Russia ramps up drone, guided bomb attacks to thwart counteroffensive
The Washington Post September 13, 2023
ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — Russia’s defense of occupied territory in southern Ukraine began with dense spiderwebs of trench lines, hardened fortifications and stubby concrete dragon’s teeth. Now, months into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the sky over the Zaporizhzhia region has become another threat for Ukraine to overcome.
Russian forces are bedeviling Ukrainian troops with attack drones and guided bombs, soldiers and analysts said, part of an evolving strategy to exploit Ukraine’s shortfalls, including limited air defense systems and having far fewer fighter jets than Moscow.
Moscow has stepped up aerial attacks in the region using two abundant weapons — self-detonating attack drones, and airplane bombs modified to make them more accurate. Together, they form a constant explosive drumbeat in the fight.
Russia’s air threats have further complicated Ukraine’s push to storm occupied territory in the Zaporizhzhia region, which is key to Kyiv’s bid to snuff out supply lines flowing from Crimea. Ukrainian forces have made bloody and grinding gains, driving a V-shaped wedge into enemy terrain. Liberated territory, however, has been measured by the kilometer, prompting concern in the West that Ukraine’s chances to strike a fatal blow to Moscow’s war machine are fading as winter approaches.
The two weapons are used for different purposes. The Lancet, an attack drone that is steered into a target and detonates its onboard explosives, is often used to hit Ukrainian vehicles. The old airplane-dropped bombs have been modified with GPS guidance and wings, allowing them to glide into targets such as command posts. Both have uneven success striking their targets, experts said.
The airplane bombs are particularly vexing, said Oleksiy Melnyk, a military expert at the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank. Their old, heavy iron construction makes them difficult to intercept because air defense missiles are designed to strike thinner targets. That characteristic, and the sheer quantity of them, have presented a challenge.
“It’s important to know that it’s relatively cheap stuff,” Melnyk said. “And Russia has almost unlimited stocks.”
Lancet drones, in use since the start of the invasion last year, have become one of Russia’s signature weapons. The X-winged craft, fitted with a camera in the nose, operates in tandem with a surveillance drone overhead that monitors for targets, giving multiple views of the battlefield, said Yurii Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force.
Lancets have a relatively small explosive payload, weighing about 6.6 pounds, or roughly the same power as a U.S. 120mm mortar round. It is enough to damage and in some cases destroy higher-end Ukrainian equipment, because precision control through its camera allows operators to steer directly into a target’s vulnerable parts.
Pro-Russia Telegram channels are flooded with Lancet strike videos, which are curated to highlight Western equipment in the crosshairs. In one post last month, the Russian Defense Ministry showed a Lancet purportedly destroying a U.S.-provided howitzer in the Zaporizhzhia region.
“The enemy is now trying to make more use of these barrage munitions and hit our armored vehicles, electronic warfare systems and other equipment,” Ihnat said.
Lancets, launched from catapults, have a range of about 37 miles, Ihnat said. That can put launch sites out of reach of many Ukrainian weapons, though they appear to have found recent success, including a strike this week on one Lancet launch site in the northeast, video of which was then published on a military Telegram page.
Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the counteroffensive have said Lancets, which were not heavily used early in the operation, have since evolved into a chief concern.
A 43-year-old commander of a U.S.-provided Bradley Fighting Vehicle with the call sign Frenchman said his crew had been through extensive fighting in the campaign to take back Robotyne, one of the villages liberated by Ukraine in the counteroffensive.
The number of Lancet attacks has spiked within the past month, he said. And while Bradleys are well-protected against some mines and antitank rockets, the Lancets pose a different threat, Frenchman said.
“If you go during the day, they can target the vehicles with two to three Lancet drones,” he said. “If it hits the engine compartment, it kills it. It burns the armor.”
Russian state media has reported a ramp-up in production of Lancets, and at a cost estimated at $30,000 to $35,000, they are far cheaper than higher-end drones and missiles, said Samuel Bendett, a member of the Russian studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington.
Ukrainian forces have adapted by rolling nets and chain-link fence around critical systems, with the barriers designed to detonate Lancets before they strike the target itself. Electronic jamming is another defensive option, officials have said.
Soldiers can also bring down Lancets with machine guns and small arms, but that requires being able to see them. Often the drones fly at night, when it is difficult to tell where they are coming from, Bendett said.
The increased reliance on Lancets is just one example of how Ukrainian and Russian tactics are evolving more than 18 months after Moscow’s invasion.
“We’re probably going to see more drones like Lancets used along the entire depth of the front and beyond,” Bendett said.
Moscow’s depleting stock of precision missiles has forced changes that lean into Russia’s advantages, which include big, Soviet-era inventories of bombs dropped by planes. The 1,100-pound munitions, FAB-500s, are known as “dumb bombs” because they are unguided and inaccurate, forcing pilots to risk their planes by flying closer to a target and releasing them. The modifications, which appear to have been first deployed in the spring, have turned them into weapons that glide — rather than fall — to their target.
The modifications have given Russia a key advantage over Ukrainian air defenses. The planes fly higher than 30,000 feet, Ihnat said, and launch the bombs about 30 miles from the front line. The bombs then glide about another 12 miles in Ukrainian territory, he said.
That proximity means the bombs are in the air for far less time than typical missiles, which air defenses are calibrated to detect and intercept. The bombs are not always accurate, he said, but Russian planes are dropping many of them.
“Theoretically, these bombs can be countered, but they are extremely difficult to shoot down, almost impossible,” Ihnat said. The only practical solution, he said, is to shoot down Russian planes farther from Ukrainian territory, rather than the bombs themselves. But doing that, he said, requires modern fighter jets, like the American-made F-16s, which are still months away, as Washington and its partners focus on training.
Russia’s reliance on the bombs comes with trade-offs for both sides, said a Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive battlefield dynamics.
Russian pilots are staying farther back and not protecting their forces as well with close air support, which has enabled Ukrainian forces to move in small tactical groups farther south, the official said. Moscow’s solution, then, has become glide bombs and other longer-range weapons that are difficult to counter.
“It’s how you adapt to stay out of the shorter-range air defenses that come attached to the Ukrainian forces,” the official said.
Oleksandr Solonko, a Ukrainian soldier in an air reconnaissance battalion positioned in the south for the counteroffensive, said the powerful bombs are devastating and can obliterate entire tree lines, which both Ukrainians and Russians rely on for concealment in the mostly flat open fields of Zaporizhzhia.
“Guided air bombs are one of the biggest fears. Russians use them en masse,” Solonko said on the social media platform X late last month. “They are trying to hit our logistics and command posts. Same as we do. But they also sometimes just shoot on the roads. Main settlements with the troops in them are constantly under fire.”
Delays in Western provision of fighter jets and Ukraine’s overtaxed, always scarce air defense systems are a constant challenge, Solonko said in an interview, along a road in Zaporizhzhia bustling with military vehicles coming to and from the battlefield.
“Lack of aviation is hurting the fight,” he said. “We are suffering a lot.”
Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.