As Russia moves its accumulated forces around Ukraine’s borders, observers are watching to see if an invasion will actually happen. It remains uncertain whether Russia will demobilize its forces on its own, whether a diplomatic settlement can be reached that would persuade the country not to invade, or whether an invasion will continue regardless. What is clear is that Russia has moved its forces into a position that allows it to launch a war of choice, if its political leaders so choose.
A ground war in Europe would be a tragedy for the countries at war and a crisis for the international community, which has taken steps to see if there remains a path to de-escalation. On February 15, President Joe Biden delivered a speech on how the United States might respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. He promised continued diplomatic efforts, but also listed a series of policy responses the United States would likely pursue if Russia moved its amassed forces to Ukraine. “Right now,” Biden said Tuesday, “Russia has over 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine in Belarus and along the Ukrainian border.”
The conflict stems most immediately from unresolved tensions between Russia and Ukraine after 2014 protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv ousted a closely Russian-aligned government. In the same year, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and its naval bases, and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine declared the provinces they held to be two separate breakaway republics. . Since 2014, Ukraine has been waging a war to reintegrate separatist areas.
While the situation in Kyiv is said to be calm, the strengthening of forces has long been visible. The Washington Post reported in October that satellite imagery revealed a mass of forces, and those numbers grew in the months that followed to encompass forces normally stationed in every corner of Russia’s vast territory.
To better understand what a war between Russia and Ukraine might look like, it helps to understand the modern machinery of the Russian military. Here are three weapon systems and how they could be used.
A trio of tanks: the T-72, T-80, T-90
Among the first signs of a buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine is the presence of the 1st Guards Tank Army, a military formation that includes hundreds of tanks. The 1st Guards includes the T-72 and T-80 models, tanks that were first built and fielded by the Soviet Union and have since been modernized. The third main tank model in Russia’s inventory is the T-90, which is of more recent origin than the T-72 and T-80, although its roots are slightly more complex than that. The T-90 is derived from the T-72, and modern variants of older tank designs are also in production. Like any machine that has been in service for decades, the tanks have undergone post-manufacturing upgrades, so some T-72 models might feature more modern advanced systems than older T-90 models.
All three tank models share important characters. They can travel at speeds between 37 mph (the T-72) and 45 mph (T-80) on roads and cover unpaved terrain at around 27 mph. Each model uses the same gun, a 125mm smoothbore cannon, allowing ammunition to be shared between types. These tanks can also fire anti-tank guided missiles for a better punch at a greater range than regular ammo. Some of the tanks include advanced targeting sensors that can identify enemies from 1.5 miles away and in low light conditions.
Some advanced targeting tools are also being developed for the T-14 Armata, a modern tank with an optional crew that has not yet been produced in sufficient numbers that it is likely to fight an immediate war.
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In any attack, the goal of tank formations is to advance into hostile territory, over trenches and rough terrain if necessary, while destroying any defenders in their path. And since their inception, tanks have combined speed, firepower and armor to achieve this. While tank armor was originally just the metal used in hulls, decades of experience and iteration over tank design has led to active protective measures. These are hull and turret mounted explosive packs that are detonated when hit by heavy enemy attacks, exploding outwards and letting the counter-blast cushion the weapon’s impact. attacker.
The T-90 has a special type of armor called RELIKT, which detonates sheets of explosive material on impact that could incapacitate an incoming projectile. RELIKT armor plates can be replaced in the field, meaning tanks protected by this armor can be reused after battle, instead of having to return to a remote base for repair.
Tanks alone do not win wars. Any modern army that plans to use them includes other resources, so tanks are supported by aircraft, artillery, infantry and other vehicles. The Russian military is rich in artillery, with modern ammunition and sensors paired with Soviet-era machinery.
One such weapon is the BM-30 Smerch, which was spotted near the Ukrainian border as part of the initial buildup of Russian forces in October. The Smerch is a multiple rocket launcher system, or in simpler terms, it’s a truck that carries 12 rocket tubes on its back. For firing, the Smerch rotates the launcher upwards and it can fire all rockets in one large burst over 38 seconds or it can place shots individually allowing it to hit a range of targets.
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The Smerch was designed with rockets that had a range of 43 miles, but recent upgrades have increased that range to 56 miles. Inside each rocket is either a large warhead, or five anti-tank warheads with a guidance sensor, or 72 submunitions. These submunitions are cluster explosives themselves, turning a rocket into 72 smaller bombs that explode into nearly 400 pieces, a fractal of destruction. Both the governments of Syria and Azerbaijan have used Smerch artillery in their wars. Like any weapon that disperses explosives, it is possible that after battle some unexploded ordnance will linger, posing a threat to civilians for years to come.
With certain ammunition, the 12 rockets fired from a Smerch can launch explosives over an area of about 60 hectares, or about 150 football fields. Finding the right areas to target and then inspecting the aftermath is a task relegated to drone operators, who can direct existing Russian reconnaissance drones like the Orlan-10 to inspect damage and find new targets.
Modern tanks, artillery and drones are all sensor-rich systems. Obstructing enemy sensors while protecting friendly sensors is the job of electronic warfare. One of the simplest manifestations of electronic warfare is the use of a jammer, mounted on a truck, which can be emplaced.
The Krasukha 2 and Krasukha 4 electronic warfare systems are indeed jammers on trucks. These jammers obstruct radar signals by sending out powerful waves that block the signals that a system, like radar, relies on to perceive the world. Jammers can also block regular communications over radio waves, and Krasukha systems have even been reported to prevent drones from receiving GPS signals.
Modern tools, such as sensors capable of detecting incoming signals and then calibrating the right type of jamming signal to send in response, have made electronic warfare tools more effective. With Krasuhka jammers in place, Russian forces can potentially prevent enemy radars from accurately perceiving the world, shielding their friends from detection and making some targeting systems less effective.