Hobby Drones Had a Little Fun and Drove Russian Bombers Out of Their Base

tu 22m3 burns at soltsy 2 airbase on august 19 2023
Hobby Drones Drove Russian Bombers From Their BaseRussian social media. - Wikimedia Commons

The Tupolev Tu-22M ‘Backfire’ strategic bomber was designed in the mid-1960s to overcome the powerful air defenses around U.S. aircraft carriers and NATO military bases. To increase the survival odds of the striking aircraft, should World War III break out, each Tu-22M3 cost the equivalent of millions of dollars. Each incorporates swing-wings and NK-25 turbofan engines that enable it to both race up to twice the speed of sound and skim at slower speeds very close to the surface.

tupolev tu 22m3 taking off at diaghilevo airbase
Tu-22M3 supersonic strategic bomber at Diaghilevo Airbase in 2011Alex Beltyukov photo (CCA-SA3) - Wikimedia Commons

But recently, the fearsome Soviet bomber met its match in combat, in the form of quadcopter hobby/camera drones—ones that any civilian can buy online for between $400 and $2,000.

members of falcon unit work with drones
Chinese-built civilian DJI Mavic quadcopter camera drone modified by Ukrainian military to carry a small improvised bomb, pictured April 2023 in Kostiantynivka, Ukraine.Global Images Ukraine - Getty Images

At roughly 10 a.m. last Saturday, several of these quadcopters came buzzing down upon Soltsy-2 airbase in northwestern Russia near Novogorod. A satellite photo taken on August 16 shows that 10 Backfire bombers of the 40th Mixed Aviation Regiment were stationed there.

At least one drone careened into a Tu-22M3 in the process of refueling and rearming. The resulting blasts caused a cloud of smoke seen rising over the airbase.

Russia’s military eventually reported that a bomber had been ‘damaged’ at Soltsy. This was an understated way of describing the fate of a Tu-22M3 photographed enveloped in a hellish firestorm.

Multiple sources contend that either one or two more Tu-22Ms were damaged or destroyed in the attack.

Then, at 8 a.m. local time on Monday, another drone attack struck an airbase at Shaykova—much closer to Ukraine’s border, and home to the Tu-22M3s of the 52nd Heavy Bomber regiment. One more Tu-22M3 was reported damaged, though confirming visual evidence hasn’t yet emerged. Again, civilian-style quadcopters fitted with explosives and uprated batteries carried out the attack. Russian sources claim that either no damage was inflicted, or that an out-of-use aircraft was damaged.

A spokesperson subsequently told The Drive on Monday that Ukraine’s GUR intelligence service took credit for organizing the attacks using “people recruited from Central Russia.”

Aviation historian Tom Cooper, chronicler of the Tu-22M’s combat use in Syria, wrote on his blog of reports that the initial attack killed 6-7 personnel (including at least one pilot), wounded eleven, and resulted in the destruction of a fuel truck and four refurbished Kh-22 missiles—a weapon noted for its highly toxic fuel.

Cooper writes that Ukraine’s long-range drone attacks on Moscow may have contributed to this outcome:

“According to Russian reports, the air defenses of this base were weakened: all radars and SAMs were withdrawn to bolster the defense of Moscow, and thus limited to ‘few Kalashnikovs.’”

Russian sources indeed claim that defensive small arms fire downed one attacking drone at each base, and may also have accidentally hit landed aircraft.

A satellite photo taken two days after the attacks shows that the bombers formerly based at Soltsy-2 are now gone—though one of the spots shows the scorch marks left behind by the blazing bomber. A Russian sources claims that the bombers were moved to Olenya airbase in Arctic Murmansk, nearly 800 miles to the north.

The scorched area also appears geo-consistent with the photo of the blazing Tu-22.

According to World Air Forces 2023, Russia began the year with just 59 of the Soviet bombers, production of which had ceased 30 years earlier.

The war by and against Russia’s strategic bombers

The Soltsy raid was far from the first to target Russia’s strategic bomber force. On December 5, a converted Soviet Tu-141 target drone launched by Ukraine heavily damaged a Tu-22M at Diaghilevo airbase 100 miles southeast of Moscow. Simultaneously, drones also damaged one or two Tu-95 Bear bombers at Engels airbase 400 miles east of Ukraine.

Destroying aircraft on the ground has always been an effective tactic—during World War II, commandos of the British Special Air Service mounted on jeeps destroyed more Axis warplanes on the ground in Africa than the Royal Air Force downed in the sky during the desert campaign.

Ukraine bears a particular grudge against Russian heavy bombers, as their missiles have caused hundreds of mostly civilian deaths and billions of dollars in economic damage. And while Ukrainian air defenses can try to shoot down missiles launched by the bombers, the aircraft themselves, as a rule, release their lethal weapons far beyond the reach of Ukrainian’s fighters and ground-based missile batteries.

Russia’s Tu-22M3 fleet has been particularly engaged in launching outdated Kh-22 supersonic missiles, originally designed to home-in on and sink U.S. Navy aircraft carriers while traveling at three times the speed of sound. As urban targets are much harder for the missile’s 60-year-old radar seeker to pick out than aircraft carriers, the huge 6-ton weapons routinely plunge into completely civilian structures and “sink” shopping malls, bars, apartment complexes, and so forth.

bombed building in dnipro
Apartment building in Dnipro smashed by a Kh-22 missile launched by a Tu-22M3 bomber on February 21, killing 46 civilians and injuring 80.Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

Ukraine’s use of a quadcopter UAV—a class of drone known for its short range—indicates that the attacks almost certainly originated from agents in Russia positioned a relatively short distance from the airbase. Larger drones could have been launched from Ukrainian soil.

This implies that no base in Russia is truly safe from such attacks—something that should also give Western air forces reason to think about improving counter-drone security at their own ‘safe’ bases.

It turns out that small commercial drones—despite their short range—can be frighteningly effective if snuck close enough to target, thanks to their relative stealth and ability to strike precisely. That can spell very bad news for powerful warplanes costing millions of dollars.

Detecting such small, cheap drones in time is difficult due to their small radar and infrared signature and low-altitude flight profile, meaning that only short-range sensors and anti-air/counter-drone weapons are effective counters. And many such systems are needed, as they can only protect a limited radius around themselves.

Still, counter-drone defense is not impossible. And Russia should have learned from early experience defending against small drones when its Pantsir-S and Tor-M2U systems battled drones launched at Russian aircraft in the Hmeimim airbase by anti-Assad rebels in Syria.

The problem is that Russia’s Pantsirs and Tors, as well as olderZSU-23/4 Shilka and 2S6 Tunguska vehicles, are quite thinly spread on the frontline or defending Moscow. They can’t be easily spared to defend every single military facility—particularly not ones as distant as Soltsy-2.

russia status during the russian invasion of ukraine
Turret of a Pantsir-S air defense system seen peaking above the roof of Russia’s Ministry of Defense in Moscow. Pantsirs deployed to stop Ukrainian drones over Moscow aren’t free to defend military bases and frontline forces.NurPhoto - Getty Images

Besides such expensive active defenses, Russia could have more easily undertaken passive measures like sheltering aircraft in hangars or anti-drone netting—rather than parking them in the open—to complicate targeting.

Of course, repositioning the bombers farther from Ukraine’s border at places like Olenya may increase the challenges of future Ukrainian attacks without preventing missile strikes by the long-range Russian bombers. However, the extra distance will increase the time and fuel required for each bomber sortie, worsening logistics and readiness. And Russia’s over-stretched air defenses will face new dilemmas as to how thinly to spread themselves.

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