Ukraine Situation Report: 80 Percent Of Kyiv’s Airpower Remains Intact

HARM missiles are helping Ukraine’s aircraft operate more freely as Russia’s failure to gain air superiority has left its planes vulnerable.

byDan Parsons|
Russian air force shot down
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


Russia’s failure to target Ukrainian integrated air defenses at the outset of hostilities in February have cost it at least 55 fixed-wing combat aircraft, while about 80 percent of Ukraine’s Air Force remains intact according to a senior U.S. Air Force general.

Most if not all of those shootdowns were caused by Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks on Russian aircraft, according to Gen. James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa.

“We’re pretty sure all of those losses were due to surface-to-air missile attacks from Ukraine on the Russians, primarily SA-10 and SA-11s,” Hecker told The War Zone and other outlets on Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference outside Washington, D.C. As The War Zone pointed out in this previous story, air defense systems are more critical to the defense of Ukraine than fighters.

“The Russians lost other aircraft, just recently they lost one on takeoff that crashed because of maintenance practices, not shot down,” Hecker said. “What’s not included in the 55 that I talked about are the ones that they lost on the ground.”

Hecker's numbers match the database of visually-confirmed equipment losses being kept by Oryx, an independent open-source analyst, which lists 53 Russian fixed-wing military aircraft destroyed and two damaged beyond repair.

The Russian air force has noteably failed to gain air superiority as the war unfolded beginning in February. That has allowed the Ukrainian Air Force to continue operating jets and helicopters within its own territory and protected much of Ukraine’s ground from airstrikes.

Hecker said the Russian Air Force essentially neutered its fighter force by failing to locate and target Ukrainian air defenses early in the war.

“They weren’t really making a concentrated effort of going out and going after those integrated systems,” he said. “They were just sitting back, so it kind of took their fighters a little bit out of the fight. So, now what they’re doing is using their long-range bombers carrying cruise missiles … and firing those from outside of engagement zones.”

Ukrainian officials named SAM systems a priority when communicating their current war needs to NATO nations and other supporters at a recent meeting hosted by the U.S. at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Hecker said. However, the SA-10 (S-300) and SA-11 Buk SAM systems Ukraine’s military is familiar with are not used by the U.S. and would have to come from European militaries that operate those weapons, Hecker said. This has been a long-established issue that the pending delivery of NASAMS and IRIS-T SLM SAM systems is hoping to help solve. The first NASAMS batteries are set to arrive in Ukraine within the next couple of months.

BUK air defense missile systems seem during a military parade in Kiev in 2016. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

As is standard practice for air defense system operations, both sides of the conflict move their SAM batteries regularly and rarely stay in one spot for any length of time, Hecker said. That makes them difficult targets for air strikes even if they activate air defense radars or fire missiles.

“Even if they haven't shot, they're starting to move them every six hours, every 12 hours, for sure after they shoot most of the time,” Hecker said. “They move them right away on both sides. So, it becomes more and more difficult to try to target these things. But the good news is if they're moving they're not radiating. They're not doing their job.”

Ukraine’s integration of the AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, or HARM, onto its jet fighters has forced the Russians to move their SAM systems more often, especially when they activate a radar. HARMS detects, homes in on and destroys air defense radars by tracking their electronic emissions.

“I talked to the Chief of Staff for the Ukrainian Air Force. I talked to him a little bit ago and he was pretty excited,” Hecker said. “They were able to basically localize air superiority for a little bit with some tactics using HARMs and those kinds of things. And then be able to use some of their unmanned aircraft.”

Still, Russian troops recently brought down a Ukrainian Su-25M1 apparently with an OSA-AKM air defense system near Yehorivka in Donetsk Oblast.

It’s been a crazy day for news coming out of Ukraine and Moscow, but before we get to the details, catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Around midday on Sept. 20, the Kremlin reporting pool issued a notice that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu would give a speech to the nation at 8 p.m. Moscow time. Several hours later and neither Putin nor Shoigu had spoken. Sergei Markov, a Russian political analyst with Kremlin ties then announced the speech was postponed until Sept. 21.  

It is understood that Putin would announce that the four regions of Ukraine under Russian occupation would hold referendums on whether to join Russia as soon as Friday. The four-day votes would legally make the occupied territories part of Russia, but are widely seen as heavily weighted in Russia’s favor.

Proxy leaders in Russian separatist regions like the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic have dutifully reached out to Putin to ask for a quick accession into Russia once the votes are held.

Pentagon Spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the votes would not be recognized by the U.S. and that Ukrainian territory held by Russian forces rightfully belongs to Kyiv. Ryder joined French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba in calling the referenda a “sham.”

“This is simply an information operation that's meant to distract from the difficult state that the Russian military currently finds itself in right now,” Ryder said during a press briefing at the Pentagon. “But no one will view such sham referenda with any credibility and the US certainly will not recognize the outcome of any sham elections. And so, in terms of how that will affect us and international support to Ukraine, it will not we will continue to work with Ukraine and our international partners to provide them with the support they need to defend their territory.”

There are concerns that if these areas are declared part of Russia, it will give the Kremlin cover to enact 'mobilization' across its economy and military, basically putting the country on a full-on war footing. It could also be used to justify more aggressive tactics. You can read all about this in our recent piece linked here.

Another indication that Russia’s war is not going the way it planned is the reported move of its Kilo class submarines from the Black Sea Fleet’s home port of Sevastopol in Crimea to Novorossiysk in southern Russia. The U.K. Ministry of Defense’s latest intelligence assessment of the war suggests the move was made because the Russian fleet’s headquarters and main naval station have both been attacked by Ukrainian forces in the last two months and the safety of the area is no longer assured.

“This is highly likely due to the recent change in the local security threat level in the face of increased Ukrainian long-range strike capability,” U.K. MoD said. “Guaranteeing the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimea basing was likely one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations for annexing the peninsula in 2014. Base security has now been directly undermined by Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine.”

The frontlines have been relatively static since Ukraine's lightning-fast rout of Russian forces and recapture of large swathes of Kharkiv Oblast in the northeast. That remains Ukraine's primary line of effort and advance, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Ukrainian forces also are retaining areas recaptured in the south around Kherson City, as seen in ISW's Sept. 20 maps of the conflict below.

Russian forces also continue to leave behind evidence that they are poorly organized, living in squaller and vacating positions suddenly as the Ukrainian army advances. One video shows an equipment-strewn forest pocked by rudimentary dugout shelters and dotted with vehicles, gear, and trash abandoned by the Russians and filmed as Ukrainian forces moved through.

Russian troops did manage to capture a Ukrainian Ukrspecsystems PD-1 multipurpose UAV still in transport containers along with technical documentation, according to the Ukraine Weapons Tracker.

More evidence has appeared that Russia is receiving Iranian drones to rebuild its stocks of unmanned aircraft and expand its campaign against targets beyond the front lines, especially air defense systems. Remnants of a Shahed-136 loitering munition were found in Mykolaiv, though it isn’t known if the suicide drone was shot down or hit an intended target. There have been a number of Shahed-136s found on the battlefield over the last week, indicating an increasing use of the Iranian suicide drones.

In an odd juxtaposition, more evidence has emerged that Ukrainian forces are being supplied with Iranian ammunition. The video below shows what are identified as 122mm and 152mm high-explosive artillery projectiles built in Iran. The ammunition likely was sourced outside of Iran by nations like the U.S. and U.K., that are searching far and wide to find an adequate supply of artillery for Ukraine.

More NATO-donated armored vehicles keep showing up or are on their way into Ukrainian service. Those include the last six Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns from Germany, making for a total 30 such vehicles now delivered to Ukraine. The first Gepards, which means "Cheetah" in German, were first seen in Ukrainian service in August.

Slovenia, meanwhile, has offered up 28 M55S1 main battle tanks. They are a heavily modified version of the Soviet-era T-55 that include British L7 105mm gun, Israeli-made explosive reactive armor, a new engine, computerized fire control systems, and other upgrades. Several NATO countries have transferred Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine, but so far have not been forthcoming with modern tank models Ukraine says it desperately needs. That is partly because NATO nations are willing and readily able to divest of older tanks, providing funding and room to adopt modernized designs. Ukraine also has not proven its ability to operate and modern main battle tanks like the U.S. M1 Abrams or German Leopard 2, though U.S. officials say such systems are "absolutely on the table" for future batches of donated equipment.

A convoy of U.S.-donated MaxxPro mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) were seen in eastern Ukraine. These bomb-proof trucks were purchased by the thousands to protect U.S. troops from roadside bombs during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some MRAPS also were deployed with U.S. troops to Syria, where they clashed with Russian forces. When they were no longer needed for those conflicts, many of the hulking trucks were destroyed or given away by the U.S. military because it was prohibitively expensive to ship them home. Many are now in the hands of the Taliban, which paraded them and other U.S. equipment around Kandahar in a recent celebration of their takeover of the nation. Now those that have been transferred to the Ukrainian Armed Forces are popping up all over the battlefield.

Resourceful as always, and despite a flood of outside equipment and vehicles, Ukrainians still must fight some battles with the gear at hand. In the instance below, they have hot-rodded a Peugeot Cabriolet into a mean-looking skeletonized battle buggy complete with machine gunner. Small vehicles like this stripped-down battle wagon have in other instances been armed with anti-tank guided missiles and sent to hunt tanks. Tiny vehicles with big firepower would be potentially deadly adversaries for slower, less nimble tanks and other armored vehicles in restricted spaces like forests and cities. Above all else, they have proven highly successful in support Ukrainian forces' hit-and-run style of attacks.

Russia continues to fire incendiary and other munitions on civilian-occupied areas. Firing phosphorous “fire rain” on villages is a tactic already seen employed by Russian forces. The move is unlikely achieve anything other than starting fires and sowing mayhem and fear among the civilian population. The example below, likely filmed by a drone of some kind, is otherwordly looking but also incredibly horrific.

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