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Old Russian bombs elude modern Ukrainian defenses


Highlights: Ukrainian and U.S. officials say Russian warplanes are dropping Soviet-era bombs. Some modified to plan long distances, they are nearly impossible to shoot down. The bombs are in the air for only 70 seconds or less and are much harder for Ukraine's air defenses to track. The Russians are deploying these glide bombs from Su-34 and Su-35 jets, a U.s. official says. The United States has taken the first steps to allow allies to deliver F-16s to Ukraine.

Ukrainian and U.S. officials say Russian warplanes are dropping Soviet-era bombs, some modified to plan long distances, that are nearly impossible to shoot down.

Maryna Ivanova, a young woman living in a riverside village in southern Ukraine, felt a sense of unease when her fiancé and brother left for work one morning in early May.

They were heading to a nearby island in the Dnipro River, the waterfront line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and the area was being heavily bombarded.

While preparing pork and potato soup, Ivanova heard – and felt – a huge explosion, far more terrifying, she says, than the explosions that have become routine.

Explosion of a weapon intercepted over Kiev this month. Ukraine's air defenses are capable of shooting down most missiles and drones, but not the bombs that the Russian military has deployed. Photo Gleb Garanich/Reuters

"It was like something had been thrown at us," he said.

A few minutes later, he heard screams outside and ran to the dock.

A boat stopped.

Inside lay his brother, soaked in blood.

Next to her was her fiancé, his face shattered.

Both were dead.

She fell to her knees.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said.

According to Ukrainian officials who investigated the incident, it was not a mortar, tank shell or projectile fired by long-range artillery.

It was, according to them, a modified 1,100-pound bomb dropped from a distant Russian warplane, the latest destructive turn in a war that is only intensifying.

As Kiev prepares for a long-awaited counteroffensive, Ukrainian officials, independent analysts and the U.S. military say the Russians are increasing their use of Soviet-era bombs.

Although they have limitations, these weapons are proving harder to shoot down than the faster, more modern missiles that Ukrainians have become adept at intercepting.

Much of this war is being waged with long-range munitions, from artillery shells to ballistic missiles.

In recent weeks, the Russians have launched wave after wave of explosive missiles and drones at Ukrainian cities, and Ukraine has shot down almost all of them.

But aerial bombs are different.

They don't have propulsion systems like cruise missiles or stay in the air as long as drones.

The bombs are in the air for only 70 seconds or less and are much harder for Ukraine's air defenses to track.

They are tiny dots on radar screens that disappear shortly after being launched, Ukrainian officials said, and then crash into villages.

F-16 fighter jets at Clark Air Base, Philippines, last week. The United States has taken the first steps to allow allies to deliver F-16s to Ukraine. Photo Ted Aljibe/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

"This is the evolution of air warfare," said Lt. Col. Denys Smazhnyi of the Ukrainian Air Force.

"First they tested cruise missiles, and we shot them down. Then they tried drones, and we shot them down. They are constantly looking for a solution to attack us, and we are looking for one to intercept them."

"It's evolution, countermeasures, evolution, countermeasures," Colonel Smazhnyi added.

"It's a relentless process, unfortunately."

According to Ukrainian and U.S. officials, the Russians have retrofitted some of the bombs with satellite navigation systems and wings that extend their range, turning an antiquated weapon, of which Moscow has thousands, into a more modern glide bomb.

The Russians are deploying these glide bombs from Su-34 and Su-35 jets, their high-end warplanes, said a U.S. Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

Flying over Russian-controlled territory, where Ukrainian air defenses do not reach, warplanes drop the bombs, which glide 30 kilometers or more, cross the front line and hit Ukrainian territory.

These bombs are even harder to reach than the Kinzhal hypersonic missiles the Ukrainians claim to have recently destroyed with American Patriot air defense systems.

"A Kinzhal has a longer flight time at high altitudes, so it's easier to detect and track," said Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Glider bombs, on the other hand, were not a weapon the Patriot system was designed for, he said.

Russian military bloggers have boasted of the exploits of their glide bombs, posting videos and commentary since early January.

A Russian analyst provided detailed information on Russia's development of them dating back to the early 2000s and claimed that their use was "a step in the right direction."

There have been some recent mishaps.

In late April, a Russian warplane, apparently headed to Ukraine, accidentally dropped a bomb on Belgorod, a Russian city near the border.

According to Russian authorities, there were no casualties, but days later Russian media reported that two more unexploded aviation bombs had been discovered in the same area.

It is unclear whether these were old bombs or the new glider versions.

Ukrainian officials are using the threat of these bombs to help press their case for the F-16s, which allies are expected to provide after the Biden administration changed course and allowed Ukrainian pilots to be trained.

Ukrainians claim they are outgunned in the skies and that F-16s could scare away Russian warplanes bombing their communities.

"Trying to intercept these bombs is not effective, it is not even rational," said Yuriy Ignat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force.

"The only way out of this situation and the only way to stop it is to attack the planes dropping these bombs."

Both Russia and Ukraine have strong air defenses on the territory they control, making it difficult for either side to fly combat missions.

Ukrainian pilots also have a few dozen U.S.-supplied glide bombs but have had problems with them, according to documents allegedly leaked by Jack Teixeira, the National Air Guard implicated in a vast disclosure of classified material.

The Russians have figured out how to interfere with guidance systems, according to classified documents, and several Ukrainian bombs have missed their target.

Colonel Smazhnyi and other Ukrainian officials said the Russians were dropping a combination of old, unmodified and modified bombs.

Planing bombs are manufactured from a low-drag FAB-500 M-62 bomb, a standard Soviet ammunition produced in series, to which is added a kit with movable fins and deployable wings,

along with a satellite guidance system that adjusts its course mid-flight. According to military analysts, the modified bombs cost a small fraction of the price of a cruise missile, but contain about the same amount of explosives.

Ukrainian security services shared photos of Russian bombs they said had been modified for planning, which U.S. defense officials confirmed.

The location of the photos could not be independently verified.

Few places have been as affected by glide bombs as the surroundings of Kherson, an industrial city on the banks of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials said.

With the Ukrainian counteroffensive imminent, Ukrainian troops are invading Kherson and nearby villages such as Veletenske, where Ivanova lived with her fiancé, Kostiantyn Rumega.

He was 19, she was 20.

He was looking for work and, on the morning of 2 May, a man who ran a fishing business summoned him to a nearby river island to clean some nets.

His fiancée told him that he did not want to go, because he had already gotten into trouble once for not having the necessary fishing permits, and it was very dangerous:

The Russians have been lighting up that whole area with an arsenal of weapons.

But he needed the money, Ivanova said, and before he left he stayed at the door.

"At that moment, when he kissed me and said goodbye to me, there was a lot of love," she said. "I had never experienced it, I felt different."

It was as if he knew.

A few hours later, the riverside explosion threw open his doors and shook his house. It was more than a kilometer away. Along with her brother and fiancé, another civilian, a woman who lived by the river, was killed.

Since then, Ivanova has been mired in a haze of grief, disbelief, anger and depression.

"I don't want to do anything," he says.

And he continues to hear explosions, which stir within him a pain that he says he will always carry with him.

Alexei Sandakov contributed information from Veletsenke, Ukraine; Katya Lachina from Kiev, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from London.

Jeffrey Gettleman is an international correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner. He is the author of the memoir "Love, Africa". @gettleman - Facebook Eric Schmitt is a writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security issues. He was also a Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared four Pulitzer Prizes. @EricSchmittNYT

See also

What awaits Russia after shedding so much blood for Bakhmut?

War in Ukraine: Wagner Group says it lost more than 20,000 men at Bakhmut and contradicts Russia

Source: clarin

All news articles on 2023-05-25

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