Russia uses Orlan UAV to target Kh-38ML missile fired from a Su-34

In the past week, a Russian airstrike went largely unnoticed by the media. However, it may turn out to be key for the Ukrainian counter-offensive, or for the Russian defense.

The Russian think tank Rybar draws attention to the destroyed four bridges along the Oskol River bed near the village of Senkovo. The four destroyed bridges are located in the Kupyan section of the river.

The bridges are small, and so is the area. But such attacks carried out systematically by the Russian Aerospace Forces [VKS] disrupt the logistics of the Ukrainian armed forces and make it difficult to counter-offensive.

Russia uses Orlan UAV to target Kh-38ML missile fired from a Su-34
Photo credit: Telegram

This is the first key factor that is important to both warring parties. The destruction of the four bridges in the Kupyansk area hampered the Ukrainian advance to the east. Thus, control of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the eastern flank of Kupyansk is currently controlled by the Russian army.

At the same time, Russian units can launch an offensive precisely in this region. They control the northern border of the Kupyan direction. This point the Ukrainian army does not have access. Ukrainians relying only on the eastern flank.

Second key point

The other key moment in the successful Russian air attack can be divided into two important events. The first one – the first documented use of Russian Kh-38ML air-to-surface missiles. The second one – their targeting, not by the Su-34 that launched them, but by the Orlan reconnaissance drone.

Kh-38ML is an air-to-surface missile with inertial, semi-active laser guidance. Curiously, apart from the Su-34 Fullbak fighter-bomber, the other combat aircraft in the Russian Air Force that can carry this missile is the Su-57 Felon. But the range of the missile is limited to 40 km. For this reason, the Su-57 was not used in this Russian action, as it would have entered deep into the war zone.

Referral from Orlan

More interesting is the guidance of the missiles, which was carried out by the Russian Orlan drone. In the past, we have witnessed the participation of a pair of combat aircraft in a similar mission – Su-30 or Su-35 paired with Su-34. The use of a drone means that the Russians assumed [or knew] that there were no anti-aircraft missile systems in the area of hostilities.

Russia acquired new Su-34Ms with rear-hemisphere scanning radar
Photo credit: Global Look Press

Therefore, the Su-30/Su-35 were not included in the action, the role of which is, in principle, to engage them precisely with the ground-based missile systems and their radars. The use of the Orlan UAV facilitates the Russian air attack, engaging an air platform that “can easily be expended by the Russians”.

It appears that Russian aviation has, for the first time [to our knowledge], begun to combine the use of both drones and fighter-bombers – a tactical innovation. According to several experts whom we’ve consulted, these Su-34 bombers, fitted with cruise missiles, have the potential to augment Russia’s long-range attack prowess significantly. Shao Yongling, a noted military observer, proposes that these bombers could essentially enhance the accuracy of targeting procedures. 

In the view of Yonglin, Russia’s strategic employment of these bombers could impose escalating tensions on Ukraine, particularly on its air defense system. The scenario of these bombers being utilized for firing long-range missiles might further exacerbate Ukraine’s security predicament, especially during the harsh winter seasons.

RosOboronExport unveiled 15 new weapons amid war and sanctions - orlan-30
Photo credit: Wikimedia

How it works?

The Orlan drone is equipped with a laser target designator that emits a laser beam at the target. This laser beam acts as a homing signal for the missile fired by the Su-34. The missile’s laser guidance system receives and detects the laser beam, allowing it to adjust its trajectory accordingly.

As the Orlan drone tracks the target, it continuously emits a laser beam at it. The missile’s laser guidance system receives the laser beam and uses it to calculate the necessary flight path corrections. This information is then transmitted to the missile’s control system, which makes the necessary changes to the missile’s fins, or thrusters, to guide it to its target. The drone’s laser pointer and the missile’s laser guidance system work in tandem to provide accurate and precise targeting.

Russia uses Orlan UAV to target Kh-38ML missile fired from a Su-34
Photo credit: Russian MoD

The drone’s laser pointer emits a laser beam with specific characteristics, such as wavelength and modulation. The missile’s laser guidance system is designed to detect and interpret these characteristics, allowing it to distinguish the laser beam from other light sources.

About Kh-38ML

The Kh-38ML is equipped with a high-explosive fragmentation warhead, which is designed to inflict maximum damage upon impact. The warhead is capable of penetrating various types of armor, making it a versatile weapon against both soft and hard targets. This type of warhead is designed to produce a devastating blast upon detonation, creating a lethal combination of blast and fragmentation effects.

In terms of its technical characteristics, the Kh-38ML has a maximum range of approximately 40 kilometers, allowing it to engage targets at a considerable distance. It has a relatively small size and weight.

Su-57's complete armament, which characterizes it as 'awesome' Kh-38
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The missile is guided by an inertial navigation system, which ensures accurate trajectory and target tracking. Additionally, it can be equipped with a laser guidance system, enabling it to engage moving targets with high precision. The Kh-38ML also features a digital autopilot system, which enhances its flight stability and control.

Kh-38ML’s propulsion system

The propulsion system of the Kh-38ML plays a crucial role in its performance. The missile uses a solid-fuel rocket motor, which offers several advantages over liquid-fuel engines. Solid-fuel rockets are more reliable and easier to maintain, as they do not require complex fueling procedures.

They also provide a higher thrust-to-weight ratio, allowing the missile to accelerate rapidly and achieve greater speeds. This propulsion system enables the Kh-38ML to effectively engage targets at both low and high altitudes, making it a versatile weapon for various operational scenarios.

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