Russia’s Old Bombs Elude Ukraine’s Modern Defenses
KHERSON, Ukraine — Maryna Ivanova, a young woman living in a riverside village in southern Ukraine, had an uneasy feeling when her fiancé and brother left for work one morning in early May. They were headed to a nearby island in the Dnieper River, the watery front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and the area was getting heavily shelled.
Standing at her stove, making pork and potato soup, Ivanova heard — and felt — an enormous blast, much more frightening, she said, than the explosions that have become routine.
“It felt like something was dropped right on us,” she said.
A few minutes later, she heard shouting outside and ran down to the dock. A boat pulled up. Inside lay her brother, soaked in blood. Slumped next to him was her fiancé with part of his face blown off. Both were dead.
She fell to her knees.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she said.
The strike was not a mortar, a tank round or a projectile fired by long-range artillery, according to Ukrainian officials who investigated the incident. It was, they said, an 1,100-pound modified bomb dropped from a distant Russian warplane, the latest destructive twist in a war that is intensifying.
As Kyiv gears up for a much-anticipated counteroffensive, Ukrainian officials, independent analysts and U.S. military officials say the Russians are increasing their use of Soviet-era bombs. Although they have limitations, the weapons, they said, are proving harder to shoot down than the fastest, most modern missiles that the Ukrainians have become adept at intercepting.
Much of this war is being fought with long-range munitions, from artillery shells to ballistic missiles. In the past few weeks, the Russians have launched wave after wave of missiles and exploding drones at Ukrainian cities, and Ukraine has shot down just about all of them.
But the aircraft bombs are different. They don’t have propulsion systems like cruise missiles or stay in the air nearly as long as drones. The bombs are aloft for only 70 seconds or less and are much more difficult for Ukraine’s air defenses to track. They are little dots on radar screens that soon disappear after being dropped, Ukrainian officials said, and then they slam into villages.
“This is the evolution of the air war,” said Lt. Col. Denys Smazhnyi of the Ukrainian air force. “They first tried cruise missiles, and we shot them down. Then they tried drones, and we shot those down. They are constantly looking for a solution to strike us, and we are looking for one to intercept them.
“It’s evolution, countermeasures, evolution, countermeasures,” Smazhnyi added. “It’s a nonstop process, unfortunately.”
According to Ukrainian and U.S. officials, the Russians have retrofitted some of the bombs with satellite navigation systems and wings that stretch their range, turning an old-fashioned weapon, which Moscow has thousands of, into a more modern glide bomb.
The Russians are deploying these glide bombs from Su-34 and Su-35 jets, their top-of the-line warplanes, said a U.S. Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic. Zooming over Russian-controlled territory, where Ukrainian air defenses don’t reach, the warplanes release the bombs, which glide 20 miles or more, crossing the front line and then striking Ukrainian territory.
These bombs are even harder to hit than the hypersonic Kinzhal missiles that the Ukrainians claim to have destroyed recently with American Patriot air defense systems.
“A Kinzhal has a longer flight time at high altitudes, so it’s easier to detect and track,” said Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Glide bombs, on the other hand, were not a weapon that the Patriot system was designed to counter, he said.
Russian military bloggers have boasted about the prowess of the glide bombs, posting videos and comments starting in early January. One Russian analyst provided detailed information on Russia’s development of them going back to the early 2000s and said their use was “a step in the right direction.”
There have been some recent mishaps. In late April, a Russian warplane, apparently headed for Ukraine, accidentally dropped a bomb on Belgorod, a Russian city near the border. No one was killed, Russian officials said, but days later, Russian media reported that two more unexploded aircraft bombs had been discovered in the same area. It’s not clear whether these were old-fashioned bombs or the newer gliding versions.
Ukrainian officials are using the threat of these bombs to help press their case for F-16s, which allies are expected to provide after the Biden administration reversed course and allowed Ukrainian pilots to be trained. The Ukrainians say that they are outmatched in the skies and that F-16s could chase away Russian warplanes bombing their communities.
“Trying to intercept these bombs isn’t effective. It’s not even rational,” said Yuriy Ignat, spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force. “The only way out of this situation and the only way to stop it is to attack the planes that launch these bombs.”
Both Russia and Ukraine have strong air defenses on the territory they control, making it hard for either side to fly combat missions. Ukrainian pilots also have a few dozen glide bombs provided by the United States, but they have struggled with them, according to documents allegedly leaked by Jack Teixeira, the Air National Guardsman implicated in a vast disclosure of classified material. The Russians have figured out how to jam the guidance systems, the classified documents said, and several Ukrainian bombs have missed their target.
Smazhnyi and other Ukrainian officials said the Russians were dropping a combination of unmodified vintage bombs and modified ones. The glide bombs are made by taking a FAB-500 M-62 low-drag bomb, a standard mass-produced Soviet munition, and strapping on a kit with movable fins and pop-out wings, along with a satellite guidance system that adjusts its course mid-flight. Military analysts said the modified bombs cost a tiny fraction of the price of a cruise missile but pack about the same amount of explosives.
Ukraine’s security services shared photos of Russian bombs that they said had been modified to glide, which U.S. defense officials confirmed. The locations of the photos could not be independently verified.
Few places have been as heavily hit by glide bombs as the area around Kherson, an industrial city along the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian officials said. As Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive looms, Ukrainian troops are pouring into Kherson and nearby villages like Veletenske, where Ivanova lived with her fiance, Kostiantyn Rumega.
He was 19, she is 20. He was looking for work, and on the morning of May 2, a man who ran a fishing business summoned him to a nearby river island to clean some nets.
His fiancee said that he didn’t want to go, because he had already gotten in trouble once for not having the necessary fishing permits, and it was very dangerous — the Russians have been lighting up that entire area with an arsenal of weapons.
But he needed the money, Ivanova said, and before leaving, he lingered at the door.
“At that moment when he was kissing me and saying goodbye, there was so much love,” she said. “I never experienced it before. It felt different.”
It was as if he knew, she said.
A few hours later, the explosion by the river blew open her doors and shook her house. It was more than a mile away. Along with her brother and fiance, another civilian was killed, a woman living along the river.
Since then, Ivanova has been drifting through a haze of grief, disbelief, rage and depression.
“I don’t want to do anything,” she said.
And she keeps hearing explosions, stirring a pain inside her that she says she will carry forever.