The Russian SVP-24 Bombsight

The U.S. has sufficient industrial capacity to make precision guided munitions like the JDAM the exclusive choice. But due to the vast expenditure of ordinance against ISIS, stockpiles are becoming depleted. For the Russians, this has never been a choice, because they don’t have the money. An indigenous electronics industry is almost nonexistent,  with the curious exception of pocket size Geiger Counters (a domestic need like Chernobyl is a powerful incentive.) So, supplemented by small quantities of smart weapons, a modernized version of the stabilized aircraft platform with dumb bombs, denoted SVP-24,  remains the backbone Russian delivery system.

Russia Insider hypes  it. Oddly, a website registered in Iceland, but with an apparent Russian focus, hypes the capabilities of the system. Quoting,

In practical terms this means that every 30+ year old Russian “dumb” bomb can now be delivered by a 30+ year old Russian aircraft with the same precision as a brand new guided bomb delivered by a top of the line modern bomber

The SVP-24 then computes an “envelope” (speed, altitude, course) inside which the dumb bombs are automatically released exactly at the precise moment when their unguided flight will bring them right over the target (with a 3-5m accuracy).

At high altitudes, which the claim includes, it’s pure bosh. At low altitudes, it is within the realm of possibility. If true, it is a respectable improvement over the comparable U.S. system. “LALD” bomb delivery by F-15 and F-16 aircraft, discussed in RAND report RGSD147.chap5.pdf, page 56, offers a CEP of 85.6 meters, or a little better with practice, with an unspecified altitude. Quite simply, this approach has been abandoned by the U.S. in favor of smart weapons.

A minimum altitude for release of the bomb is required for the aircraft to be safe from the explosion.  For a 500 pound bomb, a typical number is 3000 feet, which is close enough for this discussion.

Are Russian claims about the SVP-24 at all true?  With a  release altitude of 3000 feet,  5 meters corresponds to Norden’s goal in the late 1930’s of a CEP 2% of altitude.  But the ancient history of the Norden bombsight is instructive. In 1931, in demonstrations during development, the Norden Mark XV achieved a CEP of 11 meters. In 1940, Norden co-partner Theodore Barth claimed that “we do not regard a 15 square feet (1.4 m2) … as being a very difficult target to hit from an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m)”. But in World War II combat, it degraded to 1000 meters.

A Newsweek opinion piece, Syrian Rebels Change Tactics to Outsmart Putin’s Air Onslaught, is suggestive. Quoting,

“When Russian aircraft stop striking heavily contested areas to avoid inflicting collateral damage on regime forces, [italics mine] opposition fighters, in particular those from groups such as the Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham, immediately seize the initiative.”

Read that closely. A bomb can miss in several ways:

  • It leaves a crater in the middle of nowhere.
  • It doesn’t hit the target, and blows up a cow.
  • It hits friendly forces.

Unlike a smart weapon, the distance by which a dumb bomb misses the target is a broad statistic. This means that if you drop enough bombs anywhere close the “regime”,  some of your bombs will blow up your friends. The Newsweek information is of unknown provenance, but it suggests that in a sortie with the SVP-24, the bombs behave more like dumb bombs than some Russian miracle.

You may be tired of all this, eager to return this question to the human perspective. But we owe it to the question to mine the issue of Russian military limitations for all it’s worth. This discussion allows us to convert part of the question to one of Russian bombing tactics. Altitudes of bomb runs fall into these unofficial categories:

  • Low, below 8000 feet.  A lower limit in the range of 3000 feet is required for the aircraft to avoid the blast of the bomb. This is within the range of MANPADs (man-portable antiaircraft missiles), and some guns.
  • Medium, between 8000 and 15,000 feet, the maximum altitude of most MANPAD systems.
  • High, above 15,000 feet, reachable by fixed antiaircraft missiles.

Factoring out the propaganda, the accuracy of the SVP-24 is almost, but not quite plausible at low altitude. At higher altitudes, with the free fall of a bomb subject to the vicissitudes of wind and weather, the claims are ridiculous. In an attempt to appear disarmingly candid, relished by any serious propaganda organ , Russia Insider confides, “In fact, the company producing the SVP-24 had to sue the Russian Ministry of Defense for unpaid money and there was a great deal of opposition inside the MoD to the SVP-24…”  This sounds like the Russian equivalent of the classic American boondoggle.

If the Russians feel obliged to bomb from medium altitudes, they might invoke Item 3 from the Loophole List, military necessity. Sticking still with military limitations, the question is converted to one about altitudes of  Russian bombing runs. The U.S. has been closely observing Russian tactics, but altitude estimates, provided by trained observers or remote data collection, have not appeared in open sources. Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards, of which some veterans figure importantly in ISIS, were drilled in bringing down aircraft with massed rifle fire. Perhaps the Russians wish to avoid arousal of a latent capability of small caliber ballistic weapons by flying a little higher than uncontested airspace requires.

The analysis so far suggests that Item 3 of the Loophole List, military necessity, is an important part of Russian thinking.

To be continued shortly.

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