- The ground forces succeeded in intercepting many Russian missiles
- Fighter aircraft play a complementary, but limited role
- Hundreds of missiles and drones targeted the Ukrainian electricity grid
- Moscow says tactic is legitimate in its ‘special operation’
- Kyiv says it amounts to war crimes and demands more weapons from the West
Kyiv (Reuters) – As Russian cruise missiles raced towards their target this month, a Ukrainian pilot chased after an old Soviet MiG-29 fighter and captured two planes but could not shoot: a big city, too dangerous.
He said he had moved the targets to Ukrainian ground-based air defenses that had shot them down, firing hundreds of missiles since October, reducing the impact of Russia’s air campaign aimed at destroying the country’s power grid.
“Luckily for us, they took off,” the 29-year-old pilot, whose code name was Joss, told Reuters, describing the crash on Dec. 5.
Such skirmishes are common in the skies over Ukraine, and their outcome has a direct impact on the lives of millions without heat, electricity or running water during the harsh winter if defenses fail.
Ukraine describes the attacks as a war crime aimed at the subjugation of innocent civilians. Russia says the power grid is a legitimate military target in its “special operation”.
The Pentagon said the Russian missile strikes were intended, in part, to deplete stockpiles of air defenses in Kyiv and eventually take control of the country’s skies.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Washington on Wednesday to seek “weapons, weapons and more weapons,” including a Patriot missile battery that would bolster the country’s defenses against incoming missiles and drones.
Attacks on energy targets disrupt daily life, including vital services such as hospitals and schools, and threaten to further cripple the economy. It is already expected to drop by at least a third this year as supermarkets and heavy industry struggle to keep the lights on.
Russia has launched nine large-scale airstrikes – usually firing more than 70 missiles at a time – since Oct. 10, knocking out electricity, running water, cellphone signals and heating.
The Ukrainian record of missiles shot down has ranged from about 50% to 85%, with the most recent attacks nearing the limit, according to Reuters calculations based on Ukrainian data.
After last Friday’s attack, he said he shot down 60 of the 76 incoming rockets.
However, those who pass through will deal massive damage. Ukraine had to implement emergency power cuts across the country, and much of Kyiv was left without electricity or water for several days.
‘cat and mouse’
Air defense units are spread across a country twice the size of Italy, with most deployed close to major cities and infrastructure, while fighter pilots like Juice cover the wide gaps in between.
It’s quite a challenge. Goss says he didn’t shoot down a single drone or missile in his MiG-29, which rolled off the assembly line just before Ukraine gained independence from Soviet Moscow in 1991.
“Our planes are not capable enough to do this effectively,” said the pilot, who was constantly on high alert at an undisclosed location in central Ukraine.
He said it was difficult to identify incoming targets with old radar, especially in the case of Shahed’s low-flying, slow-moving planes that look like moving trucks on the radar screen.
On some occasions, such as December 5, Joss was unable to fire on targets because he was too close to densely populated areas.
Uri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Air Force, said that the vast majority of missiles and drones are shot down by ground air defense units, not the old combat aircraft.
He said: “Missiles and drones fly along the river bed to get as low as possible and disappear from the radar. If it gets low enough, it disappears…and then reappears; it’s a game of cat and mouse.” Ahanat.
After a major missile barrage, pauses of several days tend to follow, Ukrainian officials told Reuters, as Russian intelligence assesses what has been hit and what has been lost, tracking the repositioning of Ukrainian air defenses and looking for vulnerabilities to exploit.
“Air defenses do not stay in one place: we cannot cover the whole country…”.
For Ukraine, intelligence gathering by domestic and Western spy agencies plays a key role in preparing for Russian airstrikes, Denis Smazny, an air defense training official, told Reuters.
“So we usually know what things are being attacked, we can build around those things a kind of air defense,” he said.
The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence has estimated that Russia may have enough high-precision weapons to conduct some major air strikes.
But Ukrainian officials also acknowledge that their stockpile of defensive weapons is shrinking as the invasion approaches the 10-month mark.
Despite Western deliveries of air defense systems to Ukraine, including advanced US NASAMS systems and German IRIS-T systems, Soviet-era systems form the heart of Ukraine’s air defenses, Ihnat said.
He added: “Our Soviet air defense system is running out — it’s the S-300 and BUK, which are the base. We can’t maintain it indefinitely because all the unique spare parts for these systems are made in Russia.”
Western air defense systems provided to Ukraine are working well, but supplies fall far short of needs, according to Air Force officials.
Smazny said: “Russian equipment is aging; we are losing missiles. I’m not saying it will run out in a few days or a few weeks… It will always depend on the intensity of Russian attacks.”
The Russian company said that as of December 7, it had fired more than 1,000 rockets and missiles at Ukraine’s power grid.
And the United States announced, on Wednesday, the provision of $ 1.85 billion in additional military aid to Ukraine, including the transfer of the Patriot air defense system, which will provide protection against ballistic missiles that Ukraine is now exposed to.
Ihnat said IRIS-T production was already at maximum capacity, so Ukraine should focus on getting as many NASAMS supplies as possible.
“We are approaching the winter month and we have another month and then February which is a short month. I think we will survive. But it is better to save the missiles than the generators.
Goss, who is fluent in English, said many of his peers in the Air Force take English lessons in their spare time, waiting for Ukraine to one day receive Western aircraft such as the US F-16 multirole fighter jets.
There was no indication that delivery of the F-16 was imminent or agreed upon, and Ihnat said the pilots were acting on their own.
“Everyone understands that sooner or later we will switch to F-16s or we will need another type of aircraft and knowledge of the English language will be required.”
(Reporting by Tom Palmforth). Editing by Mike Colette-White and Thomas Janowski
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