Ukraine Needs Air Defense Assistance to Protect Hard-Won Victories on the Ground

Editor’s Note: This piece is a companion to the latest A members-only podcast, The Russia Contingency with Michael Kaufman. In this latest episode, Michael Speaking With Justin Bronck and Jack Watling, senior researchers at the Royal United Services Institute, detailing the air strikes against Ukraine and their recent observations from field research in the country.

Russian Aerospace Forces fought in the war against Ukraine. However, Russian jets and helicopters were much more active in the early days of the war than previously reported. Without Ukraine’s Soviet-era mobile surface-to-air missile systems, Russian forces could have overwhelmed Ukraine’s defenses in the first weeks of the war. These ground-based air defenses kept the Russian Air Force at arm’s length and rendered it ineffective as of mid-March 2022. However, Russian space forces remain a major threat if Ukrainian air defense systems are allowed to run out of ammunition and launch a sustained attack. Ukraine is also under constant missile and weapons bombardment, which is draining air defense ammunition and disrupting electricity and water supplies nationwide. Therefore, Ukraine’s Western partners need to prioritize sending air defense support, such as the Western-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, along with shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems and modern anti-aircraft gun systems, such as German ones. Produced by Gepard.

Unseen Air War

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, the view of the war for outside observers was dominated by Russian ground forces advancing and hundreds of cruise missile and ballistic missile strikes. Russian air force fighters and bombers appeared largely absent in the first days of the invasion, and then began suffering losses in early March in low-level bombing attacks against Ukrainian positions and besieged cities. Since then, Russia’s inability to gain air superiority over Ukraine has been a key factor in determining the course of the invasion. Lacking on either side the ability to use airpower effectively at scale, the battle has so far been decided by land-based artillery guided by drones versus controlled armored vehicles and infantry.

However, a new RUSI report based on fieldwork conducted in Ukraine in October 2022 indicates that in the early days of the offensive, Russia conducted more extensive strikes and fighter patrols with its warplanes than previously recorded. According to interviews with Ukrainian Air Force commanders, Russian electronic warfare attacks, effective use of air strikes, and long-range missile attacks overwhelmed or destroyed most of Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems early in the offensive. This left Ukraine’s outnumbered and outgunned fighter pilots trying to defend the skies on their own, suffering significant losses until ground defenses were restored to effective operations after the third day of the conflict.

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During this initial three-day window, Russian strike aircraft flew hundreds of sorties to bomb targets up to 300 kilometers inside Ukrainian-controlled territory. They would have continued to do so had they not brought back Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems such as the long-range S-300, medium-range SA-11 “Buk” and short-range SA-8 “Osa”. Actions are being taken to make it prohibitively dangerous for Russian aircraft to fly at medium and high altitudes. When Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems became operational again, Russian jets and helicopters could not effectively detect, suppress, and destroy them. As a result, they were forced to fly very low instead, which was unacceptable to the short-range shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems that were heavily supplied to western Ukraine.

However, the RUSI report shows that Russian fighter jets flying close to the front line continue to take a serious toll on Ukrainian pilots stuck flying Soviet-era jets. Essentially, the Russian Air Force has failed to achieve air superiority over Ukraine due to its so far inability to hunt down and destroy Ukraine’s mobile surface-to-air missile systems. However, these are difficult to redistribute to Western partners because they are Soviet-made systems that were never built in the West. Replacing them with Western systems is difficult because Western militaries have limited surface-to-air missile launchers and limited missile stocks as a result of securing air superiority in post-Cold War conflicts. This is important because not only are Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems critical to deterring the Russian air force slowly being attrited, but they also have limited ammunition.

So far Western military aid has focused heavily on ground-based equipment such as tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers and anti-tank rocket launchers. This is for good reason – the Russian military is by far the biggest threat to Ukraine, especially since the Russian air force has been unable to operate effectively since the first few days of the offensive. However, Russian air power remains a serious threat to Ukraine’s hard-won advances on the ground. Unless Ukraine is given urgent additional support in terms of missile ammunition for Soviet-era surface-to-air missile systems, as well as new Western national advanced surface-to-air missile systems, over time, Russian jets will have more to bomb Ukrainian troops, cities and infrastructure near the frontlines in the coming months. Freedom can be found.

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Russia’s Missile Bombing Strategy

Ukraine is under renewed and very severe bombardment from Russian cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 weapons. The Russian military has so far failed to focus its limited arsenal of expensive cruise and ballistic missiles on any single target to produce strategically decisive effects. After all, Ukraine is a large and resilient country. However, with the addition of Shahed-136, this latest strike campaign is more threatening. Small cruise munitions are relatively “dumb” weapons that are relatively slow, relatively easy to fire individually, and can only reliably hit fixed targets. However, they are inexpensive — about $25,000 per warhead — and their 20- to 40-kilogram warhead capacity is more than enough to severely damage small infrastructure targets and buildings.

Russia is using these weapons to target Ukrainian electricity and water grids as winter approaches, using the remaining expensive cruise and ballistic missiles to hit larger targets such as major power stations and interconnectors while hundreds of Shahed-136s are used to hit smaller substations and pumping stations. After a month of strike, it has serious consequences. Most Ukrainian cities experience power and water cuts for several hours a day. Ukrainian forces continue to shoot down most of the Shahed-136 aircraft, with more than half of the cruise missiles launched. However, this effort is rapidly depleting Ukraine’s stocks of man-portable air defense systems and other air defense missiles.

Ukraine needs an urgent resupply of shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles and additional radar-guided anti-aircraft guns such as the German Gepard to defeat this brutal Russian strategy that has plunged millions of Ukrainian citizens into darkness, cold and thirst this winter. The Shahed-136 can reliably destroy loitering warheads at a sustained cost per interception.


While the general perception that Russian aerospace forces have been largely ineffective during the invasion so far is largely correct, this should not obscure the very real threat they still pose if Ukraine’s air defenses are not urgently strengthened. In the first three days of the war, Russian jets flew hundreds of strike sorties and fighter sweeps, and Ukrainian Air Force fighter pilots were seriously injured trying to intercept them. Russia’s air force has been ineffective ever since because the Russian Aerospace Forces lacked the ability to plan, fly, and sustain the large and complex strike packages required to effectively suppress and destroy enemy air defenses against Ukrainian mobile surfaces. –To-air missile systems. However, they still have formidable fighters and strike aircraft with heavy firepower that could be devastating if they were allowed to regain the ability to sustain medium-scale operations over Ukrainian territory.

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If Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles are allowed to attrit over time By drones and artillery Without reinforcements or replacements, the Ukrainian Air Force will not be able to hold off the Russian Air Force on the front lines if they run out of ammunition. A limited number of Western surface-to-air missile systems are available, and procurement of missiles and replacement launchers and radars for Soviet-made systems is politically difficult for Ukraine to provide, so this poses a serious challenge. Medium term. So, ultimately, a sustainable air defense posture for Ukraine may require at least some Western fighter jets that can engage Russian fighters on more equal terms. Such fighters would need to be able to operate from the small and relatively sparsely dispersed airbases used by Ukraine’s fighters to avoid Russian missile attacks.

The military momentum on the ground has shifted decisively in Ukraine’s favor, particularly following Russia’s withdrawal, in the spring and summer of 2023, with a real chance to drive Russian forces out of the occupied territories. However, it requires more than just constant support. Not only for the ground war, but also for urgent Western air defense support this winter to keep the Russian air force as ineffective as it has been and to counter attacks on critical infrastructure that Ukrainian civilians depend on for warmth, light and sanitation.

Justin Bronk is a senior research fellow for air power and technology in the military sciences team at RUSI, a defense and security think tank in London. His Twitter handle is @Justin_Br0nk

Image: Wikimedia Commons


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