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Attack of the Drones: All about Ukrainian UAV strikes on Russian airfields, significance and consequences

12 April, 2024 Friday
13:00

Ukrainian Defense forces are finding more and more diverse uses for attack drones. First, Russian oil refineries were attacked, then a drone manufacturing plant in Tatarstan. The next step was to attack Russian military airfields

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Espreso explains exactly where Ukrainian drones hit, what the consequences of this attack were, and why it was carried out.

The text covers the following:

  • What happened
  • What Ukrainian drones targeted
  • What losses the Russians suffered
  • The attack on Russian airfields: why it matters
  • What Ukrainians used to attack airfields in Russia
  • How many aircraft does Russia have left?
  • What are the consequences of the attack on Russian airbases?

What happened

On the night of April 5th, Ukraine launched a significant strike against Russian airfields, prompting alerts in multiple regions simultaneously, including Belgorod, Voronezh, Kursk, Rostov, Saratov, and Krasnodar. Subsequently, reports emerged detailing attacks on three military airfields—Yeysk, Kursk, and Engels—as well as the Morozovsk air base in the Rostov region.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has reported an attack by 53 drones in five regions. Most of them were allegedly intercepted over the Rostov region. The governor Vasily Golubev, said that "more than 40 targets were intercepted" and a power plant was damaged.

On social media, Russians reported that dozens of explosions were heard during the drone attack. In addition, residents of the Russian cities of Engels, Yeysk, and Morozovsk massively posted videos of explosions near Russian military airfields. 

And the Morozovsk administration recommended not to stop near military infrastructure and, in particular, a military airfield.

What Ukrainian drones targeted

The main strike by the drones was on the Morozovsk airbase, located 3 km from the city of the same name in the Rostov region. The 559th Guards Bomber Regiment is based at the airfield. 

A drone strike on the Morozovsk air base

Photo: gettyimages

Valeriy Romanenko, an aviation expert and leading researcher at the State Aviation Museum, drew attention to the importance of this facility.

"Morozovsk is the most numerous of the four Russian bomber regiments. This regiment alone, among all the others, has three squadrons. So there is a reason they say that Morozovsk got the worst of it," noted Romanenko.

By the way, this is not the first time Ukraine has attacked the air base. In May 2023, local authorities reported that a Ukrainian missile was shot down near the airfield. And in December, at least one aircraft was damaged by a UAV strike. 

The airfield in Yeysk (Krasnodar Krai) is a joint base, used by both civilian and military aviation. The headquarters of the 1st Guards Aviation Division is located here, and the 959th Regiment, armed with Su-24 bombers, is stationed here. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 30 Su-34 bombers were based at the airfield.

On October 17, 2022, one of the Su-34s crashed into a residential area in the city of Yeysk while taking off. Although official Russian sources claimed that it was a training flight, this version is refuted by the detonation of ammunition at the crash site, which killed at least 13 people. 

"Yeysk is more of a training or operational airfield. Combat training of personnel takes place here. For example, the airfield is also used to train personnel for Russian attack aircraft," said Valeriy Romanenko.

Engels, situated in the Saratov region, serves as the base for three supersonic Tu-160 and five Tu-95MS strategic bombers. These aircraft are equipped to deploy Kinzhal missiles, as well as Kh-55 and Kh-101 missiles, weapons well-recognized by the civilian population of Ukraine.

On the other hand, the Kursk-Kharino airfield predominantly hosts Su-35 fighters, which provide cover for Su-34 bombers during strikes on the Ukrainian front line.

What losses did the Russians suffer?

Regarding the aftermath of the attack, Suspilne, citing sources, reported that 2 Su-25s were damaged in Yeysk, and four Russian servicemen were killed.

Sources in the security services told Babel that the drone attack damaged at least 3 Tu-95MS bombers at the Engels airfield. At the Morozovsk airbase, according to preliminary data, at least 6 aircraft were destroyed, and 8 more were significantly damaged. The media reported about 20 dead and wounded Russian soldiers.  

Later, Schemes published satellite images taken at Russian airfields before the drone attack. In Engels, 3 Tu-160s, 5 Tu-95s, and one Tu-22 and one Il-76 each were spotted. In Yeysk, there were 10 L-39 training and combat aircraft, 5 An-26 transport aircraft, one An-74 and one An-12, 4 Su-27, 4 Su-25, one Su-30, and Ka-27 helicopters, one Mi-8, and 2 Tu-134UBL training aircraft. At the Morozovsk air base, there were 29 fighters of various types, most of them Su-34.

Summing up these data, it can be assumed that 19 aircraft were damaged in the attack, including three Tu-95MS strategic bombers used to launch Kh-55 and Kh-101 cruise missiles, 14 Su-34 fighters from which Russia drops guided bombs on the territory of Ukraine, and two Su-25 attack aircraft. 

The results of the attack on the airfields in Kursk are being clarified. 

Attack on Russian airfields: why it matters

The significant assault on Russian airfields highlights a deficiency in Russian air defense systems to counter Ukrainian drones. This viewpoint was expressed by Oleksiy Hetman, a reserve major of the National Guard of Ukraine and a veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian war, during an appearance on the Espreso TV channel. 

"Russian air defense is the same air defense we had before our partners started supplying us with more modern means of destroying air targets. The Russians have a wide variety of air defense systems, but these weapons can hardly fight drones. It was not designed for this," explained Hetman.

He emphasized that each air defense system was developed against a specific target class.  

"There is no such system that can shoot down everything at once: ballistic missiles, Shaheds, and small UAVs. The means that can shoot down our drones, if the Russians have them at all, are limited. The Russians cannot yet understand and adjust to effectively destroy our drones. But they are learning," added Hetman.

Meanwhile, the US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) emphasized that so far Ukraine has only attacked individual air bases with drones. 

"Ukraine’s ability to strike four separate airbases in one strike series represents a notable inflection in the capabilities," the American experts noted. 

What Ukrainians used to attack airfields in Russia

The airfield in Engels is the farthest from Ukraine among the targets on April 5, more than 700 kilometers away. However, this distance is now absolutely feasible for Ukrainian attack drones. For example, the Liutiy UAV, which is associated with attacks on oil refineries, has an officially declared range of 1,000 km.

 

Photo: defence-ua.com

Serhiy Zgurets, Defense Express CEO and military expert, believes that strikes on Russian military airfields were carried out by long-range drones developed in Ukraine.

"The use of these strike drones against airfields is a good example of how to use our own defense industry capabilities to solve military tasks. Ukrainian drones, such as A-22, Liutyi and Bober, have the longest flight range, over 1,300 km, and they are our developments," Zgurets said.

The expert emphasized that the Ukrainian Armed Forces received some unmanned aerial vehicles from British and American allies, but it is unlikely that they will use them in Russia. After all, under some agreements, Ukraine agreed not to strike Russia with the models transferred as military and technical assistance. 

Among the variants of UAVs that have been used to strike Russian airfields are Ukrjet's UJ-22 Airborne, a modified version of the E-300 or Tsesna light aircraft, or a modified Aeroprakt-22 light aircraft.

How many more aircraft does Russia have left?

The Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate reported the number of Su-34 fighter-bombers, Su-35 multifunctional fighters and A-50U long-range radar detection and guidance aircraft in response to an ArmyInform request.

As of March 2024, according to the Directorate, Russia has about a hundred Su-35 fighters, more than 100 Su-34 fighter-bombers, and seven A-50U long-range radar detection and guidance aircraft (three of which are undergoing repair/modernization). 

According to Nicholas Okoth, Senior Military Advisor to the British delegation to the OSCE, the Ukrainian Defense Forces are shooting down Russian military aircraft 20 times faster than Russia can replace them. Thus, in February 2024 alone, the Ukrainian Armed Forces destroyed 13 Russian military aircraft (ten Su-34, two Su-35, and one A-50). At the same time, the authors of the Polish portal Defence24 claim that in the first two years of the full-scale war, the Russians produced a total of 27 new aircraft and 8 helicopters. Meanwhile, according to ArmyInform, as of April 2024, 118 aircraft belonging to the Russian occupiers were recorded as being shot down.

Aviation expert Valeriy Romanenko calls for avoiding overly optimistic predictions about the destruction of Russian aviation. He says that over the two years of the large-scale war, Russia has lost no more than 10% of its capabilities. 

The wreckage of a Su-35S fighter jet shot down by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Kharkiv region

Photo: defence-ua

"The Russians are still able to produce 25-30 aircraft per year. Therefore, they are replenishing their losses and so far these losses have not seriously affected them. Compared to February 2022, they have lost 30% of their attack aircraft. But if we talk about other types, they have lost 10% of their fleet of Su-34 bombers, and they have more Su-35 fighters than they had before the war," Romanenko said.

However, experts at the Institute for the Study of War draw attention to the damage to strategic bombers. According to the ISW, as of 2023, Russia had about 60 Tu-95 aircraft.

"If confirmed (aircraft damage, - ed.), the possible loss of roughly five percent of Russia’s strategic Tu-95 bombers in a single strike would be notable," the institute's report says. Experts note that constant Ukrainian strikes on Russian airfields could impair Russia's ability to launch missile and air strikes throughout Ukraine.

What are the consequences of attacking Russian airbases?

Experts are confident that even after a summed attack on the airfields, the Russians will not relocate their aircraft to other airfields located further away from the territory of Ukraine. 

"If the planes are moved 1,000 kilometers away, they will not be able to respond quickly to the need to support the troops. So I don't think the aircraft will be relocated. They will rather try to cover them better. Or they will disperse them. So that they don't have three squadrons each, as in Morozovsk, but scatter them," suggests Valeriy Romanenko. 

Moreover, even if the Russians come up with the idea of redeploying the aircraft to regions far from Ukraine, this may not work either. German outlet Bild reported that Ukraine may soon use long-range drones. They will make it possible to attack the Urals and the Arctic. 

"This year, Ukraine will be able to use drones with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers or more. They will solve the problem with the shortage of medium and long-range missiles. "Missiles are a thing of the past, drones are the future," the source told Bild. According to him, by the end of the year, 10 manufacturers will supply the Armed Forces with drones with a range of up to 2,500 kilometers. And Kyiv's Luch Design Bureau has developed the Sokol-3000 drone, which can fly up to 3,300 km. This will make it possible to attack targets, for example, in the Murmansk region, where there are about 80 military bases. Including the Olenya airfield, where strategic bombers are based, which are shelling Ukraine," the article says.

Photo: maxar technologies

Defence Express military expert Ivan Kyrychevskyi is convinced that attacks like the one on April 5 will become systematic. He believes that we should not expect large-scale results from such attacks. They have a different goal.

"The goal here is not even so much to knock out a certain number of Russian aircraft that will be on the ground, but rather to provide an asymmetric means of air defense. They say that if we lack long-range air defense systems that could shoot down Russian aircraft during their attacks, then we need to make them afraid to fly," Kyrychevskyi explained on Espreso TV.

He believes that if Ukraine continues to act in this direction, not only will individual aircraft be taken out of service, but above all, individual regiments of Russian aviation will hesitate to perform combat missions under commands from Moscow.

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