To get the support infrastructure in place at Pankovo on Yuhzny Island has taken a lot of effort – and a lot of standard ISO ship containers.
These have been taken by several ships, mainly over the summer months, over two years. Due to weather and icing conditions during the winter period it is pretty impossible to do anything outside of the summer.
Recently the ships in use have been captured on satellite imagery – particularly on Sentinel. Over at Covert Shores, H I Sutton has just published a blog on the likely ships in use for this task. The activity around the islands has been tracked for quite some time however and this blog really just fully confirms the IDs of the ships Covert Shores had chosen as possibilities.
First of all, it can be confirmed it is Teriberka that is operating at the island harbour bay area – visible in a nice Sentinel graphic produced at Covert Shores. This ship has been to and from Arkhangelsk on at least three occasions since early August 2022.
Geolog Pechkurov can also be confirmed as the ship operating with Teriberka at the moment. She had been operating along with a research ship at the western end of the Matochkin Shar Strait between Severny and YuzhnyIslands early to mid-August, but returned with Teriberka mid September.
Both ships have their own cranes and lifting gear.
Probably the more unsual ship is Sevmorput – a nuclear powered container/cargo ship. It is large at 260 metres in length, with its own cranes and lifting gear. A considerable number of containers can be held on board.
Sevmorput has been in the area before and is likely to be the main carrier for most of the equipment and containers. Like the other two ships, operations here have been going on since at least mid-August with returns to Murmansk rather than Arkhangelsk.
Smaller barges are used to transport the containers from all the ships to the small jetty in the harbour bay area.
There’s not much more to say on this apart from that the amount of work that is needed to get operations running at Novaya Zemlya is considerable – and needs to be completed in a short time period due to weather conditions over the winter.
This means that time is running short for this period of activity – and also means should there be a test of Burevestnik, it can’t be too far away.
Pankovo test facility DOES have retractable shelter
Burevestnik missile canister captured in imagery on test ramp
Test could be imminent
I never was happy with the Airbus imagery I received for the previous blogs. I felt the that some of the areas had been overexposed and had been blown out, into a white blob.
One of these areas was at the test ramp at Pankovo.
This was confirmed to me not too long after the update blog where I had presumed some sort of cover had been used at the test ramp as part of the construction process.
I was sent imagery (that I can’t publish here) that showed that the ramp DID have a retractable shelter. What I thought was a small door in the shelter was in fact a difference in the concrete ramp tied together with shadows creating that effect. The shelter is appears to be open at all times.
After complaining about the imagery I did get a small refund but decided to keep an eye out on Planet imagery for the same area. This is normally better quality than Airbus.
However, whenever Planet’s SkySat imagery was collected, it was always cloud covered at Pankovo.
I finally tried again with Airbus on 16 September 2022 having given up on Planet. The imagery was better – though nowhere near as good as that I’d been sent privately. This is despite the resolution being the same – 50 cm!
But it was good enough to prove that Burevestnik is present at Pankovo and appears to be close to being tested. The shelter was pushed back and a Burevestnik container was in position.
The canister is located between two raised walkways positioned either side. It appears to be on its trolley or loader system as shown below taken from Defense Updates YouTube video. The canister extends to just inside the entrance of the shelter.
Pretty much everything else described in the previous blogs is as stated.
At the first set of buildings south of the test area – the “gate house” as I called it – nothing has changed. There is definitely a frame there which could be for another building or shelter. Or, another thought I’ve has is that it is an antenna tower laying on its side waiting to be raised. Time will tell on this.
Further south, along the gravel road, the area containing the two white shelters with access ramps showed little change. However, the better quality does now highlight a trailer parked at the northern shelter. This is 13 metres in length and could possibly be a transporter for the missiles or a fuel truck for the booster section of the missile
The theory is that the shelters are readiness shelters for preparing Burevestnik for testing before moving them up to the test area.
Little has changed at the southernmost building, and is missed from this analysis. Looking at this area in closer detail, rather than being a power or generator building for the facilities, it could equally be a small area for holding the nuclear systems used in Burevestnik. Again, further assessment is required here.
With this new update it is worth keeping an eye out for navigational warnings for the Novaya Zemlya region. As it appears a missile is in the retractable shelter a test could be very imminent.
Whilst the imagery showed some major changes to the Pankovo site, it didn’t provide any real evidence that a test was going to be carried out soon.
The reason for looking at Pankovo in the first place was down to Russian maritime warnings (PRIPs) and NOTAMs that covered the area on and surrounding Novaya Zemlya. Between them, the warnings covered dates up until 9 September 2022. One day does remain for some of the warnings – the NOTAMs having expired on 5 September. Up until that time there had been no news from Russian sources that claimed any testing from the islands had taken place. This I would have expected had they done so.
I obtained imagery of Pankovo for 6 September 2022, extending the search further south of the test site.
Between here and the beach/harbour area, several group of buildings have been in the construction process from early 2020 – certainly the first real signs of construction show on Sentinel from July 2020. Moreover, foundation work and ground clearing had started in 2019.
At the test site there is one thing of note that changes the previous analysis in the last blog. What I thought was a raised platform or ramp in the 28 August imagery – and then an additional structure in the 2 September imagery – were in fact one and the same. The structure was always there, it is possibly under a white cover that stretched its entirety. In the latest imagery you can see that if it is a cover it has been partially pulled off the structure to reveal it underneath.
However, most of the new roads and test area are still raised. New equipment has arrived at the southern part of the test area since the last imagery.
The potential retractable shelter looks more permanent than first assessed and has a clear entranceway to the south. This structure could be an environmental entrance linking to the other blue areas. There does not appear to be any rails for retractable shelters, however these may be being placed under the blue north-eastern structure. Time will tell.
At the building 1.5 km south of the test site there is little to show what it’s purpose is. For now I’m calling it the “guard house/access gate” but I highly suspect this isn’t correct. There is a communications mast with what looks like microwave antennas installed, pointing north/south going by the shadows. It is approximately 50 metres in length, a little less in width./
A significant number of tracks lead cross-country from this site out to the NE. When following these, they appear to lead to nowhere, splitting off further on the routes.
There is also what looks like a white framed structure here, possibly for a further building not yet completed.
Where things get more interesting is further down the road, heading south to the old harbour bay and beach.
Another 1.8 km south from the “gate house” is a construction site with two white structures – each approximately 30 metres in length. These are placed to the west of the road with each having two vehicle access ramps – one at each end of the building. Whilst possibly drive through shelters, the ramps are offset from each other.
At least one helicopter pad is present with what looks like a MIL Mi-8 helicopter parked there at the time if the collection. There’s possibly another to the east of the road, but it could equally be the foundations of another building.
Drive about another 1 km south and you get to another new group of buildings, joined together by a corridor. As a whole, the buildings measure approximately 130 x 40 metres. This complex has the feel of a generator building though it can’t be fully determined at this time. The southern side of it does appear to have five or six blue fuel tanks in place. It certainly looks like a utilities building of some kind.
Proceed 1.5 km south and you arrive at the beach and “harbour” area. This has had long-abandoned buildings on the beach for some considerable time, though the area has been used in the summer months for gaining access to the test site and some of the better buildings used for short-term accommodation.
The imagery shows a considerable upgrade is taking place here. The old jetty, which was in ruins to be honest, has been replaced with a new one – be it with the same small footprint of the old one. The causeway to the jetty has been upgraded and potentially a new building footprint has been carved out at the old village. This could equally be a small quarry for sourcing hardcore for the tracks. Again, time will tell on this.
A large helicopter parking area has been established, with a MIL Mi-26 located here at the time of the collection. There’s a further helicopter pad at the northern group of buildings away from the beach. Communication masts are located at the village next to the helicopter parking area.
Overall, a considerable amount of work is going on at Novaya Zemlya. However, at this time, I don’t think the area is ready for any missile tests – and it could well be another few years before it is ready.
The weather here gives them about 5 real months of construction time a year – and this could be pushing it. Once winter sets in, it will be impossible for any work to take place.
So, what of the navigational warnings if the islands aren’t being used for Burevestnik?
A little more investigation did find the likely reason for the first set of warnings.
Project 1144.2 Kirov class CGHMN Pyotr Velikiy carried out a test launch of a P‐700 3K-45/3M-45 Granit (SS‐N‐19 “Shipwreck”) SLCM at a target located off the coast of Novaya Zemlya on 24 August 2022 – the day the navigational warnings started. The ship also carried out general weapons handling in the area with anti-aircraft missiles and artillery firing at airborne targets. It is possible it also used its 2 AK-130 130 mm guns for targeting land targets. This would explain the warnings that covered the island.
It also worked with another ship in the area – likely to have been Project 956A Sovremenny class DDGHM Admiral Ushakov.
The Russian MoD stated that airspace around Novaya Zemlya was closed for this activity. They also stated the Granit test was a success, hitting the target located 200 km away.
Also operating in the area at the time were Project 1155 Udaloy class DDGHM Admiral Levchenko and Project 775 Ropucha class LSTM Alexander Otrakovskiy – along with support ships Project 1559V Boris Chilikin class replenishment ship Sergei Osipov and Project 1452 Ingul class salvage tug Pamir.
These were further north than Novaya Zemlya, operating off Franz Josef Land, for some of this time period. They then carried out a southbound transit west of Novaya Zemlya to the Gazpromneft’shel’f to carry out a security exercise at the Prirazlomnaya marine ice-resistant station located at 68.83523259654382, 58.14904110488897. The exercise simulated a terrorist attack at the station, with Levchenko sending a Ka-27 helicopter with special forces on board to resolve the situation.
The transit from Franz Josef took place exactly during the navigational warnings which means they too could have carried out weapons exercises during this period. They have now gone further east into the Kara Sea and and have carried out various combat exercises.
Two new NOTAMs that expire at 2100 UTC on 9 September 2022 now cover the area to the west of Novaya Zemlya.
The shape, length and altitudes of these two warnings point to a missile test, but sea- launched at a target over or on the sea surface – rather than on Novaya Zemlya.
According to the latest information, Pyotr Velikiy is still operating in the area.
This latest imagery, for me, concludes that Novaya Zemlya is not ready for testing Burevestnik – and won’t be for the foreseeable future – but the area continues to be one that is used for a multitude of different weapons tests as it has been for decades.
Satellite imagery shows changes at Pankovo test site
Possible Burevestnik test
On 20 August 2022, the Russian navy posted a PRIP/Navigation warning for the area surrounding Novaya Zemlya. These warnings are always of interest as they normally highlight some sort of weapons firing or testing from the island into the Barents Sea.
The warning extended from 24 August until 9 September.
@The_Lookout_N on Twitter kindly posted the PRIP and plotted the positions. This showed most of the islands covered by the warning.
Normally a NOTAM follows these warnings should there be any kind of weapons firing and sure enough, on 27 August, a NOTAM did appear. This only covered the period up to 30 August however.
The PRIP had already got me searching for imagery for the Pankovo test site – located at 73° 6’52.60″N 53°16’28.38″E – and one of the areas I check fairly regularly for new imagery on Google Earth (not much luck there to be honest!).
Novaya Zemlya has been used for several tests in the past. Most notably, during Soviet times, for nuclear weapons testing – including the RDS-202, the most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever tested.
Pankovo is associated with the 9M730 Burevestnik (SSC-X-9 “Skyfall”) nuclear-powered cruise missile. Tests began at Pankovo in 2017, with two reported. Both are thought to have failed, though a video does exist of the November 2017 test that depicts the missile being launched and flying along the Novaya Zemlya coastline.
In August 2019, a test at the Nenoksa test facility on the White Sea resulted in an explosion that killed five Rosatom technicians. A release of radiation from this hints at the test of Burevestnik. The facility at Nenoksa has similarities to those from the 2017 tests in Pankovo.
I covered the Nenoksa site in a Janes Intelligence Review (JIR) article in October 2020.
Following the 2017 tests of Burevestnik at Pankovo, in July 2018, most of the site was dismantled, with just the old buildings used for accommodation remaining. The test area had consisted of several temporary support shelters and a retractable shelter to cover the missile. This shelter was placed on rails approximately 50 metres in length which were, themselves, placed on a concrete pad.
The dismantling of Pankovo, and the subsequent new site at Nenoksa, looked as if the tests were to continue at the White Sea site rather than at the remoter Novaya Zemlya location. The 2019 incident, however, may have made the Russians change their mind on this.
With the PRIP and NOTAM in place, I decided to download several images that covered the times in the warnings.
These currently cover 22 August 2022 to 2 September 2022.
The first NOTAM expired on 30 August, as previously stated, however new ones were published that covered 31 August to 5 September.
The imagery highlights several things.
Firstly, the test area has been changed. In 22 August imagery, the concrete launch area and rails have been removed and realigned – turning approximately 10 degrees to point further southwest. The pad also appears to have been raised. It cannot be determined whether any rails are in place.
The temporary support buildings/shelters are in place again – as is a possible retractable shelter for the missile itself. This is smaller than both the previous shelter here in 2017, and the one at Nenoksa.
Very little had changed a week later, on 28 August.
However, on 2 September 2022, a new support structure or container was located at the far end of the new concrete pad. Whether this contains a Burevestnik or other missile under test cannot be established.
With a day to go until the PRIP and NOTAM expire, it is now a case of waiting to see what transpires.
Interestingly, NATO are also about to carry out an exercise themselves – off the coast of the UK. This “SINKEX” involves several ships, though it will be run by the US Navy as the main aim of the exercise will be to test a new US targeting satellite. It is reported that several Harpoon missiles will be fired at ex Oliver Hazard Perry-class FFG USS Boone. One ship slated to fire is Royal Navy Duke (Type 23) class FFGHM HMS Westminster.
US Navy Arleigh Burke class USS Arleigh Burke paid a quick one day visit to HMNB Clyde (Faslane) on the 2nd and 3rd of September 2022 – also associated with the SINKEX.
In that blog I made a typo. For every word where I meant to say Su-24, I said Su-23. This included in the satellite imagery labelling. So how could this possibly happen as I knew fully that they were Su-24s? I’d called them this correctly in the blog before that and regardless – I know what a Su-24 is.
To add salt to the wound of the error, on my desk next to me at the time of doing the analysis, I had the excellent books by Yefim Gordon & D Komissarov Sukhoi Su-24 and Sukhoi Su-27 & 30/33/34/35. They were still on my desk in the morning when I got up. I’d had the idea on going into a little detail about the aircraft themselves, but changed my mind.
Looking back at the creation of the blog, I’m pretty sure I know what happened. When I started working on the imagery, when I typed in the first Su-24 label, I inadvertently typed Su-23. This could have been in error by hitting the 3 key instead of the 4, or by just stupidly typing it incorrectly.
From there, the rest is history. I copy/pasted the label for the others in the imagery, and this is where the brain takes over. I subconsciously took in Su-23 as being correct – regardless of knowing what they were, and having pointers near me to correct the mistake (including checking back on the other imagery and blog looking for changes).
Moreover, when it came to proof reading the whole thing, it still slipped through the net again. I even found other mistakes that I rectified.
In other words I totally believed what I was typing and had typed was correct, even though subconsciously I knew it was wrong. And I let it pass – I was seeing what I wanted to see
In my daytime Air Traffic Control world we use the well known term confirmation bias for this.
What is interesting about the whole thing is that just two hours before, in a busy radar session, I was calling a couple of aircraft by the wrong callsign. This is extremely common for us, and for pilots too.
To explain. We have radar screens with data-blocks that show the aircraft callsign, altitude/level, selected level in the flight management system on the aircraft (via ADS-B) and the exit code from UK airspace or last two letters of the destination airfield. We have plenty of other things available to us via Mode-S, but these are selectable.
We also have electronic flight progress strips (eFPS) which has plenty more info on, but the callsign is the obvious one and what I want to look at here.
I can’t remember the exact callsigns, but take an example of EZY12QC – “Easy one two quebec charlie“. I called this one “Easy one two quebec golf” on its first contact, and despite having a eFPS and radar that i was fully interacting with, I continued to do so. It didn’t matter what was in front of me, it was “quebec golf”, not “quebec charlie”. There was at least another flight like that. All was safe as it was checked by the aircrew that the instructions were for them, but it adds extra workload and time to radio transmissions and getting the traffic moving.
An example of aircrew error is taking the wrong calls for other flights with similar callsigns – normally with the same airline, though inter-airline errors do occur. On one occasion, a flight I was working kept taking the call of another that was with the same airline. Eventually, after the fourth or fifth time, he apologised and said he’d been doing that flight the day before and couldn’t get it out of his head – despite coming from Spain and using the correct callsign up until then.
In ATC we use a combination of long term memory, and short term memory. The long term stuff is for things like procedures, sector frequencies etc. Airline callsigns come into this too – their actual airline callsign such as “Easy” for EasyJet, “Speedbird” for British Airways.
The short term stuff is things like co-ordinated agreements with other sectors, the actual traffic picture, flights on frequency etc.
Short term stuff we remove from our brains, once we have no use for it, but we keep the other stuff forever. I still remember things from RAF Lyneham when I was there in 1989!
And, of course, this isn’t an aviation thing. It is present in everything humans do in their lives.
So, how does this affect analysing imagery etc.?
With the last blog, it was probably a combination of being up since 7am, doing an afternoon shift finishing at 2200 UK time that included confirmation bias in the last hour – and then an hours drive home. In other words, a long, tiring day with a fuddled up brain already in place.
Going back to saying that we see what we want to see – analysing imagery has plenty of this.
Not everything of course, but occasionally it creeps in. And it happens to everyone.
I’ll take the Saki attack “aftermath” as a prime example of this as I think there’s several places this has happened. And I’m just going to say this now – this is not a direct dig at anyone in particular.
In fact, I’ll start with one of mine – or a possible one. I’ve been watching Saki since 2014 so know it pretty well I think. I also have access to some fantastic data on the base.
The two buildings destroyed at the revetments are known “workshops” used by the Russians for quick repairs to aircraft. Often this has entailed taking parts from one aircraft to put onto another to keep the fleet “airworthy”. This is likely why there was a Su-24 at the eastern building. Parts are stored in one of the revetments west of the building.
The two concrete parking areas also targeted were for vehicles, equipment and spare parts – often kept in boxes or crates. One has been referenced as a building in some analysis and on social media. This is completely wrong. You only have to look back through Google Earth history to see that often there are Su-24s parked there. But people are seeing what they want to see – and to be honest, being a little lazy and not checking themselves. It doesn’t take much to go back through GE history.
I have all this information stored in my head as long term memory and that is what I believe these areas are used for. At some stage over the last few months, and in particular over the last few days, these buildings and parking areas have become weapons storage areas according to reports and social media. Where this came from I have no idea, but certainly, since the attack they have been known as “ammo storage buildings”.
Likely, the main reason for this is because the number of boxes and crates has increased since the beginning of the war – and they’re green. My confirmation bias says these are all sorts of equipment, whereas others say they are ammo boxes because this is what they’ve read/been told; and their confirmation bias won’t say otherwise. Ammo boxes are being seen because they are green – and well, so are ammo boxes.
One of the concrete areas has white torpedo like objects. These are Su-24 3,000 litre external fuel tanks that they carry on the inner pylons, under the wings. In the aftermath imagery you can see they have been shifted by the power of the nearby explosion. These have been referenced to missiles in storage. They’re not.
In reality, we don’t actually know what was in these green boxes and crates. Logic tells me it isn’t all munitions as they have hardened areas specifically for this. But, the Russian forces do have open munitions storage areas located at bases all over the country so who is to say? More than likely, it will be a mix of things.
The real confirmation bias from this incident comes it at the main apron. The Planet imagery I provided for the morning before the attack showed three Su-24’s and three Su-30’s parked on the main flight line.
There are a number of things to note – referencing the first image below. Firstly, the aircraft follow white taxiway lines to a white square to stop and shut down. These squares are clearly visible where aircraft aren’t parked.
Secondly, next to each parking spot there is equipment used with the aircraft. Starter generators, wheel chocks, ladders and other things needed for the aircraft. These can be seen in between the parked aircraft in the imagery.
The last thing to note is that there isn’t an aircraft parked on the far west spot – this is the spot that in the post attack imagery there is supposedly a destroyed Su-24. As there’s no wreckage present, this can’t be confirmed 100%, but photos and video have been produced that do show a destroyed Su-24. Actually, in the post attack imagery the burnt area centres on the equipment between the parking spots.
Looking at the second image below you can clearly see all the equipment still in place. But many saw these as destroyed aircraft – and Hey, Presto! six more aircraft that are actually over to the east of the base have been destroyed!
Total confirmation bias – you are seeing what you want to see. Because we all want to see Russia fail (well not everyone, obviously).
And yet all the clues are there. At the probable destroyed Su-24 area, there’s a completely burnt out patch covering the parking squares – yet for the “other six” there isn’t. The obvious equipment – seen in imagery just 24 hours before – is ignored and declared as wrecks.
Whilst the aircraft that were on the flightline probably didn’t escape some damage, from confirmation bias we have claims that the whole fleet of aircraft were totally destroyed – and whilst it was a very successful attack – it wasn’t as successful as is claimed.
This leads to misinformation – and what I call ” Bad OSINT”.
It took a long time in coming, but imagery is available of the destruction caused at Saki (Saky) air base in Crimea.
Unfortunately, being at real work has delayed this analysis, but it’s worth putting out there anyway. Plus the imagery shows the majority of the airfield rather than just the main parking area. This alone provides some interesting information.
Primarily, the 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment of the Black Sea fleet has taken a bit of a hit. Definitely, three Su-30SM’s have been destroyed with one probably damaged. Moreover, four Su-24’s are destroyed in the revetment area – with the possibility of another on the main apron.
The Su-24 on the apron is inconclusive. There’s definitely an area that has been cleared – there’s vehicles around it etc. – but the imagery from earlier in the day doesn’t show an aircraft in that actual spot.
Most certainly, no other aircraft were destroyed where they parked on the main flightline. This is obvious from the ability to see all the “parking squares” and lack of burnt areas. If a Su-24 (or other aircraft) was destroyed at the scorched area then they have removed the wreckage pretty quickly – possibly to hide what happened, but the rest of the airfield gives it all away.
Most of the aircraft destruction is in the revetments – ironically used to protect aircraft from events like this. If only the Russian’s used HAS’s (Hardened Air Shelters) – they may not be feeling the pain. The good news is, they are.
The revetments have given up three Su-24’s and three Su-30’s. A further Su-24 is destroyed at the eastern maintenance minor workshop shed.
And this is where it all gets interesting.
The actual targets.
Two minor workshop sheds have been totally targeted and destroyed. Moreover, two other areas that were targeted – or appeared to have been – were general parking areas used for vehicles and equipment.
It is strange that the two large munitions areas and the fuel depots were also not targeted. And to be honest, if an aircraft has been destroyed on the main flightline, I suspect this is from secondary explosions and fire rather than a direct strike as there is no crater present. Why wasn’t this area targeted?
The area around the parking revetments is dotted with small craters, possibly from debris. But they do look more like explosive craters rather than that caused by falling debris.
A vast majority of the airfield grass areas has been burnt. This could have potentially spread to the burnt out cars that have been seen in videos – though one has certainly been destroyed by debris from explosions. @wammezz on Twitter produced a false-colour image of the whole base which clearly shows the extent of the burnt ground.
There’s been a number of aircraft movements since the event. A Su-30SM is now in the main maintenance area – possibly the one from the revetment nearby that is now missing. And whilst the number of Su-24’s in this area remain the same, either one has been removed/moved, or there’s been a change around.
Obviously, the main flightline has been emptied, as has the eastern secondary line, except for a single Su-30SM. A Su-23 has been relocated to just south of this area.
Three helicopters have departed, whilst the three remaining have been rotated to point east.
Due to costs I couldn’t get a full airfield view from Planet so it is possible some of the aircraft have been moved to the eastern airfield revetments.
There is still no conclusive evidence as to what was used in this attack.
I’ve always thought a Ukrainian SF mission – which I didn’t want to say in the other blog as it was still a recent event and there was a slight OPSEC concern with me to be honest. The Ukrainian armed forces have stated it was a SF mission also.
However, the craters visible do point to a missile strike, with a good friend betting a ATACMS strike.
I’m still torn.
Maybe the maintenance sheds held more than scrap parts of aircraft to keep the main line going from day to day. I’d like to say the Russians aren’t that stupid – but since March, they’ve clearly shown they are.
Whilst it is good to see the evidence of destruction in Crimea – finally – the event has almost created more questions than answers.
Videos and photographs of an attack on the Novofedorivka – Saky air base in Crimea on 9 August 2022 starting appearing on social media just around lunchtime, UK time.
Early indications point to multiple areas being attacked on the air base. It is yet to be ascertained as to what has been targeted – and how exactly the attacks have taken place. Or if it was yet another accident that the Russian forces seem to be very good at having.
The explosions shown – possibly up to 12 of them – look to come from the area of munition storage facilities, and/or the fuel depot on the base.
The number of explosions does point more to an attack than an accident, but weapons “cooking off” and hitting other areas causing further explosions can’t be counted out – regardless of the initial cause of the explosions.
Saky is home to the 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment of the Black Sea fleet, operating Su-30SM, Su-24M and Su-24MR fighter aircraft.
The base also has an area for training for operations on Project 1143.5 CVGM Admiral Kuznetsov and has replica flight deck & ski ramp used to practice taking off from, and landing on, the carrier.
Satellite imagery captured by Planet at 0810z on 9 August 2022 – approximately 4 hours before the attack – shows based aircraft on the main apron and parking areas, as well as helicopters parked at the Southwestern part of the base at the replica Kuznetsov deck/landing area.
The size of explosions shown in videos does point to there likely being heavy damage and a large number of casualties.
The next question is – what was used in the attack? If, indeed, it was one.
As far as is known, the Ukrainian forces do not have a missile strike capability of the range needed from the frontline to the base location.
I’ve been following the developments around Kherson, Ukraine, with interest over the last week or so. Particularly the attempts by the Russian forces to protect two bridges from attack after both were targeted and damaged by Ukrainian forces.
The two bridges across the Dnipro River are just short of 6 kilometres apart from each other with the western Antonivskyi bridge used for road traffic, and the one to the east for rail.
The Antonivskyi road bridge was attacked on 20 July 2022, and then further on the 27th. The second attack effectively took the bridge out of commission and a temporary – and somewhat dangerous with the equipment being used – pontoon ferry system was put in place by the Russians.
The attacks were carried out using M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) with each GMLRS GPS/IMU guided rocket (six per five-tonne Family of Medium Tactical vehicles (FMTV) 6×6 truck chassis) fitted out with a with a 90 kg warhead. CEP accuracy is between two and ten metres depending on the warhead variant being used.
The rail bridge was attacked on 28 July, again using HIMARS.
There’s been plenty of coverage on the internet regarding the attacks – The War Zone for instance – so I’m not going to repeat anything here.
I’m more into looking at the corner radar reflectors the Russians have put in place next to the bridges, and whether they’re really any use in protecting the bridges.
The first reports of the reflectors came out not long after the attacks, and to be honest at first I thought they were old navigation aids – which these reflectors can be used for. But it turns out they have been installed by the Russians. I am slightly confused as to why they have done this.
These reflectors can be used to “draw” enemy radar guided missiles to them rather than a potential target – i.e a building or ship. To be effective you need a certain number of them to encourage the missile to the reflectors rather than this target. There is a mathematical equation that calculates their design and number needed. It is easier for you to go to Radartutorial that explains this in great detail, rather than me repeat it here.
As well as the number needed to encourage the missile, they ideally need to be grouped together and, more importantly, as high up as possible.
On missile target barges used by many navies there are a considerable number of these corner reflectors of various styles, in very close proximity to each other – and generally all on masts. This is as well as being on the very solid metal barge. These create a huge radar return for missile tests.
What the Russians have done at the bridges is almost the complete opposite of this. They have put them at near water level, not on masts, not grouped them, nor put that many out – and they aren’t really that well constructed. By this I mean, whilst they have created reflectors with four “sides”, they don’t appear to have a bottom plate – which, with this missing, greatly reduces the reflection!
As you can see in the image above from Radartutorial, the three sides are needed for a good radar reflection. What the Russians have done is create a pyramid out of four of the above – without the base. And, with their placement, half the pyramid is pointing in the wrong direction to be effective anyway. Moreover, the direction of flight from a missile also determines the reflection created, which is why you need a large number of reflectors pointing in various directions (if the proposed attack angle is not known – which it isn’t here).
The target barge above has 22 reflectors on it, along with wire mesh and likely some emitting antennas as an extra attraction. This is on something about 30 metres in length.
The Kherson bridges, on the other hand, are about 950 metres long for the road bridge and 500 metres for the rail bridge. This is just the river crossing lengths. You could add extra length to this if you include the parts over land. From satellite imagery, the rail bridge has just 6 reflectors in place!
There’s plenty more I could say about this to show the potential missile defence attempt made here by the Russians is pretty well pointless. More so because all of the attacks carried out by HIMARS don’t even involve a radar and the Ukrainians don’t have a missile capability as such anyway!
It just isn’t worth the effort. The bridges will always create a bigger radar return than the reflectors.
When SAR imagery from Sentinel showed the rail bridge with a “ghost” bridge alongside it, I wasn’t convinced this was what the Russians were trying to achieve either. Though they do have it as an option as @The_Lookout_N pointed out.
This is pretty old school though and in modern warfare where near immediate satellite imagery is available – pretty pointless. You will notice though, that image three in his tweet shows the very same reflectors used at the bridges. You’ll also notice that they are grouped together. The main task here is to imitate a pontoon bridge rather than a large rail or road bridge.
Below is a sequence of Sentinel SAR imagery from 25 July, 29 July and 5 August respectively.
You can see that the reflectors have made very little impact. It is obvious there are bridges there, and that they emit a huge radar reflection, especially the rail bridge due to its construction design.
The second image from 29 July was the one that many thought was a “ghost” bridge to confuse SAR. Taking a look at the 25 July imagery you can see a small reflection west of the bridge. This measures between 30 and 40 metres in length – the same as the barges being used further down river. A return approximately the same size is in the 29 July imagery around the reflectors. I think this is a barge being used to install the reflectors.
In the later imagery this return has gone and is actually a little back down river at the point where a new barge crossing has been put in place.
Sentinel SAR is ok, and it has its basic uses, but when you step into full High resolution satellite imagery you can see the “ghost bridge” attempt is pointless.
Here I’ve made a collage of several images taken over the week. As new ones have appeared I’ve updated them, but I had to call it quits eventually, so here are 5 images put together into one. They are dated from 25 July 2022 to 3 August 2022. The bridges are covered by the 3rd August and was right along the edge of the collection, hence a little bit of interference.
The actual file is huge – over 480MB – therefore I can’t put it up here, so I had to shrink it down to 10% of the actual image I created to get it to fit. It is still good enough to show the reflectors, the barge crossings etc.
Close ups of the bridges on 3 August clearly show the reflectors, potential pontoon ferries and also likely damage caused by the HIMARS attacks.
When we look at 28 July 2022 EO imagery of the rail bridge from Planet – again at 50 cm resolution – you can clearly see the reflectors and damage to the railway just south of the bridge.
One round has certainly hit the rail line, whilst a couple of others just missed.
Zooming in to the image gives us a better look at the damage.
The interesting aspect of the damage is the target area. As discussed above, the bridge is large, with a large radar reflection cross-section. But we also stated that the Ukrainian forces don’t have a missile strike capability for targets such as this.
So why target this area of the bridge?
Firstly, the bridge provides its own defence against weapons such as HIMARS thanks to its design. The metal frame structure would likely stop a GMLRS round from hitting the rails – statistically it would have to be an amazingly good shot to get through the gaps in the frame.
Of course, the metal structure would likely be damaged, but it may not make the bridge unusable.
Secondly – and this is more important than point one – they have targeted the concrete upright rather than the rail itself. Why is this important?
In the image below from 1 August 2022, it does appear that the damage to the rails has been repaired. However, it may not have been finished, or good enough to use, as just outside the image a pontoon ferry system has been set up to either cross the river directly, or to move equipment up and down river.
Typically, my selected area just cut off the pontoon ferry operations, but we know they are taking place from other EO imagery available – and it can be seen in the Capella imagery above.
However, had the HIMARS strike hit the concrete upright, this would have brought the whole rail line down in that area, would have been near impossible to repair – certainly quickly – and would have made the bridge totally unusable.
The craters that are left are just a couple of metres away from the upright. The hit to the line was near directly on top of it. HIMARS has a two metre CEP – it is that close an unlucky miss.
All this proves, though, that a radar guided weapon is not needed to strike these bridges.
The road bridge is totally out of action. The rail bridge is within a couple of metres of being the same.
All in all – very strange defensive measures have been put in place for these bridges – especially so as the Russian forces have much better anti-missile defence equipment available to them.
They still don’t seem to have any answer to HIMARS however.
Russian navy Project 09852 auxiliary submarine-nuclear (SSAN) Belgorod was commissioned – likely to the Northern Fleet – on 8 July 2022 at Severodvinsk.
Commander of the Russian navy, Admiral Nikolay Yevmenov, was in attendance for the ceremony at the south pier of the navy base.
Whilst the time of the ceremony isn’t known, at 0927 UTC one of the Airbus Pléiades imaging satellites was able to capture the SSAN either before or after the event.
The temporary parade ground, made up of wooden planking/decking is clearly visible in the imagery on the quayside.
During the ceremony, Yevmenov stated that “Belgorod opens up new opportunities for Russia in conducting various research, allows diverse scientific expeditions and rescue operations in the most remote areas of the World Oceans”.
A Sevmash shipyards press release stated “The ship is designed to solve diverse scientific tasks, conduct search and rescue operations, and can also be used as a carrier for deep-sea rescue and autonomous uninhabited underwater vehicles”
178 metre long, Belgorod will be the mothership for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) and small research submarines including Project 1910 Kashalot class nuclear-powered SSAN. It is also reported to be able to be armed with nuclear-armed 2M39 Poseidon “torpedo’s/UUVs”.
It is interesting that Belgorod has been officially called a research and rescue submarine, when Poseidon gives it a potential nuclear weapon strike capability. Quite how the double role mission will be tasked or carried out is unknown.
Belgorod will probably join the other Northern Fleet special purpose submarines at Olen’ya Guba naval base in the Kola Peninsula operating for the Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI). These are Project 09787 Delta IV Stretch SSAN Podmoskovye and Project 667 Delta III Stretch SSAN Orienburg – themselves both motherships for the smaller special purpose submarines.
From here it is probable the GUGI operations will start from, with Poseidon likely to be loaded at the Gadzhiyevo weapons loading pier further north at the base there.
For a cutaway drawing of the possible layout and potential loadouts of Belgorod, head over to Covert Shores.