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On 21 November 2023, the Russian Federation dropped 25 aerial bombs in an hour and a half, causing damage and casualties in the Kherson region. The combination of failed military strategies, logistical challenges, and the risk of losing occupied territories has led to a dramatic escalation of the aerial bomb attacks by the Russian tactical aviation in the Kherson region.
The Ukrainians are actively securing positions on the east bank of the Dnipro River to push Russian forces out of artillery range on the west bank. On 17 November 2023, the Marine Infantry Command announced that Ukrainian Marines, in collaboration with other units, had established bridgeheads on the east bank of the Dnipro River. Russian attempts to eliminate these footholds have been unsuccessful.
As the Russian military command is increasingly concerned about Ukrainian forces liberating the occupied territories on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, it has intensified guided aerial bomb attacks on the Ukraine-controlled territories on the western bank. The objective is clear: impede Ukrainian efforts to establish a presence across the Dnipro River and prevent the liberation of the still-occupied territories in the Kherson region.
The Kherson region, a geopolitically important region in southern Ukraine, fell under Russian occupation in March 2022. A brutal nine-month occupation marked by destruction, looting, and suppression, led to the Kremlin’s annexation of the Kherson region through a sham referendum. On 11 November 2022, Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Kherson, located on the western bank of the Dnipro River, prompting Russian troops to retreat to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Retaining the remaining occupied territories is crucial for the Kremlin as it still considers the Kherson region as part of the Russian Federation. The loss of the Kherson region carries symbolic weight, particularly as Russia approaches its presidential elections, expected to be in March 2024. The annexation of parts of Ukraine, including the Kherson region, was a cause for celebration and a boost to the Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s image in September 2022. Losing the remaining occupied territories of the Kherson region would have negative implications for Putin who relies on projecting power and invincibility in his political standing.
Retreating from the western bank of the Dnipro River would also mean a major strategic defeat to the Kremlin, increasing the likelihood of losing the Crimea peninsula, annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014. Crimea is home to a significant Russian military force and the Black Sea Fleet, essential for Moscow’s power projection. Recapture of the Kherson region will also help Kyiv regain control of the Black Sea coastline, crucial for food exports. The control of the Kherson region is critical as it directly affects the freshwater supply to Crimea, upon which the region relies for its population, agriculture, and military facilities. Kyiv blocked water supplies from the Dnipro River after Russia seized Crimea in 2014.
Success on the east bank of the Dnipro River will also allow Ukraine to challenge Moscow’s control in other occupied southern areas, including the Zaporizhzhia region with the critically important Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
Regaining control of the occupied territories on the east bank of the Dnipro will also pose a threat to the Russian logistics routes, especially during the winter. The Russian military already suffers from a shortage of cruise, ballistic, and aeroballistic missiles. Their initial war strategy for the full-scale invasion in Ukraine prioritized the use of aviation armed with high-precision weaponry, according to Defense Express military expert Ivan Kirichevskiy. The Ukrainian air defence counterattacks on aviation caused a shift in strategy and forced Russians to extensively use traditional artillery. They also exhausted missile supplies targeting the rear of Ukraine in 2022.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Russia has whipped out a massive supply of Soviet-made aerial bombs and transformed them into guided gliding bombs.
What Are Aerial Guided Bombs?
The Soviet-made aerial bomb has GPS navigation and control units attached, which enhances their accuracy. Launched from Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft, these guided bombs are precision weapons that have aerodynamic surfaces and guidance systems and a high likelihood of hitting a target.
The distance that gliding aircraft bombs can cover depends on the aircraft’s speed and altitude. The greater the altitude and speed at which the aircraft releases these bombs, the more extensive the bomb’s flight range becomes.
There are a wide variety of aerial guided bombs that Russians use in Ukraine.
UPAB-1500, with a total weight of over one and a half tons, is a guided gliding bomb that presents a grave danger to the Ukrainian army and civilians. The glider-type bomb is equipped with an inertial and satellite navigation system and its warhead, carrying one ton of explosives, is designed to hit well-protected objects, such as railway bridges, command posts, and warships.
The Russians have limited quantities of a smaller variation of this bomb, UPAB-500V, weighing 500 kilograms.
Also deployed in the Kherson region is the FAB-500M-62, a high-explosive bomb equipped with wings and GPS navigation, first used in March 2023 near Chernihiv.
In addition, KABs, also known as “adjustable aerial bombs” or “smart” bombs, come in various sizes, ranging from 250 to 1500 kilograms, and can be guided by lasers or satellites.
Aerial Bombs: Part of a Scorched Earth Policy
The Russian military resorted to the scorched-earth military strategy, involving the deliberate destruction of resources: water, food, lives, animals, vegetation, tools, and infrastructure. The destruction of a hydroelectric dam in Nova Kakhovka on 6 June 2023, resulted in a catastrophic release of water downstream, intensifying the humanitarian and environmental crisis. The aerial guided bomb assault campaign is a component of the scorched-earth strategy, as it aims for mass destruction by 500-kilogram or larger bombs.
Since September 2023, the number of aerial guided bombs used by the Russian military increased dramatically from two to three bombs daily to dozens in the Kherson region. In October, a record number of 1,165 bombs were used in Ukraine; and on November 6 2023, a “record” of 103 aerial bomb attacks was set.
The Russian military also uses guided aerial bombs along the other parts of the frontline. In the first week of November, Russian aviation used 433 guided aviation bombs in Ukraine, according to military expert Olexander Kovalenko. The Russian military has the capacity to launch up to 100 bombs per day, said Yuriy Ignat, the spokesperson for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The lack of effective defence against aerial bombs poses a challenge to the Ukrainian military. Russian Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft typically remain concealed to minimise the risk of counterattacks and release the guided aerial bombs from a safe distance of 50 kilometres away from the frontline to avoid Ukrainian air defence.
Shooting down guided aerial bombs is next to impossible. Therefore, the air defence forces aim at destroying Russian aviation before the Russian bomber can drop the guided bomb. In order to achieve this task, Ukraine needs medium-range air defence systems at the frontline. Western-style fighters, such as F-16, equipped with long-range air-to-air missiles and potent radars, could prevent Russian aircraft from approaching Ukrainian borders and would create a no-fly zone for Russian aviation. However, the delayed delivery of F-16s and the time needed to train pilots means this scenario may only materialise in the long term.
According to Kovalenko, ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) could become a solution as they are ideal for striking airfields. Regular targeting of airfields in temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine can also force the Russian military to relocate aircraft.