So, admittedly, this article is getting way ahead of ourselves. The Ukrainian counteroffensive (presumably) hasn’t even started yet, and it’s not even clear that they will advance south toward the Sea of Azov and Crimea.
However, I keep seeing articles talking about how Crimea is impregnable. These pessimistic writers claim that even if Ukraine advances to the Sea of Azov this summer, Ukraine’s prospects beyond that are dim, and a long stalemate would await Ukraine.
I think that’s total nonsense, and that Crimea is vulnerable to interdiction. Interdiction means attacking the logistical supply routes into an area. The objective is to starve the enemy army of supplies, with the final aim being to force a retreat, a surrender, or to weaken the enemy against a direct assault.
The Battle of Kherson, where Ukraine used HIMARS to attack the bridges supplying the Russian Army and systematically destroyed its ammunition and fuel stocks was a classic battle of interdiction.
On the other hand, I do see the occasional opinion that seems overly optimistic about Crimea’s vulnerabilities in the DKos community that should be dispelled.
- Cutting off the water from the Dnipro won’t force a Russian retreat. The water from the Dnipro is desired by Russia to support Crimean agriculture and industry. Even without that water, Crimea was able to support nearly 2M residents from 2014-2022. Adding 50k~100k Russian mobiks won’t mean Crimea will start dying of thirst if the water is cut.
Water is an economic issue, not a survival issue. Cutting the water won’t get the Russians to retreat.
- Cutting the Kerch Bridge alone won’t completely shut off supplies to Crimea. Unlike Kherson, Crimea has numerous commercial ports outside the reach of Ukrainian HIMARS GMRLS rockets or artillery. It is far easier to navally supply Crimea than Kherson.
So I want to start with what most people should be able to agree upon: interdicting Crimea will be difficult, but not impossible. The question is, how feasible?
Writers like Ret. Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan of the Australian Army, and Ret. Lt. General Ben Hodges, former Commanding General US Army Europe have written about how Crimea is vulnerable to interdiction with varying degrees of specificity. They both agree that capturing Crimea would rely on principles of interdiction and that Crimea is particularly vulnerable to such attacks.
This series of QE articles will explore, how, specifically, Ukraine might attempt to interdict Crimea. What are the vulnerabilities of Crimean logistics? How would Ukraine go about recapturing the peninsula?
The starting point will be the minimum necessary logistical base for Ukraine: securing Tokmak, Melitopol, and all of Kherson Oblast north of Crimea first.
We’re using a major Ukrainian victory over the heavy Russian defenses as a starting point, but I don’t think this is an unrealistic result for a Ukrainian victory in the Spring/Summer counteroffensive.
Capturing this area will give Ukraine access to the two rail lines that run from Zaporizhzhia — Melitopol—Crimea, and the rail line leading from Kherson to Crimea as well. The rail bridge across the Dnipro that connects from Kherson is down, and the road bridges are out. However, if Ukraine could push the Russian forces from the other side of the river, a pontoon bridge could be constructed, and/or moveable bridge sections could be placed across the destroyed sections of the road bridged to allow Ukrainian trucks to begin crossing the river.
Having both rail lines open and operating to feed the Ukrainian forces fighting North of Crimea will be a must.
This will also secure an area from which Ukraine could operate its air forces, including the major airbase outside Melitopol.
So, to start our scenario, we have the Armed Forces of Ukraine fresh off a major victory over the Russian Army at Tokmak and Melitopol. The Ukrainian army used combined arms to breach the Russian defenses, surrounded Tokmak, cut off Melitopol’s lines of supply, then raced westward across the farmland and plains to capture or force the retreat of Russian forces deployed in the area.
Russian troops retreated down into Crimea and are now manning the defenses on the northern part of the peninsula.
The Russians have multiple layers of defense on the narrow entrance to Crimea, also known as the “neck” of Crimea. Russia will be able to concentrate large amounts of artillery on these narrow positions, making a direct frontal assault on this area quite hazardous.
The strength of this defensive position is what most analysts that claim Crimea is “impregnable” point to when they say Ukraine cannot militarily capture Crimea.
They are wrong.
To supply this area, Russia must rely on a series of logistical choke points that are vulnerable to Ukrainian attack. By attacking those logistical choke points, Ukraine can degrade Russian combat power until Russia’s ability to resist falters and Ukraine breaks through this defensive line.
The first step Ukraine should take? To destroy the Kerch Bridge.
The Kerch Bridge
The Kerch Bridge, also known as the Crimean Bridge, connects the Crimean Peninsula to mainland Russia.
The bridge is about 18km (11 mi) long and is composed of a rail bridge and a road bridge. The road bridge has 2 sections for each direction of traffic that share the same support structure.
On October 8, 2022, at 6:08 AM, a major explosion occurred on the road bridge, which coincided with a fuel-laden train traversing the rail bridge.
The explosion caused significant damage to one section of the road bridge and also caused the fuel-laden train to ignite. A major fire on the rail bridge caused structural damage to the rail bridge.
The cause of the explosion remains disputed. The Russian government identified a truck as having carried explosives onto the bridge and was detonated. It remains unclear if the driver was aware of the truck carrying explosives and was a suicide bomber, or if explosives were placed on the truck and detonated remotely without the driver’s knowledge.
However, the Russian narrative from its investigation was highly suspect. For example, the Russian investigators revealed that they supposedly have an x-ray of the truck that explodes in the surveillance footage as definitive proof of a suicide bomber, only for numerous people to immediately point out the xray footage of the truck had the wrong number of axles.
Some analysts dispute the Russian narrative entirely, arguing the explosion was caused by a remote-detonated suicide drone boat, for example.
Passenger traffic on the rail bridge resumed, but it remains unclear to what extent the rail bridge can support heavier cargo traffic.
Beyond the symbolic importance of the bridge as a physical manifestation of Putin’s claim over Crimea as part of Russia, the Kerch Bridge is militarily important. The rail line connecting Crimea to Russia runs through the Kerch Bridge. Russian logistics are highly reliant on rail transport; thus the importance of the Kerch Bridge can hardly be overstated.
In addition, there are five commercial ports in Crimea, noted with star icons.
Therefore, a major step towards interdicting Crimea could start with severing the Kerch Bridge. This need not be the first step. Destroying the rail hub at Dzhankoi and several rail bridges in central Crimea would also have powerful impacts, but the destruction of the Kerch Bridge would have both a psychological, symbolic, and logistical impact on the Russian defense of Crimea that cannot be underestimated.
Thus, for Part I, we will focus on how such an operation might be accomplished.
Russian air defenses to the Kerch Bridge are multilayered and feature several major components.
- Podsolnukh-E Mobile Radar Station for early detection
- 2-layer integrated Surface to Air (SAM) Missile batteries
- S-400 long-range SAM
- Pantsir-51 Short/Medium Range SAM
- Possible Buk Medium Range SAM
- Regular Combat Air Patrols (CAP) by Su-27 fighters
- Black Sea Fleet Missile Frigates (potential)
The Podsolnukh-E Mobile Radar Station is a truck-mounted radar that represents Russia’s most advanced radar detection system. it has over-the-horizon detection capabilities, allowing it to theoretically detect even low-flying aircraft at 100km+. They provide early warning detection to alert air defenses of incoming attacking aircraft or missiles.
Russia does not have many of these highly advanced radar systems, but they have announced that one is deployed in Crimea in defense of the Kerch Bridge.
Identifying and destroying this advanced radar station should be a high priority for Ukraine, as most other Russian radar systems struggle to detect low-flying Ukrainian aircraft beyond a range of about 40km. Luckily, Russian industry struggles to replicate many of the imported electronic components on the Podsolnukh-E, so if Ukraine can destroy the one deployed in Crimea, Russia is likely to struggle to replace it in any timely manner.
Russia also deploys a multi-tiered SAM battery approach with short, medium, and long engagement ranges. Pantsir-51 missile systems for short/medium range engagements (below 20km), and S-400 Missile Systems (250km+) to hit longer distance targets.
Russian MoD has not noted the presence of a Buk Missile Battery as part of Kerch defenses, but a Buk System, as the mid-range defense tier weapon (below 85km) seems likely. The Buk System can detect low-flying enemy aircraft at about 30-35km.
The Early Warning Radar will designate targets of priority for each Pansir System and coordinate the efforts of the battery, although Russian surface forces cannot coordinate their responses with airborne assets like Mig-31s or other CAP fighters.
Finally, Su-27s fly CAP regularly over the Kerch Bridge area, and although the Black Sea Fleet is presently not deployed in the Sea of Azov, Russia deploying missile frigates in the Sea of Azov would make any aerial assault on the Kerch Bridge extremely difficult.
Russian Air Force CAP patrols generally include 2-6 fighters supported by A-50 Mainstay early warning radar aircraft. The A-50 Mainstay has an advanced radar array that permits it to operate far from the battlefield and scan for enemy air targets even at low altitudes of 300km+.
Early warning radar systems are not integrated into Russian targeting abilities, thus can provide target information and warnings to fighter aircraft and coordinate a response. However, they cannot serve to provide a radar lock to allow Russian fighters to fire missiles at targets—it is a tactical coordination tool and not a targeting tool. However, such early warning systems make it very difficult for Ukrainian fighters to surprise Russian targets.
Lastly, another concern would be the Mig 31 Foxhounds based at the Belbek Airbase outside Sevastopol in southwestern Crimea. The Mig 31s have advanced radar lock capabilities that permit them to lock onto Ukrainian low-flying aircraft from over 200km away and sport the R-37M air-to-air missile with a 200km range.
Due to their extreme range, the Mig-31s can fire on Ukrainian aircraft from beyond the visual horizon. Ukraine does not have any similar “standoff” (extreme range) air-to-air missile capabilities.
However, due to the curvature of the earth, to obtain radar lock against low-flying targets at extreme ranges, Mig-31s must maintain a high altitude. Low-altitude radar-evading aircraft can only detect enemy low-flying aircraft at around 40km.
Ukraine’s Offensive Weapons
To attack this layered defense system, Ukraine can use
- HIMARS MLRS System
- GLSDB (Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs)
- Aircraft deployed munitions
- JDAM GPS bombs
- Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles
- HARM Missiles
- Neptune/Harpoon Antiship missiles
- Patriot SAM batteries
- ADM 160B MALD Decoy Missiles
Firstly, it should be noted that it is only a bit more than 145km from the northern coast of the Sea of Azov to the Kerch Bridge.
This range is significant because the operation range of the GLSDB (Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb) is listed as 150km. Production is expected to ramp up with deliveries expected to start in September 2023.
Once in Ukrainian hands, the GLSDB could prove to be a crucial tool in a Crimean Campaign. Not only would the GLSDB have the Kerch Bridge within range, but it would also bring much of Crimea into range, including the Belbek Airbase in northern Sevastopol.
The GLSDB is not particularly well suited for destroying large-scale infrastructure, like bridges. The GLSDB warhead is weaker than the HIMARS GMLRS missile. The GMLRS missile was able to degrade the road surface of the Antonivka Bridge across the Dnipro River to Kherson, but Ukrainian HIMARS batteries fired repeatedly at the bridge from July 17 to late August before finally permanently taking the road bridge out of action.
GLSDBs are, fortunately, very inexpensive at only $25,000 a unit (compared to $125,000+ for a GMLRS missile, or $2.5M for a Storm Shadow Missile). However, it’s not clear how many units per month will be produced, and it’s unlikely to be more than 100~200 units per month if that.
Ukraine could repeatedly hit the rail or road bridge to create enough surface damage to make usage of the bridge difficult, but it could take a huge number of hits to cause sufficient damage.
The GLSDB should, however, be a grave threat to the Belbek Airbase. The aircraft hangar, repair facilities, fuel storage, and radar/communications facilities: all are prime GLSDB targets. Using these weapons, Ukraine should be able to drive the Russian air force out of operating from Belbek. Russia will likely rebase within Russia to operate close enough to support the Kerch Bridge with Mig-31s, but given the Mig-31’s short flight time (just 2 hours) forcing the Mig-31s to operate from any further distance will be a win for Ukraine.
A better weapon for taking out the Kerch Bridge is the JDAM bomb, particularly, the most powerful Mark 84 925kg bomb.
GPS-guided glide bombs come in numerous sizes, but Ukrainian Mig-29s’ and Su-25s’ weapon hardpoints max out at 500kg, thus cannot deploy the most powerful 925kg weapons. However, Ukraine also has Su-27 Flanker and Su-24 Fencer fighter-bombers that can carry up to multiple 1500kg bombs, thus can easily accommodate the 925kg JDAM. Both are capable of accommodating 4 925kg JDAMs.
These bombs can be deployed from 44~50km away from the target with a high degree of precision. The Su-27 has a weapon-carrying capacity of 4400kg, so in theory the Su-27 could carry four Mark 84 925kg bombs, 2 under each wing. Ukraine is believed to have at least 50 operational Su-27s as of February 2023, and no major losses were reported since.
The Mark 84 bomb is a terrifically powerful weapon capable of penetrating 11 feet of solid concrete. Just a single bomb landing a strike can likely knock the Kerch Bridge out of commission.
However, releasing the weapon likely would require the delivering aircraft to approach around 40km of the target.
By contrast, the Storm Shadow cruise missile can be fired from far greater distances.
The Storm Shadow missiles are too heavy to be carried by Mig-29/Su-25s so again, they will rely on the larger Su-27 or Su-24 as a launch platform.
With a precision strike range of 300km+, the Storm Shadows can be easily fired from a safe distance. But with only a Mach 0.8 speed (about the same as a tomahawk cruise missile), the Storm Shadow relies on its small radar cross section and low altitude cruise capability to avoid enemy detection to strike.
Each of the remaining weapons in this list would not directly strike at the bridge but serve to strip away layers of defenses by destroying or fooling them.
Another long-distance strike weapon is the AGM-88 HARM missile.
With a 150km range, it can also be fired from a low altitude, well beyond the radar detection range for any realistic Russian threat.
The AGM-88 HARM doesn’t rely on a radar lock or infrared homing abilities like most other missiles. It detects certain types of electromagnetic radiation to locate a target and hit it. For example, most commonly, it can be programmed to seek out SAM battery radar signatures, but it can also target GPS jamming signals, Radar jamming signals, and numerous other types of electromagnetic radiation.
They fly at Mach 2.9 and thus are extremely difficult to intercept as well. Although the Russian Ministry of Defense regularly claims to shoot down HARM missiles, it is unclear if they have the capability of intercepting hypersonic missiles with any consistency (Ukrainian pilots claim the HARM missiles are devastatingly effective).
Its most classical role is to strike at enemy Radar installations and SAM batteries.
The R-360 Neptune and RGM-84 Harpoon antiship missiles could keep the Sea of Azov clear of enemy surface ships.
Ukraine received at least 2 RGM-84 Harpoon launchers from Denmark during the summer of 2022. The Harpoon has a ground-launched range of 250km, and the Ukrainian Neptune missile has an even longer range of 300km.
The Sea of Azov is only 150~170km in width, making the operation of any Russian naval vessels extremely hazardous in this compact battle space.
I have not seen many reports of Russian naval vessels operating out of the Sea of Azov, but to attack Kerch, denial of Russian naval vessels of the use of this area is critical. Missile frigates bristling with anti-aircraft missiles and advanced radar in the Sea of Azov would make any aerial mission far too risky.
Luckily, Russian missile frigates are neither stealthy nor fast relative to aircraft. If the ship is positioned on the other side of Crimea in the Black Sea, the landmass of Crimea will block the ship’s radar against low-flying aircraft and it will have difficulty achieving radar locks.
Thus area denial across the Sea of Azov to Russian naval vessels will be of key importance, and timing should ensure they have a minimal impact on the defense of Kerch.
Ukraine now has 4 Patriot SAM batteries operational (1 USA, 2 Netherlands, 1 Germany).
Though they take 30-40 minutes to deploy, and 20-30 minutes to pack up, Patriot Batteries are more like shoot-and-scoot weapons. A shoot-and-scoot weapon deploys fires several times, then moves before a counterattack can overwhelm their position.
If Russia was aware of the location of a $1B Patriot battery, it would make a prime target for a wave of cruise missile strikes to overwhelm the Patriot battery’s defenses. Luckily, Russia’s aerial kill chain (identification of target — position units needed for attack — attack reaches target & destroys it) often takes hours or even days, giving Patriot Batteries plenty of time to work when they get set up.
Even if the Russian air force gets a shot set up, such as when they tried to target a Patriot Battery with a single hypersonic missile, the Patriot Battery’s formidable anti-missile capabilities can intercept and defend.
Short/Medium range advanced Western anti-aircraft systems like the NASAMS or IRIS-T system and anti-drone systems will be needed to help protect the batteries against suicide drone attacks.
The Patriot has a listed range of 160km, but the longest recorded PAK2 interception was 170km, thus its range may somewhat exceed what has been publicly revealed. Older models could only detect an aircraft-sized object up to 80-100km, but the most advanced systems like the AN/MPQ-65 radar offer detection ranges publicly noted to be around 170km, possibly as much as 250km.
It’s presently unknown what radar array has been given to Ukraine.
If Ukraine has even one of the most advanced radar system, Patriot batteries popping up along the north coast of the Sea of Azov could make high-altitude operations hazardous almost over the entire Sea of Azov and much of Crimea.
This doesn’t mean the Patriot can detect and shoot down any aircraft in this circle. Due to the curvature of the earth, the radar detection range for low-flying aircraft would be much, much lower. More like 40km. Also, the smaller the radar cross-section of an aircraft, the harder it is to detect—physically smaller aircraft (like drones) or high-tech weapons like stealth aircraft present grave challenges.
Fortunately, Russia does not have any deployable stealth fighters or bombers, meaning it can send drones, or fly low within this radius. Flying low then reduces the fighter’s radar detection range, making it harder for it to see or engage targets beyond 30-40km, reducing its effectiveness.
You can see how a single Patriot battery could have a vast impact on Russian CAP operations in the Crimean region.
Finally, we recently found out that Ukraine has received the ADM-160B MALD (Miniature Air Launched Decoy) missile.
The MALD missile is a decoy missile that can replicate the radar and electronic signature of numerous other aircraft and fool the enemy into believing it represents a grave threat. Flying around Mach 1, the MALD is programmable and maneuverable, capable of flying a pre-set flight path that can replicate the movements of a real aircraft, including increasing altitude, turning, and even flying circles above a target.
The MALD serves several purposes. First, if Russia commits an anti-aircraft missile to shoot down the MALD, it’s great. The MALD costs only $150~$250k, while most Russian anti-aircraft missiles cost $ 1M~$4M.
Second, obviously, by attracting the air defense attacks of Russian SAM batteries and interceptors, the MALD protects real air assets from interception.
Third, the MALD serves to help overwhelm and paralyze the process of “threat assessment.” Threat assessment is the process by which defensive teams of SAM batteries and aircraft coordinate and assess what threat is most dangerous and must be prioritized for interception.
For example, a GLSDB, while dangerous, isn’t that threatening to a bridge—it might cause minor damage, but it won’t singlehandedly bring it down. A 2000lb JDAM bomb is far more threatening. A single bomb getting through and landing may be enough to bring the whole bridge down, as would a Storm Shadow cruise missile.
However, the most dangerous thing that can appear on radar is a warplane. A single Mig-29 or Su-24 might be carrying multiple missiles or bombs capable of destroying the bridge, thus bringing them down will be the highest priority in most cases.
Thus, the MALD can distort and confuse enemy threat assessments, as multiple decoy signatures of highly dangerous aircraft popping up on radar could push enemy anti-air assets to focus their efforts on non-existent threats—permitting the real threats to go through. This problem will be all the greater if there is poor coordination and training—if SAM batteries and interceptors target the same threats and overcommit to interception, the problem is doubled if they are targeting a fake threat.
A hypothetical operation
We will begin with the assumption that
- Ukrainian Harpoon/Neptune batteries are denying access to the Sea of Azov to the Russian Navy.
- Patriot batteries deny any high-altitude interceptors from flying above the Kerch Strait.
There are two possible approaches to an operation aimed at taking down the bridge. An attritional operation that unfolds over weeks of repeated attacks, whittling down the enemy defenses. Or a decisive strike operation that commits maximal operational resources to a higher-risk strike aimed at bringing down the bridge.
I favor the latter.
An attritional operation might work something like this
- Ukraine fires a wave of GLSDBs at the Kerch Bridge.
- Ukraine waits for Russian anti-air asset radars to light up.
- Ukraine uses long-range HARM missiles to strike enemy SAM assets
- Repeat until the defense is degraded and the hit rate of GLSDB goes up to a point where a decisive strike is more likely to work.
Because the HARM missiles have a range of 150km, Ukrainian pilots can deploy the HARM missiles from well within their friendly air defense umbrella—i.e. from safety.
HARM missiles can strike targets with active radar signatures, thus to defend against a GSLDB attack, Russian air defense will need to activate their radar—opening themselves up to an attack by HARM.
Thus repeated small waves of GLSDB attacks would represent a low-cost way for Ukraine to attrit Russian SAM assets.
My objection to this approach is
- There are more favorable locations where Russian air defenses can be attritted
- You abandon any possibility of achieving shock or surprise.
- You give time for Russia to expand its defenses of the Kerch Bridge
In particular, Kerch being nearly 150km away, there are only a small number of weapons that can strike this location. Firing HARM missiles from near max range gives the Russian air defense the best chance to have time to relocate or turn off their radars and active radar-emitting dummies to fool the HARM missiles.
Essentially, you would be trying to whittle down Russian air defenses at a location that is least favorable to yourself, while most favorable to the enemy given the weapons and defenses available—this makes little sense.
You could do a similar tactic at, say, Dzhankoi rail facilities that are only 50-60km from the front, where GLSDBs would still require interception—yet HARM missiles could be fired at targets from far closer, giving enemy batteries dramatically less time to prepare countermeasures.
Russian defenses will be on high alert after numerous strikes, and shocking the defenders will be quite difficult after numerous prior small-scale strikes.
And Russia may move to strengthen its defensive posture with more CAP commitments, more air defense assets.
Therefore, I propose that the ideal tactic is one decisive strike to take down the bridge with no lead-up attacks.
For the assets to be used for the strike, there will be 4 attacking elements that must operate in cooperation.
- MLRS Team
- x4 M270 ground-based team firing GLSDBs
- Standoff Team
- x2 Su-27s equipped with 2 Storm Shadow cruise missiles, 2 HARM missiles, 3 MALDs each
- x2 Su-24s equipped with 1 Storm Shadow cruise missile, 3 HARM missiles, 3 MALD each
- Interceptor Team
- x3 Mig-29s equipped with 2 HARM missiles and a full complement of R-27 air-to-air missiles
- Strike Team
- x3 Su-27s equipped with x4 Mark 84 925kg JDAMs each
Total: Su-27 x5, Mig-29 x3, Su-24 x2, M270 x5
Expected Ammunition Expenditure: 48 GLSDBs, 6 Storm Shadows, 16 HARM missiles, 12 MALDs, 12 Mark 84 JDAMS.
These are well within known Ukraine force availabilities.
The objective of the attack is to put so many threats in the air at once that overwhelm Russian air defense threat assessments, causing them to make mistakes and permit a successful strike on the Kerch bridge, and to deter Russian CAP from engaging due to the perception of being outnumbered.
GLSDBs fly at subsonic speeds of around Mach 0.7 (864 km), so fired from near the max range of 145km, it would take approximately 10 minutes to arrive on target. An already loaded M270 can fire a rocket approximately every 5 seconds and can load 12 GLSDBs. In one minute, the 4 M270s can put 48 GLSDBs in the air.
The MLRS Team will begin firing at T+00:00:00. The waves of GLSDBs will reach Kerch Bridge at around T+00:10:03.
Sometime before launching the GLSDBs, the Standoff Team will launch six MALDs programmed to replicate Su-27s, and six to represent Mig-29s. These will swoop down to around 100m altitude, simulating a low altitude attack, but slightly higher than the real standoff team to make them more detectable to Radar. The MALDs have an operation distance of nearly 600km, thus they can loiter for a time before going on the “attack run” allowing the Standoff team to get in an ideal striking position.
The MALDs will maintain around Mach 0.8 and will begin flying towards the target around T+00:01:17. This will put the MALDs at approximately the same “wave” as the Strike Team but a few seconds ahead and would reach the Kerch bridge around the same time as the leading JDAMs.
The Standoff team will maintain a low altitude to avoid radar detection, as they will be close enough to Crimean front-line Russian anti-air assets, but so long as they maintain a reasonably low altitude, they should be extremely safe.
The Standoff team will fire all six Storm Shadow Missiles (three at the rail bridge, three at the road bridge) at T+00:01:20 or thereabouts from 150km. At low altitudes, the Storm Shadows travel at about Mach 0.8, just slightly faster than the GLSDBs. This should have the cruise missiles hitting the bridge at about the same time.
The Strike Team will fly as low as possible (preferably around 30-40m) making them less detectable than the MALDs or GLSDBs. At low altitudes and heavily laden by heavy bombs, the Su-24 can only maintain around Mach 0.7 and thus would fly at a fairly similar speed to the GLSDBs.
The Strike Team will begin its attack at T+00:01:00 placing it just behind the wave of GLSDBs. The Strike Team will approach the drop point (40km from the Kerch Bridge), and about 30 seconds before that point, it will engage its afterburners and begin a 45-degree ascent, then release the JDAMs, before turning sharply away.
JDAM release should occur at around T+00:08:00, with the bombs reaching the target at around T+00:10:05.
The Interceptor team will also fly low, and proceed behind the Strike Team by 15-20km. Their goal will be to identify and engage any low-altitude interceptors that may try to engage the Su-24s and pursue them. Should such low-altitude interceptors give pursuit, the interceptor team will fire air-to-air missiles at them to force them into evasive maneuvers to delay their pursuit, then turn and attempt to disengage.
The interception team should fly higher (perhaps 60m) than the Strike Team, but lower than the decoys to try to attract any long-range air-to-air missiles from Mig-31s, The evasive maneuvers necessary to avoid such an attack would disrupt the strike team, so to the extent possible, the decoys and the interception team should try to be targeted instead.
The first wave of GLSDBs will reach around the 50km mark from the target at around T+00:06:30. Russian early warning Radar will have presumably detected the incoming GSLDBs and aircraft and provided a warning to air defense batteries. Presumably, Russian SAM batteries will first detect the incoming GLSDBs, activating their radars in preparation.
HARM missiles fly at Mach 2.9, thus fired at 150km range can hit their targets in 2min 30seconds. Thus, the Standoff Team a wave of 2 HARM missiles can be fired at the Kerch Bridge direction starting at T+00:04:00 (Striking 00:06:30), then a new wave of 6 missiles at T+00:06:15 (striking 00:07:45) and 4 at T+00:07:00 (striking at 00:09:30).
The interception team fires all 6 HARM missiles at T+00:08:30 from about 50km from Kerch, reaching the targets by T+00:09:15)
The first wave of HARM missiles will reach the area around Kerch about a minute after the GLSDBs become visible on Radar.
The second wave of HARM missiles will strike 30 seconds before the Strike Team releases its JDAMs, as it begins its ascent making it more visible to radar.
The third wave of four HARM missiles will strike 30 seconds before the impact of all the munitions; the interceptors' six HARM missiles will reach Kerch around the same time.
Each wave of HARM missiles is designed both to destroy enemy anti-air assets and alternatively to frighten anti-air batteries into turning off their radar, rendering them powerless.
The MALDs will serve two purposes.
First, the MALDs will be detected by enemy radar (since they are flying higher), although they will only be detected around the 40-50km range from Kerch. The goal is to draw enemy SAM fire towards them, and away from the JDAMs or Storm Shadow missiles.
Second, the MALDs are designed to deter any Russian CAP from intercepting the strike team. Ukrainian pilots have noted that Russian pilots are reluctant to engage aggressively with Ukrainian pilots without the force of numbers. If the Russian CAP believe they are facing 9 Su-24s and 9 Mig-29s (instead of three of each), they will tend to decline engagement at all or rely only on long-range standoff weapons.
As the dummy planes will be visible to Russian CAP for some time before the real planes, they are more likely to draw fire from long-range engagement weapons as well.
The sequence of weapons strikes will be as follows
- First Standoff HARM strike 00:06:30
- Second Standoff HARM strike 00:07:45
- Strike Teams releases JDAMS 00:08:00
- Interceptor HARM strike 00:09:15
- Third Standoff HARM strike 00:10:00
- GSLDB x4 1st wave 00:10:04
- Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles x6 @ 00:10:05
- JDAMs x12 @ 00:10:05
- 2nd wave GLDBs: 10:09
- 3rd Wave GLSDBs:10:14
- 4th Wave GLSDBs: 10:19
- 5th Wave: GLSDBs: 10:24
- (and so on every 5 seconds to wave 12 at 11:04)
From the perspective of a short-range SAM Russian Pantsir-51 radar operator’s perspective, here is how the attack will unfold.
Around T00:00:30 or so, an alert will occur from Russian early warning radar, stating 48 small missiles are in the air at high altitude flying at Mach 0.7 towards Kerch, in addition to 18 aircraft, nine Su-27s, and nine Mig-29s. You can’t see anything on the radar yet.
S-400 missile system and Buk Systems may turn their systems on and begin to attempt to gain a radar lock as they approach within 80km range, but they will detect incoming 2 HARM missiles that strike around 6 minutes after the warning. They will also likely detect 6 incoming HARM missiles to strike a bit more than a minute later.
The Strike Team will be flying below radar detection until right before they release the JDAMs, which will coincide with the arrival of the 2nd wave of HARM missiles. The Strike Team would turn away well before they come in the 20km range of the Pantsir systems, but may be fired upon by Buk or S400 systems—but that would require them to brave potential strikes by the HARM missiles.
The Pantsir systems operators may get 3-4 minutes of warning from early warning systems that cruise missiles are also incoming, but they will only actually see the cruise missiles on their radar for around seconds before impact.
For example, if the low-flying cruise missile is detected at 20km, the missile flying at Mach 0.8 will cover the remaining 20km in just 73 seconds. If radar fails to catch the missile until it hits the 10km mark, they would be left with just 36 seconds to attempt to intercept it.
It gives you an idea of how small the margins of error are for SAM missile operators attempting to intercept ground-skimming low radar profile missiles.
The radar operators will be forced to contend with as many as 93 different tracked targets (18 approaching aircraft, 48 GLSDB, six Storm Shadow, 12 JDAM, 6-9 HARM missiles) appearing on their radar displays at different times, some only within seconds of impact.
The MALD decoy aircraft will look like a highly threatening low-flying aircraft swooping in for a kill which will receive a high degree of attention and will appear first on SAM radar displays among the dozens of tracked targets.
Part of the goal of the operation is to get two or more JDAM/Storm Shadow hits on each bridge structure. The road bridge and the Rail Bridge can be targeted by 3 cruise missiles and 6 bombs.
The 48 GMLRS serves a dual purpose: first, to clutter the air with numerous threats that can confuse radar operators and disrupt target assignment. And to the extent that the munitions hit their target, with 24 being directed at each bridge, they may cause some substantial damage on their own.
The 12 decoy MALDs help to attract high-value anti-air assets, increase the probability of the key munitions getting through and improve survivability for the Strike Team and the Interceptor Team.
As the potential targets come swooping in, the Pantsir, Buk, and S-400 operators will have to attempt to coordinate and focus their firepower on the gravest threats and may have to alter their threat assessments and assigned targets in the final 30 seconds as new threats (like the Storm Shadow Missiles) suddenly get detected on radar.
If any of the air defense systems are intimidated into not activating due to repeated HARM missile strikes, that may create fatal holes in the air defense network that permit JDAMs or Storm Shadows to slip through.
If even 25% of the main attack makes it through Russian air defenses, you would expect to score two major hits on each bridge—causing major damage, if not outright destroying the bridge.