Russia: Patriotic Zealots and Pariahs


May 30, 2023: Russian efforts to declare the ten-month battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut a victory were disputed by revelations about Russian losses and continued advances by Ukrainian forces. When Russia declared victory in Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces were still holding western portions of the city. As Russia began moving most of its troops from the city after the victory announcement, Ukrainian forces advanced and reoccupied the territory Russians had recently captured. The Russian victory was further tarnished when Wagner Group officials complained that they lost 20,000 troops killed and many more wounded during the long battle for the city. Wagner accused the Defense Ministry of not supplying Wagner with sufficient ammunition and supplies to speed up the fighting and reduce Russian (especially Wagner) losses. Ukraine does not release casualty data but it was obvious from satellite photos and reports from eyewitnesses that Ukrainian casualties were much lower because the Russians were doing most of the attacking without using many armored vehicles or tanks. Ukrainian forces largely fought from inside buildings or well-protected bunkers and had several safe (from enemy fire) displacement routes prepared so that the Ukrainian troops could safely abandon a position and move to another. These protected routes were also used to bring in supplies or evacuate casualties. The Internet chatter about losses in Bakhmut confirmed the heavier Russian losses. Some Ukrainians criticized the defense of the city because of the Ukrainian losses. In the end, the Battle for Bakhmut absorbed all the offensive forces available to the Russians and basically lost most of those troops taking a city where a proclaimed victory turned out to be an embarrassing defeat. Russia is rebuilding an offensive force in Russia but this process won’t be complete for another year. Meanwhile the reluctant conscripts and mobilized reservists in Ukraine have little training, few weapons and poor leadership. Russia is also training more junior combat officers to replace the heavy losses suffered in early 2022.

Most of the Russian losses at Bakhmut were not Russian soldiers but Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a private military contractor organization formed in 2014 on the order of Vladimir Putin. He asked Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the wealthy Russian businessmen who backed Putin, to organize it and that included finding an experienced special operations officer to run day-to-day operations. This turned out to be retired spetsnaz Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, whose code name was “Wagner.” Utkin understood that Wagner Group was created for carrying out illegal military operations outside Russia. The first of these was the 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Wagner Group has been in Ukraine ever since and increased its personnel there to over 50,000 by 2022. Smaller number of Wagner Group personnel work around the world as highly paid mercenaries working for foreign governments, especially in Africa. Wagner Group requires large payments from the Russian government to keep its operations going and expanding. These payments are illegal, if only because private military contractors are illegal in Russia. Recently additional military contractor organizations have been created by powerful Russian businessmen. To many Russians, this proliferation of private armies seems to be the prelude to another Russian Civil War.

The heavy dependence on Wagner Group forces in Ukraine is the result of Wagner Group having access to more money and fewer restrictions than the Russian Defense Ministry and military. The high cost of operation Wagner Group has been noticed because Wagner Group operations are often noted as a reason for the heavy economic sanctions imposed on Russia by NATO countries because of the fighting in Ukraine. Initially, the invasion force included no mercenaries, just military personnel. This force was largely destroyed during the first few months of fighting. Putin promised a short war and now was stuck with a much larger war that eventually threatened his position as Russian leader. Putin brought in the Wagner Group to save the situation in Ukraine. Wagner Group made a difference, but not enough to change the likely outcome of the war. This led to Wagner Group and the Defense Ministry blaming each other for the mess.

The war in Ukraine is not popular inside Russia and that has made it difficult for the military to recruit new troops to fight in Ukraine. Russia conscripts a quarter million young Russian men each year for one year of conscript service. The law stipulates that conscripts cannot be sent to a combat zone outside Russia. Putin tried to get around this by declaring Ukraine was actually part of Russia and Russian troops were there to put down an insurrection. Most conscripts and especially their parents, did not go along with this. This forced the government to spend a lot more money to get more nominally volunteers (contract soldiers) by forcing men with military service or and many with none to be “mobilized” into the military as highly paid contract soldiers. This worked initially until reports of the high casualty rates of contract soldiers in Ukraine became widely known. This led to more illegal schemes to obtain “volunteers”. This included forcing or deceiving conscripts into signing contracts to serve longer as contract soldiers. The war-related sanctions on Russia had caused an economic recession and good civilian jobs were hard to find. Pay for contract soldiers was completive with similar jobs and that was not a bad deal when there was not a war going on in Ukraine. So far this year, Russia has recruited nearly 200,000 contract soldiers. Most of these have no training and this means a few months, or at least weeks, of training is needed to make these men useful, rather than an obstacle, in combat. Wagner Group is not restricted in how it recruits and it was able to recruit many convicts from prison. The deal was that if they survived their six month contract they would be free to leave and would also get a pardon and not return to prison. The Defense Ministry later tried this but had little success as Wagner Group had few restrictions on how it handled convict contract soldiers. If any of these men disobeyed orders or faltered in combat, they could be killed on the spot. That was standard practice in the Russian military during World War II and was enforced by special secret police (NKVD) units and political officers (Zampolits) assigned to commanders of units’ company or larger on up. Zampolits could execute reluctant soldiers or commanders. Wagner Force is the only military organization in Russian that is allowed to use this older but now officially forbidden, leadership style. It’s common knowledge that Wager Group operates this way and anyone joining knows it. Some Russians have called for the military to adopt the old-school disciplinary procedures, Most Russians do not want that, or the Wagner Group, the war in Ukraine or Vladimir Putin. This has led to more popular opposition to the war and Putin and more of the opposition are resorting to violence because nothing else seems to work. Putin stays in power by dealing with the opposition. That comes at a visible cost. Many Russians are getting out of Russia to avoid military service or unemployment or simply because of Putin’s autocratic rules. Putin’s response was to declare it illegal to leave Russia without official permission. Many are leaving despite the restrictions; via whatever way they can come up with. Putin always admired the Soviet Union and now he is turning Russia back into a totalitarian police state. Those who back Putin believe Russia will eventually prevail in Ukraine, even if it takes decades. Most Russians, Ukrainians and NATO members disagree and now consider Russia a threat to everyone.

May 29, 2023: Ukrainian air force leaders believe that Ukraine needs about fifty F-16 fighters to deal with the Russian air force. NATO recently agreed to provide these aircraft, which Russia does not want to face in combat. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the F-16 has been the most frequently purchased combat aircraft. This is because the F-16 has a long track record of reliability and success against Russian built warplanes. F-16s have regularly defeated Russian aircraft in the air as well as Russian air defense systems. It is easier to fly and maintain than Russian warplanes and very effective at air-to-air combat and attacking ground targets. Even without the F-16s, Ukraine’s Russian made warplanes have prevented the larger Russian air force from gaining air supremacy over Ukraine. The Ukrainian F-16s will put the Russian air force on the defensive and expose Russian targets to more effective airstrikes.

May 28, 2023: In Turkey, president Recep Erdogan won another five year term, extending his rule of Turkey to 25 years. This was a surprise outside Turkey, where Turkish economic and corruption problems as well as a unified opposition seemed to doom Erdogan’s reelection hopes. Erdogan remaining in power is bad news for NATO and encouraging to Vladimir Putin. Erdogan and Putin often cooperate, despite the fact that NATO was formed to protect members from Russian aggression.

May 27, 2023: Russian launched its largest yet cruise missile attack on the Ukrainian capital. Because only 54 Shahed-136 missiles were used, all but two of them were shot down. The attack was at night, which Russia believes makes the Shahed-136 harder to detect and shoot down. Because this attack was at night there were fewer people on the street and there was only one casualty, a man killed by falling debris from a building that was hit. Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and military facilities are increasingly ineffective. Ukraine has built a layered air defense system that makes it impossible for Russia to obtain air superiority and carry out airstrikes. The forced Russia to use air, ground and ship launched cruise and ballistic missiles. A year of this has left Russia short of enough guided munitions to make regular or massive attacks. Steady improvements in Ukrainian air defenses had led to a higher proportion (often 100 percent) of Russian missiles destroyed. Some still get through, but that is increasingly rare. For example, today Russia launched another barrage of missiles against Ukraine, using 48 missiles of various types. Only ten were conventional cruise (Kh-101/555) missiles while seven were S-300 anti-aircraft missiles modified to operate as a short range cruise missile and the remaining 31 were Iranian Shahed-136 missiles. These weigh 200 kg (440 pounds) and are armed with a warhead containing 30 to 50 kg, most of it explosives. That’s not a lot because most cruise missiles carry warheads weighing half a ton (500 kg) or more. The Shahed-136 warhead will damage, not destroy, most structures it hits. Shahed-136 is launched using a rocket motor that gets it into the air and then detaches and falls away. To be effective Shahed-136 is launched in swarms, which was the case with this attack. Shahed-136 is propeller driven using a noisy gasoline engine. Aptly described as low (altitude), slow and loud, Shahed-136 is easy to detect and shoot down. All these missiles were launched from different bases and approached their Ukrainian targets from different directions in an effort to reduce the effectiveness of Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses. The ten cruise missiles were intercepted as were 23 of the Shahed-136s and two reconnaissance UAVs used to spot specific targets for the attack. The attack was aimed at targets in several cities and towns. Attacks like this are increasingly rare because Russia has used up most of its pre-war stockpile of missiles and is now relying on newly manufactured or obtained (from Iran) missiles. Because of the unexpected effectiveness of Ukrainian antimissile defenses, Russia accumulates as many different cruise missiles as possible before launching a large scale attack that will ensure that some of the missiles reach targets.

May 26, 2023: The UAV division of the Kalashnikov company is expanding the types of UAVs it manufactures, putting more emphasis on UAVs operating as cruise missiles; carrying explosives on a one way attack mission. This is not the first combat UAV Kalashnikov has developed. In 2019 they introduced the first of three models of its Lantset loitering munitions. All versions of Lantset are small, propeller-driven UAVs that send back a video signal to the operator and carry an explosive warhead. Initially Lantset came in two sizes. Lantset 1 weighs 5 kg (11 pounds), can stay airborne for 30 minutes and carries a 1 kg (2.2 pound) warhead. Lantset 3 weighs 12 kg (26 pounds), can stay airborne for 40 minutes and carries a 3 kg (6.6 pound) warhead. In 2021 a KUB-BLA maritime version was introduced that had a delta wing design with a propeller in the rear. This naval model is small, being 1.2 meters (48 inches) long with a 950mm (37 inch) wingspan. Endurance is 30 minutes and explosive payload is 3 kg (6.6 pounds). This one has not been offered for sale yet but has been flight tested and is to be equipped with a guidance system that enables groups of KUB-BLAs to operate autonomously in a swarm to attack a target or targets.

May 25, 2023: The United States imposed sanctions on Ivan Maslov, the commander of Wagner Group forces in Mali and responsible for the recent effort to break the weapons import sanctions imposed on Russia via arms deals in the name of the Mali government.

May 24, 2023: After two weeks of dedicated and persistent Ukrainian artillery attacks on Russian artillery, rocket launchers and large (120mm and up) caliber mortars the artillery systems available to Russian forces has been reduced by nearly 2,700 along the 1,500 kilometer front line in southeastern and southern Ukraine. In one day this effort destroyed 40 Russian systems. The Ukrainians are using counterbattery artillery spotting radars and reconnaissance USVs as well as reports from Ukrainian civilians and special forces sent into Russian occupied Ukrainian territory to find targets and call in artillery fire. The small Ukrainian infantry special forces units are also collecting details of Russian defenses, details that are missed just using aerial and satellite reconnaissance.

May 23, 2023: In Germany crew training for Ukrainians using 110 Leopard 1 tanks has been completed. The Leopard 1 entered service in 1961 and began getting replaced by Leopard 2s in 1979. Some 3,600 Leopard 2s have been built since 1979, most of them before the Cold War ended in 1991. In the 1990s major users of Leopard 2s retired many of these tanks. Germany had 2,100 Leopard 2s and retired most of them by selling them off, at very attractive prices, to friendly countries. Despite this flood of low cost Leopard 2s, many nations kept their Leopard 1s. The 42-ton Leopard 1 and its 105mm gun could deal with any Russian tank, but not as efficiently as a 61-ton Leopard 2 and its 120mm gun. Ukrainians have been building tanks for nearly a century and know these combat vehicles quite well. A hundred Leopard 1A5s will overwhelm the Russians faster than a few dozen Leopard 2s and Challengers 2s. There were more Leopard 1A5s available from European nations that realized their values and put them in storage rather than scrapping them. The Ukrainians are using the Leopard 1s to support their infantry, especially the infantry traveling in IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles). These have thinner armor than the Leopard 1s but with the direct attack firepower provided by the 105mm guns of the Leopard 1s and mobile artillery further back, provide a combined arms attack force the Russians are not prepared to handle. This mobile attack force can move to portions of the front line the Russians were not able to fortify with tank obstacles and landmines. This is what the Russians feared the Ukrainians might do and it means the elaborate defenses Russia has built will be bypassed and the Ukrainian mobile units will capture large portions of Russian occupied Ukraine. This is the sort of fighting not seen in Europe since World War II. These were the tactics the Germans used in 1941-42 and the Russians when they counterattacked from 1943 to 1945 to end the war.

May 22, 2023: In northeastern Ukraine several American MRAP armored trucks carrying nearly a hundred members of the Freedom of Russia Legion crossed the border into the Russian province of Belgorod. After three days of fighter the attackers returned to Ukraine with three captured Russian armored vehicles and gave a press conference and declared that this was the first of many such attacks by the Freedom of Russia Legion, which is determined to end the war in Ukraine and prevent the Russian economy from being permanently damaged by over a year of economic sanctions. The attackers released UAV video showing Russian soldiers panicking and refusing to fight while seeking places to hide. The Russian government had a hard time responding to this kind of threat and blamed a recent series of attacks inside Russia on similar groups. These attacks have cut railroad lines, derailed trains and blown up military targets inside Russia and Russian occupied Crimea, which Russia claims is now part of Russia.

May 21, 2023: Russia continues to keep most of its Black Sea fleet in the port of Novorossiysk, which is on the east coast of the Black Sea. Russia built a naval base at Novorossiysk that was completed in 2012. Two years later Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and the naval port of Sevastopol from Ukraine. In the late year constant attacks on Russian warships by Ukrainian USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) and UAVs as well as anti-ship missiles has forced Russia to use Novorossiysk as their main naval base for the Black Sea Fleet. From this port small Russian warships carry out patrols near Crimea but rarely further west where the main Ukrainian port of Odessa is. From there Russian warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles can launch attacks on Ukrainian cities and military bases.

May 20, 2023: The Russian air force has ordered that most of its SU-25 ground attack aircraft be upgraded to the Su-25SM3 standard that was developed in 2012 in an effort to match the capabilities of the American A-10C. a recent (2005) upgrade to the 1970s A-10 design that added the ability to use guided bombs and missiles. The Americans went ahead and upgraded most of their A-10s while Russia dropped plans to upgrade all the Su-25s because the money was not available. The few aircraft upgraded to Su-25SM3a were tested and found quite effective and popular with pilots. Su-25s have been heavily used in Ukraine by Russia and the Ukrainians, who inherited many Su-25s when the Cold War ended and kept them in service.

May 19, 2023: Russia has agreed to allow Cubans living in Russian to join the army as contract soldiers and, after a year of service, receive Russian citizenship. Thousands of Cubans already live and work in Russian as expatriates, on work visas. Russia and Cuba have been allies for over sixty years and many Cubans learn Russian while in Cuban schools. Russian encourages Russian speaking Cubans with essential skills, especially doctors, to come work in Russia. Cuban engineers and other technical personnel have also migrated to Russia.

May 18, 2023: Ukraine reported that Russia lost 660 soldiers, four tanks, 21 cruise missiles and ten UAVs in the last 24 hours. In the last year the major source of Russian losses has been the fighting near the city of Bakhmut. Russian commentators noted that Russia lost more troops (over 20,000) than the 15,000 that were lost in eight years during nine years of fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

The Mali military government use of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries has not proved very effective for Mali but has provided Russian with an opportunity to get past the sanctions imposed on Russia and obtain needed weapons for Russian forces in Ukraine. Wagner arms buyers representing Wagner needs in Mali have been able to purchase large quantities of weapons and military equipment that is diverted to Russian forces in Ukraine. American intelligence efforts revealed the true destination of the weapons and equipment purchased for operations in Mali. Wagner was hired by the Mali military government in 2021 to train Mali troops, especially in the use of weapons purchased from Russia. The supply of Russian weapons, and Wagner mercenaries was disrupted in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and heavy sanctions were imposed on Russia by NATO countries. African countries didn’t care what Russia was doing in Ukraine but did care about their disrupted weapons supply line from Russia. There are about a thousand Wagner personnel in Mali and the Mali military government has no problem paying the mercenaries or for weapons purchased from Russia. Mali is a major producer of gold and the Russians will take payment in gold. Russia maintains a huge gold stockpile (about 2,300 tons), the fifth largest in the world.

May 17, 2023: Russia continues to ignore American requests for comment on why the Russian Kosmos 2558 has spent eight months locked in the same orbit as USA-326, an otherwise secret American spy satellite. The Russian satellite has remained 60 kilometers from the American satellite, which is close enough to visually and electronically monitor what USA-326 was doing. Last year the United States accused Russia of deliberately launching their Kosmos 2558 satellite on August 1st 2022 and placing it in the same orbit as a new American spy satellite launched earlier (February). Within 24 hours of launch Kosmos 2558 locked into the same orbit as the new American surveillance satellite, but 60 kilometers away and clearly capable of getting closer. This is what is known as an “inspector satellite” that closely examines other satellites to determine their capabilities and weaknesses.

May 15, 2023: Russian reserves of 152mm artillery munitions are exhausted and production facilities in Russia are unable to supply additional shells quickly enough to refill the depleted war reserve. Russia received 300,000 shells from Iran and a similar amount from North Korea. South Korea maintains a large stockpile of 155mm shells and that has persuaded North Korea to limit the number of shells they send Russia. NATO nations have provided Ukraine with over a million 155mm shells and a smaller quantity of 152mm shells. NATO nations have more production capabilities for artillery shells but not enough to keep the Ukrainians supplied with what they need. This means that both Ukrainian and Russian forces have less artillery ammunition than they need. This favors the Ukrainians, who's attacking forces will face less artillery fire while they are advancing and out in the open.

May 14, 2023: Two Russian colonels were killed in eastern Ukraine near Bakhmut. During 15 months of fighting Russia has lost an unusually large number of senior (colonels and generals) officers. This is the result of overall poor leadership in the military as well as the continuing corruption. Senior officers go to the front line to see for themselves before they act against the corrupt officials. Shortages of amm0, weapons, medical care and food are all usually the result of someone stealing it before the troops get it. Heavy losses during the first few months of the war caused heavy losses among junior officers and these take time to replace.

May 12, 2023: The UN released its report on the March 2022 massacre of civilians in central Mali by Russian mercenaries and Mali soldiers. The UN investigators interviewed 157 civilians who were there and survived and collected compelling and ample evidence of the lawless behavior. The UN investigators also used satellite photos taken at the time of the incident that documented the many dead (about 500). Russia and the Mali government insist those dead bodies were Islamic terrorists but offer no evidence nor an explanation why the soldiers and Russians withdrew when armed Islamic terrorists did advance. The UN report did not specify what country the “foreign mercenaries” came from.

May 7, 2023: The three nations (China, Russia and Pakistan) that have the most economic activity with Afghanistan are urging the IEA to help Afghanistan as well as the IEA by allowing women to work. Another needed activity is cracking down on the drug cartels and Islamic terror groups that currently operate freely. So far the IEA has ignored these suggestions. In response, the world largely ignored the IEA and Afghanistan.

May 6, 2023: Vladimir Putin has ordered major changes in Russia’s UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) design and production capabilities. The Ukraine War saw Russia suffering heavy UAV losses due to Ukrainian countermeasures and shortcomings in Russian UAV design and tactics. Putin ordered expansion of Russian UAV production and less dependence on foreign, especially Western, components. To pay for this Putin budgeted $59 billion for procurement of 670,000 Russian UAVs through the end of the decade. Most of the new UAVs will be smaller models, especially quadcopters, while 16,000 will be larger (half-ton and up) models. Ukrainian forces made heavy and effective use of commercial quadcopters during the current war. Noting that, Putin is also expanding training for UAV operators and designers. This heavy spending makes possible the construction of more production facilities, including factories producing all the needed components. Putin expects Russian industry to develop effective substitutes for foreign components by the end of the decade. This will be difficult because foreign producers not only design and build better components but are constantly developing new technologies. Even after the demise of the inefficient Soviet industries in the 1990s, Russia was unable to replace them with Western quality equivalents. Since the 1990s Russia has lost a lot of the local tech talent; this exodus accelerated after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and especially since Russia invaded Ukraine over a year ago. Putin pledged to exempt technical talent from being mobilized into the army for the Ukraine War but proved unable to prevent local officials from ignoring these restrictions. The talent saw this coming and now Russia has a shortage of skilled workers in general. The talent began leaving as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. This allowed Russians to freely travel abroad. In the last year Putin has enacted laws limiting trips outside Russia but it’s too late.

May 5, 2023: In southern Syria (Daraa province) there has been a lot of random violence in the province so far in 2013, with at least 181 separate incidents of violence that left 136 dead and hundreds wounded. A lot of this is related to the Russian presence in the area. The violence is mainly against Syrian army personnel. This level of violence remained fairly constant since 2018. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there since 2018. Anonymous assassins use pistols and hidden bombs to kill those who work, or worked for government forces or Russia and Syria backed local militias. There are also attacks against former members of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other militant groups. These victims had accepted amnesty. Russian and Assad forces openly force Iran-backed groups and individuals out of the area. There is no open violence because Iran, Syria and Russia are still officially allies. Israel sometimes fires on Iranian forces operating in Daraa, especially near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel will sometimes release evidence of this to the media, so that Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iranian foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria since 2020 but have not made much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area. In 2022 and 2023 much of the violence is from other groups, some of them criminal gangs retaliating against those who refuse to pay for protection from the violence. Daraa is the most violent province but similar violence continues in many parts of Syria.

May 4, 2023: Ukraine is delaying the start of its much anticipated offensive against Russian troops occupying portions of Ukraine. The delay is caused by the growing number of Western tanks arriving in Ukraine or adjacent NATO countries where training on new equipment usually takes place. For over a year Ukrainians have asked NATO countries for Western tanks like the M1, Leopard and Challenger. The superiority of these tanks over anything Russia has is well known. For Ukraine, the more of these tanks they have, the fewer Ukrainian troops will be killed or wounded. The Ukrainian troops know as well as the largely demoralized Russian soldiers. The Ukrainians are delaying the offensive so they can incorporate as many of the Western tanks as they can. As of early May, Ukraine had received and put into service 14 Leopard 2A6s from Germany and 14 Challenger 2 tanks from Britain. The Leopard 2A6 is a 61 ton tank with a more powerful version of the NATO standard 120mm tank gun and exceptional fire control and protection. The Challenger 2 is a 64-ton tank that has similar combat performance to the 2A6 even though the Leopard is more up-to-date. For all practical purposes these two tanks outclass anything the Russians have.

May 2, 2023: Russia sent some of their TOS-1A tank-mounted thermobaric 220mm rocket launchers to Ukraine a month ago and have been training airborne troops how to use these unique weapons. They were recently used in eastern Ukraine by Russian airborne troops. A TOS-1A vehicle carries 24 220mm rockets while a separate reload vehicle carries two pods containing rockets. An empty pod on the TOS-1A vehicle can be removed and replaced with a full pod in minutes. Thermobaric is one of several terms for fuel-air explosives (FAEs). Another popular term is vacuum bomb. Russians favor the term thermobaric while Americans prefer FAE. These weapons are a relatively recent development. Efforts to develop a workable FAE began over a century ago, during World War I (1914-18). Efforts continued after the war and through World War II (1939-45) and into the 1950s. In the 1960s the Americans came up with a workable and reliable FAE design and used it a lot during the Vietnam War. Russia got their thermobaric tech perfected a decade after the United States. Russia considered FAE devices chemical weapons and saw their TOS-1A vehicles as flamethrowers. Many NATO and Russian-backed nations also obtained or developed some FAE weapons.

FAEs are incredibly destructive, because they literally create a fireball. These range in size from a few meters in diameter to over 500 meters, The smallest ones are FAE hand grenades or small projectiles while the larger ones are aircraft-transported bombs. Some short range ballistic missiles also have optional FAE warheads.

Technically, FAE devices can be incredibly destructive, incinerating anyone inside the fireball. Efforts to ban FAEs as inhumane and a crime against humanity have failed. This is largely because FAEs are simply a specialized explosive that is not radioactive and does not generate a lot of metal fragments. FAEs can do things high-explosives cannot do. Clearing minefields is one example. Another is destroying an enemy position in a remote area with a lot of underground bunkers and surrounded by minefields. Since September 11, 2001 American forces have regularly used FAEs, some air dropped, to clear minefields. FAEs will detonate the mines and reach deep into caves or bunkers to kill anyone in there. Islamic terrorists have tried, with mixed success, to include improvised FAEs for major attacks.

Russia first used TOS-1 vehicles in Afghanistan during the 1980s. At the time, the TOS rockets only had a range of 3,500 meters (about two miles) and demonstrated sufficient performance there and later in Syria and Iraq to revive sales of some older systems. One of the more unique among these revived weapons is the TOS-1A. The “TOS” stands for “heavy flamethrower system” because the TOS-1A only fires rockets equipped with FAE (Fuel Air Explosives) warheads. The TOS-1A is a 45 ton vehicle that uses a T-72 tank chassis with the turret replaced by a box-like launcher for 24 220mm rockets. These come in two sizes, one is 3.3 meters (20.8 feet) long and weighs 173 kg (381 pounds) while the other is 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) long and weighs 217 kg (478 pounds). The larger rocket has a longer (6,000 meters) range. The TOS-1A is not a direct-fire weapon but the vehicle is meant to get close to the target and is equipped with a laser range finder and computerized fire control system to elevate the launcher to the right angle to put the unguided rocket as close to the target as possible.

May 1, 2023: Recent Russian air strikes against Ukrainian cities using Iranian Shahed-136s resulted in one of the UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) developing engine trouble and landing intact. This enabled Ukrainian and foreign investigators to scrutinize the construction of the Shahed-136. Most of these that run into engine problems crash and explode. This one had been given contaminated fuel that caused the UAV to gradually descend and hit the ground without enough impact to set off the warhead contact fuze.

Obtaining an intact aircraft allowed for a more thorough inspection to be done. The MD-550 engine was built in Iran and it was confirmed that this was indeed an illegal copy of the German L-550 engine. Iran had obtained one of these engines in 2006 and used it in several UAVs, including Shahed-136. The L-550 entered production in the 1980s and was a popular engine for ultralight aircraft and UAVs. Legal copies of the L-550 cost about $15,000 each. That means a Shahed-136 costs about twice the original estimate of $20,000 each. A Shahed-136 weighs 200 kg (440 pounds) and is armed with a warhead containing 30 to 50 kg, most of it explosives. That’s not a lot because most cruise missiles carry warheads weighing half a ton (500 kg) or more. The Shahed-136 warhead will damage, not destroy, most structures it hits. Shahed-136 is launched using a rocket motor that gets it into the air and then detaches and falls away.

April 30, 2023: In the latest arms shipment to Ukraine the United States included thousands of M21 anti-tank mines. The metal, 8 kg (17.5 pound) mines that, once planted and armed, will detonate when anything moving over it weighs more than 136 kg (300 pounds), sending a curved metal bar upwards. This will blow the track off a tank and can also penetrate up to 50mm of armor. Tanks and smaller armored vehicles running over an M21 become “mobility kills”. This means they cannot move because of damaged tracks and/or tires/track wheels and suspension system. If this happens during combat, the vehicles and their crews are in big trouble. That often means the crew abandons the vehicle and seeks shelter elsewhere. Historically, most tank and armored fighting vehicle (AFV) losses come from mobility kills. The Ukraine War was unique because top attack ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) were able to destroy tanks and AFVs by causing the turret to explode and kill the entire crew. Now the Ukrainians are on the offensive and have to devote a lot of men and resources to removing anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. With the M21 mines the Ukrainians can protest quiet sectors of the front line from surprise armored attacks with these mines. Russia has used a lot of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in Ukraine and the Ukrainian forces have been supplied with equipment and training to find and destroy or disable them. Russia has deployed thousands of these mines in the southeast to disrupt a Ukrainian offensive. Russia has mapped these minefields in case they are no longer needed and the mines can be removed. If Russia is defeated, those minefield maps are unlikely to be given to the Ukrainians and the mines will be a public hazard for years to come. Ukraine will have to maintain mine-clearing teams and await reports from local civilians about minefield discoveries.

April 29, 2023: Russian troops are still in Libya, a North African country that remains divided and deadlocked. There are two main factions, one in the east based in Tobruk and another in Tripoli, in the west. The UN backs the Tripoli faction, as do local Islamic militias and Turkish troops and their mercenaries. The eastern faction controls most of the oil and export ports. Russian Wagner Group mercenaries are based in the east but now see themselves as peacekeepers and work with the Turks to maintain a ceasefire. This allows Russian oil firms to operate in Libya and do work for the Libyan national oil company. Both factions support national elections to unite the country but neither faction trusts the others enough to proceed with elections. Russia and the Turks refuse to withdraw their troops from Libya until they receive guarantees that their interests in Libya are respected. The UN and NATO oppose that because the Tripoli faction wants to legitimize an illegal treaty signed by the Tripoli faction in 2019 granting Turkey some of Greece’s offshore oil and natural gas rights in an area between Libya and Turkey that ignores existing, and internationally recognized, claims on that area. Turkey and Greece are both NATO members and NATO backs Greece in this matter. Turkey won’t withdraw its forces from Libya until a new national Libyan government assures the Turks that the illegal agreement is confirmed by a national Libyan government. Many people in both factions do not want to be stuck with a treaty that the UN and NATO consider illegal. Russia is no friend of NATO and is currently at war with NATO in Ukraine. Turkey is also a NATO member but most other NATO members would like to expel the Turks from NATO and there is no legal mechanism for that. Turks and Russians are troublemakers in Europe and Libya is a foreign branch of that mischief.

April 28, 2023: Britain began deliveries of its Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine during the last few weeks. Now the Ukrainians have to test and tweak the improvised fire control system of Ukrainian Su-24 and MiG-21 warplanes to ensure that the British missile can be effectively delivered from these Russian -designed aircraft.


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