Two ways of shutting down the skies over Ukraine. Is there an alternative to the direct involvement of NATO aircraft?
The peculiarity of the Russian-Ukrainian war is the broad use of aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. It was these means that attacked airfields, command and control centers and air defense systems of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the first day of open aggression. Of course, there were casualties, which worsened the situation. Nevertheless, the Armed Forces retained controllability and combat capability, and air defense technic together with fighter aircraft have been effectively destroying equipment of the enemy, including attacking aeroballistic targets.
Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), such as Igla, Stinger, etc., are effective in the near fields and usually inflict losses on the aggressor’s assault aircraft when attempting to attack ground targets. It is the MANPADS that complicate the actions of the enemy’s assault aircraft and force them to stay on larger (higher than 5 km accessible for MANPADS) echelons, ie, where it is already “seen” by air defense radars and, accordingly, destroyed by Anti-Aerial Missile Systems and fighters. However, the use of the most advanced MANPADS is objectively constrained not only by distance (5 km), but also by weather conditions (cloudiness), which complicate the visibility of the target for the operator, and by the human factor. Besides, a huge number of MANPADS are required to fill up the entire defensive perimeter. Of course, western partners are constantly replenishing our army’s MANPADS stocks, but the need is difficult to meet in the face of active hostilities and high daily consumption of ammunition. Taking advantage of the gaps in Ukraine’s air defense system, which emerged both from the lack of modern AAMS and probably some losses during the first strike, the aggressor continues to actively use its aircraft. This made it possible to make several tactical landings in Kharkiv, Mykolayiv, Vasylkiv, Gostomel, etc., all of which were later destroyed. And this advantage in air that allowed the aggressor to make progress in moving towards the south, in the Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Mykolayiv areas.
Meanwhile, the war continues, and losses in medium-range AAMS can’t be restored quickly. This requires certain procedures, significant expenses and most importantly – the time that is lacking.
What to do in such a situation? Experts consider various options for resolving this issue.
The first option – which can have an effect in a short time and which Ukraine has long called for – is to shut down the Ukrainian skies with the involvement of NATO forces. According to expert estimates, NATO’s capabilities in electronic control of targeting in airspace using space systems could completely block Ukrainian skies from attacks by Russian cruise missiles and aircraft, which would then be destroyed over long distances – on the border of the No-Fly Zone. Modern technology allows establishing a no-fly zone remotely, at a distance of several hundred kilometers. Therefore, the Alliance’s air defense and anti-missile forces and assets that will be involved in this task can be located in NATO countries, in the neutral zone of the Black Sea or in Ukraine (upon its request). As an example, there could be applied the experience of using American AAMS “Patriot” at the request of Riyadh for the country’s air defense against attacks by pro-Iranian Hussite rebels.
The second option, which also has the right to be implemented, is possible if the US Congress adopts a bill registered in the US Senate on January 21, 2022, on a land lease to protect democracy in Ukraine. It aims to simplify and speed up the conclusion of agreements on the supply of weapons and military equipment for the Ukrainian Armed Forces within the framework of US military assistance programs to Ukraine. In addition, there is a possibility of foreigners fighting in Ukraine against the Russian aggressor, which has recently appeared. So, weapons (AAMS) obtained after the adoption of the relevant law under the land lease conditions could be operated by foreigners with relevant training and experience. The implementation of medium-range AAMS into the Ukrainian Armed Forces will push the threshold of interception (and destroying) of air targets tens of kilometers from the objects of protection, which in itself is very important.
Unfortunately, the United States and NATO are in no hurry to close the skies over Ukraine. At present moment, there is still a lack of political will to do so due to fears that such a move would mean some involvement of the Alliance in the war with Russia. Same time, there is still a lack of political will to do so due to fears that such a move would mean some involvement of the Alliance in the war with Russia. Meanwhile, the aggressor has no intention of de-escalating hostilities in Ukraine.
Therefore, the issue of shutting down the sky for our country is becoming critical and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine continues to work on its solution. An urgent meeting of NATO foreign ministers took place on the March, 4th, with the participation of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. The issue of the need to close the skies over Ukraine was raised during the event. However, NATO announced, that it will not shut down the skies for fear of the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia. National experts believe it is possible to receive Western tactical air defense systems from NATO, which could significantly improve the situation.
According to unofficial data, Ukraine is already waiting for the supply of such air defense equipment. It is no coincidence that on March 3, Hungary, which had previously resisted, unblocked supplies of NATO air defense equipment to Ukraine. The issue of replenishing the material part of the Ukrainian fighter aircraft, which has been actively defending our skies since the very beginning of the war, deserves special attention. The issue of replenishment and replacement of the fighter aircraft fleet is extremely important. On February 27, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (!) Josep Borrell promised to hand over to Ukraine up to 70 fighter jets in service with several NATO member states (MiG-29 and Su-25); however, his promises remained words.
Few days later, these countries officially denied Mr. Borrell’s information. Although, on March 3rd, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken mentioned the planes, and the issue is likely to be on the agenda again – possibly after further negotiations between Washington and the leaders of the respective European NATO countries.