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Protecting Kharkiv: Ukraine's plan against Russian guided bombs before F-16 arrival

Protecting Kharkiv: Ukraine's plan against Russian guided bombs before F-16 arrival A rescuer clearing the rubble after the hit at the Epicenter hypermarket in Kharkiv (photo

The Russian army has not given up trying to destroy Kharkiv. The months-long S-300 missile campaign has been replaced by equally regular attacks with guided aerial bombs (GABs). RBC-Ukraine's report explains what made the Russian military choose a different tactic and whether it is possible to close the sky over the city without F-16s and Patriot systems.


How S-300 missile attacks were stopped

About two years ago, the Ukrainian forces foiled a Russian plan to capture Kharkiv and drove them out of the northern part of the region. But Ukraine's second-largest city is still under constant attack. The reason is geography: the distance from the outskirts to the border with Russia is just over 20 kilometers.

For a long time, the main threat was S-300 missiles. They hit at 100+ km, fly on a ballistic trajectory, and about a minute passes between launch and a hit. It is difficult to counter them. Firstly, because of the lack of appropriate air defense systems, and secondly, even if a Patriot could target them, the stocks of expensive missiles would quickly be depleted.

The solution was to destroy the launchers, and the turning point came in May. The Russian army reopened the front in the north of the region. To stop them, partners allowed Ukraine to use Western weapons to strike at the Russian border. And it worked.

Protecting Kharkiv: Ukraine's plan against Russian guided bombs before F-16 arrival

The consequences of one of the S-300's hits in Kharkiv (photo by

There were reports in June that HIMARS systems could have hit an S-300 or S-400 unit in the Belgorod region. There was no official confirmation, but the General Staff announced a strike on a command center in Nekhoteyevka without going into details.

The enemy felt the permission to strike at the territory of Russia on the front line, The Washington Post writes, citing an unnamed representative of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. Strikes on S-300 and S-400 missile systems reduced the number of missile attacks from 25 in May to zero in June, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said. "The situation has changed a lot," the media quoted him.

"The fact that the (S-300 - ed.) is being used less is clear. All Kharkiv residents feel it. The enemy used to strike with S-300 every night and day, and we note that such attacks have become much less frequent," said Oleh Syniehubov, head of the local administration.

After losing several S-300s, the enemy is acting more cautiously. While there are no problems with missiles, launchers are as worthy as gold, explains Oleksandr Musiienko, head of the Сenter of Military Law Researches.

According to him, Ukraine has tried to hit the S-300 in the Belgorod region before. However, the enemy used electronic warfare (EW), suppressed drones, and often hid the systems in Belgorod itself, industrial zones, and residential areas. With US authorization, more options appeared.

"That's what everyone saw when HIMARS reached the S-300 in an open field. The Russians tried to work with electronic warfare and HIMARS, but our systems received updates and became more resistant to interference," he said.

However, as it turned out once again, the enemy can quickly adapt and change tactics. And now it is hitting Kharkiv with guided aerial bombs (GABs).

How Russians are hitting Kharkiv with GABs

The first time Kharkiv was hit with GABs was on March 27. Two hits in the Shevchenkivskyi district damaged several high-rise buildings, a hospital, a school, and a kindergarten. One person was killed and up to 20 were injured.

These were so-called versatile intermediate gliding munitions (UMPB). They were developed on the basis of FAB-250 high-explosive bombs. In fact, a conventional FAB was equipped with a module with wings and control surfaces. It is believed that a Russian Su-34 bomber launched them from several tens of kilometers away. Since then, the GABs have been regularly flying to Kharkiv.

On May 25, the Epicenter construction hypermarket in the Kyivskyi district was hit. The building was destroyed, killing 19 people and injuring more than 50. On June 22, the Russians launched four GABs. One hit Gagarin Avenue near the bus station, and parts of it hit a five-story building. Two people were killed and more than 50 injured.

Protecting Kharkiv: Ukraine's plan against Russian guided bombs before F-16 arrival

The aftermath of the hit at a house on Gagarin Avenue (photo

Previously, the GABs were launched mainly on the outskirts, but now they have reached the central part of the city.

"According to some estimates, the GABs cover at least 70 kilometers, and it is difficult for us to reach the Su-34 at that distance. As for the strikes themselves, they are openly terrorist. The goal is simple: to destroy the city and demoralize Kharkiv residents. There is no other way to explain the attacks on Kharkiv," said Musiienko.

The most recent attack took place recently. In the morning, after the announced threat, a series of explosions rocked the city. According to Mayor Terekhov, the attack hit a residential area again, and no casualties were reported.

The masses of the warheads of a missile and a bomb based on the FAB-250 are approximately the same. Both of them cause great destruction, and it is not entirely correct to compare what is more dangerous - S-300 or GAB, says Major Oleksii Hetman, a reserve officer in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"If the base is equipped with FAB-500 or FAB-1000, the destruction can be even more serious. I don't think we should compare which is worse. If 100 or 120 kg explodes, there will be no difference at a dangerous distance. The GAB is more dangerous if we consider interception. Have you ever heard of a GAB being shot down? No, because there have been no such cases," he explained in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

How to protect Kharkiv from GABs

It is impossible to shoot down a guided aerial bomb, emphasizes Oleksandr Kovalenko, a military and political observer at the Information Resistance Group. Thus, the only way to defend Kharkiv is to shoot down Su-34 aircraft.

The recipe is based on the successful experience of countering the S-300. Strikes on units in the Belgorod region worked, and logically, Ukraine needs to make sure that tactical aircraft cannot approach the launch sites.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke on that. He called the permission to use American weapons, which made it possible to destroy the S-300 in the border areas of Russia, a strong decision. He added that new solutions were needed to protect Kharkiv from the GABs.

The most obvious is to strengthen air defense. F-16 fighters will be one of the elements. The first six units are expected in the summer. Denmark and the Netherlands have said they can be used against aircraft in Russian airspace. According to The Guardian, the first F-16s are likely to be deployed to defend Kharkiv against GABs.

The second element is long-range systems like Patriot. At least seven batteries have been set as the task, and the allies are approaching this number. Germany, the United States, Romania, and the Netherlands (along with an unnamed partner) will provide Patriot SAMs, and Italy will provide an additional SAMP-T.

According to Musiienko, Kharkiv needs a Patriot, and it should be equipped with PAC-2 missiles with a range of 160 km against aerodynamic targets.

"First, we need to resolve the issue of Russian planes, which will ease the situation. The priority now is to stop the GAB strikes, so we need a Patriot that moves along the front line. I think it will appear soon because our partners promise additional systems and missiles. We need to shoot down 3 to 5 Su-34s, and then, I hope, the enemy will be afraid to approach the distance needed for launching GABs at Kharkiv," he said.

Protecting Kharkiv: Ukraine's plan against Russian guided bombs before F-16 arrival

Patriot near Kharkiv could control the sky over almost the entire Belgorod region (illustrative photo)

Based on the claimed range, one battery near Kharkiv is capable of shooting down tactical aircraft over almost the entire Belgorod region. However, the proximity to the front poses a threat to the Patriot itself.

According to Hetman, it should be located tens of kilometers, or better yet, a hundred kilometers from the border. In that case, it can be covered by mobile air defense groups and short- and medium-range weapons. After all, it is obvious that this air defense system will immediately become the No. 1 target for the Russians.

"Why don't we shoot down the carriers? Because we cannot bring the Patriot closer to Kharkiv. It will simply be destroyed there, and then other cities and strategic facilities will not be protected. We still need to rely on F-16s to attack enemy targets from the air. But there are difficulties here as well. As our planes approach the contact line, they will be vulnerable to Russian air defense systems. It is too optimistic to believe that we will be able to intercept all the carriers of the GABs with F-16s at once," he said.

It is far from certain that even if Ukraine receives additional Patriots, one of them will immediately appear near Kharkiv. "A complex without proper protection is suicide," says Oleksandr Kovalenko.

Can Ukraine counteract GABs right now

The experts questioned by RBC-Ukraine agree that Ukraine has little to offer against the carriers of the GABs right now.

"Because Su-34s launch bombs from distances that provide a safety buffer from our short- and medium-range air defense," Kovalenko says.

Another option is to destroy the Su aircraft on the ground and destroy the rear airfields. Such as Morozovsk (Rostov region), Baltimore (Voronezh region), Seshcha (Bryansk region), and Shaykovka (Kaluga region). The problem is that they are 150 to 300 kilometers away.

According to Kovalenko, ATACMS could cover 300 kilometers if the United States allowed its missiles to develop their full capabilities.

"I hope the West will not stop with half-hearted solutions. To defend Kharkiv, we need to maximize the use of ATACMS. Diplomatic work is underway, and I think we will gradually get all the permits," he said.

Meanwhile, there are no options other than Ukrainian drones and missiles, Musiienko said.

"Ukraine is developing a missile program to enable Neptune to fly a thousand kilometers. When we succeed, we will be able to destroy airfields in combined attacks. There are no other tools, so we have to work with drones and missiles. We still have sabotage attacks, but they are not frequent. Although sometimes Russian planes were simply set on fire," the expert said.

Electronic warfare could be another way to counter the GABs. But an electronic warfare system near Kharkiv, even if it manages to deflect the trajectory by a kilometer, will most likely still land in a building on the scale of a large city.

"So, we need to catch the bomb 20 kilometers away from Kharkiv, diverting it to forests and fields. It is theoretically possible, but in practice it is impossible," the expert added.


Until there are enough F-16s, Patriots, and long-range missiles, Kharkiv will remain under the threat of constant GAB strikes. And until then, the idea of the underground city will remain relevant. The first underground school with 20 classrooms is already ready to accept 900 students in two shifts. In the center of Kharkiv, they want to build an entire underground city with a school, shopping center, coworking space, and hospital.

After two years of war, Ukraine's second-largest city has become a symbol of resistance. Among other things, thanks to the ability of Kharkiv residents to adapt to new challenges that Russia keeps generating.

Sources: statements of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kharkiv Regional Military Administration head Oleh Syniehubov, The Washington Post, and comments by military experts Oleksandr Musiienko, Oleksii Hetman, and Oleksandr Kovalenko.