Ukraine needs more air defense support: UK think tank

Ukrainian forces need Western support for their air defense systems — as well as NATO fighter jets — if they’re to continue keeping Moscow’s jets at bay, military analysts have claimed.

Western nations must provide more equipment to the under-siege country’s air defense, including American F-16 and F-18s, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a UK military think tank, in a report released Monday.

“The West must avoid complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air-defence capacity,” the report reads.

Despite Moscow’s inability to dominate the skies over Ukraine in the eight months since Russia invaded, Kyiv’s air force is still technically outmatched, according to the researchers.

“Ukrainian pilots confirm that Russia’s Su-30SM and Su-35S completely outclass Ukrainian Air Force fighter aircraft on a technical level,” they said.

Ukrainian fighter squadrons suffered greater losses in the opening days of the war than previously reported, according to the institute.

A modern Russian MiG-31K, equipped with a hypersonic missile.

Though Ukrainian pilots flew aggressively and utilized superior knowledge of the terrain to evade Russian radar systems and claim several likely kills against the invading air force, it was Ukraine’s system of surface-to-air missile batteries that ultimately denied the Russians control of the skies.

“It is purely thanks to its failure to destroy Ukraine’s mobile SAM systems that Russia remains unable to effectively employ the potentially heavy and efficient aerial firepower of its fixed-wing bomber and multi-role fighter fleets,” the institute said.

“if Ukrainian [anti-aircraft batteries] are not resupplied with ammunition, and ultimately augmented and replaced with Western equivalents over time, the [Russian Air Force] will regain the ability to pose a major threat.”

Justin Bronk, the report’s lead author, told the British newspaper The Telegraph that Russia’s latest round of bombardments — which combine a large number of low-speed suicide drones with strategic use of larger, more precise cruise missiles — could begin to overwhelm the capacity of Kyiv’s air defense network.

a polish F-16
Poland, once a Warsaw Pact nation, is among those who have traded their Soviet-era squadrons for modern NATO fighters.
AFP via Getty Images

“The latest series of strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure are more of a sustainable threat than previous iterations as it now blends hundreds of cheap and numerous Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 [drones] to hit small targets, with larger and more expensive cruise missiles and ballistic missiles against large targets,” he said.

In response, Bronk said Ukraine should field more portable, shoulder-fired anti-air missiles, like those supplied by Western nations, alongside a newly rearmed network of surface-to-air batteries.

The real threat remains Russia’s superior fighter technology, with an air force fielding much newer fighters than Ukraine’s aging Soviet-era fleet.

“The Ukrainian Air Force fighter force needs modern Western fighters and missiles to sustainably counter the [Russian Air Force],” the report says. “Russian pilots have been cautious throughout the war, so even a small number of Western fighters could have a major deterrent effect.”

Equipping Kyiv with NATO fighters is far from an easy proposition, however. In addition to retraining Ukrainian pilots and mechanics on a foreign airframe and ensuring an ample supply of spare parts, the West would need to overcome political concerns dating from the beginning of the war.

An American F/A-18 Hornet
NATO nations have been reticent to equip Ukraine with modern Western airframes out of fear for escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine.
Getty Images

NATO has repeatedly backed off from plans to equip Kyiv with fighter jets for fear of escalating tensions with Moscow — even when those jets were the same Soviet-era MiG fighters Ukraine was already flying.

Monday’s report, however, argues that the fighting will once again move to the skies if given the chance — and recommends Ukraine’s allies take that possibility seriously.

“Western military aid has quite rightly concentrated on equipping and supporting the Ukrainian ground forces until now. Ukraine has so far managed to hold its own in the air domain, largely using its own equipment,” the authors write.

“However, there is a real danger that this success leads to Western complacency about the threat that the [Russian Air Force] can still pose to Ukrainian forces, infrastructure and cities if given an opening.”

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