Russian Aerial Bomb With Mysterious Wing Kit Strapped To It Surfaces
Without guidance, winged bombs would lack accuracy, but could be used to strike area targets, like cities in Ukraine, at standoff ranges.
A picture of what appears to be a FAB-500M-62 bomb with a kit attached that features pop-out wings loaded onto a Russian Su-34 Fullback combat jet has emerged online. While there are no clear indications that the modified weapon is guided, the wing kit could still allow the bomb to be employed against target areas at extended ranges, allowing pilots to stay further away from enemy air defenses. Any such unguided strikes would be very inaccurate, but could still be used against very broad area targets, such as Ukrainian cities.
Details surrounding the image are scant, which looks to have first appeared on the pro-Russian Fighterbomber channel on the Telegram social media network earlier today, and the weapon seen therein. An accompanying post references the war in Ukraine, but provides no details about the munition or where or when the picture was taken.
From what can be seen in the picture, the wing kit appears to consist of two pop-out main wings and a pair of horizontal stabilizers fitted to an elongated metal assembly that is strapped to a FAB-500M-62. The bomb, which notably features a cartoonish face painted on the front of it, appears otherwise unmodified. The FAB-500M-62 is a 1,100-pound (500 kilogram) class general-purpose high-explosive bomb.
The construction of the wing kit looks to be somewhat crude. This might point to a design focused on rapid, low-cost production or even a more localized unit-level field modification. It also could be entirely experimental and seen in its raw 'proof of concept' form.
The basic functioning of the weapon is not clear, but there is a prominent wire that runs between the rear of the wing kit and the pylon to which the bomb is attached. It is possible that when released, the wire triggers the release of the wings in some way.
The Telegram post, as well as other posts on social media, have drawn comparisons to the U.S. Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) family of precision-guided bombs, examples of which Ukraine's military is set to receive and for which range-extending wing kits are also available. Standard JDAMs use a combination of inertial navigation system (INS) and GPS guidance, together with an autopilot, to direct the bomb's course via a set of steerable tail fins. Depending on the release altitude, a 500-pound-class JDAM-Extended Range (JDAM-ER) with a wing kit can hit targets up to 40 miles away.
However, the modified FAB-500M-62 does not immediately appear to be guided in any way. The design of the rear stabilizers may suggest that they are able to move up and down, but this could provide limited ability to course correct by itself or just help to keep it right side up and on pitch. This could provide a way for the weapon to dive onto its target at a set point in its flight, although this is less likely. It is also possible that the main wings can articulate in some fashion once deployed, but it is not clear if this is the case from the available image showing them in their stowed position.
There is, interestingly, a precedent in Russia for range-extending wing kits for unguided, as well as guided bombs. At least in the past, the Russian firm GNPP Bazalt has worked on developing wing kits for various types of dumb bombs, including the FAB-500M-62, with and without associated guidance systems. These have been referred to as Modul Planirovaniya i Korrektsi (MPK), or "gliding and correction module," in Russian.
"The simplest variant [of the MPK] is an unfolding wing (with a span ranging from 64.5cm, 25.4in to 200cm, 78.7in) with considerable dihedral, and a vertical fin in the forward portion of the weapon," Piotr Butowski, a Russian military aviation expert and contributor to The War Zone, wrote in his 2017 book Russia's Air-launched Weapons: Russian-made Aircraft Ordnance Today. "The bomb is stabilized aerodynamically without any homing. The aim is to reach a range of 6-7km (3.7-4.3 miles) when dropped from low altitude."
In his book, Butowski notes that, at least at the time of writing, Bazalt's work had yet to yield "any real results" and that "the most serious problem with the MPK module is that in contrast with American aerial bombs, Russian GP [general purpose] bombs are welded monoliths. "So, it is impossible to remove the tail section and replace it with a guidance unit, as the Americans do with the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)," he added.
Whether or not what is seen in the picture that appeared online today, guided or unguided, is in any way related to the MPK development effort is unclear. An accompanying picture in Butowski's book of a model of a FAB-500M-62 with an MPK module shows a distinctly different design.
If this newly emerged configuration has a guidance system of some kind, it would seem to speak, at least to a degree, to the limits of the size and scope of Russia's existing arsenal of precision-guided air-launched weapons. Russia's use of guided air-to-surface missiles in Ukraine has been relatively limited compared to what one might expect to see in a conflict of this scale. The country's arsenal of precision-guided bombs, such as the laser-guided KAB-1500LG or electro-optically-guided UPAB-1500, has been seen even more sparingly in the course of the fighting to date.
In addition, more recently, there are indications that Russia's available stocks of certain types of air-launched precision missiles, especially long-range air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, may be running low. Crippling international sanctions, exacerbated by the Russian defense industrial base's heavy reliance on foreign-made electronics and other components in various weapon systems, have prompted questions about how quickly it might be possible to replenish stocks of these munitions.
With all this in mind, even an unguided bomb with a wing kit would offer at last some useful additional standoff range for Russian pilots, and at a relatively low cost. This would, in turn, allow them to stay just that much further away from hostile air defenses. The air forces of both Russia and Ukraine have seen significant losses to surface-to-air missiles, including shoulder-fired types also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), in what has now been nearly a year of all-out fighting.
The War Zone has reported in the past on how anti-aircraft threats have increasingly prompted Russian fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter crews to adopt tactics to keep them away from Ukrainian defenders as much as possible. Both sides are largely conducting flight operations of all kinds a very low levels.
Employed unguided bombs with wing kits across extended ranges would, of course, come at the cost of any kind of real accuracy. Releases at lower attitudes would reduce how far the wing-equipped bomb could travel, but lofting or toss-bombing tactics might help.
Where this weapon may be most beneficial, if indeed it truly exists as an operational concept, is for release at high altitude, giving the weapon as much glide range as possible. This could allow Russian tactical aircraft to launch them dozens of miles away from their targets, giving them a degree of survivability that has not existed without precision standoff weaponry for months. Given that Ukraine's extended-range air defenses are only set to improve via western donations of advanced systems, such a weapon could not only prove attractive, but essential as the stocks of far more complex and expensive precision standoff weapons runs down.
No matter how they might be employed, given what has already been observed of Russian tactics in Ukraine, especially when conducting strikes against population centers in the country, inaccuracy might not matter. Unguided bombs with wing kits could be used against actual military targets, including trench lines and other fortification networks, and other areas understood to have large concentrations of enemy forces. Russian and Ukrainian helicopter crews have already been conducting strikes with unguided rockets for months now using an indirect fire technique that seems similarly imprecise, which you can read more about here.
The appearance of the picture of the wing kit-equipped bomb comes as the Russian military increasingly faces the prospect of a major fight over the Crimean Peninsula, where airpower could be particularly important in helping to hold the line. Ukraine's forces continue to try to press their advances elsewhere in the eastern and southern ends of the country, too.
Without more context about the picture that emerged today, there is of course the possibility that this wing kit-equipped FAB-500M-62 is or was a one-off of some kind or otherwise does not reflect any sort of active work on this kind of capability. Without more information, we just can't say with any certainty.
That being said, as noted, the capabilities that a kit like this would offer, even if it is unguided, seem to align well with what has been observed so far when it comes to Russia's air war over Ukraine.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org