The Last Moments of A Russian Helicopter Are Illustrative
This screencap shows the last moments of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter and its crew. Some 8 months into the war, pictures like these are all too familiar, a lone Russian helicopter flying low over the trees gets deleted by a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile and crashes to the ground in a fireball.
So far, Russia has lost over 200 helicopters according to conservative estimates, almost all of them in the circumstance you see above, shot down by fire from the ground at low altitude. And these seem destined to lose in even most in the coming months.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this picture does speak to us, but I’ll try to keep it well under a thousand words.
The picture does tell us that the average Russian is capable of incredible bravery to the point of being suicidal and foolhardy. It’s not as if the threat posed by MANPAD missiles is new, the Russians have seen scores of helicopters brought down by these missiles and every single Russian pilot sent aloft in a helicopter must know that there is a Stinger missile out there with his name written on it in Cyrillic letters and coming with express delivery. Yet they still go up anyway.
It’s pretty amazing.
The picture also tells us that the Russia air force in incapable of learning from its mistakes. Missiles like the Stinger can be effectively countered by unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with laser jammers and ground-based systems that use microwaves and high-energy lasers to deflect or destroy an inbound missile. Helicopters can also employ flares to decoy missiles like the Stinger that home on the heat of the helicopter’s engine exhaust.
They could also send out more than one helicopter at a time. If a squad of Ukrainian troops have two Stingers and they encounter a flight of four helicopters comprised of two Mi-8s and two Ka-52 Aligator attack helicopters, the shoot/don’t shoot equation changes a bit. If the Ukrainians do manage to hit two of the helicopters they will be leaving a smoke trail from those missiles right back to their position that the other two helicopters can use to hose them down with rocket and cannon fire.
That would probably be enough to dissuade the Ukrainian troops from popping their two Stingers.
It would seem the Russians are stubbornly incapable of learning anything useful from their bad tactical decisions and keep sending out individual helicopters to get wrecked by MANPADS. The Ukrainians are fortunate that the Russian air force they are fighting is so stubborn about doing wrong things over and over.
Russia’s Missile Problems Shows it Has “Clay Feet”
I worked as a source with Newsweek yesterday on a story they are working on regarding the availability and cost of Russian cruise missiles recently expended on Ukrainian cities.
As I told Newsweek, Ukraine estimates that Russia began the conflict with about 1850 cruise missiles of all types, including 900 Iskanders, 500 sea-launched Kalibres, and a similar number of the air-launched Kh-101/555 version. This inventory has been depleted to about 620 of all types. Most have been expended, but some have also been destroyed by Ukrainian attacks behind the lines inside Russia itself.
Western sanctions have bitten hard into Russia’s ability to obtain the microprocessors and memory chips they need to build replacements. Prior to the war, Russia got most of its chips from Germany, followed by China, the US, and Hong Kong. By far the largest supplier was Germany which supplied as much as China, the US, and Hong Kong combined.
I know, Germany again.
These chipsets are not specifically made for military applications but are soldered onto motherboards for the guidance systems of these missiles, but they can also be found in smart TVs and computers sold to consumers as well.
These cruise missiles are part of a complex and irreducible supply chain, cut off any individual part among hundreds and your missile won’t fly anymore.
Russia has lost Germany, the US, and perhaps Hong Kong as chip suppliers because of sanctions. China is still supplying chips, but I doubt that China can make the quantity or quality that Russia needs for its missiles, or it would already be buying them from China.
Russia is using these missiles on civilian targets for several reasons. First, they think they can break the will of the Ukrainian people by terrorizing their population with attacks on civilians and infrastructure. That is a lot harder to do than the Russians realize. During WWII, the allies bombed numerous German and Japanese cities to absolute rubble, and still, they fought on. It should also be remembered that both these countries knew they were losing the war as well. By contrast, Ukraine is winning, has the initiative and the momentum and it has supportive friends and allies backing them. Their morale appears to be very high.
The 50 missiles Russia recently launched at targets in Ukraine were spread among several cities and key points of infrastructure, Ukraine is claiming they shot down 44 of the 50 in the air. That may seem like a lot, but it should be remembered that in 2017, the US Navy lobbed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from two guided missile destroyers at just one air base in Shayrat Syria. The US Navy has about 4,000 Tomahawks in inventory and its ships have an onboard capacity of 10,000 ship-launched missiles. If the US ramped up production of Tomahawks it would have plenty of ships and submarines to fire them. The Air Force has about 900 of its own with a mix of conventional and nuclear warheads on them.
These Russian attacks are more harassment than a massive and sustained bombardment of Ukrainian cities designed to break their will to resist. Given the number shot down in flight, the attack was a dismal failure.
The second reason is that Russia finds it easier to hit undefended civilian targets than legitimate military ones. We have seen numerous reports that Russia has a long “Kill Chain” when it comes to bringing missiles or artillery down on a target. For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Kill Chain” it refers to a military’s ability to identify a target, allocate forces to attack it, initiate the attack and finally destroy the target. The faster you can do that in modern war, the better your chances of killing the enemy. Russia has a rather ponderous system that breaks down on the allocation of forces and initiation of the attack. It can take hours for a commander to approve an artillery strike on a target with missiles or cannon fire. By that time the target is well gone. In the US military, an NCO can bring a fire mission down on a target in minutes, in the Russian army it has to wind its way up a chain of command to a Lt Colonel and then back down to the rocket or artillery unit before a single round is fired. Cities, powerplants, and other civilian targets aren’t going anywhere which is why the Russians prefer to attack them instead of moving military targets.
To try and solve its problems with a shortage of missiles, Russia is turning to Iran. Both are denying at the moment, the Russians out of pride and Iran out of a desire to preserve some chance of renewing the failed Nuclear Deal with the Biden administration which seems almost willing to look the other way. Iran makes its own copies of the Iskandr and Kalibre cruise missiles.
In 2015 Iran revealed a new cruise missile they called the “Soumar” which is believed to have been reverse-engineered from the K-55 type missiles they obtained in 2001, from Ukraine believe it or not. After the USSR collapsed, Ukraine had several hundred Iskandr and Kalibre missiles in its territory that belonged to Soviet Russia. In a deal, they “sold” them back to the new Russian Federation but sold 12 of them to Iran in an illegal back door deal. Iran then reverse-engineered the missiles for their own uses.
Russia getting missiles from Iran is probably a combination of Moscow wanting to preserve some kind of reserve among its own missile inventory and the inability to organically produce its own replacements.