The Russian military on May 8 officially acknowledged that it had employed its new “Universal Gliding and Correction Module,” or UMPK, against Ukraine. Designed to turn a “dumb” bomb into an inexpensive guided glide bomb, the UMPK fills a critical gap for the Russian air force. The Russians will no doubt seek to use their new weapon to help thwart Ukraine’s impending counteroffensive.
The UMPK is a crude analog of the U.S.-made JDAM-ER, the extended-range version of the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM. Fielded at the end of the 20th century, JDAM retrofits free-fall bombs with a new tail section equipped with articulatable fins, an inertial navigation system, and a GPS guidance control unit. The JDAM-ER, which first entered service in Australia in 2015, adds a pair of pop-out wings that allow the bomb to glide to targets 43 miles away. The United States fields the JDAM-ER in limited numbers and has provided some of them to Ukraine, although Russia has reportedly found success in jamming the bomb’s GPS guidance system.
The UMPK made its first public appearance in January when a Telegram channel close to the Russian air force posted a picture of the device attached to a FAB-500M-62 unguided bomb. Like the JDAM-ER, the UMPK uses pop-out wings to extend the munition’s range. It also has a pair of horizontal stabilizers.
The January photo, which may have shown a rough prototype rather than the finished system, gave no clear indication as to whether or how the bomb is guided. (Unlike American counterparts, the tail sections on Russian bombs cannot be removed.) But the Ukrainian air force later clarified that the UMPK employs satellite guidance, indicating the device contains a system that articulates its wings or stabilizers.
Russian industry appears to have developed the UMPK rapidly to help redress Moscow’s dearth of precision-guided bombs. That gap is a weakness for the Russian air force — one that the war in Ukraine has brought to the fore.
Before fielding the UMPK, Russia had already developed a variety of “smart” bombs with built-in guidance systems, including ones with wings that extend their range. But their high price tags prevented Moscow from fielding these munitions in large numbers. They have made only sporadic appearances in Russia’s wars in Ukraine and Syria.
But rather than following the United States in acquiring inexpensive guidance kits to retrofit its large stocks of Soviet-era dumb bombs, Moscow went a different direction. Russian industry developed a handful of prototype wing kits, including guided and unguided versions. But Moscow passed on them — even as NATO demonstrated JDAM’s utility in successive wars from 1999 onward. Instead, Russia opted to invest in a system called the SVP-24. Essentially a digital bombsight, the SVP-24 allows pilots to employ dumb bombs more accurately, but they must be released near the target.
Moscow’s approach worked fine in Syria, where man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) constituted the only real threat to Russian aircraft. Russian pilots could drop their bombs while flying safely above MANPADS range, making repeated passes as necessary.
But in Ukraine, the Russians face an adversary with a formidable array of layered ground-based air defense systems. Russia has failed to destroy most of them, most notably Ukraine’s S-300 long-range and Buk-M1 medium-range surface-to-air missile systems. Consequently, Russian aircraft trying to support ground forces must fly low or very low when venturing near the front lines. But that leaves them vulnerable to MANPADS and prevents them from employing unguided bombs effectively.
The UMPK changes that equation. According to Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat, the UMPK has a range of 43 miles. He said this allows Russian Su-35S or Su-34 aircraft to strike fixed targets up to 12 to 18 miles deep in Ukraine’s rear while remaining beyond the reach of Ukrainian air defense systems, which typically stay back from the front line for safety’s sake. Some Russian sources say Kyiv has responded by moving up its air defense systems, increasing their vulnerability to artillery fire and Lancet loitering munitions.
Videos showing UMPK strikes have appeared on Russian social media with increasing frequency since early March. Posts showing apparent malfunctions or inaccurate strikes are not uncommon. That’s unsurprising, given that Russia seems to have thrown the UMPK together in a matter of months and is likely still working out the kinks.
But Moscow is reportedly confident enough in the system’s accuracy to begin producing a version for the FAB-250 bomb, which has a smaller warhead than the FAB-500 and thus requires greater precision. According to state-run TASS, the new version has a range of 50 miles, perhaps due to the FAB-250’s more aerodynamic shape and lower weight. It reportedly also received an inertial navigation system, which, if integrated with the original version’s satellite guidance system, could improve accuracy and redundancy.
The UMPK’s relatively simple design could allow Russia to produce them in large numbers. Earlier this month, Ihnat said Russia was conducting up to 20 UMPK strikes per day, although Russian sources claim it can produce dozens or even hundreds of the kits a day. (For context, Boeing reportedly made 27 JDAM tail kits per day in 2012 before ramping up to more than 100 in later years.) Perhaps as a result, the overall frequency of Russian airstrikes appears to have increased since March, according to Ukrainian military data.
Ukrainian officials have expressed growing concern over Russia’s new capability. They say they need Western-made fighter jets and additional air defense systems to counter the threat. The key question is whether the UMPK can help the Russians choke Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive.
During Kyiv’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast last year, the Russian air force failed to staunch Ukrainian breakthroughs due to dense Ukrainian air defense coverage. The UMPK’s standoff range and Ukraine’s increasing shortage of interceptors for its Soviet-made air defense systems could allow the Russian air force to play a greater role this time.
Even with the UMPK, the Russian air force will still suffer from other deficiencies undermining its ability to perform close air support and air interdiction missions, particularly against mobile targets.
But the UMPK could at least allow Russian aircraft to strike targets with known coordinates near the front lines or in Ukraine’s immediate rear. Much will likely depend on whether Russian forward air controllers identify and relay targets promptly.
The UMPK demonstrates that the Russian air force can adapt, even a quarter-century late. Time will tell whether that adaptation will translate to results on the battlefield.