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Armed Forces

Air War in Ukraine Evolves into a New Phase

Gepard system.
Photo. Bundeswehr

After five months of the war, the Ukrainian Air Force and air defence assets are still able to hamper the Russian progress. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian post-Soviet missile stockpile is shrinking. To maintain the defensive capacity, Kyiv took delivery of western-made mobile air defence systems. Russia, meanwhile, expands the use of unmanned assets, with that also being applicable - according to unconfirmed information - in Iran as well.

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Somewhat in the background of the artillery duels, air war wages, between the Russian air platforms, including unmanned ones, and the Ukrainian IADS. This effort cannot be treated separately from the battles in which the artillery partakes, as the artillery pieces are used in the role of DEAD assets, while rockets, also ones launched from long-range MLRS systems can be targeted by some of the air defence assets. One shall however focus on the air assets, unmanned ones included, and long-range missile assets as well, leaving the discussion of tube and rocket artillery for another article.

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From the very start of the full-scale war, the Russian manned aviation (fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft) was not lethal. The latter usually employ unguided weapons and operate at a low level, while engagements utilize indirect fire tactics that often lack accuracy, but allow the air platforms to evade the Ukrainian air defences.

The Russians are also struggling when it comes to their use of UAVs. These, along with numerous Russian artillery assets still pose a serious threat nonetheless. The intense use of UAVs and loitering munitions has grown to levels incomparable to the beginning of the war.

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Air Defence Reinforcements for Ukraine

Many signs suggest that the air war over Ukraine may soon enter a new phase. On one hand, Ukraine received the first, minor deliveries of western self-propelled air defence systems. Both the German 35 mm Gepard AAA systems, as well as the British Starstreak beam rider SAMs, are used basically to protect mobile land forces elements, but they can also be employed to protect the infrastructure.

Starstreak VSHORAD launch, from a launcher, integrated on the Stormer platform.
Photo. M. Dura

If the Ukrainians use them for the purpose for which they have been designed, they may become a critical support asset for any counteroffensive - for instance in the Kherson area. Effective air defence is an indispensable element of any maneuver-driven operations. It frequently happens that an airstrike may be decisive for the success or failure of an engagement - with a capacity to effectively disable the attackers. Even if the airstrike is not a precise one, it may be enough for the defenders (also when the attackers try to recover occupied land) to fall back to another, well-prepared position and slow down the attackers.

A transfer of 7 Gepard systems does not immediately mean that the Ukrainian air defence capabilities are gradually expanded. Ultimately, two batches, 15 systems each are to be delivered. Only 6 British Starstreak systems are operated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine now. A question that arises is: are there more Starstreak systems coming? The last delivery of British aid for Ukraine also included "even more advanced air defence systems", without indicating the name. The above may refer to systems belonging to NASAMS, Sky Sabre, or IRIS-T SL class. The British have decommissioned most of their Starstreak HVM systems a long time ago, as a part of cuts... Despite that, Ukraine is gradually receiving western self-propelled anti-aircraft systems. These are mobile, offer rapid reaction times, and can also support offensive action.

So far two NASAMS systems have been procured for Ukraine by the US, while the Germans decided to acquire a single IRIS-T SL battery. This support is fairly important, but the needs are much greater (even multiple times). Let us add that air defence support going outside the MANPADS domain (Piorun, Stinger, and so on) is quite challenging for the West, as the Western nations themselves suffer from limited capabilities. Both the US, as well as the Western European nations have been introducing major cuts in the air defence domain.

Russia, Its Missiles, and Drones

But Russia is also procuring several new assets. Delivery of the first, western mobile air defence assets are in sync with the unconfirmed rumors suggesting Russia is about to take delivery of the first lot of Iranian Shahed 129 UAVs. Attacks targeting the Ukrainian cities are also ongoing - carried out with the use of cruise and ballistic missiles and rocket artillery. Many sources suggest but do not confirm, that Russia is also using its S-300P SAM in a ground attack role.

Shahed 129 UAV is a MALE system, similar to the Predator UAV - they can operate at an altitude of up to 7 thousand meters, and carry guided bomb units. The aircraft offers endurance of up to 24 hours. Interestingly, at least two UAVs as such have been shot by the USAF F-15E Strike Eagles in Syria. UAVs as such may seem to be useless in the balanced conflict we have seen in Ukraine - as these assets are relatively easy to detect and neutralize.

Photo. Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org

Even if the Shahed 129 UAVs would have no impact on the course of the battle, as Russia expands its use of loitering munitions, and as Ukraine depletes its SAMs, the Russian air platforms, including unmanned ones, and rocket artillery assets, can now engage in the lengthy SEAD/DEAD effort. The drones could be used as air defence decoys, forcing the enemy to activate medium altitude-capable air defence systems (Buk-M1, S-300P), and expose them to the Russian rocket artillery, anti-radiation missiles, or the Russian S-300P systems.

The Ukrainian Air Force remains active, but it also suffers from major losses. Recently information was released on the assignment of a KIA status to one of the pilots of the 299th Tactical Aviation Brigade, operating the Su-25. So far, the support for the air force is limited to the transfer of equipment or weapons for the post-Soviet aircraft, and also a small number of helicopters (20 Mi-17s from the US and Slovakia, at least 2 Mi-24s from the Czech Republic, and 1 Mi-2 from Slovakia). The NATO member states remain skeptical when it comes to the provision of training for the Ukrainian pilots on the western aircraft - any preparation as such, during wartime, could take at least a couple of months. The support may not be sufficient for Ukraine to push away the Russian Air Force - as it is using a support chain that has been hit by sanctions, but it has also been relatively untouched.

Considering the events unfolding in Ukraine, deploying a larger number of mobile air defence assets, as well as SHORAD and VSHORAD systems may have a key role in maintaining the defensive capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Both Kyiv, as well as the West are facing a major challenge here. This is even more pronounced as the NATO member states do not have a large stockpile of modern air defence assets, apart from MANPADS.

Photo. mil.gov.ua

What’s next?

Time will show, what the air war over Ukraine would look like. Although Kyiv has been able to maintain effective air defence potential over the first five months of the war, with quite limited material support provided by the west (not counting the intel fed to the Ukrainians), the continued war effort would be questionable, if we witness no increase in delivery of modern air defence systems, not to mention the demand that Ukraine expresses, when it comes to modern aircraft.

The air war may last for years, just as the conflict could as well. The West needs to expect a myriad of scenarios, and it should be able to provide Ukraine with an ability to continue its defensive effort that, so far, has been quite effective. That "effectiveness" may also stem from the fact that the Russian manned aviation assets have been used quite carefully. One cannot expect complete protection to be provided against hundreds of drones, and thousands of missiles. Keeping the level of lethality constant, in the case of the Ukrainian air defence assets, would call for increased support effort on the part of the west, not to mention the need to provide better protection to Ukrainian cities and the Armed Forces. This would be desirable, given the course of the war, and the expectations related to the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

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