Top military trends in Russia's war on Ukraine in 2023

Rainer Pihlakas
Jan 1, 2024

Russia has intensified strikes of Iranian-origin Shahed-136/131 munitions, while Ukraine has taken its anti-UAV measures to the next level.

On 21.12, Colonel Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for the Air Force Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said that during the war, Ukraine has destroyed 2,900 of the 3,700 Shahed-136/131 kamikaze UAVs launched by the Russians against Ukrainian targets. This accounts for approximately 78% of the attacking UAVs. Over the past month, since the night of November 24-25, when Russia conducted its largest Shahed attack on Ukrainian targets, launching 75 UAVs, of which Ukraine destroyed 74, Ukraine has been much more effective in destroying Shaheds. According to the Ukrainian Air Force, Ukrainian defenders have destroyed 450 of the 513 Shahed-136/131 kamikaze UAVs over the past month, which is about 88%.

In addition, the Ukrainian air defenders have very well covered most of the country with means of countering the “Shaheds”. For example, repelling recent large-scale attacks, such as on December 21, Ukrainian tactical aviation, anti-aircraft missile units and mobile fire groups destroyed targets in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, Cherkasy, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv, Khmelnytskyi, Sumy, Poltava, Chernihiv and Kirovohrad oblasts. On December 16, fighter jets, anti-aircraft missile units and mobile fire groups repelled a Shaheds attack in Dnipro, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Chernihiv, Sumy, Poltava, Cherkasy, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Khmelnytskyi oblasts. On December 15, Ukrainian air defenders destroyed all 14 Shaheds exclusively by mobile fire groups of the Air Force and Defense Forces of Ukraine within the borders of Mykolaiv, Kherson, Khmelnytsky and Poltava oblasts.

Therefore, despite the increased number of Shahed attacks, Ukrainian defenders have effectively reduced the damage they can inflict by employing cheaper mobile fire groups and consequently saving more expensive anti-aircraft missiles for more dangerous missile attacks.

Russia has launched significantly fewer effective missile strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure than during the past winter.

Late last year, the Russian Ministry of Defence said that Russia would never run out of missiles. Be that as it may, Russia regularly struck Ukrainian infrastructure with Kalibr and Kh-101/Kh-555 missiles last winter. We didn’twitness a single ship or submarine launched Kalibr attack until the end of 2023, with the last Kalibr attack occurring on September 25, when Ukrainian air-defenders destroyed 11 of 12 incoming Kalibr cruise missiles. There have also been significantly fewer attacks by Kh-101/Kh-555 air-to-surface cruise missiles from Tu-95MS strategic bombers. True, there were two attacks with these missiles in December: December 12, when Ukrainian air defences destroyed 14 out of 19 missiles, and December 29, when 87 out of more than 90 missiles were destroyed. The last attack before that took place on September 21, when the Ukrainians destroyed 36 of 43 Kh-101/Kh-555 missiles.

Instead of the Kalibr and Kh-101/Kh-555, which were actively used last winter, Russia has intensified strikes with Kh-59 missiles. The latter has a 1/3 lighter warhead and a much shorter operational range of 290 km than Kalibr and Kh-101/555, which have a range of 2,500 km. Therefore, Russia has not been able to attack the deep rear with missiles as often as last year, since it relies on Kh-47M2 Kinzhal and Iskander-M ballistic missiles, Iskander-K cruise missiles, of which it has a limited number. It also attacks deep rear with Shahed-136/131 loitering munition, but as we saw earlier, Ukrainian air defense is mostly able to cope with them.

Russia has greatly increased its use of guided aerial bombs, but with the arrival of F-16 fighter jets, this tactic will be phased out in the near term.

This spring, Russia began striking frontline areas with Guided Aerial Bombs (KAB) and General Purpose Bombs (FAB), equipped with the Universal Module for Planning and Correction (UMPC). In the fall, the frequency of those strikes increased significantly, sometimes reaching more than 100 FAB and KAB bombs dropped per day. Although the KAB and FAB bombs are inaccurate, their warhead is powerful, and when used so intensively, they have caused much trouble for Ukrainian troops. The range of KAB and FAB bombs is small and barely exceeds 50 km, so Russian bombers are forced to come critically close to the Ukrainian air defence zone. Perhaps the Russian command realized that once the Ukrainian Air Force began using the promised F-16 fighters, Russian bombers will not be able to get close enough to the front line to successfully drop guided bombs. Therefore, the Russians may be using KAB and FAB bombs at maximum intensity to inflict as much damage as possible on Ukrainian troops before the F-16s arrive.

On December 22, the Ukrainians destroyed 3 Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers, and on December 24 another Su-34 fighter-bomber and one Su-30SM fighter – all capable of dropping KAB and FAB bombs. It is not yet clear by what means the Ukrainians destroyed these aircraft, but these latest losses should cool the ardour of the Russians to get critically close to the front line, and the use of guided aerial bombs has already declined in recent days. Although it is too early to say whether the era of FAB and KAB guided bombs is over or whether this is just a temporary setback for the Russians before the F-16s come along and minimize this Russian tactic for the rest of the war.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has seen the most intensive use of UAVs in military conflicts in history, marking a shift in combat tactics and technology.

The use of UAVs in Ukraine represents a new level of warfare. Never before have so many UAVs been used in a military confrontation. In May 2023, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) estimated that Ukraine was losing 10,000 UAVs per month, which gives an idea of the number of UAVs in use. In addition, there are many different UAV systems that range from very small ones with a wingspan of just a dozen centimetres to UAVs with a wingspan of more than 10 meters. Small systems play a particularly important role in Ukraine, while quadcopters and other rotor UAVs, mostly manufactured by commercial firms, are among the most common. UAVs are mainly used for surveillance, intelligence gathering and strike operations. All UAVs are equipped with video and other data collection sensors and are used to guide and conduct strike operations. Kamikaze UAVs, or loitering munitions, such as ZALA’s Lancets and Iran’s Shaheds, are also widely used, especially by Russia.

The most notable aspect of the use of UAVs in this war is the large number of civilian UAVs. Most of the UAVs used by Ukrainian forces were originally developed for commercial purposes. Therefore, they are available in large quantities and at low cost, and are easy to use. Since these UAVs are not designed for war, they cannot last for long - but given their price and availability, they are dispensable. UAVs are usually not built to evade aerial defences, but that does not mean they are easy to deal with. They tend to fly low and slow, and can often be destroyed with a single hit. However, countering UAVs can be challenging, because one needs to have the right anti-UAV systems in the right place at the right time, without spending significantly more money on fighting an UAV than it is worth.

The latest trend in the field of UAVs is the use of first-person view (FPV) UAVs on both sides. According to Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's Minister of Digital Transformation, FPV UAVs are becoming even more useful for Ukrainian frontline soldiers than artillery. Earlier this year, Ukraine dominated the production of FPV UAVs, but Russia has stepped up its own programs and is taking over the UAV production advantage from Ukraine.

The role of armoured vehicles on the battlefield has changed and decreased.

Having suffered losses, especially from UAV strikes, both sides have reduced their use of armoured vehicles for breakthrough attempts. The Russians use tanks primarily to supplement artillery capabilities in indirect engagements and as precision fire support capable of operating at short range and using their improved optics to identify and destroy enemy firing positions.

But recently, for example in the area ofAvdiivka and on the left bank of the Dnipro river near Krynky village, the Russians have not saved their heavy armoured vehicles, which allowed the Ukrainian forces to destroy several hundred tanks and APCs in a short time. Perhaps the Russian command believes that the role of heavy armoured vehicles has been exhausted, and is simply burning tanks and APCs while they can still be used. Or maybe they are simply incompetent in planning operations in modern warfare. Be that as it may, SensusQ analysts have a hard time understanding why the Russians are burning their expensive equipment in such quantities for very limited success on the ground.

But tanks may not be obsolete yet. A combination of tanks with infantry, UAVs, and aircraft can still breach enemy defensive lines, but swarms of UAVs are likely to be used to attack any attacking heavy armoured vehicles. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a successful tank attack without effective support from electronic warfare (EW) and other assets. Thus, the king of the battlefield is no longer the $10 million Abrams tank, but the UAVs, which cost only $1,500.

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