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from David Hambling.
Virtually all the action in the war between Ukraine and Russian has been on Ukrainian soil. But Ukraine has the capacity to take the fight to the enemy – all the way to Moscow — in a modern version of the famous Doolittle Raid.
Eighty years ago in April 1942, just five months after Pearl Harbor, Lt Col James Doolittle led a bombing raid on Tokyo. Sixteen stripped-down B-25 bombers carrying extra fuel and a reduced bombload took off from the U.S.S. Hornet – a feat never before attempted – and struck Tokyo. The planes then flew to the Chinese coast where they ditched and the crews were recovered by Chinese nationalist allies.
The Doolittle raid had no real military value. A handful of bombs distributed over sixteen industrial targets were never going to do any significant damage, and the planners knew it would cost all sixteen aircraft at a time when America needed every aircraft it could get. But the raid was a huge morale-booster for the U.S., and a real blow to Japan. The the threat of air raids on Tokyo had been dismissed as ridiculous, and the raid forced the Japanese to shift military resources to defending their homeland.
Ukraine has already carried out limited strikes on Russia, most visibly a helicopter raid on a fuel storage site at Belgorod on 1st April thirty kilometres over the border. This set ablaze tanks containing over four million liters of oil. Interestingly, Ukraine has refused to confirm or deny the strike, although video emerged of twoMi-24 helicopters with Ukrainian markings firing rockets at the site.
As retired U.S. Army General Mark Hertling noted on Twitter, such ‘deep strike’ raids deliver a message to the enemy that nowhere is safe and they can be struck when they are least expecting it. The psychological impact, and the disruption, greatly outweigh the physical damage.
The distance from Kyiv to Moscow is around 500 miles, further than Ukraine’s Tochka missiles can reach – although one was used to hit a Russian airbase over the border in February. However, other conflicts have seen drones with explosive warheads strike targets at much greater ranges, notably the strikes by Houthi forces in Yemen on the Saudi-led coalition.
The Houthi air force was destroyed as an early stage, but they have responded with a mix of ballistic missiles and cheap locally-assembled kamikaze drones. From 2014 the Houthis used the Qasef, a copy of the Iranian Ababil with a ten-foot wingspan. This is a kamikaze drone, reportedly able to carry a sixty-pound warhead almost a hundred miles.
In 2018 the Houthis announced they had developed a long-range drone called Samad, but many were doubtful it even existed. When the Houthis claimed to have hit Dubai airport, more than nine hundred miles away in 2018, UAE authorities denied the claim. They said airport disruption that day was due to a problem with a ground vehicle — although a leaked video confirming the attack did emerge later.
Many more strikes followed and it was soon apparent the Samad was very real. Captured examples showed Samad was essentially a scaled-up Qasef with a fifteen-foot wingspan and a smaller (40 lb.) warhead, giving increased range – claimed to be over 1200 miles (and over 1500 miles in the latest version). They are made from commercial components including engines from Germany or China and other parts from sources as far afield as Ireland and Korea, with a simple, locally-built airframe.
Most Houthi drones are shot down, but some still get through, despite the efforts of batteries of U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles and F-15 jets. A combination of Houthi drones and missiles set fire to the Abqaiq oil processing facility in 2019, causing a blip in crude oil prices. In February this year both the U.S. and France announced that they were sending advanced fighters and other hardware to the UAE to help defend against Houthi attacks after drones hit Abu Dhabi international airport and killed three people.
The attacks have continued. Last month, three Samad-3 drones struck the Saudi Aramco 2222.SE refinery in Riyadh, starting a fire and raising a column of black smoke visible from where the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was held. Saudi officials downplayed the damage, but it was a propaganda coup for the Houthis.
Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have proven so effective at destroying Russian vehicles, could be laden with explosives and sent on a one-way mission like Doolittle’s B-25s. The Bayraktars radio control system only works to about 200 miles, but with a flight endurance of twenty hours and a cruising speed of 80 mph, they could clearly get to Moscow on autopilot. The task might better be delegated to Ukraine’s more expendable, locally-produced drones rather than precious Bayraktars. There are many types of these, thanks to the artisan drone industry which sprang up as a result of the 2014 war. Ukraine with all its resources should be able to do considerably better than the Houthis.
Could an attack hope to get through? The cross-border helicopter raid suggests it could. Russia’s air defence have performed badly in the current conflict, but even at their height they were never that reliable. When German teenager Mathias Rust decided to fly a light aircraft from Finland to Russia in 1987, he flew right through the defenses and landed safely next to Red Square. Soviet air defenses were aware of his presence but a series of communications failures prevented their fighters from intercepting him.
Russia does have other ways to stop drones which rely on satellite navigation. Since 2016 GPS has been spoofed near the Kremlin, with satnavs showing false locations 20 miles away at Vnukovo airport. Further investigation revealed that Putin is surrounded by a bubble of GPS spoofing; when he visited the Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea in 2018, the satnav glitches followed him there.
This spoofing is carried out by transmitters on the ground which mimic satellites and broadcast fake signals to confuse navigation systems. They are believed to have a specific purpose of protecting the leader from drone attacks.
The spoofing is confined to a small area though, and there are other targets beside the Kremlin. The practical impact of a strike would of course be low, especially compared to the destruction visited on Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, although one drone bomb can do a lot of damage where fuel or ammunition is stored and parked aircraft are highly vulnerable. (Russia’s air base in Khmeimim in Syria has suffered from s series of improvised drone attacks). More importantly, the sound of air raid sirens and the sight of a pillar of smoke on the horizon might have some effect in Moscow. Whether or not it was acknowledged such an attack would boost Ukrainian morale.
The downside is that a drone Doolittle Raid risks escalation and might hamper peace negotiations — if we can still talk of such things – as well as diverting resources from the immediate defense effort. Arguably, any long-range capability should be aimed at high-value military targets. But few would argue that the Doolittle Raid was wasted effort. Its 80th anniversary falls on April 18th, and a modern drone version would send a strong message to Russia and the world.