by SIMPLICIUS THE THINKER
There’s been a strong uptick in strikes on Crimea, as Ukraine shifts focus once again on providing some tangible media victory to crown Zelensky’s big North American tour. This is done to keep him from looking bad when put on the spot during his all-important and perhaps final alms circuit.
The Black Sea theater in general has escalated so it would be instructive to dig into that a little more in depth and bring us up to speed on what’s been happening in that corridor of late.
There are several distinct categories, most notably attacks targeting the naval assets and those targeting the static land-based assets like HQs and Russian air defense batteries. The attacks have been stronger and perhaps even more successful than many in the pro-Russian sphere would like to admit, as there have been a couple that went by under the radar, and which the Russian MOD has done a thorough job of sweeping under the table.
One was a strike on 9/20 on the north part of Sevastopol:
Before and after satellite imagery of yesterday’s AFU Storm Shadow missile strike on the Russian Navy command post north of occupied Verkhnosadove, Crimea (44.714735, 33.704408).
As you can see above, Ukrainian sources claim this is a “Russian Navy command post”, but there has been no confirmation of that which I saw and it seems doubtful, particularly given its odd location. Either way, whatever it was, it did appear to be successfully hit by a Storm Shadow missile.
There were also some fake attacks which were completely refuted. In order to maximize and amplify the propaganda effect from the couple successful ones, pro-Ukrainian bot accounts spread several other alleged attacks on Russian airfields in Crimea. One of them was even debunked by a Twitter community note:
This is just a reminder that every “strike” needs to be carefully examined and verified as a large portion, and dare I say even majority, of them are usually fake. This is why the strike on the Sevastopol port, hitting the Rostov and Minsk ship and sub was also under suspicion of being fudged with, particularly the seeming photoshopped photos of the sub.
Let’s turn to that strike next and work our way up to the recent hit on the Black Sea Fleet HQ. The Ropucha class landing ship Minsk and Kilo class sub Rostov-on-Don were struck.
I’ve already covered this a bit. One interesting thing to note is that the Russian landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak, previously struck by Ukrainian naval drone, has already returned to surface after a faster-than-expected repair:
This is the massive hole the ship incurred in its hull:
And that was fixed in only a month or less. That’s after Ukrainians laughed and jeered that it was “done” and would be a write off. The Russian MOD likewise said it will repair the damage on the present ships.
As for the Rostov and Minsk, TASS released an official statement that the sub did not in fact suffer any catastrophic damage and its previous repair time would hardly even be affected:
🇷🇺🚤 The damages sustained by the submarine “Rostov-on-Don” of the Black Sea Fleet on September 13th are not critical and will not significantly extend its planned maintenance time. This information was provided to TASS by a source in the defense-industrial complex.
“The submarine has minor damage that did not affect its robust hull. Eliminating them can only slightly increase the time the submarine is undergoing scheduled repairs,” he said.
The agency’s interviewee clarified that an assessment of the extent of upcoming repair work is underway for the other vessel affected by the Ukrainian strike, the large landing ship “Minsk” of the Baltic Fleet.
Some are skeptical, but we’ll have to wait and see. Either way the sub was sitting in that maintenance dock for half a year or so, it’s not like the strike took out an active component of the fleet.
Now Ukraine has hit the HQ of the Black Sea fleet. First a little context and then we’ll get into the biggest question at the heart of the matter: how is Ukraine doing this?
Russian MOD claims that 7/10 missiles were shot down. This is likely true as other eyewitness videos like the above have depicted many explosions in the sky, sounds of air defense intercepting missiles, while the post-op BDA satellite photos showed only 2 or maximum 3 strikes were inflicted on the building itself:
The key to understanding how Ukraine is able to hit this HQ is by understanding its proximity to the shore:
You can see that the building is almost right on the water. Here’s a zoomed out map to understand its location spatially:
This means that the area lacks any forward screening line of air defense because it sits right on the edge of what would be considered the line of contact.
Normally, any mission critical assets like headquarters would be positioned deep in the rear of a frontline. This allows a safety net of multiple layers of integrated air defenses to buffer the HQ so that even if it’s a low-flying, fast, or stealthy type of missile, it may be missed by the first layer but will eventually be detected as it flies along over several layers of the overlapping radar net coverage. For instance, the first line of area defense may detect something, but not be able to respond fast enough to down it. But they will at least pass the info down to further defenses which will receive either their sensor-fused radar data or simple verbal warning that objects are incoming, allowing them to be far better positioned and prepared to intercept it.
But due to the obvious impossibility of doing that when your HQ happens to sit right on the water, that means Sevastopol is situated on a particularly exposed and dangerous position for which there can be no forward AD or ‘advance warning’. This means as missiles come in, there are only a few seconds of lead time, and given that the strikes were said to be saturation attacks which included drones from other directions as well as the ADM-160 Mald decoy missiles, it makes it extremely difficult to defend all this without any forward coverage.
Rybar illustrated how the attacks were done.
We know from past reports that a Russian S-300/400 system exists somewhere on that Tarkankhut peninsula of Crimea, where the drone icon is on the above map. This is an area that “juts out” and should give forward coverage of the Black Sea. The problem is, as I explained last time, low flying missiles allow radars to only spot them at most at something like 30-40km. This is irrespective of how powerful a radar system is—it’s down to the simple physics of how radar horizons work.
You can do the calculation yourself here:
This example shows that a radar system with a dish height of 10ft will see a target flying at 150ft altitude only at 35km or so. The problem is, you can see from the Rybar map the trajectory goes around radar coverage such that the distance from the ‘forward point’ of S-300/400s to where the missiles would pass is more than 80km+:
Also I should mention the Storm Shadow appears to often fly even lower than 150ft, which would make the detection distance even further.
11 Su-24M bombers took off from Starokostyantyniv airfield, five of which were Storm Shadow/SCALP cruise missile carriers. Having flown to the border of the Odessa and Mykolaiv regions, the aircraft split up: nine stayed in the area, and a pair went south to Ochakiv. 8 Storm Shadows were launched around 12:00 at Crimea.
At the same time, reconnaissance groups of Medvedi PMC noted that two Su-24M, flying low about 40 m above the water, conducted launches over the Black Sea. Ahead of this, Ukrainian planes fired three AGM-160 MALD decoy missiles to mislead air defense. Pantsir-S1 air defense crews of the 31st Air Force and Air Defense Division shot down five cruise missiles over Cape Tarkhankut and the Belbek airfield. 3 Storm Shadows fell in the Verkhnesadovoye area – the target was likely a former military facility near the village. A few hours before the attack, a reconnaissance drone of an unknown type took off from Kherson, which, rounding Cape Tarkhankut, set up a patrol area west of Kacha and directed aircraft. It is highly likely that it was shot down by air defense systems.
This attack demonstrates a slight change in cruise missile tactics. Previously, such mass raids were carried out at night or early in the morning, but not during the day. And the flight of bombers at extremely low altitude is something that Ukrainian crews have been practicing for many months, trying to exploit gaps in air defense detection systems.
How accurate the above is, it’s impossible to tell for certain, but the general gist of the attack is likely what happened. The most important point being about the low flying altitudes which are particularly easy to do over the flat and calm sea surface, where planes and missiles don’t have to worry about dodging topographical/geographical deviations, etc.
As I said, due to this practice, it is physically and scientifically impossible for a radar system to detect them at good range because the low-flying objects are simply past the horizon due to the curvature of the earth, and the radar beams cannot spot them.
Add this to the issue described earlier, of having no frontal zone of coverage due to the peculiarities of being on the sea front, and it becomes very difficult to defend against saturation attacks.
There is a solution which can give you that frontal buffer coverage, however. And that’s one area where Russia is likely failing: AWACs. A 24/7 AWACs coverage will allow the plane to fly over Crimea and due to the height of its radar, see everything flying on the Black Sea to Odessa and beyond, no problems. These radars have “look down” mode which means they can scan downward anything that’s moving along the ocean surface, be it ship or missile.
But I’ve outlined before that Russia has an AWACS problem. It reportedly only has ~15 or less. However you must add the following considerations:
- All planes have a certain readiness percentage of 30-70% at most, which represents how many of the air frames are flyable at any given point, compared to those which are in repair, etc.
- Russia needs some of the planes for its entire long border, including in the far east against NATO, as well as in the north where heavy NATO activity takes place around the Baltics, not to mention western districts to protect Moscow’s western flank
- Russia also needs them along the whole border of the SMO including north of Ukraine. For instance, we’ve seen from the attempted saboteur strike that Russia keeps some of them in Belarus to oversee that northern flank
- A single plane can’t fly 24/7, for obvious reasons. That means even to patrol just one given area without coverage gaps, you need several planes (perhaps at least 3) which can rotate one after the other in 8 hour shifts, etc.
Given all these factors, if we allocate the appropriate amount of planes to each needed zone, as well as readiness rates which would relegate a portion of the fleet to unflyable status—undergoing overhauls, upgrades, repairs, etc.—we can assume that only 1 or 2 max will likely be available for the Crimean theater and likely result in large coverage time gaps.
Russia has been developing and building the successor upgrades to the A-50, the A-50U and A-100 for a long time. Therefore it was big news that reportedly, in the wake of the Sevastopol strikes, Russia announced a rollout of a brand new A-50U.
This is supposed to be a much more advanced, modernized variant with a better radar specifically in its look-down capabilities. It’s only one hand-over for now, but if Russia can keep producing them it will greatly help to secure that region from missile strikes.
Note that once again, Ukraine has not been able to reprise the attacks. Why is that? The Rostov and Minsk are still sitting in the same berth in Sevastopol, easy pickings for more missiles, especially given that Russia plans to repair them. Surely Ukraine would be highly motivated to finish those ships off.
It’s a game of cat and mouse. Ukraine can only conduct a successful strike once in a while when all the appropriate surveillance measures are taken by 5-Eyes partners and everything is pre-planned out with an accommodating coverage ‘gap’ available somewhere.
As to the Black Sea Fleet HQ, Russia says the building was empty while Ukraine claims the usual: hundreds were killed including major generals. There is no evidence of this. In fact Russia appeared to have some direct warning of the strike, so an evacuation—if the building was even used at all—would have made sense. The reason we know this is because prior to the strike, odd smoke screens were detected in the area, whose purpose I’m still not 100% aware of myself:
But if Russia knew a strike was incoming and took appropriate evacuation measures, then how can our previous thesis about the air defenses having no forewarning be accurate?
It’s difficult to say for sure, but it goes something like this. Russia has other capabilities, both in space SIGINT and on the ground HUMINT (just like Ukraine does) that can notify them to mass takeoffs of Ukrainian strike assets from their bases. However, once they have taken off, it’s not possible to granularly track the actual missile launches and their vectors/targets without having that more specific AD shield up front.
Russia likely even has OTH radar capabilities which can track Ukrainian jets from thousands of kilometers away seemingly breaking the physics of seeing “over the horizon” which I professed earlier. However, such radars use special high-frequency short-waves which are not adapted to seeing very small objects precisely, like stealthy missiles for instance. So they may be able to see the planes take off but not the missiles or their vectors.
But if Russia can potentially detect Ukrainian jets in their own airfields from thousands of miles away, why haven’t they destroyed them in the airfields?
Well, that’s because Ukraine also has advanced forewarning from the U.S./5-Eyes of any Russian plane/missile launches, which take hours to cross Ukraine toward the western airfields, giving them ample time to scramble the jets and avoid the hit.
However, airfields which are closer to the frontline can lack that forewarning, and this is why yesterday we saw a Russian hit obliterate a Mig-29 in Ukraine’s Dolgintsevo airbase near Krivoy Rog which is not far from Russia’s positions in Energodar, etc.
This is the same field where Russia’s Lancet drone was previously seen to hit the Mig-29:
Furthermore, the chronology is not known. I wrote last time how the Russian MOD had previously reported strikes on this field earlier in the month, destroying several jets. The new video may simply be the release of those strikes.
If you’re wondering why these jets weren’t scrambled to avoid Russia’s missile strike, like I said it’s close to the frontline. However, another version is that it wasn’t even struck by a Russian missile, whose launch can be detected much more in advance and thus counter-acted by scrambling the jets, since the missiles typically launch from near the Caspian Sea or the Black Sea by ships, etc. Instead, one version states the strike was actually done by guided BM-30 GMLRS Smerch missiles, which would have been positioned just over the Dnieper in Russian territory and would give next to no forewarning.
Ukraine is forced to house the Mig-29s closer to the frontline because the jets have much shorter range and cannot conduct combat from western Ukraine. Further, there’s no indication they were even flyable jets and some sources state some/many/most of them are for parts—but it’s impossible to know for sure. All we know is that Russia is clearly counteracting everything we’re talking about. Planes are being hit, A-50Us are being rolled out to fill coverage gaps. There are constant countermeasures being taken to combat everything Ukraine does. Whether those countermeasures are being taken in a timely fashion and with enough urgency is another discussion.
Ultimately, despite whatever failures Russia may be incurring, we mustn’t forget that U.S.’s air defense capabilities are far worse. Just a few weeks ago a new report from Taiwan complained how their Patriot system recently malfunctioned during tests:
A Taiwanese Air Force official has claimed that a Patriot PAC-3 missile malfunctioned during a recent live-fire drill, but US manufacturer Lockheed Martin said the missile involved was not a PAC-3.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Tsao Chin-Ping confirmed local reports that the surface-to-air weapon exploded before hitting its target.
Now, following the Sevastopol strikes, Russia has struck a devastating blow on Odessa, seemingly in reprisal. The Odessa hotel is claimed to have staffed many mercenaries and acted as a Ukrainian command HQ after a previous HQ was destroyed:
The outlying area had many warehouses which were destroyed:
These port warehouses were previously seen housing a lot of NATO equipment:
Pro-Russian commentator Masno wrote how the hotel was likely being used by Ukrainian services, was under tight security, and in recent days photos showed many windows open for ventilation, indicating that it was being occupied (though not by civilians, as it was closed to civilian use for years):
In fact, during the past day or two, Russia has struck a number of Ukrainian strategic objects and airfields. Dolgintsevo wasn’t the only one. The Bolshaya Kakhnovka airfield in Kremenchug was said to be obliterated. The Starokonstantinov in Khmelnitsky, where Ukraine houses the majority of its Su-24s, was struck again:
As was the Kulbakino field in Nikolayev, footage of which emerged showing the field burning after the strikes:
🇷🇺🇺🇦 Near Nikolaev there are two powerful arrivals in the area of Kulbakino airport.
In Nikolaev, they had not heard explosions for a long time and had time to relax quite a bit: Su-24M carriers of cruise missiles began to be based at the airport, and Anas began to regularly land there, transferring personnel and ammunition. Although the front line is only 40 km.
The results of the arrival have yet to be clarified, but a cavalcade of ambulances rushed there from the regional center.
What exactly arrived is also a question. Because in Kiselevka, located not so far away, they hit an ammunition depot with a one and a half ton FAB with an UMPC.
In fact, new footage as of this writing has emerged showing Russian strikes obliterating more Mig-29s at the Nikolayev field at geolocation: 46°56’9.09″N 32° 4’50.96″E
For those wondering why now—Russia has struck this base as well as every other one multiple times before. Here’s shots showing this very Nikolayev base in a previous aftermath:
One fascinating aspect is that at one point both sides had lobbed cruise missiles against each other virtually at the same time. While the Storm Shadows were flying over Crimea into Sevastopol here (note how the Russian civilian is already acquainted with the Storm Shadow on a first name basis):
Russian Kh-101s were flying to Kremenchug at almost the same exact time:
This startling fact represents perhaps the first time ever in history that a conflict is witnessed to include two opposing sides capable of striking each other with advanced cruise missiles. What other conflict have you ever seen where both sides actively and successfully launch long-ranged stand off cruise missiles at each other? Certainly nothing NATO has ever seen.
This encapsulates the fact that this war is the most high-tech peer-level conflict in history.
On top of that, Ukraine has complained that Russia’s recent strikes are becoming increasingly complex (well, so are the Ukrainian ones for that matter). Here are two maps from Ukrainian sources showing the bizarre, circuitous routes Russian missiles are being programmed to take:
The first is from the mass strikes on September 21:
The second from last night. They claim the Kalibr and Onyx missiles fired from Crimea region did a full circle around Nikolayev oblast and then came to hit Odessa from the rear where AD wouldn’t expect to be pointed:
In almost all cases, particularly the hit on Dolgintsevo airport where the Mig-29s were destroyed, Russia has sent a contingent of Geran-2 drones first to deplete the Ukrainian air defense. When it’s appropriately depleted, the missiles then come in to finish the job.
The bottomline is that, as with everything in this conflict, Ukraine is able to score some hits but Russia outpunches it 5:1 or 10:1, and sometimes even 20:1. For every “HQ hit” Ukraine manages to sneak in, Russia hits a dozen or more HQs, airfields, and other important facilities of Ukraine. Not to mention the fact that Russia stops subsequent attacks, which Ukraine never mentions. For instance, since the Sevastopol hit, there were two other major attacks including one today which included Storm Shadows. All of them were reportedly shot down and Russian forces completely repelled the attack. But that won’t get much mention.