Kyiv’s Dwindling Ground-Based Air-Defenses
David Axe. Forbes Staff
I write about ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles and satellites
Apr 28, 2023,08:37pm EDT
Russia’s winter offensive is grinding to a bloody halt in the ruins of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Yes, the Russians have occupied most of the devastated city. But it’s cost them thousands of their best troops
Having defeated the Russian offensive withoutcommitting its 20 or so newly-raised brigades, Ukraine is poised to launch a counteroffensive—perhaps as soon as the spring mud finally dries up.
If there’s a big potential spoiler, it’s the Russian air force. For most of the first 14 months of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, Soviet-vintage Ukrainian air-defenses have kept at bay Russia’s hundreds of modern fighter-bombers.
But Kyiv’s old air-defense batteries are running out of missiles. If the surface-to air missiles run out before Ukraine’s foreign allies can deliver substantial numbers of new air-defense systems, the steel barrier that has blocked Russian air-strikes finally could fall.
Russia’s Sukhoi fighter-bombers then could range across Ukraine at altitudes—say, 10,000 feet or higher—that are favorable to their relatively crude sensors and munitions.
Russian “attack aircraft fleets have proven in Syria that they can be brutally effective against fixed defensive positions, cities and infrastructure targets if they are able to operate freely at medium altitude,” Justin Bronk explained in a new report for the Virginia-based think-tank CNA.
“Therefore, if Ukraine’s SAM systems cannot be kept resupplied, augmented, and ultimately replaced by Western partner nations, then the [Russian air force] could credibly threaten to overpower the Ukrainian air force’s remaining fighters and gain control of the air space over the frontlines in key areas.”
“This would pose a serious risk to the Ukrainian army’s ability to sustainably hold fixed defensive positions, assemble reinforcements and reserve units in rear areas, and safely marshal ammunition and logistics supplies,” Bronk added.
“However, if Ukraine can maintain its current levels of tactical and strategic SAM coverage, then it is unlikely that the [Russian air force] will be able to significantly change its fortunes so far into the war.”
The Ukraine air war in many ways has defied expectations. Observers accustomed to the American way of war may have expected the war to begin with a concerted effort by the Russian air force to roll back Ukrainian air-defenses, shoot down Ukraine’s small force of Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters then relentlessly bomb headquarters, army bases, arms plants, railways and highways in order to behead, gut, strangle and paralyze Ukrainian ground forces.
None of that happened—and for one main reason. The Russian air force is bad at suppressing and destroying enemy air-defenses, a mission the Americans call SEAD/DEAD. The main problem, for the Russians, is intelligence. More specifically, timely intelligence that can inform command and planning processes for finding and destroying air-defense systems that move constantly.
“The most significant limiting factor in terms of the initial [Russian air force] strike campaign was that dynamic battle-damage assessment and retargeting processes were not granular enough or fast enough to account for Ukraine’s successful repositioning of most of its mobile air-defenses,” Bronk wrote.
The unsuppressed Ukrainian missile batteries quickly inflicted a heavy toll. Russian flying regiments lost around 50 Su-25s, Su-30s, Su-34s and Su-35s in just the first six months of the wider war.
So the Russian air campaign over Ukraine shifted. Instead of targeting Ukrainian forces and infrastructure across the country, regiments focused on shallow attacks across narrow sections of the front: lobbing rockets, unguided bombs and, more recently, crude glide-bombs at targets no more than 20 miles from the line of contact.
The closer crews had to get to the front line to deploy their munitions, the lower they had to fly to avoid detection by Ukraine’s intact air-defense network. Low flying helped to staunch Russia’s aerial losses, but it also “greatly increased time pressure and cockpit workload,” Bronk explained. That has constrained pilots’ ability to find and strike mobile targets.
Now imagine if Russian pilots didn’t have to fly a few hundred feet from the ground just to keep from getting shot down. Imagine hundreds of Sukhois streaking across Ukraine, dropping thousands of tons of bombs from comfortable altitudes.
Given the depleted state of Ukraine’s own fighter brigades—and the refusal by Kyiv’s bigger allies to provide modern warplanes such as F-16s as replacements for the 60 or so MiGs and Sukhois Ukraine has lost—only Ukraine’s ground-based air-defenses can forestall this aerial apocalypse.
But after firing scores of missiles from its best, Soviet-made S-300 and Buk air-defense batteries every day for more than a year, Ukraine is running out—and replacement missiles all are made in Russia.
The classified documents that a braggadocious U.S. Air National Guard airman leaked online indicated the Buks and S-300s would run out of missiles in April and May, respectively.
Which helps to explain why deploying new Western-made air-defense systems might by Kyiv’s top priority right now. “We have a Soviet [air-defense] system, and its missile reserves are depleting,” Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said. “If we don’t produce them and only nations from which we can’t get them have more, we need to replenish them with something else.”
Good news for Ukraine: the first of three long-range Patriot SAM batteries—pledged by the United States, Germany and others—has arrived. Ukraine’s allies also have pledged 10 batteries of the medium-range National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System. As many as eight already are in Ukraine.
The problem for Ukraine is that these three long-range and 10 medium-range batteries are replacing at least 25 old S-300 batteries and a dozen or more batteries with Buks. Yes, Ukraine also is getting an assortment of other air-defense systems—old HAWKs, Aspides and Crotales, among others—but the Patriots and NASAMS are the best and most numerous of Ukraine’s new air-defenses.
They’re how Ukraine will maintain its air-defense network and prevent a profound shift in the aerial balance of power toward Russia. A shift that could disrupt Ukraine’s long preparation for a ground counteroffensive.
All that is to say, Ukraine needs more Patriots and NASAMS. And it needs them now.Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Send me a secure tip.
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.
Ukraine has many priorities. One of the most pressing must surely be air defence.
In the late summer of 2021, the allies were 90% certain that putler was going to unleash huge scale all-out warfare on Ukraine. They knew also that it was going to involve terror on civilians, genocide, torture, rape and mass scale thieving.
They could have sent three divisions of mechanized troops, with air cover, yet they did nothing. They could have commenced the construction of a huge integrated air defence system, but they chose not to.
They did provide Stingers, Javelins and NLAWS, which helped win the battle of Kyiv.
Now the construction of a powerful integrated air defence system must commence. It must be funded by the Budapest signatories, who have avoided honouring their obligations since 2014, and the Franco-German alliance that stitched up Ukraine three times: deliberately blocking Ukraine (and Georgia’s) Nato membership in 2008 and the blatant deception of Minsk 1&2.
The allies can recover the $100-200 Bn cost of this project by seizing additional putinazi assets, not the existing ones, which are needed for reconstruction.
The Budapest signatories must also fund and provide a viable nuclear deterrent for Ukraine; probably another $200 Bn. But it’s got to be done.
Even if RuSSia somehow becomes a democracy (about as likely as an alien spacecraft landing on the WH lawn next week), who’s to say that another nazi freak monster like putler couldn’t again take power? It would appear that RuZZians are such backward degenerates that only being ruled by a murderous, hateful dictator keeps them happy.
Why is only the West asked to pay? Ukraine also signed a nuclear security guarantee with China in 1994.
Why does the US have to pay so much more than China for the same thing – Ukraine giving up weapons it couldn’t use because Russia retained the launch codes?
China is Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. Why are they not being asked to do anything?
And where in the Budapest Memorandum does it stipulate that the US will defend Ukraine against Russian aggression? Why would the US agree to that when China obviously didn’t?
My understanding of the agreement is that security assurances were not made by the US against Russian aggression. Yeltsin was said to be claiming Russia would never do such a thing. I don’t believe the Budapest Memorandum was created to address this and if it were, were are the terms?
Ukrainian blackmail stinks to high heaven. You point nukes at us and say pay you to get rid of them and promise to take care of you forever against your abusive partner who is claim what’s yours is theirs. For what? Oh, and the abusive partner only had the launch codes.
And now we have to pay for a nuclear deterrent for you when you never actually had one working before? Why? Why is our responsibility to protect Ukraine against Russia? Because you stopped threatening us? I’d actually prefer to support countries who never threatened us in the first place.
Stop blaming your supporters for the terror on civilians, genocide, torture, rape and mass scale thieving. It’s simply not our fault.
In case you haven’t noticed, bat virus land doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Ukraine. Making them pay for anything will be a most difficult task. That’s why it’s so important for us to decouple our economy from that trash country.
“Ukraine giving up weapons it couldn’t use because Russia retained the launch codes?”
You really think so? Ukraine Soviet Republic was the second most important member state of the SU. It had the second most important industries and number of scientists and engineers. I don’t think that they could never have found a way to use those nukes, especially seeing that they were deeply involved in their development. Thinking otherwise is plain ignorant.
Your argument about the BM is what’s wrong with our foreign policies, and this for decades. We practically force a nation to give up its only viable security for a worthless piece of paper, and you think it’s okay. Concurrently, we’ve wasted 20 years of our time and energy, a trillion dollars, and even the lives of some of our soldiers to help a trash country where the majority never really appreciated anything, and collapsed in the face of a handful of armed goat herders in merely a single week, after our very disgraceful escape from there. Or invade Iraq on false pretenses.
Here, we can finally help a nation that truly deserves it, even if it’s only with material and not a single American life, and all we’re doing is slow-walking aid and even tying an arm behind Ukraine’s back, just because our POTUS is a frail and spineless coward.
“Honestly” is getting increasingly dishonest, slippery and kremtroll-like.
He certainly likes to defend and undefendable Biden and the inglorious, shameful BM.
I’m wondering, is there any artillery weaponry that can fire conventional shells of solid metal up to the flying altitude of a typical fighter jet? If so, then while these weapons probably wouldn’t be nearly as accurate as a guided missile or rocket, I would expect their ammunition to be far easier to produce, and far cheaper if purchasing is required. If the missiles and rockets get used up, high-powered guns may become the only alternative. I would guess that if they missed an enemy aircraft, some of these bullets or artillery shells may fall down on various friendly areas of Ukraine and cause injuries, but the air raid shelters minimize that.
I remember some video clips from when hamas has tried attacking Israeli targets, and the Iron Dome air defense was using guns with an extremely fast firing rate. Though it was against missiles, I wonder if it can work against a pilot, because no matter how skilled he may be, if the air is filled with steel, then he cannot keep evading a hail of bullets.
Unfortunately, such methods will never work at the medium altitudes that the cockroaches would be most effective, Mac.
Aren’t we all living a lie then?
In a way, yes.
Too late and too little or nothing at all. This is the story of this war regarding Western aid.