Ukraine conflict: The West has warned against overconfidence in air defense support


A woman walks past a building damaged by missile strikes in Bakhmut, Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has been able to gain control of Ukraine’s skies, owing largely to their pilots’ unwillingness to risk being shot down by the other side’s air defense systems.

While Russia’s air force far outnumbers Ukraine’s in both size and sophistication, Russia has resorted to firing long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, which have recently been supplemented by inexpensive, mass-produced Iranian Shahed-136 explosive-laden drones.

Many of these have been shot down, but those that have gotten through have severely damaged Ukraine’s power and water infrastructure, just as winter is approaching.

And now, a new report warns that Ukraine is on the verge of running out of weapons to counter the massive Russian air attacks.

The report, from London-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), warns that unless Western nations maintain and step up their supply of air defences to Ukraine. then Russia is likely to use the same bombing techniques it used in Syria, to devastating effect.

Russia has entrusted its Ukraine campaign to hardline Gen Sergei Surovikin, the same general who oversaw the intensive bombing of cities such as Aleppo.

Rusi weapons experts spent months on the ground in Ukraine, interviewing military intelligence officers and air defense operators and inspecting the wreckage of downed Russian missile systems.

Small, portable rocket launchers known as MANPADs have played a role in this, as have larger systems such as Germany’s Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft systems.

According to the report’s lead author, Justin Bronk, what Ukraine truly lacks is modern, multi-role combat aircraft to keep the Russian airforce at bay. One option he suggests is NATO’s F16 fighter, of which thousands have been built.

The disadvantage is that it requires long, pristine runways, which are vulnerable to Russian targeting. He also mentions Sweden’s Grippen aircraft, which would be able to operate from small, discrete forest bases.

However, Western nations have been wary of arming Ukraine in such a way that it provokes President Vladimir Putin into taking even more drastic measures.

So far, Nato-supplied weapons have almost entirely been used for clearly defined defensive purposes, such as pushing back Russian artillery, ambushing invading tank columns, or shooting down attack drones in the sky. Sending advanced combat aircraft would be a significant step up, potentially escalating tensions between Moscow and the West.

Nonetheless, the RUSI report urges the West not to be complacent when it comes to Ukraine’s air defense.

It concludes that Russia’s air force has not repeated its strategy of reducing large parts of cities to rubble in Syria because it has been unable to destroy Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems. It contends that resupplying Ukraine’s defenses is therefore a matter of urgency.

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