Invasion reveals flaws in Ukraine’s air defense strategy

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As Russia’s assault on Ukraine continued for another day, resistance to the invasion at ground level continued.

An uncomfortable truth, however, became apparent in the sky above the rubble.

“The fact that you see Russian helicopters flying at will, at extremely low levels, huddled in groups, with virtually no pushback…that wouldn’t happen anywhere where there’s a competent air defense system in play,” Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said FLYING Friday.

“You have an 800 pound gorilla, against a much more marginal force.”

Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

According to some observers, Ukraine’s modest combat air defense, revealed in real-time news reports, offers a cautionary tale about the quest for modernization and the capability gaps that may appear along the way.

Despite their superiority, Ukrainian military forces managed to slow down Russian forces, according to US defense officials.

“What we have seen over the past 24 hours, we assess that there is greater resistance from the Ukrainians than what the Russians expected,” a senior defense official told Reuters on Friday. Pentagon, according to the Department of Defense. “We also assess over the last 24 hours that in general…the Russians have lost some of their momentum,” he said. “They’re not advancing as far or as fast as we think they would. A good indicator of that is that no population centers were taken.

As of Friday afternoon, Russian forces had yet to achieve air superiority over Ukraine, the official said, saying Ukrainian warplanes continued to engage and deny airspace to Russian fighters.

By the end of the day, some items from Ukraine’s meager aircraft inventory were no longer remaining in the country. On Friday, at least 10 Ukrainian military aircraft were repositioned at a NATO base in Poland, Aviation Week reported citing aircraft tracking websites.

“Four Ukrainian Air Force Ilyushin Il-76D transports flew west from their bases before dawn and landed at the Polish Air Force’s Deblin training base, located southeast of Warsaw, according to tracking websites,” the report said. “Several hours later, six more Ukrainian military aircraft – two An-32s, two An-26s and a pair of Mi-8MSBs – rushed to another Polish Air Force training center in Bydgoszcz , in northwestern Poland.”

Although modest, the air defenses are continuing, a Russian expert noted on Twitter on Friday.

“It seemed that the Russian forces were expecting a faster UKR military collapse and easier earnings,” wrote Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at NAC, a nonprofit research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

“The first campaign to knock out the Ukrainian air defenses and air force had mixed results, the Russian aerospace forces are not particularly practiced at [Suppression of enemy air defenses] SEAD or [Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses] DEAD. Most of the strikes in the opening phase were made via cruise missiles. The UKR Air Force still has planes in place,” Kofman said on Friday.

Inventory of combat aircraft

The Ukrainian Air Force was created in 1992 from aircraft left behind when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and withdrew from Poltava Air Base (UKHL) in central Ukraine. Ukraine.

Ukraine has sought to modernize its aging Soviet-era military equipment and in recent years has increased defense spending. Military spending has risen from 2.8% of its GDP in 2017 to 4.1% in 2020, according to World Bank data.

In December, the Armed Forces of Ukraine took delivery of new patrol boats, armored vehicles and aircraft. Among the new craft were two Sukhoi Su-27 twin-engine fighters, two Aero L-39 jet trainers, an Antonov An-26 transport aircraft and a twin-engine Mil Mi-8 medium-lift helicopter, Janes, a global source for military intelligence, reported at the time. Ukraine had also ordered 13 Antonov AN-178 medium-to-short-range transport aircraft which were due to enter service by 2022.

Just like the rest of its military, Ukrainian fighter jets date back to a bygone era.

“Ukraine inherited a sprawling defense industry from the Soviet Union, producing a wide range of products, including tanks and armored vehicles, aircraft, radar and electronics, missiles and ships,” the Congressional Research Service said in a Jan. 26 report to members of the U.S. Congress.

The inventory of planes the Ukrainian Air Force had on hand was further degraded during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.

“Russia captured or shot down several fighters, fighter-bombers, helicopters and transport aircraft during the conflict,” the CRS report said. “These losses have weakened the air force, which had previously suffered from years of neglect and underfunding. Most Ukrainian aircraft and air defense systems are over 30 years old.

The most recent inventory of the Ukrainian combat aviation fleet, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, includes:

  • 36 – MiG-29 Fulcrum twin-engine jet fighter
  • 34 – Su-27 Flanker B twin-engine fighter
  • 14 – Su-24 Fencer all-weather attack aircraft
  • 31 – Su-25 Frogfoot A (single-seat subsonic jet)
  • 35 – Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters

NATO platforms

Much of Ukraine’s defense investment in recent years has gone into its military, which was chronically underfunded and undertrained, said Niklas Masuhr, a military strategy analyst at the Zurich Center for Security Studies. , in Swiss. FLYING.

In 2020, Ukraine embarked on a $12 billion modernization program to bring it in line with NATO standards and equipment and sought to replace its Soviet-made 4th generation fighters with NATO platforms, such as the F-15EX. The acquisition plan also included the purchase of trainer aircraft, transport aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and air defense systems.

The ambitious plan focused on long-term goals, perhaps at the expense of closer needs.

“[T]it may have been motivated more by a desire to align with NATO than by military utility, as such a move from old Soviet platforms to entirely new ones would have been inefficient and likely to create dangerous capability gaps,” Masuhr said.

Memories of the cold war

At the start of this week’s Russian invasion, the Ukrainian military had about 225 aircraft including marginal air self-defense, “all mostly second-hand Cold War items,” Birkey said.

“They haven’t been modernized to a level that would really hook them [in] no modern sense,” he said, adding that there is no command and control network, preparedness has been an issue.

“You have an 800 pound gorilla, against a much more marginal force. And that’s what happens when too much risk is taken and careful planning isn’t executed for the long term,” Birkey said.

The invasion also illustrates how aircraft as individual combat assets are no longer as powerful as they were in decades past, he added.

“It’s about being part of an air combat system,” which includes sensors, command and control, and the ability to team up between planes, Birkey said. “Unless you can do it in the modern age, in the information age, you really have an air force that’s a relic of the industrial age, it’s not going to be effective or survivable.”

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