Russia Is Using Tires To Protect Its Bombers From Aerial Attack

Arranging surplus tires atop Russian bombers is likely a highly makeshift countermeasure used to thwart Ukrainian long-range missile strikes.

byThomas Newdick|
Russian Engels Bombers Tires


Recent satellite imagery reveals more details of the unique measures Russia has taken in hopes of protecting its long-range bombers against Ukrainian attacks. The War Zone was first to spot the strange coverings atop a couple of its bombers in late August, but it wasn't clear exactly what they were made of at that time. Now we can definitively say that Russia is placing tires on the upper surfaces of the aircraft in various patterns.

As we have explored in the past, the timing of this move, coming immediately after the announcement that Ukraine has modified its Neptune anti-ship cruise missile to hit targets on land, strongly suggests that the tires are intended to confuse incoming missiles’ targeting systems.

The satellite imagery in question shows various bombers at Engels-2 airbase, roughly 300 miles from the Ukrainian border. Imagery obtained by The War Zone shows at least five turboprop-powered Tu-95MS Bear-H aircraft and at least three examples of the swing-wing Tu-160 Blackjack, all with tires arranged around their upper fuselages, with those on some of the Bears also extending further down the wings.

As you can read more about here, these aircraft, operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Long-Range Aviation branch, have played a significant role in the war in Ukraine. Launching cruise missiles against targets across Ukraine, the resident 121st Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment already received honors from President Vladimir Putin early on in the conflict, for what the Russian leader described as “mass heroism [...] shown by the regiment’s personnel in combat operations.”

Engels-2 is the only permanent base for Long-Range Aviation’s Tu-160 fleet, which numbers around 16 aircraft. Meanwhile, the VKS operates approximately 50 Tu-95MS bombers, some of which are also stationed at other bases.

Named Kaluga, this Tu-95MS is seen carrying four Kh-101 cruise missiles in a photo published on May 10, 2022. Fighterbomber/Telegram

When the first, lower-resolution satellite imagery of the bombers’ unusual coverings emerged, it was by no means clear what exactly they consisted of. Using tires, whether from cars, trucks, or even other aircraft, is clearly a low-cost, rapidly improvised countermeasure to what is apparently an urgent problem. The efficacy of such a tactic, depending on the system being employed against it, is unknown, though.

One of the first images of an Engels-2 Tu-95MS to appear, revealing the unusual covering. Only later did it become clear that this consists of tires. PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

A covering of tires could well be calculated to break up the infrared signature of these aircraft, to confuse cruise missiles using image matching for targeting. This technique is also frequently referred to as DSMAC (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator) or ATR (Automated Target Recognition) when used in cruise missiles.

As we have previously discussed, using DSMAC/ATR would provide land attack versions of Ukraine’s homegrown Neptune missiles with a significant advantage, making them largely immune to electronic warfare jamming. At the same time, their approach to the target would not involve any telltale radio-frequency emissions, thanks to the passive nature of the targeting.

A Ukrainian defense official confirmed to The War Zone that Kyiv has modified Neptune anti-ship missiles to strike ground targets. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

Speaking to The War Zone, a Ukrainian official confirmed that the land-attack Neptune uses a locally developed GPS guidance system to bring the missile to a pre-determined location. The missile then employs an infrared imaging seeker to search for and lock onto a target based on a pre-loaded image. Generally speaking, if missiles using this form of terminal guidance cannot match the target to what's in their memory bank, they will abort the attack. Breaking up the infrared silhouette of the target is one way of attempting to do this.

Ukraine’s donated Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG cruise missiles also use this type terminal homing of arrangement, but Kyiv is prohibited from using them to attack targets within Russian borders. One Storm Shadow that crashed or was shot down in a relatively intact from was collected and sent for intelligence exploitation, with its seeker being of high interest.

Parts of a Storm Shadow cruise missile, either shot down or having malfunctioned, shown after its recovery by Russians. via Twitter

It remains possible that the bombers’ tire coverings serve another purpose, although defeating missiles with DSMAC/ATR capabilities certainly seems the most likely for now. Breaking up the form of the aircraft in the infrared band is precisely what would throw off this type of seeker arrangement. It's also possible that Ukraine's long-range drones could begin using a similar homing ability, but there is no proof of that at this time.

Particularly striking is the timing of the appearance of these tires in relation to the first use of a land-attack-capable Ukrainian Neptune missile. After all, the base has come under repeated attack using crude Ukrainian long-range drones in the past, but there were no previous signs of the tire coverings.

There is also a notable precedent for this kind of Russian countermeasure. Right around the time when Ukraine started using Storm Shadow, we observed how the new paint schemes being applied to warships of the Black Sea Fleet were very likely intended to confuse that missile’s automatic target recognition systems. By blacking out large portions of the ship with paint specifically formulated for infrared suppression, the silhouette would be broken up and the missile's onboard image matching algorithm would be denied a positive identification — at least that's the idea. Other missiles that could find their way to Ukraine via the country's NATO backers also use this same targeting capability, as well.

For Ukraine, the bombers at Engels-2 would be a high-priority target for the land-attack Neptune, the development of which has been spurred by Western restrictions on the use of donated weapons against targets outside Ukrainian borders.

The approximate location of Engels-2 airbase in relation to Ukraine and the wider region. Google Earth

The first use of the modified Neptune was against a target closer to Ukraine, however, with the August 23 strike on a Russian S-400 air defense system in Russian-occupied Crimea. The same Ukrainian defense official who disclosed details about that strike to The War Zone also said there are plans to eventually strike Moscow and other targets inside Russia using the modified Neptune.

Hitting more distant targets may additional modifications, however, with the initial land attack Neptune claimed to have a range of around 400 kilometers (about 250 miles). If these figures are accurate, Engels-2 would be within its reach only with some tweaks. These would involve reducing the size of the warhead and adding more fuel, to extend its range. This is a common practice for evolving cruise missile variants and for destroying parked aircraft, a smaller warhead is of no issue.

Either way, the appearance of this new version of the Neptune presents the Russian Armed Forces with a severe headache, since so many potential targets fall within its reach. It seems one of the first visible responses to the threat is the arrangement of tires atop the bombers at Engels-2 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the same measure appears at other airbases within reach of Ukrainian strikes, too. If Ukrainian drones get a similar autonomous targeting capability, this would be a further threat to contend with.

Finally, there are the operational impacts of this impromptu countermeasure. These tires have to be removed before flight and then put back on after, which is more time consuming than it may seem. They are also a huge source of fuel for any fire even a small drone would make during an attack that may not otherwise destroy the aircraft.

Regardless, without any other form of defense beyond what it already has in place, the tires are still likely seen as a necessary nuisance because Russia’s strategic bomber fleet is a precious and limited resource that is critical to Russia's strategic deterrence and its now year-and-a-half long 'special military operation' in Ukraine.

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