The pace and effectiveness of the Russian Air Force (well, technically they are now called AirSpace Forces or ASF so I will refer to them as RASF from now on) has the western military experts in shock. Not only are the number of sorties per day about 3 times as much as a US or NATO country could achieve, but the Russian airstrikes are amazingly accurate even though the Russians are flying at over 5000m above ground, well out of reach of man portable air defense systems (MANPADS). They are even flying at night and in bad weather. This is even more puzzling considering that most of the work, at least in quantitative terms, is done by old SU-24s (first deployed in 1974) and SU-25 (first deployed in 1981). In fact, most of the missions in Syria could have been executed by these to excellent but, frankly, ancient aircraft and the main reason for the presence of the brand new and extremely advanced SU-34 is to test out the airframe and its systems (and since the Turks shot down the SU-24, to provide credible air-to-air self defense capability where needed). So what is the deal here? How did the Russians achieve these apparently quasi-miraculous results?
With something called the SVP-24.
But first let me give you some background, a bombing 101 crash course of sorts.
The original bombs of “WWII” technology were simple gravity bombs. Airplanes dropped them by roughly aiming through a basic targeting system and they fell more or less on target. For carpet bombing this was adequate and for precision bombing this was not ideal, but considering the slow speed or aircraft and their low altitude that was okay. However, with the increase in the speed of aircraft a one second delay in releasing a bomb could easily result in a miss by 600-800 meters, if not more. Furthermore, some reinforced targets needed a direct hit (command posts, bridges, etc.). Two main type of guided bombs were developed: laser-guided and TV guided.
The laser guided bomb work very simply: the aircraft (or ground spotter) “paints” the target with a laser beam, and the bomb has some (limited) ability to glide towards that easily distinguishable spot of light. The TV guided bomb also operates in a simple manner: the weapons system officers centers the bomb’s TV camera on the target and glides the bomb towards it. As long as the bomb is within a specific “envelope” (speed, altitude, angle) the bomb will hit. Or not. Because even one small cloud puff can result in a major loss of accuracy which, again, with the speed at which these aircraft fly today can mean hundreds of meters (if that topic interests you, see this Wikipedia article).
The advent of satellite guidance ushered a new era for guided weapons. For the first time it became possible to use GPS (or, for the Russians, GLONASS) satellite signals to guide a bomb to a target. Not only were these satellite guided bombs more accurate, they also did not depend on good weather conditions. Their main problem was that they were very expensive to manufacture. The other problem is that most weapons stores were full of thousands of cheap and old unguided bombs. What to do with them?
The Americans came up with an elegant solution: the JDAM. The Joint Direct Attack Munition kit was a way to convert “dumb” (non-guided) bombs into “smart” (guided) bombs by attaching a special kit to them. You can read more about this in this Wikipedia article. This made it possible to use old bombs, but this was still not cheap, roughly 25’000 dollars a kit (according to Wikipedia).
The Russians came up with a much better solution.
Instead of mounting a kit on an old bomb and lose the kit every time, the Russians mounted a JDAM-like kit, but on the airplane.
Introducing the SVP-24:
SVP stands for “специализированная вычислительная подсистема” or “special computing subsystem”. What this system does is that it constantly compares the position of the aircraft and the target (using the GLONASS satellite navigation system), it measures the environmental parameters (pressure, humidity, windspeed, speed, angle of attack, etc.). It can also receive additional information from datalinks from AWACs aircraft, ground stations, and other aircraft. The SVP-24 then computes an “envelope” (speed, altitude, course) inside which the dumb bombs are automatically released exactly at the precise moment when their unguided flight will bring them right over the target (with a 3-5m accuracy).
In practical terms this means that every 30+ year old Russian “dumb” bomb can now be delivered by a 30+ year old Russian aircraft with the same precision as a brand new guided bomb delivered by a top of the line modern bomber.
Not only that, but the pilot does not even have to worry about targeting anything. He just enters the target’s exact coordinates into his system, flies within a defined envelope and the bombs are automatically released for him. He can place his full attention on detecting any hostiles (aircraft, missiles, AA guns). And the best part of this all is that this system can be used in high altitude bombing runs, well over the 5000m altitude which MANPADs cannot reach. Finally, clouds, smoke, weather conditions or time of the day play no role in this whatsoever.
Last, but not least, this is a very *cheap* solution. Russian can now use the huge stores of ‘dumb’ bombs they have accumulated during the Cold War, they can bring an infinite supply of such bombs to Syria and every one of them will strike with phenomenal accuracy. And since the SVP-24 is mounted on the aircraft and not the bomb, it can be reused as often as needed.
The SVP-24 has now been confirmed to be mounted on the Russian SU-24s, SU-25s, Tu-22M3 “Backfires” and the Kamov Ka-50 and Ka-52 helicopters, the venerable MiG-27 and even the L-39 trainer. In other words, it can be deployed on practically *any* rotary or fixed wing aircraft, from big bombers to small trainers. I bet you the Mi-24s and Mi-35Ms deployed near Latakia also have them.
Here are what the various parts of the SVP-24 system look like (photo from the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky):
The SVP-24 proves, yet again, the good engineering, especially good military engineering does not have to be expensive or flashy. In practice the introduction of the SVP-24 in the RASF resulted in a net reduction in operating costs.
In conclusion, I will note that things are not always rosy and perfect in the Russian military either. In fact, the company producing the SVP-24 had to sue the Russian Ministry of Defense for unpaid money and there was a great deal of opposition inside the MoD to the SVP-24 (probably due to the influence of corrupt competitors). Eventually all problems were resolved, the SVP-24 is being deployed in huge numbers, but it took a long and hard battle to get to this point. So, just like in the USA, corruption in the Russian military remains one of the worst enemies of the armed forces.
Anyway, I hope that you have found this digression “under the hood” interesting.
Happy new year to all, all the best for 2016, hugs and cheers,