Russia is covering its aircraft with rubber tires, but why?

Various news outlets have reported that Russia appears to be covering some of its aircraft with rubber tires. The motive is unknown, but makeshift anti-drone or missile defense seems most likely.
Christopher McFadden
Representational picture.
Representational picture.


Images from satellite surveillance over Russian airbases show Russian ground forces covering aircraft with rubber tires. The motive behind the strategy is a little unclear, but, as CNN reports, military experts believe it may be an attempt to protect them from drone attacks.

One very clear image by Maxar Technologies of Engels Airbase (deep inside Russia), for example, shows two Tu-95 strategic bombers blanketed with tires over their main fuselage and wings.

Makeshift aircraft defense

First reported by The War Zone last month (August 2023), some theories suggest the move could offer cheap and cheerful armor protection. The tires may also provide some form of limited camouflage to drones, especially at nighttime. The strategy could be a makeshift attempt to protect valuable aircraft from missile strikes by confusing their targeting systems. Whatever the case, the strategy probably has a very limited effect, according to Francisco Serra-Martins of drone manufacturer One Way Aerospace, whose drones have been used by Ukrainian forces.

“It may reduce the thermal signature for exposed strategic aviation assets placed on airfield aprons, but they will still be observable under infrared cameras,” Serra-Martins told CNN in an interview. “While it seems pretty goofy, they seem to be trying their best to up-armor the planes that are otherwise sitting ducks. Whether it works depends on what the warhead is on the missile/drone,” said Steffan Watkins, an open-source research consultant who tracks aircraft and ships.

According to The War Zone, covering the aircraft with tires can disrupt their infrared signature and confuse cruise missiles that use image matching for targeting. This technique is commonly referred to as DSMAC (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator) or ATR (Automated Target Recognition) when utilized in cruise missiles.

DSMAC/ATR technology would give Ukraine's newly adapted "Neptune" missiles an advantage in land attacks as they would be less susceptible to electronic warfare jamming. Additionally, the targeting approach would be passive, eliminating any radio-frequency emissions that could give away their position.

According to Watkins, the tires could also be used to prevent fragments from an explosion above the plane from damaging it. A NATO military representative informed CNN that they knew the tires but spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to speak to the media. “We believe it’s meant to protect against drones,” the official told CNN. “We don’t know if this will have any effect," they added.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has been carrying out aerial attacks on strategic assets inside Russia despite facing attacks on its cities. This marks a new phase in the conflict where Kiev seems to be trying to reduce domestic support for the war in Russia.

Last week, six regions of Russia, including Moscow, experienced a significant drone attack. It was the largest assault on Russian territory since their invasion of Ukraine. In the city of Pskov, located near the Estonian border, drones reportedly targeted an airport, causing damage to multiple transport planes.

In August, Ukraine reported conducting drone strikes on bases that harbor supersonic bombers in Russian territory. This action diminished Russia’s air power, hindering Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts.

Continuation of a theme

In the past, Russian forces have used unconventional DIY methods to safeguard their equipment from Ukrainian assaults. They have opted to place metal cages around the exposed turrets of their tanks to minimize the impact of advanced anti-tank weapons that use armor-penetrating rounds from above.

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