Ukraine Strikes Back At Bomber Base Deep Inside Russia

This is the second time Ukraine has executed long-range drone strikes on Engels Air Base located hundreds of miles inside Russia.

byHoward Altman|
Engels Air Base attack


A second apparent Ukrainian drone attack this month on Russia’s Engels Air Base in the Saratov region 300 miles from the Ukrainian border has resulted in three people killed and four injured, according to Russian media.

It is claimed that no Russian aircraft were damaged in the incident, according to the Telegram channel of the Russian official TASS news agency. The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) said the deaths were caused after the drone was shot down before it could cause any damage to the airfield or aircraft.

“The air defense systems of the Russian Aerospace Forces prevented a Ukrainian drone strike on the Engels military airfield in the Saratov region,” TASS reported Monday. “Three people were killed due to falling debris, the planes were not damaged, the Russian Defense Ministry said.”

After the explosion a fire erupted, the Russian Baza news agency's Telegram channel reported. In addition to three people killed, four more were hospitalized, according to Baza.

That Ukrainian drones could again fly so deep into Russian territory raises anew questions about its air defense capabilities. Low and slow-flying drones, especially those made of composite materials, are hard to detect, track and engage. But these larger Soviet-era jet-powered reconnaissance drones should be more vulnerable, depending on the circumstances. Still, one of these that was modified with a warhead first appeared in Croatia not long after the war began. It apparently malfunctioned badly or had improper coordinates uploaded into it. You can read about that bizarre event here.

Tu-141 on its launcher. (Ukraine MoD)

The attack also sends a powerful signal of Ukrainian resolve and of Kyiv’s expanding options for retaliation.

Despite Russian assertions, there are unconfirmed reports of aircraft damaged at Engels in this latest attack, and of Russia moving aircraft out of the airfield.

While Ukraine has typically avoided commenting on attacks inside Russia, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat on Monday hinted at it.

“If the Russians thought that the war would not affect them deep in the rear, they were wrong," he told reporters on Monday, according to the Kyiv Independent.

Ignat also said that Russia's claims about no aircraft being damaged have yet to be proven.

This is the second apparent Ukrainian drone attack on the base this month. On Dec. 5, Engels and Dyagilevo Air Base were struck by what the Russian MoD said were Soviet-made jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicles modified by Ukraine to carry explosives. The Russian MoD was referring to the jet-powered Tu-141 Strizh, originally built as a reconnaissance UAV. Smaller Tu-143s have also likely been used. You can read about that here.

Those attacks resulted in damage to at least one Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bomber and apparently also to a Tu-95MS Bear-H bomber. 

The Tu-95MS has been widely used to launch cruise missiles against targets in Ukraine since the start of the war. Engels is home to the 22nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Division, which operates one squadron of Bear-Hs and another squadron of supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. Both types have been employed in the conflict in Ukraine and especially in recent months as Russia stepped up its standoff strikes on Ukraine's energy infrastructure.

And one day after that attack, Russian authorities blamed a Ukrainian drone strike for the fire that broke out on a Russian airbase in the country’s southern Kursk region, around 60 miles from the Ukrainian border.

The regional governor of Kursk Oblast, Roman Starovoy, said on his Telegram channel that the drone attack on Khalino Air Base on Dec. 6 had ignited what he described as an “oil reservoir” — presumably a fuel storage depot — within the airbase’s perimeter. He added that fire crews were containing the blaze. Multiple videos posted to social media showed flames leaping up into the night sky early this morning; thick black smoke was also indicative of a fuel fire. You can read more about that incident here.

In the wake of those attacks, other Russian air bases have decided to disperse their aircraft in case of attack. Satellite imagery showed that aircraft at Yeysk Naval Air Station were more spread out across the flight line. 

The Russian Air Force apparently took further precautions at its bases. Evergreen Intel (@vcdgf555) and ThreeCalories (@ThreeCalories) found dividers installed between many active aircraft at the Akhtubinsk Flight Test Centre. The dividers are no doubt an attempt to contain any damage to one aircraft in an attack, designed to prevent both fire and shrapnel spreading (which occurred at Saki Air Base in Crimea this summer).

While hardening the airfields is certainly a prudent response to these drone attacks, Russia has apparently yet to find an answer to Ukraine's stock of long-range drones that have struck not only deep inside its borders, but have also hit targets on Crimea proper.

Regardless of whether any aircraft were damaged in this latest attack, the fact that Ukraine could once again fly so far into Russian airspace will no doubt embolden Kyiv to attempt more of these long-range drone attacks. It remains to be seen how Russia can respond.

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