November 29, 2023:
The Ukraine War involved a lot of experimentation with new weapons and ways to use them. One of the most unique and effective of these new weapons consists of small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) armed with a thermobaric warhead that consists of an explosive gas sprayer and a detonator which ignites the ensuing cloud of explosive gas. Ukraine developed new thermobaric warheads before the Russians invaded in 2022 and have developed novel ways to use their thermobaric devices. One of the more innovative applications is to equip a quadcopter or fixed wing UAV with a five- or ten-pound thermobaric bomb and then have ground-based operators fly the aircraft towards a target and either crash into the target before igniting the thermobaric explosive or drop a thermobaric explosive onto a target and fly away. The thermobaric explosive can kill or wound troops and equipment in nearby trenches or buildings.
Twenty years ago, American troops used a 40mm thermobaric grenade launched from a launcher mounted under the barrel of their assault rifles. Firing one of these grenades into a cave or a building killed or wounded most of the people inside. In Afghanistan, American troops used these grenades to deal with enemy troops in caves or rooms of buildings. Often, just the threat of using a thermobaric grenade would induce surrender.
The Ukrainians have been successful with their tactic of delivering thermobaric bombs on a UAV to a distant Russian position. Even though many of the UAVs are shot down or miss the target, enough of them get through to cause casualties that machine-guns, mortars or RPGs (Rocket-Propelled Grenades) were unable to handle. The Russian troops are terrified of this weapon because it can show up even though the nearest Ukrainian troops are many kilometers away.
While the Russians pioneered the use of thermobaric weapons, they considered their thermobaric bombs artillery, not something carried long distances by UAVs that can change course while seeking an appropriate target. These innovative Ukrainian tactics have caused unexpected casualties on Russian troops far from the combat zone and not expecting to be attacked, especially by thermobaric weapons. These Ukrainian tactics have reduced their need for artillery ammunition and been able to reach enemy targets beyond artillery range. Another advantage is that the UAVs armed with thermobaric bombs are manufactured by the Ukrainians using locally available materials. Russia will probably soon start using its versions of these weapons, which will revolutionize infantry tactics.
At the same time Ukraine has opened factories for the production of munitions and missiles, especially anti-aircraft missiles that can also intercept enemy missiles. Russia has undertaken missile attacks on Ukrainian electrical power generation systems in an effort to reduce heating for Ukrainians civilians during winter. This is demoralizing for civilians, who the Russians hope will blame their government and be more willing to make peace on Russian terms. The Ukrainian government has been devoting more resources to repairing the damage to energy systems.
Ukraine is a democracy and popular attitudes matter. While Russia is more of a dictatorship, leader Vladimir Putin is losing support from key associates because of the economic sanctions and their impact on the fortunes of his wealthy allies. Russia has managed to minimize damage to standards of living for most Russians to foster continued support for the war, even though the growing number of Russian casualties are common knowledge to civilians and has more Russians questioning the justification for the war. The Russian forces are not winning, and families back home are suffering in other ways. And for what? The Ukrainians continue to resist, and the Russian strategy appears to be an endurance contest that gets a lot of Russians killed while trying to kill enough Ukrainians to make a peace deal, on Russian terms, seem attractive. The Ukrainian response is to find ways to keep their own casualties down while continuing to kill as many of the attacking Russians as they can.
Russia has run out of tanks and similar heavy weapons because of Ukrainian tactics which emphasize destroying armored vehicles. This has been successful and, while Ukraine is able to obtain more tanks from NATO countries, Russia has no such resource and Russian troops are not eager to take on Ukrainian tanks without effective anti-tank weapons. Ukraine is also receiving F-16 jet fighters from the United States and the many NATO nations that also use this aircraft. NATO nations are in the process of replacing their F-16s with F-35s and find Ukraine is eager to accept NATO F-16s headed for retirement. There is a massive effort in Europe and the United States to train Ukrainian pilots to operate the F-16s. It won't be until early 2024 that the many new Ukraine F-16 pilots will begin to show up. The F-16s are a major upgrade over the Russian warplanes the Ukrainians have been using, and Ukrainian pilots switching to F-16s notice the differences. Western economic sanctions have been particularly hard on the Russian aviation industry and few new warplanes have been built. When the Ukrainian F-16s start eliminating Russian warplanes, there won’t be any replacements. The Ukrainians will receive more and more F-16s, which are also good at ground attack and supporting troops on the ground.
Russia is running out of resources and options and the Ukrainians are taking advantage of that as quickly and thoroughly as they can.