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Russia painted fake fighter jets at its airfields, new satellite images show, likely to trick Ukraine into not blowing up the real deal

In Europe
January 09, 2024
  • New satellite images show Russia appears to have painted fake fighter jets at one of its air bases.

  • It’s not the first time Moscow has done this, and analysts say it’s an attempt to confuse Ukraine.

  • Both Russia and Ukraine have used decoys and deceptive tactics throughout the war.

Newly captured satellite images of a Russian military base reveal that Moscow’s troops have painted several fake fighter jets on the ground in an apparent bid to fool Ukraine.

Decoy tactics such as this are not a new characteristic of the Ukraine war, but they highlight an important aspect of it: deception.

Russia has painted fake aircraft at different bases in the past, and other incidents of deception have popped up throughout the conflict. Analysts say that by painting the fake aircraft Moscow is likely trying to confuse Kyiv’s weapons systems and possibly create false perceptions about what is happening at its bases.

This most recent example of deceit can be observed at Russia’s Primorsko-Akhtarsk air base, located along the Sea of Azov in the southwestern corner of the country.

In a Dec. 28 satellite image captured by Planet Labs PBC and obtained by Business Insider a handful of fixed-wing aircraft can be seen parked in a row in one section of the base. Within the row are silhouettes of two fighter jets that are a ghostly shade of white, unlike the blue and gray of other aircraft. There is a third silhouette that appears to have the same paint scheme as the base’s real aircraft, but like the other two decoys, there’s no shadow.

These figures are nowhere to be seen in an Aug. 17 image of the same base, in which a handful of aircraft of different types can be seen parked in a row — none of them painted white, indicating the figures were added somewhere in that four-month stretch.

Primorsko-Akhtarsk base on Aug. 17, 2023.

Primorsko-Akhtarsk base on Aug. 17, 2023.Image © Planet Labs PBC

Primorsko-Akhtarsk base on Dec. 28, 2023.

Primorsko-Akhtarsk base on Dec. 28, 2023.Image © Planet Labs PBC

Primorsko-Akhtarsk is not the only location where this unusual activity has been observed in recent months.

On June 26, a satellite image of the nearby Yeysk air base reveals three fighter jet silhouettes placed next to each other and all sporting a bright white color. Next to them is the white outline of a fighter jet that isn’t filled in; the greyish pavement is visible in the middle of the design.

A few weeks later, the painted fighter aircraft were removed and replaced with actual aircraft, replaced with decoys, or painted to better resemble Russian jets and serve as more functional decoys, according to a July 16 image of the base.

Yeysk air base on June 26, 2023.

Yeysk air base on June 26, 2023.Image © Planet Labs PBC

Yeysk air base on July 16, 2023.

Yeysk air base on July 16, 2023.Image © Planet Labs PBC

There’s a few different reasons why Russia might want to paint fake aircraft at its bases, even if it’s temporary. One rationale is that it may be attempting to confuse Ukrainian weapons targeting aircraft in attacks on Moscow’s bases.

“It is likely that the goal is to provide false targets that might decoy Ukrainian one-way attack drones fitted with simple cameras for image recognition of aircraft shapes away from hitting actual aircraft,” Justin Bronk, a leading airpower expert at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Business Insider.

By painting fake fighter jets, Russia is also attempting to obscure how many aircraft are at a base, when they’re on-site, or what their patterns of activity are. Moscow wants to make it difficult for Ukraine to tell which bases are busy and which are not, said Brady Africk, an open-source intelligence analyst at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

It’s a relatively harmless and inexpensive tactic, with a lot to potentially gain. There may only be a small chance that the fake aircraft are beneficial or effective, but tricking Ukraine into wasting a munition or revealing a launch site could prove to be “incredibly valuable” for Russia, Africk told Business Insider.

He first shared the photos of Primorsko-Akhtarsk to social media and also monitored the similar situation that unfolded at Yeysk.

Russian Su-25 jet in Ukraine

A Russian Su-25 ground-attack jet fires rockets on a mission in Ukraine in July 2022.Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

“I think it’s generally a response to Ukraine’s increasing capabilities in terms of being able to strike Russian airfields,” he said. “This is a relatively low-cost way to attempt to deter, or make it more difficult, to attack Russian aircraft.”

Ukraine and other anti-Moscow factions have attacked a handful of bases in recent months. These include a cruise missile strike on a base in the occupied Crimean peninsula and drone assaults on bases deep inside Russia’s sovereign territory.

Perhaps the most devastating of these incidents came in October, when Kyiv debuted its limited arsenal of US-provided MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, in attacks on two Russian air bases in occupied territory. Moscow lost over a dozen military helicopters and other equipment.

Decoy tactics have been common throughout the war. On the Russian side, these approaches have included the painting of Tu-95 strategic bombers on the tarmac at one of its bases and the deployment of inflatable T-72 tanks. Ukraine, on the other hand, has constructed fake jets, made rocket launchers out of wood, and cut up oil barrels to build decoy radar reflectors. In short, deception has played an important role.

A screenshot from a video appearing to show a Russian Lancet drone attacking a decoy of a Ukrainian Su-25 jet.

A screenshot from a video appearing to show a Russian Lancet drone attacking a decoy of a Ukrainian Su-25 jet.@Osinttechnical/X

Africk said there are a range of decoys, and they vary in effort and materials that are put into then. It remains to be seen if the latest decoys at the Primorsko-Akhtarsk are able to lead Ukraine to waste its munitions like cruise missiles or long-range drones.

“It is always a trade-off of how much time you want to put into a decoy to make it look like the target that you’re trying to make it represent, versus how that’s worth the time of the soldiers or the individuals who would be constructing it,” he said.

He added that “this is fairly in line with what we’ve seen throughout the war and throughout past conflicts.”

Deception as a warfighting strategy dates back to conflicts long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Militaries have been using decoy techniques like fake airfields and misleading aircraft — sometimes just repurposed planes that were heavily damaged in combat — in major armed conflicts like World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as a 2020 paper by the RAND Corporation think tank highlighted. In those cases, the purpose was to redirect attacks away from operational aircraft and mislead the enemy.

An inflatable decoy of a military vehicle, which is used to confuse enemy attacks, is displayed during a media presentation in Decin, Czech Republic, March 6, 2023.

An inflatable decoy of a military vehicle, which is used to confuse enemy attacks, is displayed during a media presentation in Decin, Czech Republic, March 6, 2023.REUTERS/Eva Korinkova

For vulnerable airfields, decoys serve as a kind of non-lethal defensive mechanism that might be all that’s standing in the way of a potentially major blow to a military’s air force.

“The best place to kill an enemy’s air force is on the ground,” Mark Gunzinger, the director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said in an August 2022 US Air Force document.

The retired US Air Force colonel said this is especially the case “if that air force is postured in bases that are few in number and lack passive defenses — such as shelters and decoys — and active defenses such as kinetic and nonkinetic interceptors, electronic warfare, and directed-energy weapons that can help counter these air and missile threats.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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