As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).
The helicopter strike in Belgorod
One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.
What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.
That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.
In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.
A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).
The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.
While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Covering the losses
There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.
However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.
The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.
To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 – e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.
An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.
Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.
For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.
The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.
But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.
There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much valid replacements for the losses
However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.
Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.
Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.
Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.
The long game
This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.
The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.
It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.
The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).
This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.
Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).
There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.
This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.
I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.