Unveiling the Missing Pieces of the Kerch Bridge Strike: Empowering Ukraine to Isolate Crimea and Seize the Initiative

The war in Ukraine is at a critical point, with aid to Kyiv being a point of contention in the United States Congress. Overseas, China’s intensified aggression towards its neighbors and Hamas’s terror campaign against Israel are stretching US attention and resources across multiple theaters.

The softening of US and NATO support could lead to a reduction in Ukraine’s military contribution to the conflict. To maintain US and NATO support and put Russia on the defensive, Ukraine must change the counteroffensive’s dynamics. This would prove Ukraine’s ability to win the war, rather than just fight to a draw. The Kerch Strait bridge, which supplies much of the ammunition and supplies into Crimea, could be impassable, forcing Russia to redouble its efforts to defend southern Ukraine. This would allow Kyiv to make rapid gains before winter.

First, it serves as a potent symbol of Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula and a monument to the KGB-hailing Siloviki elite’s geopolitical vision of a rejuvenated Soviet empire. Second, a sustained blockade of the Kerch Bridge would severely disrupt Russian lines of communication and isolate Crimea when it is most vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ ongoing ground combat against the Kerch Bridge is not an alternative to their counteroffensive, but cutting off the bridge would benefit Kyiv’s counteroffensive and harm Moscow’s approach for sustaining the fight. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed to breach deep into Russian lines in the south, but they have cornered Russian combat formations along their first line of defense, resulting in a bulge at Robotyne extending to Verbove.

The Russian General Staff dispatched the 7th and 76th VDV air assault divisions to stabilize the front, while combat deploying the 25th Combined Arms Army to cement the second line of defense in the rear. Ukraine’s increasing long-range strike capability is dismantling Russia’s command and support networks, including naval forces in the Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian forces have attacked the Kerch Bridge with bomb-loaded trucks and kamikaze unmanned surface vessels. To neutralize Crimea, Ukraine must intensify its efforts to cut off the peninsula.

Russian leaders and troops recognize the bridge’s operational and strategic value, but countermeasures diminish the chances of sending troops behind enemy lines. Russian aircraft conduct combat air patrols, making aerial bombing or manned rotary-wing aircraft unviable. Ukrainian pilots must fly short missions at low altitudes and use standoff missiles.

Ukraine’s coastal defense is not feasible due to its lack of a navy, making manned surface and submarine combatants unfeasible. To cut off the Kerch Bridge, the Ukrainian Armed Forces must use a combination of air and naval capabilities in mixed strike packages to undermine Russian decision-making and defensive schemes. This involves checking three boxes: ensuring the strike package can lower Russian defenses’ probability of intercept, which depends on factors such as Russian targeting data quality, Ukrainian weapons’ ability to evade detection or engagements, Russian defensive systems’ efficacy, and Ukrainian battle damage assessment accuracy.

To further reduce Russian, Ukrainian forces must structure strike packages in ways that defeat Russian defenses. Mixed strike packages combining weapons and uncrewed vehicles with various trajectories and flight profiles can create a complicated targeting picture that could overwhelm Russian sensors and fire control systems, consuming significant numbers of SAM interceptors.

To create complexity needed to outwit and overwhelm Russian defenses, the Ukrainian military will need to dispatch a combination of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, loitering munitions, combat drones, and modified air defense interceptors for land-attack roles. Each system has a different radar cross section, thermal signature, trajectory, and homing angle, providing a decision-centric warfare advantage.

The kill chain is also crucial in severing the Kerch Bridge, as it requires a variety of sensors for target acquisition and battle damage assessment. The Ukrainian military, particularly defense intelligence units, has developed a high-speed C2 network, which is coupled with the country’s near-persistent surveillance over the battle-space through round-the-clock satellite imagery.

Ukraine needs to launch diverse attacks to counter Russian forces on the Kerch Bridge. The Biden administration is considering transferring Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), which have pinpoint accuracy and a 300 km operational range. This would allow Ukraine to launch missiles against Crimea or the bridge. The Ukrainian Air Force has successfully used British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles against Russian air defenses in Crimea.

Both missiles fly low using GPS, terrain-matching, and infrared imaging to reduce their vulnerability to GPS jamming. When a missile reaches its target, its small shaped-charge warhead blasts a hole in the target’s outermost shell or hull, allowing a second, larger warhead to penetrate and explode inside. In combination with ATACMS, Storm Shadows would form a lethal strike package, allowing Ukraine to destroy or occupy local air defenses before an ATACMS salvo strikes the bridge.

The Ukrainian Air Force has previously used Storm Shadow missiles to target strategic SAM systems and critical radar systems, such as the Podlet, to degrade Russian protective coverage over Crimea. However, these missiles face limitations due to limited supply and the Su-24M bomber being easy prey for Russian fighters. F-16 fighters, which are being prepared for deployment, could help alleviate these limitations by carrying German Taurus KEPD-350 missiles, which were approved for transfer to Ukraine.

If the Scholz government can overcome technical issues, Taurus missiles could be integrated on F-16s to provide Ukraine with a more survivable aircraft for launching standoff missiles against the Kerch Bridge. Ukraine has modified its Neptune missiles for land attack roles, with a 400 km range and 350 kg payload. Open-source intelligence suggests missiles have struck S-400 air defense systems in Crimea.

Ukraine has also modified its leftover Soviet-era S-200 strategic SAM systems for land attack, with a destructive warhead of approximately 200 kg and a range of 300 km. However, its precision would suffer due to lack of guidance from its S-200 radar. One possible solution is the integration of a GPS guidance system. The S-200, despite its outdated nature, could be a valuable asset for Ukrainian Armed Forces due to its high speed and suppressed trajectory.

Ukraine’s military and defense industry have been utilizing uncrewed naval systems to counter Russian defenses and control the tempo of attacks. US and NATO support has enabled automation for these systems, which can circumvent Russian barrage boats and navigate in GPS-denied environments around Crimea. The country’s new drone boat, Sea-Baby, conducted strikes on Russian Black Sea Fleet ships and the Kerch Bridge in July and August 2023.

The country’s new undersea drone, Marichka, is another example of its increasing prowess in uncrewed naval systems. Produced by crowd-funded war start-up AMMO Ukraine, the Marichka has four fins, horizontal stabilizers, and a six-bladed propeller. Brave-1 is working on a similar project, producing a family of small kamikaze undersea drones called Toloka or Toloka-150, which possesses impressive agility due to twin thrusters, small wing-like stabilizers, large keel, and forward-mounted dive planes.

Loitering munitions like the Bober and UJ-22 can be used to attack air defense systems or in mixed strike packages. The Bober has a 600-1000 km range and a KZ-6 shape-charge warhead, while the UJ-22 has an 800 km range and seven-hour endurance.

These uncrewed aerial strike systems are expected to become increasingly valuable elements of Ukraine’s arsenal, providing more options for countering Russian defenses and controlling the tempo of attacks. Ukraine is pursuing the Akinci, a more advanced combat system developed by Turkish drone maker Baykar, following a visit by its CEO to Kyiv. The Akinci is powered by Ukrainian Ivechenko Progress/Motorsich engines and is certified to carry aero-ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. Its flight ceiling of over 40,000 feet makes it out of range for Russian air defenses.

The diverse flight profiles and speeds of cruise and ballistic missiles, naval uncrewed vehicles, loitering munitions, and strategic drones will require Ukraine to launch them from different locations. This diversity provides advantages in terms of dispersal, survivability, varied threat axes, and diverse defeat mechanisms compared to more homogeneous strike packages. For example, a Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge could start with USVs deployed from the coast near Odessa hours before the strike, marshalled offshore several miles from the bridge.

To maximize complication for Russian air defenses, USVs on their way to the bridge and strategic drones launched from shore would deploy loitering munitions just before cruise and ballistic missiles would strike. If the first structured attack fails, Ukraine’s forces could follow with a differently structured strike, varying the composition and tactics of each strike package to prevent Russian adaptation.

Bridge StrikeRussiaUkraineUnveiling the Missing Pieces of the Kerch Bridge Strike: Empowering Ukraine to Isolate Crimea and Seize the Initiative