Ukrainian MiGs Firing Radar-Fuzed Rockets—Just The Thing For Shooting Down Russian Drones

 | 
January 14, 2023
UPDATED: 
January 14, 2023


The United States has pledged to Ukraine a consignment of Zuni unguided rockets. There are two ways the Ukrainians could use them—firing them from the air at targets on the ground, or from the air at targets that also are in the air.

The latter tactic was all the rage ... in the 1940s and ‘50s. But it still could work today. Especially against drones.

The administration of U.S. president Joe Biden announced the Zuni transfer last week. “We are ... committing 4,000 Zuni aircraft rockets, which can be mounted on Ukraine's existing aircraft to engage air or ground targets in the category of air defense, which is still a top priority for Ukraine,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper told reporters.

Cooper said she expects American and Ukrainian engineers to work out some expedient for fitting Zuni pods—typically holding four of the 80-pound, 127-millimeter rockets—to Ukrainian air force and army aircraft, potentially including fixed-wing Mikoyan MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-24s, Su-25s and Su-27s as well as Mil Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters.

“This is really just the latest in efforts to help them to make their existing aircraft fleet as effective as possible,” Cooper said.

Owing to a shortage of precision weaponry, Soviet-style unguided rockets such as the 122-millimeter S-13 already are standard air-to-ground weapons for both Ukrainian and Russian aircraft. To avoid enemy air-defenses, jets and helicopters typically fly extremely low then nose up at the last moment and fire their S-13s in a high ballistic arc that lends them extra range—up to three miles.

A volley of 10 ballistic S-13s should impact no farther than 50 feet from the aim point, according to Alexander Shishkin, a retired Russian navy officer.

The Zuni has the potential to be even more accurate. So accurate that it even could work in an air-to-air role. A Zuni rocket is compatible with a variety of screw-in fuzes. With a radar-proximity fuze such as the M414, a Zuni explodes when it passes within 40 feet of a target.

Imagine a Ukrainian MiG closing within five miles of a Russian aircraft and firing a volley of five or 10 Zunis which, triggered by radar, fill the air around the target with countless lethal fragments.

This isn’t how a pilot would want to attack, say, an enemy fighter—which can maneuver and shoot back. But Ukrainian and Russian fighter pilots are doing less and less dogfighting these days as both sides stiffen their ground-based air-defenses and continue to shrink the air space where pilots have any freedom of action.

Instead, Ukrainian fighter pilots increasingly are flying defensive patrols over Ukrainian cities, hoping to intercept some of the hundreds of explosive, propeller-driven Shahed drones that the Russians have been flinging at Ukrainian schools, hospitals and power plants.

The Iranian-made Shahed with its eight-foot wingspan doesn’t reflect a lot of radar energy. Nor is it terribly hot, meaning it’s got a fleeting infrared signature, too. The Russian drones make difficult targets for radar- and infrared-guided missiles. To shoot down Shaheds, Ukrainian pilots often fly close and apparently use their jets’ guns.

It’s dangerous work. At least one Ukrainian fighter jock shot himself down by flying through the debris of an exploding Shahed. With radar-fuzed Zunis, the Ukrainians could more safely engage the drones from farther away.

High-performance fighters firing unguided rockets at targets in the air—it’s a classic tactic. German fighters did it during World War II. The U.S. Air Force in the 1950s briefly had a fighter—the Lockheed F-94C—whose only weapons were unguided rockets fitted to pods in the nose and on the wings.

We should know soon just how the Ukrainians plan to use their new Zunis—and how well they work in that role. If the rockets are effective against Shaheds, expect a second shipment in the near future.

Four thousand rockets isn’t really a lot of rockets, after all. Not when just one Ukrainian fighter, out of a fleet of 60 or more active jets, could fire 10 rounds to shoot down just one of the hundreds of Shaheds the Russians have acquired from Iran.

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  • Chuck Parsons

    Chuck is Score LA’s Executive Director of Events and Marketing. He aims to help business owners and would-be entrepreneurs in Los Angeles improve their business practices.

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