The United States has pledged to Ukraine a consignment of Raytheon AIM-9M Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. And it’s pretty obvious why.
Ukraine is fighting a desperate air-defense battle against Russian drones. One that’s fast consuming the Ukrainian air force’s existing stockpile of Soviet-vintage R-73 heat-seekers.
Plus, the air force is about to acquire a whole lot more jets: 60 or more surplus Lockheed Martin F-16s from Denmark, The Netherlands and Norway. The F-16s will need missiles.
Tuesday’s missile pledge—part of a $250-million aid package also including other munitions and mineclearing gear—isn’t Ukraine’s first Sidewinder donation. Canada back in May pledged to Ukraine AIM-9s—presumably also AIM-9Ms—from the Canadian air force’s existing inventory.
It’s not clear the Canadian Sidewinders have arrived in Ukraine. It also is unclear when the American Sidewinders will arrive.
Yesterday wouldn’t be too soon for an air force—Ukraine’s—that’s flying air-defense sorties every day, defending Ukrainian cities from one-way, explosives-laden Shahed drones. The Ukrainian air force’s hundred or so Mikoyan MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-27s currently carry Vympel R-73 heat-seeking missiles.
MiGs and Sukhois carrying R-73s are an effective defense against the slow-flying Shaheds, but an inefficient one. “These interceptions use munitions that are far more expensive and are available for Ukraine in more limited quantities than the Shahed-136 is likely to be for Russia,” Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling wrote for the Royal United Services Institute in London.
While Ukrainian industry produces seekers for R-73s, it apparently doesn’t produce missile bodies, meaning industry can’t just build lots of new R-73s to replace the missiles Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union. “Stocks of even outdated and ineffective Soviet ammunition for the existing aircraft fleet are steadily decreasing,” Ukrainian air force commander Mykola Oleshchuk warned.
A few hundred AIM-9s would sustain the anti-Shahed sorties, potentially for months, even as R-73 stocks run low. But unless the Ukrainians plan to wait to match their Sidewinders with F-16s, they’ll need to integrate the 190-pound, 22-mile-range AIM-9s on MiG-29s and Su-27s.
It’s not impossible to do. The Polish air force for years has been considering arming its MiG-29s with newer AIM-9Xs by kluging American-made LAU-129 launcher rails onto the MiGs’ wings and adding a couple of new electronic boxes to their cockpits—including speakers for producing the characteristic growl the Sidewinder makes when it locks on to a target.
“Power supply for all additional equipment will be a crucial factor,” Polish air force academy instructor Norbert Grzesik wrote in a 2012 assessment. But trust the Ukrainians to solve that problem. After all, they already have found ways to integrate an array of Western missiles with their ex-Soviet jets.