Ukranian Strikes on Russian Strategic Airbases — Russian Nuclear Deterrence Compromised

Yesterday, December 5th, Ukraine lunched at least to deep strikes on Russian Strategic Bomber bases deep inside Russian territory. One of those bases, the Engels airbase, is the main base of Russian Strategic Forces’ nuclear triad’s air component.

Overview — feel free to skip if you already know this

Having three components of nuclear deterrence forces: the air, the ground and the sea, each one is crucial for maintaining the mutual assured destruction principle. Only by maintaining credible and efficient nuclear triad can Russia assure any preemptive strikes by other nuclear powers would be as damaging for the attacker as it would be for Russia. In other words, any nuclear strike on Russia would be suicidal. This is the base of Russian security and the continuation of its existence in the post nuclear world. We can be sure that in lack of this capability Russia would have been attacked and destroyed by nuclear weapons many times over.

Each component of the nuclear triad has its weak and strong sides. The ground component, implemented by fixed underground silos and mobile launchers with ground launched intercontinental ballistic missiles is the most combat ready at any given time. It requires the shortest time to prepare and launch. On the other hand, the underground silos are fixed targets with well-known coordinates, and thus they can be precisely targeted by low-yield or even conventional warheads. The mobile launchers can launch from their bases, or to disperse to previously prepared positions, thus making their targeting more problematic. On the other hand, they are “softer” targets than silos, being less protected against nearby nuclear blasts, so their destruction doesn’t require a pin-point accuracy. The missile silos and the mobile launchers are the most numerous among the triad component assets. In Russian mind, those ground-based launchers are intended for the “retaliatory counter-strike”, meaning those missiles should be ideally launched after the enemy strike was detected but before it impacted. This requires some reaction time to be available before the enemy warheads reach the deployment areas of the ground component of the nuclear triad. Thus, reaction time is of an essence for ground-based launchers, especially the silos.

The Naval component is the most difficult one to destroy, once it dispersed to its “bastions”. A “Bastion” is an area of deep-water sea, well protected from enemy submarines and anti-submarine aviation by its location, geographical features and Russian forces defending it. Once in the “bastion”, the nuclear ballistic missile submarine is extremely hard to locate, and it’s protected by hundreds of meters of seawater, and sometimes ice, from anti-surface weapons. The only way to reliably hunt and destroy a nuclear ballistic missile submarine is by having enemy attack submarines silently follow them without being detected and always keeping them in range of torpedoes. This is an extremely hard thing to do, as long as Russians won’t be making any major mistakes securing the “bastions”. Naval intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are limited by mass and dimensions, so their payload is less potent, generally speaking. In Russian doctrine, the main purpose of the nuclear ballistic missile submarines is to survive the first strike and retaliate – the “retaliatory strike”. In US nuclear doctrine, such submarines can be used to launch ICBM from much shorter distances to the targets, thus greatly shortening their flight time and, consequently, greatly shortening the reaction time of the enemy. The main objective of the submerged component of the Russian nuclear triad is to be able to survive the first strike and still be able to retaliate for some time afterwards for days, week or even months. The nuclear ballistic missiles submarines are also able to launch from their bases while unsubmerged, in emergency.

The final component of nuclear triad is the air component. It consists of strategic bombers which are able to stay in the air for many hours. Those are the most vulnerable at their bases, being the “softest” targets. Strategic bombers require a relatively long period (unless on highest alert) to fuel, arm and take off. Once in the air, they can patrol inside the protected airspace for dozens of hours, maybe even days, if having access to aerial refueling planes. Alternatively, they can fly towards enemy’s territory. Armed with cruise missiles of much shorter range than that of ICBM’s, around 5,500 kilometers (unless some breakthrough had been made in the last decades), and relatively small warheads, those are probably the less potent component of the triad. Yet, their mobility and range make it possible to launch surprise attacks, especially using stealthy cruise missiles, which are much harder to detect than ICBM’s. The air component of the nuclear deterrence forces was the first one to appear, then the ballistic missiles still hadn’t the require reach. First by using free falling nuclear bombs, and afterwards using increasingly more potent cruise missiles. Today, this component remains relevant mostly thanks to its ability to use conventional tipped cruise missiles, which are usually the first type of weapon to be used in a war where at least one modern military is participating. Today, only few countries still have strategic bombers, namely USA, Russian Federation and China (which uses the modernized clones of old Soviet Tu-16 bombers). Other countries rely on their tactical bombers and fighter jets to carry cruise missiles. By many accounts, cruise missile is the most probable choice of weapon for the first, disarming strike. Having the much lower chance of detection and extremely high precision, it can deliver a low-yield warhead to a missile silo, submarine docked at port, a ground launcher or strategic bomber in hangar. But this kind of use requires very precise planning, flawless execution and luck. If those cruise missiles would be detected ahead of time, their relatively slow speed would provide time to execute the retaliatory counter-strike. If it would succeed, only retaliatory strike would be possible. Since retaliatory strike could be considered acceptable, if enough of the nuclear deterrence forces were destroyed in the first strike, and there are means to intercept the bulk of remaining missiles, it could mean the collapse of the mutually assured destruction principle.

The Ukrainian strike

By official Russian accounts, the strikes were conducted using the old Soviet Tu-141 “Reis” reconnaissance drones, modified to deliver a warhead. Those are not initially intended to be used as cruise missiles, and thus there don’t have the autopilot (the navigation system) and the targeting system to deliver an effective strike. Their main original payload was a film camera, so there are no capabilities to carry a large and heavy warhead.

From what is implied by the Russian released info, Ukrainians have modified those drones to carry an explosive. It is also quite possible that some modifications have been made for the navigation system, making it precise enough to target a relatively small area, or even a precise coordinate point. Another, much more complicated (and thus less likely) option, is implementation of the remote control and visual sensor.

Other than that, Tu-141 Reis has somewhat similar dimensions to a modern cruise missile, but without any stealth measures, which are implemented on the modern cruise missiles.


As such, it could be said those drones were easy practice targets for any airbase defences what should have been present and operational and any time. Much more so, if we are talking about the Engels airbase, which is the main base for the Russian strategic bombers.

In absolutely obnoxious description of the strikes, the Russian MoD had the audacity to proclaim the successful intercept of those drones, while admitting at least three servicemen were killed, more wounded, and two of its strategic bombers were damaged (and are at least temporarily out of commission).

In fact, what happened is Russian MoD has exposed yet again to the whole world its total incompetency. It has now allowed for its main and the far most important airfield to be targeted and successfully stricken. And not by dozens or hundreds of the state-of-the-art US or NATO stealth cruise missiles, but by two old Soviet reconnaissance drones, each one targeting different airbase.

I thought the sinking of Moskva was a disaster. I thought the inability to protect a few strategically important bridges from cold-war era weaponry and makeshift bomb was an unbearable embarrassment. But this is the new high of the MoD demonstrated decay. It has showed without any doubt that one of the three Russian nuclear triad components can be easily destroyed, or at least incapacitated, by any country in possession of few dozen modern cruise missiles.

And the cherry on top of that cake is the fact that Russia is struggling fruitlessly to rebuild its strategic bombers production capacities. Not only they haven’t built any new strategic bombers (the one Tu-160 so far which was reported as entirely newly built is most likely uses old, Soviet-built components), they even can’t restart their production of the engines for those bombers, only able to do some renewal work.

What went wrong?

I see the Rybar telegram channel blowing fire at (as usual) unnamed individuals inside the Russian MoD, responsible for this disaster. Those hypothetic individuals, which Russian patriotic alternative media newer exposes, are someone higher than the commanders on the ground, but lower than the strategic command. It is entirely their fault, and not the fault of the Minister of Defense, the President, the Commander of the air force, the commander of the strategic aviation, etc. Probably, the Engels base commander would be sacked or quietly moved to some dead-end position, as it happened with the Black Sea Fleet commander, or some other generals, involved in a war, procurement, mobilization etc. But no one above them is responsible, if we to believe the patriotic media. And definitely not Shoigu, and most definitely not the holly Rasputin himself. And by the way, let’s remember that the one, most directly responsible for anything happening in Russian air force until recently is no other than general Surovikin, who is now commanding other the entire operation in UA.

Actually, the only one of the visible “patriotic alternative media” who named names we all hear and know, was Igor Strelkov. Who is now in limbo, trying (and repeatedly failing, possibly due to MoD’s resistance) to make use of his combat experience and colonel’s rank to assist the war efforts.

More to the point, the Rybar channel is blaming it all on the usual Russian practice of exposed aircraft standing side by side on the airfields, and on the lack of any air-defence systems, protecting the strategically important Engels airbase.

The first complaint is absolutely undeniable. So many people have raised this issue for so long, yet nothing is changing. Not until some planes get hit and destroyed, and then some small movements are seen, but only in the very same airbase which has suffered the strike, and not any other ones. I myself raised this issue on that blog in the past, after the drone strike on the airbase in Crimea, there a few jets were lost to ammunition fire.

The second complaint is very strange one. First of all, it is straight unbelievable that Engels airbase has no air defences in place. It is just ridiculous, to think this can be possible. Did all the air defence systems got sent to UA to intercept rockets? Or weren’t they present but not operational for some reason? I don’t know. The MoD claims it has intercepted the drones before the impact, but from what I could see, it very well may be a lie. Especially since it looks like the intended target was hit.

Moreover, the notion that the drones should have been intercepted approaching the airbases is quite stupid one. Because the first step to intercept cruise missiles (and those Tu-141’s were basically cheap makeshift cruise missiles) is to detect them. Obviously, any aircraft or object flying from UA towards Russia or its forces has to be detected. That is how air defence works. So those, essentially, cruise missiles, flew undetected from somewhere in UA for hundreds of kilometers into the heart of the Russian territory. Which means there were no AWACS planes in that time and that area, and no other fighter jets or interceptors, capable to detect the low-flying threat. MiG-31’s weren’t patrolling the border, doing their primary job either.

I’m assuming those drones weren’t detected, because if they were, then there is a number of ways to intercept them. Ideally, by air-defence fighters. If for some unknown and unclear reason they weren’t able to intercept the targets, only then the point-defence systems like Pantsir should be used, as the last line of defence.

To summarize, what we have here is also the very serious failure of the Russian air-defence forces. Ideally, a large drone shouldn’t have been able to cross the conflict line. Or, at least, it should have been intercepted shortly after crossing the Russian (post 2014) borders. This is a responsibility of the Russian air force as well, since they are tasked with territorial air-defence of the Russian Federation. And again, until recently, the one heading those forces was no other than the ground-forces-general-made-air-force-commander general Surovikin.

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