Something remarkable occurred in this instance when a Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) Sukhoi Su-34 medium-range fighter-bomber/strike aircraft accidentally discharged a weapon, leading to an explosion.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) issued its own statement to the TASS news agency, calling the incident an emergency release of an air ordnance, but clarifying that it was not intentional. As a result of the incident, three people were injured, nearby buildings were damaged, several cars were destroyed, and a wide 65-foot crater was left. According to Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, the weapon was somehow released in armed/active mode after being discharged from one of the Su-34 aircraft’s carriage buildings in the central streets of the city. This information was released by the MoD on their Telegram channel.
There is a lot of unpacking to do about this incident, as it would be easy to dismiss it as a one-time mistake. However, on social media channels, pro-Ukrainian media mocked and cheered the friendly fire incident. There is a lot to uncover about the incident, which can shed light on the state of Russia’s air forces after 15 months of war.
Dumb Explosives, Manufacturing Challenges.
The recent photos taken of the SU-34 fleet did not reveal other stand-off munitions or ALCMs, instead showing jets carrying only unguided munitions. The Su-34s are rarely seen with the standard load-out for aircraft, which includes the infrared air-to-air missile (AA-11) R-73 Vympel on its launcher rails. Despite the need for the aircraft to defend itself against launched aircraft interceptors, the bomb that likely hit Belgorod was an older, non-precision “dumb” bomb.
Both what the aircraft is carrying and where it is flying serve as indicators of the state of the Russian munitions stockpile.
The Su-34 is constructed at the Novosibirsk Aviation Production Association (NAPO) and is one of the priciest tactical aircraft in operation. It is intended for executing the standoff-range bombing/precision strike mission and is equipped with several expensive onboard systems that assist it. The Kaluga Scientific Research Institute for Radio-Electronic Technology (KNIRTI) L-175V Khibiny EW system is one of these. The duo of L-175V pods is now enhanced by a version of the same KNIRTI design bureau’s SAP-518 jammer, which the aircraft was observed carrying more recently.
The Tu-22M3 Tupolev, a member of the Aviation Naval unit, was specifically designed to take over some of the missions previously assigned to bombers, and to replace the older-generation Su-24s. Unlike other aircraft in the Sukhoi “family,” it is larger and heavier. It was originally designed as a high-speed fighter-interceptor to counter the F-15 Boeing, and it is a derivative of the original Su-27, which was designed during the Cold War.
The long-range satellite-aided bombs and even longer-range cruise missiles that the aircraft is meant to carry are currently scarce. The VKS is facing a challenge of acquiring 12 units through a request and negotiations that have been going on for years. The effectiveness of the Su-34 in using its long-range weapons was demonstrated in Syria and Algeria, which prompted Ukraine to acquire the aircraft.
The Russian industry’s extensive dependence on imported electronic components, such as signal amplifiers, processing modules, and semiconductors, for the production of precision PGM-guided weapons has now been denied by a new regime that controls exports to the EU and US. This denial is supposed to address the long list of other components used in these weapons, and to trace back all the shortages in the Russian armed forces.
“If Russia were to launch an invasion and face a sanctions regime, where would a factory acquire these from? Approximately 70 percent of the components in the front-end/guidance and navigation section of the missile are imported. If significant sanctions were imposed, the Russian industry would have very limited capability to produce the [Novator] Kalibr cruise missile,” stated the director of Ukraine’s leading defense electronics company to Breaking Defense, even prior to the initiation of the Ukraine war.
US military suppliers, with a long history of building and designing sophisticated microelectronics devices, manufactured the majority of these components. Among the discoveries, it was surprising to find that at least 318 of these components were unique foreign-made models, with different configurations, in 27 different Russian weapon systems. A lengthy report, published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, concluded that there are at least 450 different models of these components. Later, a team from the institute, consisting of investigators from the Ukrainian groups, examined and dissected the captured equipment and numerous unexploded weapons.
The investigation uncovered that these weapons rely on a common selection of foreign, imported parts. An analysis of various advanced guided weapon systems, such as the 3M14 version of the Kalibr, the 9M544 “intelligent” artillery rocket, and the Raduga Kh-59 and Kh-101 ALCMs launched from the Su-34, exposed the fact that the Russian defense industry employs the same sets of components for different weapon systems. This finding aligns with the findings of Conflict Armaments Research (CAR), another organization based in the UK.
The conflict persists as fewer and fewer weapons and advanced defense equipment from Russia are visible, which is why these showcases are deemed significant, as stated in the report read by investigators from CAR. These teams have discovered that the circuit boards used in the receiver signal navigation satellite blocks in the guidance and navigation systems are of foreign technology.
High Rates of Loss.
The General Dynamics F-111, which is now retired, was utilized in a mission profile during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm that was similar to the current Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle. Additionally, it used a variety of other precision-guided munitions (PGMs), including the ALCMs mentioned earlier, to successfully target locations as distant as 600 miles, a feat also accomplished by the Su-34.
The estimated cost of firing a Kh-101 missile in Ukraine is roughly 13 million US dollars, which serves as an example of the high price tag associated with these weapons. One factor contributing to the high price tag of these weapons is the cost of procurement, which, according to several Russian sources, has dropped off more than a decade ago.
During the war in Ukraine, the importation of components necessary for the production of long-range weapons and missiles was greatly affected, leading to a shortage of these items. This had a negative impact on the rates of production and later choked off the importation of these components for many years. Following the invasion of Crimea in March 2014 and the subsequent seizure of the eastern region of Donbas, the initial regime imposed sanctions that blocked the importation of many other components required for the manufacture of these missiles.
Units of the Ukrainian defense have been forced to carry out missions where the Su-34 has to drop “dumb” ordnance directly above targets within the range of their air defense. These missions require the aircraft to fly at low altitudes and hundreds of miles away from the point of launch in order to launch missiles.
According to a former Russian aircraft designer who spoke to Breaking Defense, it is astonishing that these unintended discharges of ordnance do not occur on a daily basis. This kind of incident, like the one that happened in Belgorod, is a result of assigning Su-34 crews to carry out missions they were not adequately trained for.
He clarified, “Utilizing the Su-34 to release unguided explosives is akin to utilizing a Rolls-Royce car as a taxi.” “Furthermore, it represents an immense misallocation of resources and a mismatch of platform capability when compared to the mission’s demands.”
Russia does not have many alternatives, and moreover, the Su-34’s EW system has been upgraded to make it more capable of surviving in challenging situations. The Su-34, which is typically assigned low-altitude bombing missions, has been shot down quite frequently, hence the question of why the SU-34, designed for a different type of mission, is being utilized in this particular operation.
The lack of preparation and low-altitude mission profile make the Su-34 a highly vulnerable target. It puts the aircraft within the interception envelope of short-range portable air defense systems, such as the German-made Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and later Russian model hand-held missiles like the Grom and US-made Stinger (MANPADS). Even though other sources credit the Ukrainian air defense unit with the kill, there have been reports of a friendly fire incident where one Su-34 was shot down by one of Russia’s own S-300 Almaz-Antei batteries on March 3.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces has reported that Russia has lost a total of 301 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft since February 24, 2022, due to accidents, engagements, and other non-BVR-related incidents. It should be noted that the count of lost aircraft does not include the losses confirmed visually to be Su-34s.
Due to foreign sanctions, technology and microelectronics may not be adequately replaced, resulting in potential losses for the Su-34 fleet, which is nearing its two-year equivalent worth of production. In the pre-war years, Russia was producing jets at a rate of approximately one aircraft per month, but in the past 19 years, only 143 aircraft have been produced in the production-series.
The London Daily Telegraph’s Ukraine War roundtable podcast on April 28 reports that the Russian military’s ability to effectively utilize its military equipment has been greatly diminished. These issues with losses were cited as another contributing factor.
They cannot coordinate more than that, and they are essentially limited to carrying out attacks only with twosies and onesies. However, I had not been given a briefing on the Russian Air Force, so I cannot explain all of it to the reporter from The Telegraph. It seems that Russian airpower is the worst-case scenario.
Russian airplanes can now reach a range of 150 km, but I do not know the exact orders for these Patriot crews. The chances of them being shot down are very high, especially because they are aware of the ongoing fight in Ukraine and the potential for them to enter Ukrainian airspace. There is also a reluctance within the Russian Air Force to actually engage in combat. They may be launching small numbers of sorties, but they have a significant number of these missions available.
From the earliest days of the war, reports indicated that the Russians were lacking serious numbers in the effective integration of operational planning, as well as the management of multiple inputs of information and intelligence assets. This slipshod use of airpower by the Russians is partially due to the fact that they were not effectively integrating their assets.
The older models, along with the capacity for modernization, prevent the construction of any more units due to the same absence of imported parts. Even those that have been utilized to a minimal extent, there are only a few Russian inventory in these platforms. The impact of a drone assault earlier this year on one of Russia’s equivalent to the US Boeing E-3 AWACS, the VKS Beriev A-50 aircraft stationed in Belarus, underscored the damage inflicted.
Russia is preparing for an upcoming counteroffensive in cities other than Ukraine, including Belgorod. The only question is whether the nearby explosion will belong to our side or theirs.