aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
- Last weekend, an apparent drone strike destroyed a prized Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber.
- The attack occurred far from the front lines of the war and may have been launched from inside Russia.
- It’s the latest incident showing Russia can’t protect its critical bases or vital aviation assets.
A prized supersonic Russian bomber sitting inside Russian territory far from the fighting in Ukraine was destroyed in a drone strike over the weekend, marking the latest in a string of attacks Russia apparently didn’t see coming.
The strike on a vulnerable Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber is part of a growing list of Russian failures to protect its critical bases and vital aerial assets. Whether it be the consequence of negligence, a lack of force protection capabilities, or an apprehension to adaptation, Russia has continued to let important bomber bases take hits.
The British defense ministry reported in an intelligence update that a Tu-22M3, a supersonic long-range aircraft known for its anti-ship capabilities and urban bombing runs against cities such as Mariupol in April 2022, was attacked and destroyed while located at an airbase south of St. Petersburg in eastern Russia. The Russian Defense Ministry pinned the hit on a copter-style uncrewed aerial vehicle.
Photos shared online show the bomber in flames while positioned outside on a runway with no apparent cover or protection.
—NEXTA (@nexta_tv) August 20, 2023
The UK defense ministry said “this is at least the third successful attack on [Long Range Aviation] LRA airfields, again raising questions about Russia’s ability to protect strategic locations deep inside the country.”
In previous incidents in December 2022, two UAV attacks on the same day hit two air bases — Engels-2 in Saratov and the Dyagilevo air base in Ryazan — deep inside Russian territory housing strategic bombers. British defense intelligence said at that time that the attacks likely represented the “most strategically significant” force protection failure of the war. In those incidents, the drones were reportedly launched from Ukrainian territory.
The most recent attack is “embarrassing, since the strategic bombers were not in any type of shelter or cover,” said Samuel Bendett, a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russia Studies Program. He noted that protective practices should have become standard after the earlier incidents, but clearly any lessons learned from previous strikes on Russian airbases weren’t spread across the defense system.
All of the attacks have been on Long-Range Aviation bases, installations under the Russian Aerospace Forces that focus on long-range aircraft, nuclear capabilities, and strategic bombers, such as the Tu-22M3. These assets are essential not just for Russia’s fight in Ukraine, allowing Moscow to threaten both Ukrainian military infrastructure and cities, but they’re also key should Russia find itself conflict with NATO.
The Tupelov Tu-22M supersonic bomber can carry up to three Kh-22 missiles, an anti-ship weapon that Russia has been using against Ukraine’s urban areas.
Russian Defence Ministry/Getty Images
While the type of drone used to take out the Tu-22M3 is unclear, Bendett told Insider it could have been a smaller first-person view type of drone with a rocket-propelled grenade warhead, a smaller quadcopter that could carry several small grenades, or even a small aircraft-type UAV with a limited range, all of which are quite cheap compared to the valuable target they hit.
Additional questions are where the UAV hit the aircraft and whether smaller accompanying drones “may have attacked something stacked next to the aircraft instead like munitions, missiles, or even fuel,” he added.
The site of the latest attack, the Soltsky-2 air base in Novgorod Oblast, is nearly 400 miles from Russia’s border with Ukraine. It is unlikely that smaller drones of the type Bendett suspects may have been involved would have the range to reach that location from Ukraine, suggesting it was launched within Russia. If that’s the case, it may speak to both Ukraine’s expanding ability to threaten domestic Russian air bases and Russia’s inability to protect them.
Bases aren’t the only areas and assets Russia has left inadequately defended. Drone strikes in Moscow and the Black Sea — which have increased in frequency and damage done in recent weeks — have raised at times questions about Russian competence and the consequences of complacency.
A Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-22M3 military aircrafts fly over the Kremlin and Red Square in downtown Moscow to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, May 9, 2020.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
More than whether or not last weekend’s attack indicates a growing Ukrainian ability to strike beyond its territory, the Tu-22M3 being destroyed is another glaring failure on Russia’s part to protect its LRA air bases. It’s been roughly nine months since the December attacks, and another strike points to limited change in force protection for these bombers, which could be as simple as keeping them in hangars or beefing up base security.
A common Russian response is just to move them to different locations. On August 19, Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Gerashchenko posted that surviving aircraft from the recent hit would reportedly be moved to the Olenya airfield in the Murmansk region, a northwestern area close to Finland.
—Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) August 19, 2023
Russia’s complacency — and apparent lack of realization that their assets can be targeted in this war — have been shown time and time again.
In recent weeks, Russian service members have been killed standing in vulnerable positions where Ukraine’s US-provided High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems could easily hit them. And the way a drone boat attack against a Russian warship played out in the Black Sea indicated Russian forces had little to no idea an attack was imminent — or hadn’t even considered they were at risk.
In the aftermath of the Tu-22M3 attack, there’s a question of how Russia might adapt. But given its previous track record in the war, that’s shaping up to be more of an “if.”