Video Above: Soldiers Controlling Robot Tanks
Could Russia launch an air assault raid over Ukraine to seize strategic airfields, ambush high-value command centers or clear an arrival path for advancing armored vehicles?
Such an effort may or not be entirely feasible, depending upon the state of Ukrainian weapons, air defenses or ability to counter approaching Russian helicopters from the. Nonetheless, Russia seeks to be prepared for the contingency and plans large-scale paratrooper air assault drills over Crimea in coming weeks, according to Russia’s Tass News Agency.
Quoting Russia’s Defence Ministry, TASS said exercises will include live-firings by air assault and artillery units, mine-clearing missions and shielding personnel from attacks by aircraft and drones.
“During the drills, the paratroopers will also practice air assault operations aboard helicopters to seal off a captured area and provide for a quick advance of the main forces, which will be carried out with the fire support of army aviation (Mi-35 gunships),” the paper says.
Advancing helicopters, planes and gunships filled with paratroopers may or may not be realistic for Russian forces potentially seeking to establish a point of entry for attacking forces.
Despite being known as a major global military power in possession of 5th-generation aircraft and a large, trained land force, Russia could likely encounter some difficulty should it seek to invade Ukraine with an air assault. Ukraine is by no means a world great power but does have a substantial force capable of causing serious problems for attacking Russian forces.
A look at Global Firepower says Ukraine operates as many as 2,430 tanks and as many as 11,000 armored vehicles and 2,000 pieces of towed artillery.
Any kind of successful Russian air assault, it seems clear, might need to first establish air superiority. This might be more possible for Russia, unless Ukraine were to be defended by NATO and US F-35s, because Ukraine is reported to only operate about 25 fighter jets and likely does not have any fifth generation fighters capable of challenging strealthy Russian Su-57 5th-generation fighter jets.
Ukrainian ground forces, however, might at least have some initial success in fending off a Russian armored attack given that they have a sizeable fleet of armored vehicles and several thousand tanks. Russia could invade with reportedly superior T-14 Armata tanks, yet it is not clear how many of these tanks Russia operates, so the bulk of an attack force would likely consist of upgraded T-90 and T-72 tanks. Without Close Air Support or established air supremacy, Russian tanks and armored forces might have trouble breaking through Ukrainian defenses.
What if Ukraine Gets Javelin Anti-Tank Missiles?
US-built Javelin anti-tank missiles are pouring into Ukraine in what could be a paradigm-changing shift in the country’s potential ability to repel a Russian invasion.
Russia’s TASS news agency reports that the US delivered 30 Javelins and 180 anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in October, a move suggesting a firm commitment on the part of the US to support Ukrainian sovereignty now facing a growing Russian threat.
The TASS report says Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US has asked Ukraine to use the systems responsibly and only for defensive purposes. Having these kinds of weapons could be very impactful, if not even crucial, to any Ukrainian effort to repel a Russian advance. Javelins could fortify and support Ukraine’s roughly 2,000 tanks by adding an asymmetrical or non-linear defensive anti-tank option. Javelins use explosive heat charges detonating on force of impact at ranges beyond several miles.
Javelins could potentially be vehicle-mounted however, they are primarily for dismounted maneuvering infantry which could otherwise be vulnerable to heavy incoming enemy fire from tanks.
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With Javelins, some of Ukraines 900,000 reserve soldiers (according to Global Firepower) could learn how to use them and disperse along known tank routes to slow down, interrupt, weaken or even destroy a Russian tank assault into Ukraine. The US has supported Ukraine with military aid for many years now, going back to 2014, and the TASS report says the US has allocated up to $2.5 billion for military support to Ukraine.
Washington supplies armaments to Kiev and sends instructors to train the Ukrainian army. Ukraine received $350 million in US military aid both in 2017 and 2018, $250 million in 2019 and $300 million in 2020. The country began receiving Javelin anti-tank missile systems after the administration of former US President Donald Trump approved the sale of lethal weapons to Kiev.” the TASS report says.
Some Javelin anti-tank weapons however, could definitely slow down any Russian tank assault but might not be able to stop it considering that Russia is reported by Global Firepower to operate as many as 13,000 tanks. This is a massive number, and any ultimate ability to stop them may need to require an additional approach and at very least greatly benefit from superior air support.
Ukraine is reported to only operate just above 2,000 tanks, however if properly upgraded, equipped and armed, a much smaller tank force could repel, defeat or simply slow down a Russian tank assault long enough for advanced Western assets to arrive.
Russia Copies US. Arms Armored Vehicles With Air Defense Missiles
The Russian military appears to be moving quickly to match the US Army’s success with Short-Range-Air-Defense by arming its own armored vehicles with ground-fired missiles designed to destroy planes, helicopters, drones or even cruise missiles while on the move in combat.
Russia's TASS news agency reports that Russian “Humvee-like” Tigr-M armored vehicles will soon be armed with Gibka-S Very-Short-Range-Air Defense systems, according to the Commander of the Russian Armed Forces.
“The Gibka-S Very Short-Range Air Defense (VSHORAD) system, equipped with four Igla, Igla-S or Verba missiles, can successfully counter planes, helicopters, drones, cruise missiles and high-precision weapons flying at low and extremely low altitudes, at any time of the day and in limited visibility,” the TASS report states.
The Gibka-S weapons previously proved their effectiveness against aerial targets while moving at speeds up to 30kmph in 2019, according to TASS.
The Russian move to fast-track its own SHORAD speaks to a pressing global threat circumstance related to the proliferation of available attack drone technology and the kinds of attacks they could conduct upon advancing armored forces.
Certainly, low altitude drones, especially drone swarms, armed drones or drones functioning themselves as explosives could present serious problems for fast-advancing ground troops.
Most armored vehicles in the Russian Army are, much like the US, most likely engineered for linear mechanized combat against an approaching ground force.
SHORAD, therefore, seems to represent the importance of preparing for a multi-domain, air-ground-coordination kind of future warfare. Interestingly, Russia’s VSHORAD effort is just now emerging and appears to quite possibly be several years behind the US SHORAD program which now deploys Stryker vehicles armed with HELLFIRE missiles to destroy enemy helicopters, drones and fixed wing assets.
Not much may be known about the range, guidance system sophistication or explosive components of the Gibka-S system of interceptor missiles, so it is not clear how they might compare to the Stinger, Hellfire and Javelin missiles now arming US Army Stryker vehicles.
Clearly, the effort is an attempt to parallel or challenge the US SHORAD program in a tactical or strategic way, as perhaps Russia realized that, much like the US, it lacked the kind of mobile short-range-air-defense capability needed for mechanized warfare.
The US is already looking beyond SHORAD or exploring ways to expand the concept of operations more broadly across the fleet to possibly include other armored platforms in addition to Stryker. As part of this counterair and counter-drone effort, the US Army is exploring innovative kinds of Stryker-fired drone defenses enabled by a new generation of sensor, radar, targeting and fire control technology able to identify and attack approaching drones and even drone swarms.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.