The Air War Over Ukraine: Striking With Old Jets and New Weapons

The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the use of older jets like the Su-25 and MiG-29 equipped with newer, precise weaponry. Despite initial strains, Western military aid has improved the Ukrainian Air Force's efficacy and survivability. Recently, Ukraine formed a new military branch focusing on unmanned vehicles.

Reuters | Updated: 14-06-2024 06:30 IST | Created: 14-06-2024 06:30 IST
The Air War Over Ukraine: Striking With Old Jets and New Weapons
AI Generated Representative Image

When Vladimir Putin began his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine's ageing Su-25 "Frogfoot" ground attack jets had a considerable arsenal of unguided, also outdated rockets to use against the Kremlin's advancing tanks and troops.

Within a year, that stockpile had been exhausted. Ukraine's allies, led by the U.S., then arranged the transfer to Kyiv of 4,000 unguided Zuni rockets – weapons first used in the 1960s, heavily fired in Vietnam, but now being replaced in U.S. and French arsenals by much more precision weaponry. According to a rare interview with Serhiy Golubtsov, head of aviation within Ukraine's Air Force, by the Ukrainian-language channel of U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe, that entire stock too has now been exhausted in combat.

While much has been written about the ground war in Ukraine, as well as that of drones and missiles including those targeting Russian ships, scant detail has emerged about the war in the air – likely a reflection of Ukrainian and allies' determination to keep that subject under wraps. This week, Ukraine became the first country in the world to announce it was setting up an entirely new branch of its military for unmanned vehicles.

The first half of this year has seen drones revolutionise the battlefield in Ukraine, increasingly reported to be responsible for the majority of casualties on both sides as well as striking deep within each country. More conventional aircraft, however, continue to be used heavily, albeit receiving less attention.

The interview made it clear just how hard Ukraine's air force has been pushed, using the Sukhoi Su-25 as a low-level strike jet and the more sophisticated MiG-29 "Fulcrum" and Su-27 "Flanker" to deliver more precision munitions including long-range British and French "Storm Shadow" and "SCALP" missiles. For well over a year, Ukraine has been waiting to supplement those with up to 60 U.S.-built F-16 jets donated by Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway.

Some of those aircraft are now expected to enter service as early as the summer – although Ukraine has said it may "park" some in nearby friendly nations to protect them from attack. But the "Frogfeet" appear to have been in action almost constantly. First flown in the 1970s and used by the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan, the jet has been flown by both Russia and Ukraine in the current war, with multiple shooting-down reports in the opening months of the campaign.

Analysts say the aircraft rely on flying low to evade detection, as well as on their armour plating to protect them from ground fire. According to Golubtsov, Ukraine's Su-25s consumed the entire 4,000 Zuni rocket stockpile, now being replaced with French-made HAMMER precision rockets already being used by other Ukrainian warplanes. Both have longer ranges than the Soviet-era bombs being used before, helping protect pilots.

Ukraine has said little about pilot losses, although the death in training of 30-year-old Andriy Pilshchykov last August received considerable coverage including of his funeral. The airman – who went by callsign "Juice" – had been one of the most prominent voices calling for F-16s, and one of the few Ukrainian pilots to give foreign media interviews.

"As of now no more such (Zuni) rockets are left in the world," Ukraine's Golubtsov told Radio Free Europe. "Restarting their production doesn't make sense due to transitioning to high-precision munitions." He said the new "Hammer" glide bombs from France were being particularly effective, with the government in Paris delivering 50 weapons per month and pledging at least 300 more.

That weapon can be dropped from relatively low heights - beneath the range of radar, thereby safeguarding the launching aircraft. Also used "daily", Golubtsov said, is the U.S.-made AGM-88 high-speed Anti-Radiation Missile or HARM, though it is increasingly challenged by Russia's growing habit of turning off air defence radars to avoid detection.

MUCH IMPROVED SURVIVABILITY All of this fits with wider reports suggesting Western military aid and improved Ukrainian tactics have significantly improved the effectiveness – and even more importantly, the survivability – of its air force.

Last August, Forbes magazine reported that the Ukrainian air force had lost 62 planes in 2022, but only seven in the first eight months of 2023. That survival rate is likely in part the result of the new Western missiles that can be launched from well within Ukrainian territory with much less danger to the attacking jets.

It may also be a reflection of increased information-sharing and joint training with supportive countries. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced France would transfer an unspecified number of Mirage 2000-5 jets to Ukraine and provided training for their pilots. However, he warned that the matter would take five to six months and so the jets were unlikely to be in service before the end of the year.

Argentina has also reportedly offered some of its ageing Super Etendard jets to Ukraine, part of a broader outreach to Europe, though the practicality of adding a tiny number of largely obsolete jets to Kyiv's air force remains unclear. Training pilots has been a major bottleneck throughout the war so far, prompting increasingly public expressions of frustration from Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials were particularly irritated by U.S. comments that facilities in Arizona could only train 12 Ukrainian pilots by the end of November as the programme could not breach its prior commitment to other U.S. allies. But another recent briefing - this time from the U.S. military – underscored the level of support the U.S. and Germany have given Ukraine's Patriot batteries in pushing what they can achieve with their air defence rockets to the very limit.

This includes German personnel training Ukrainians to deploy their batteries at short notice and at times covertly, allowing them to conduct what U.S. counterparts call a "Sambush" - a surprise attack with surface-to-air missiles also known as SAMs. LESSONS FOR FUTURE WARS

In May U.S. Army Colonel Ro Clemente told a conference of the U.S. Air Defense and Field Artillery Associations that Ukrainian Patriot successes included the downing of a Russian A-50U AWACS aircraft in January 2024, a major coup for Ukraine. "The team has done a phenomenal job in moving the ball (on) integration," she told the conference, describing the Ukrainians as doing "historic things" with their evolving air defences.

In total, Clemente said that after donations by the U.S. and European allies especially Germany, Kyiv was operating the equivalent of a U.S. Patriot battalion's worth of rockets. The U.S. Army has 15 Patriot battalions, each consisting of four Patriot batteries with several launchers each. Some of those are being used for static targets, others moved around, according to Clemente.

The lessons of Ukraine are already being integrated fast into U.S. and allied planning for wider wars in Europe and Asia, including those that might be sparked by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or clash with the Philippines in their escalating row over islands in the South China. In January, Germany announced a deal in which it would help produce Patriot rockets, and this week has seen U.S. and Japanese officials holding similar talks about output in Japan.

Such talks are increasingly widespread – particularly on drones, artillery shells and other war-winning equipment such as tanks. But even when it comes to relatively simple and urgent military procurement needs, finding common ground can prove much tougher than expected. On Tuesday, Norway's Defence Material Agency and German arms manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann announced they would begin joint manufacturing of the latter's Leopard 2 main battle tank in Norway.

A similar deal with Italian defence firm Leonardo, meanwhile, appears to have collapsed – a measure of the complexity of getting countries to work together even within the European bloc. "The measure of success is how many missiles and (how much) co-production that we can set up in a short period of time," Rahm Emmanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and formerly chief of staff in the Obama White House, told reporters on Monday ahead of further meetings on joint U.S.-Japanese arms production. "Our goal here is not more meetings". (Editing by Mark Heinrich)

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Give Feedback