone may in effect be a modified variant of the Tu-141, although it could also refer to an entirely new platform.
Nonetheless, most analysts believe the strikes were carried out by Tu-141s in some form, so let’s take a closer look at how 40-year-old drones may have been refashioned into cruise missiles.
Entering service in 1979, the Tu-141 Strizh (Swallow), or VR-2, was built to perform quick round-trip reconnaissance runs up to 620 miles deep into hostile airspace, using either old-school film cameras or alternate payloads such as infrared or radar imagers. Pre-programmed with navigational instructions prior to launch, the 14-meter-long Swallow was launched from a truck-towed trailer using discardable rocket boosters.
Typically skimming at low altitude, the Tu-141 could hit transonic speeds of 620 to 680 mph (ie. just below the speed of sound) thanks to its dorsally mounted KR-17 turbojet engine. Upon returning to base, it would release a parachute in its tail and float down to the earth, whereupon its recorded camera footage could be physically recovered for processing.
The Kharkiv Aviation Plant in Ukraine built a total of 152 Tu-141s. In 1982, these were joined by 950 slower and much smaller but similar-looking Tu-143 Reys (“Flight” or “Voyage”) or VR-3 drones with range reduced to just 125 miles for tactical reconnaissance missions. The eight-meter long Tu-143 could carry similar payloads to the Tu-141, as well as an electromagnetic sensor and potentially a datalink to transmit findings back to base.
Ukraine ended up inheriting the lion’s share of the drones: a regiment each of Tu-143s and Tu-141s, as well as three independent Tu-141 squadrons. The Tu-143 was also extensively exported, with many since retired from service in central European states, and others still operational in Belarus, North Korea, Russia and Syria.
Ukraine’s gradually downsized drone force would primarily end up serving for air defense target practice but for Russia’s invasions in 2014. The Tu-141s and Tu-143s in the last remaining 383rd Remote-Control Aircraft Regiment were thus refurbished and deployed to perform photo-reconnaissance missions over areas held by Russian forces which had already downed several Ukrainian military assets. Two Tu-143s were lost in, one due to a malfunction and another lost over Luhansk possibly due to enemy fire.
At the onset of Russia’s 2022 invasion it became clear Ukraine had sought to weaponize the drones. On March 10, an errant Tu-141 soared over Romanian and Hungarian airspace, detected too late for NATO fighters to intercept it, and smashed close to a university dormitory in Zagreb, Croatia with a fortunately undetonated OFAB-100-120 220-pound bomb attached.
Later in March and April, several Tu-141s and Tu-143s were shot down well into Russian airspace, including three near Kursk, one near Rostov, and another near Bryansk. Counting additional Tupolev drones downed over Ukrainian soil, Russia has reported downing 5 Tu-141s and 6 Tu-143s.
It’s not clear whether any of the Tu-141/143 strikes were successful, particularly as Kyiv wouldn’t report those on Russian soil due to their politically sensitive nature. Admittedly, several attacks using unspecified means proved very destructive, and could have been the work of Tupolev drones. However, it seems likely these drones, reliant on gyroscope-based inertial navigation systems, were insufficiently precise to be very effective,
The obvious method to improve precisions would involve integrating satellite navigation using GPS or Russia’s GLONASS constellations, which were in their infancy when the Tupolev drones entered service. As the exact locations of parked Russian bombers can be seen in commercial satellite imagery, Ukraine could instruct the drones to crash into their habitual coordinates.
A more challenging method would be to remotely pilot the cruise missile into target. This would require a command /communication link transmitting a real-time video feed from the perspective of the drone. This is problematic, as the targeted bases lie beyond the range of line-of-sight communication links in Ukraine. However, an official interviewed by the New York Times claims that in one instance a Ukrainian agent “close to the base…helped guide the drones to the target.” Perhaps a forward-deployed agent could assume remote control of the drone once it had approached within range.
Ultimately, neither attack achieved direct hits. But the fact the subsonic drones broke through Russia’s air defense system should worry Moscow. Likely, by flowing at low altitude the drone-missile masked itself against long-range area air defense radars; while perhaps short-range defenses simply weren’t positioned to detect and down an attack which had a priori been thought impossible.
Such vulnerability remains shocking given that Engels-2 is a base for nuclear-armed bombers which one would expect to be prepared for attacks by surface-skimming cruise missiles. Also troubling for Russia’s military is that a drone that can fly from Ukraine to Diaghilevo could also likely hit targets in Moscow.
It’s unclear how many more weaponized Tu-141s (or alternative systems) Ukraine has at hand, given the known losses and relatively limited number built. Ukraine is likely quietly continuing development of long-distance kamikaze drones, the Korshun-2 cruise missile and the Grom-2/Sapsan ballistic missile system that it began before Russia’s invasion. Kyiv’s allies are so far unwilling to provide such long-distance weaponry, fearing it could lead to dangerous escalation from Putin.
For Ukrainian civilians under daily bombardment the Dec. 5 strikes were a symbolically satisfying ‘Doolittle Raid moment’ even if insufficient by themselves to heavily dent Russia’s bomber campaign. Russia’s military, in turn, will be compelled to commit resources to and prepare psychologically to defend even distant airbases against a threat that it didn’t believe existed before
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring, and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
December 18, 2022 at 3:43 pm
Early Information Age smart weapons are still head and shoulders above Industrial Age weapons.
December 18, 2022 at 6:47 pm
Attacking a combined conventional/nuclear military air base is an escalation which pushes closer to a wider war.
Minimum damage was done.
Likely because the damage was slight Russia won’t take a direct reprisal. Which could be missile strikes on “leadership” targets in Kiev… possibly even Livov in Western Ukraine.
You would think Ukraine would think twice and avoid precipitating those types of leadership strikes.
It is not in the U. S. interest to see Ukraine make drone strikes on Russian nuclear military facilities.
December 18, 2022 at 10:20 pm
The ukros now being so strongly urged & instigated by joe Biden are signing their death warrant by raising the stakes in the conflict.
Now Russia has every reason to turn the regions still controlled by ukros into fields of rubble.
What’s next. US Army boots on the ground to help the ukros. When US soldiers begin to engage directly, Putin must use tactical mini-nukes to send both a warning and a message to the dementia-ailed Biden & his warmongering cohort.
December 19, 2022 at 12:00 am
If an ancient Soviet drone was able to fly to Angels and Zagreb without obstacles, then not only the Russian military, but also NATO generals should strain themselves. This means that Soviet era means of attack are better than the most modern means of defense. Modern Russian means of attack (especially hypersonic missiles) have taken a couple of steps forward from this drones.
December 19, 2022 at 12:04 am
Clarification: Not Angels but Engels
December 19, 2022 at 1:05 am
In all honesty, I’d love for Ukraine to send a few of these into St. Basils Cathedral in
Red Square. That would show the Moskovites how well Putin’s folly is really going.
What would Russia do, attack Ukraine?
December 19, 2022 at 2:52 pm
Jim (AKA Russian Troll): чушь собачья
December 19, 2022 at 4:39 pm
Ben (AKA Ukrainian Troll): до побачення
Please and thank you for ceasing to try to drag our country into your America-weakening internecine bullshit.
December 20, 2022 at 11:36 am
LoL you are still peddling the mythology that the US has no strategic interest in Ukraine. I have repeatedly debunked that silly adolescent theory. You simply wont let reality penetrate you thought process, and you have zero ability to do critical thinking to reevaluate matters when you have been repeatedly proven wrong. If you were ever actually on a command staff [something I doubt], that would explain so many of the mistakes the US has made over the years.
Given the deepening interdependence between Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and the possibility of future cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, decisively defeating Russia remains the best way for the United States to successfully compete against China.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently argued that the United States “wanted to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”. If the United States managed to achieve this, it could neutralize the existence of a threat to the European balance of power for the foreseeable future. And that could set the foundations for redirecting the bulk of U.S. strategic attention towards the threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific. In contrast, abandoning Ukraine to its own luck could lead to the unraveling of the European security order. That would end up demanding a considerably higher share of America’s strategic bandwidth down the line, and thus constitute a far more serious drag on a much-needed rebalance to the Indo-Pacific.
Tackling Trade-Offs requires Properly understanding the relationship between U.S. strategy in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific. That begins with recognizing three crucial facts. First, the security architecture in both regions is built on U.S. military power. Second, the United States devotes a higher share of its defense resources to these two regions than anywhere else. Third, the United States now faces great-power challenges in Europe and the Indo-Pacific simultaneously.
The existence of strategic tradeoffs between Europe and the Indo-Pacific is very real. What the United States does in one region impinges on its ability to resource deterrence in the other region. Thus, an over-prioritization of one region — and de-prioritization of the other — can open windows for opportunistic aggression. Indeed, the U.S. National Defense Strategy argues that China and Russia have expanded their cooperation and “either state could seek to create dilemmas globally for the Joint Force in the event of U.S. engagement in a crisis or a conflict with the other.” In this vein, some experts have warned about the challenge of dealing with simultaneous wars in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
The importance of Europe and the Indo-Pacific above all other regions is typically justified on the basis that they are the only two regions that harbor the demographic, industrial, technological, and military potential to allow any power dominating them to seriously challenge and ultimately threaten the United States.
Hence, it is important to simultaneously preserve favorable balances in Europe and Asia by ensuring that no single power or coalition of powers controls the resources of either region. The assumption that the balance of power in both regions is structurally delicate — and requires permanent U.S. engagement — has led to recurring concerns about over-prioritizing one region at the expense of the other.
That said… Ike, Patton, Truman, and FDR are rolling over in their graves at the idea the US cannot engage on two battlefronts at the same time.
People like you who loudly voicing the faux notion that Ukraine, and by extension European security, are have no strategic value to the US… are thankfully outside the mainstream discourse at this point. And based on the results of the last election in the US…your ilk have no chance to gain much in the way of real power anytime…and things are looking even worse for you in the next US election
Have a liberating day.
December 20, 2022 at 4:12 pm
Jim, 403forgotten, Serhio,
It’s quite fitting that all of you Putinista trolls came to the same article to post… considering all of you at one time or another have claimed Ukraine was run by some neo-nazi cabal…
Back in the real world…Amid the temporary darkness from Russian missile strikes, Ukraine just lit up Europe’s largest Menorah on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv.
It will burn for eight days to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah- a holiday that marks victory of light over darkness…when the Greeks invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem…only to be fought off by an army led by Judah the Maccabee. You can consider Zelensky a modern day Maccabee.
Rest assured, the Ukrainian will to be free will last far longer than Russia’s Imperialist fantasies… especially with the marshalled support of 50+ nations backing Ukraine.
Chag Sameach Hanukkah.
Have a liberating day.
December 20, 2022 at 8:30 pm
“It’s quite fitting that all of you Putinista trolls came to the same article to post… considering all of you at one time or another have claimed Ukraine was run by some neo-nazi cabal…”
I still claim that Ukraine is ruled by neo-Nazis. At this stage, they have the task of destroying all Russians. But if they suddenly succeed (by a miracle), the next in line are Jews and Poles. Greeks, Gypsies and other “racially incorrect” nationalities get ready. The argument that their president is a Jew does not work. The Jewish president in Ukraine decides only what he will eat for breakfast. Lunch and dinner are decided for him by others.
December 21, 2022 at 12:36 am
Earth to Gary. Ukraine can`t win, and won`t win. Our days of USA world policeman, and bullies are also over. China will be the world leading country, and financial hub of the world.We will be a second world country, HOPEFULLY! Banana republics have election fraud, corrupt politicians, and institutions.
December 21, 2022 at 10:04 am
LoL, both of you make me laugh just as much as the other Putinista trolls.
Russia has a far bigger problem with supporting every right wing loon from Orban in Hungary, to Le Pen in France, to the Russian Imperial Legion which has a far right militia fighting in Ukraine.
As well, Ukraine isnt ruled by nazis.
As for Zelensky, he won %73 of the vote when he got elected. That’s better than when Barack Obama became the 1st Black President of the US. Is there still racism in the US? Yes. But the country has come a long way. More can be said for Ukraine.
Except in Ukraine the largest reason any of them ever sided with Nazi Germany was the centuries of oppression inflicted on them by Russian Imperialism. Many Ukrainians also fought against BOTH Russia and Germany in WWII.
Ukraine does have some work to do to confront its past, but Russia has far more to do to confront its centuries of imperialist tyranny inflicted upon its neighbors. And Ukraine has already got a major head start on its reformation process.
Part of my own family was ethnically cleansed from the Pale of Settlement by Russia’s state sanctioned anti Jew riots [pogroms], and part was killed in the Holocaust. I have been studying the history of the area for 40+ years so You two pretending you understand the situation better than I do is absolutely absurd.
Dave, FYI you have your BS bully schtick exactly backwards. Do we have problems, yes… nothing close to the problems in China and Russia. Pinning your hopes on them makes me laugh. There are 50+ countries lined up supporting Ukraine. 5 support Russia…and China is barely one of them. Most chinese companies wont deal with Russia because they are afraid of our sanctions.
The US + EU trade relations are the largest in the world. By Far. And our combined $40 TRILLION ish economies absolutely crush China and Russia combined.
its not. even. close.
Have a liberating day.
December 21, 2022 at 1:06 pm
“This means that Soviet era means of attack are better than the most modern means of defense.” No. This likely means Russian air defenses are as inept as their ground and air forces—both shown to be easily defeatable by modern Western tactics and technology. Turns out the great bear is really more of a pussycat.
December 21, 2022 at 10:13 pm
“This likely means Russian air defenses are as inept as their ground and air forces—both shown to be easily defeatable by modern Western tactics and technology. Turns out the great bear is really more of a pussycat.”
Do not forget that the same drone flew unnoticed to Zagreb and was not detected by NATO air defense in a timely manner. Therefore, it is very early for NATO countries to rejoice about the attack on Russian airfields. NATO generals should be afraid for their airfields.