Ukraine war: Russia’s devastating use of Soviet-era ‘glide bombs’ shows how urgently Kyiv needs air defence systems

Devastation: firefighters at the scene of a Russian bomb attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, April 2024. EPA-EFE/Yakiv Liashenko

Devastation: firefighters at the scene of a Russian bomb attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, April 2024. EPA-EFE/Yakiv Liashenko

12 April 2024

Writing in The Conversation, Dr Gerald Hughes from the Department of International Politics discusses Russia's use of 'glide-bombs' in Ukraine.

Much has been written about Russia’s use of “glide bombs” in Ukraine. These munitions represent a manifestation of what is known as “stand-off” weaponry, an important facet of modern warfare.

Stand-off weaponry allows attackers to bombard an enemy while remaining outside the range at which they can be expected to be vulnerable to defensive countermeasures. After the second world war demonstrated the decisive role of air power, the need to reduce casualties for attacking forces led to a demand for munitions that could attack targets from aircraft, ships, submarines or ground-based launchers positioned well away from the battlefield.

Basically, glide munitions are standard (“free-fall” or “iron”) bombs that have been modified by the addition of stabilising wings and navigation aids, so as to facilitate the elimination of a designated target. The technology for glide munitions was largely pioneered by Nazi Germany during the second world war. In November 1943, for example, an Allied troopship was sunk with the loss of 1,000 men by an air-launched Hs-293 missile.

This encouraged the Allies to adopt similar technologies after 1945. This included adapting existing munitions – not least air-dropped “iron” bombs that were basically unchanged from those used in the second world war. One example of the Russian upgrades of these iron bombs is the FAB-500 (the “500” indicates its weight in kilograms), a Soviet air-dropped bomb originally introduced in 1954. The FAB-500 – which was deployed in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Syria – demonstrates how Moscow has been able to give vintage munitions a new lease of life.

Striking from a distance

In March 2023, it was reported that Russian Su-35 aircraft had been equipped to launch FAB-500M-62 glide bombs fitted with pop-out wings that extended their range to 70km. This allowed Russian aircraft to hit Ukrainian targets while minimising risk from Ukrainian air defences by engaging in saturation attacks.

Ukraine’s best air defence system, its US-made Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM), has a range of up to 145km and can destroy Russian aircraft before they release their munitions. In February, Ukrainian air defences shot down 13 Russian aircraft in as many days. But this meant Ukraine had to deploy its Patriot batteries close enough for an Iskander missile to destroy at least two of Ukraine’s precious Patriot launchers. As a result, Ukraine had to pull back its air defences.

Alexander Kovalenko, a Ukrainian military analyst, says that glide munitions allow the Russians, “without entering the area of our air defence systems, [the ability to attack] both the … Ukrainian armed forces … and [our] cities”. Indeed, the Russians have used some 3,500 guided aerial bombs this year, a 1,600% increase over 2023.

Recent Russian advances have multiple causes – but weapons including Moscow’s modified FAB-1500 are inflicting severe damage to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, as well as frontline towns such as Sumy, which has taken a heavy pounding in recent weeks.

The FAB-1500 is the largest glide munition weapon currently deployed by Russia against Ukraine. According to military expert David Hambling: “The current version has an accuracy of better than 10 metres, which pretty much guarantees destruction with a weapon as big as the FAB-1500.”

Of course, Ukraine also uses guided munitions, such as the US-manufactured Joint Direct Attack Munition system (JDAM) – but the supply of these is limited. John Foreman, a former UK defence attaché to Russia, observes that FABs are inferior to the JDAM, but they are also much cheaper and far more numerous.

Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), believes that: “Russia certainly has the capacity to produce more glide bomb kits for older FAB series bombs than Ukraine has to resupply its [SAM] systems … [and] shooting them down directly isn’t a sustainable strategy.”

Wanted: long-range air defence systems

Russia’s current campaign means that Kyiv needs to secure longer-range air defence systems. Last week, the Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelensky, stated publicly that if the Russians kept hitting Ukraine “every day the way they have for the last month, we might run out of missiles, and [our] partners know it”. Small wonder that Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba is pleading for more Patriot missiles.

In the past year, Moscow has turned increasingly to the use of glide bombs. These weapons have allowed it to conserve its inadequate inventory of air-launched missiles, and to minimise the use of free-fall iron bombs that would expose valuable pilots to great risk.

The consequence of this is clear. As a recent article from respected security thinktank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, concluded: “Kyiv is confronted by the threat that an attritional war in the air domain will increasingly favour Russia without adequate support from the US and its allies. Ukraine’s ability to continue to counter Russian air threats and impose costs on the Russian Aerospace Forces remains important to the outcome of the war.”

George Barros, a defence analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, has observed that: “When the Ukrainian air defence … is all tied up, [the Russians] then move in with the fixed-wing aircraft to conduct these glide-bomb attacks … If Ukraine had better air defences, they might be able to preclude the use of glide bombs by forcing the fixed-wing aircraft to stay further away from the front line.”

It’s hard to disagree with such a bleak prognosis. And it is unlikely to improve while the US Congress continues to tie itself in knots over the provision of vital military aid to Kyiv. As congressman Mike Turner, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS News on March 31:

We are at a critical juncture on the ground that is beginning … to impact not only the morale of the Ukrainians who are fighting, but also their ability to fight. Putin knows this. This is obviously an area where we cannot allow him to win. Our European allies are saying that Putin’s goal is a war beyond Ukraine with Europe. We need to stop him in Ukraine.

The stakes are that high.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.