Ukraine’s Air Force re­builds amid war

Kyiv Post - - National - BY I LLIA PONOMARENK­O PONOMARENK­[email protected]

VASYLKIV and VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — On a chilly morn­ing in early spring, hu­mid mist and low clouds hang over the air base of Vasylkiv, a city of 36,000 peo­ple lo­cated 30 kilo­me­ters south­west of Kyiv. It is home to the Ukrainian Air Force's 40th Tac­ti­cal Avi­a­tion Brigade.

By mid­day, the sky has cleared, and to the great joy of the brigade’s pi­lots, the base's flight con­trol cen­ter gives the go-ahead for a flight ses­sion — for the first time in this week of poor weather.

The ses­sion starts with me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal re­con­nais­sance — a sil­ver Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter with blue­and-yel­low tri­dents on its twin tail fins is towed to the run­way.

Af­ter a half-hour of tin­ker­ing, the se­nior ser­vice tech­ni­cian re­ports that the air­craft is fully fu­eled and ready to go. The pi­lot locks the glass dome of his cock­pit, and the jet slips in the gray skies, its tur­bo­fan en­gines roar­ing and spit­ting trails of hot smoke.

The Ukrainian Air Force or UAF reg­u­larly con­ducts such prac­tice flights these days, but this was not al­ways the case.

Dur­ing their ca­reers, many Ukrainian pi­lots were fre­quently grounded for want of jet fuel, while their war­planes were be­ing scrapped or sold off by the dozen.

But coun­try's ris­ing de­fense bud­get, which has been sky­rock­et­ing since 2014 to a record-break­ing $8 bil­lion planned for 2019– al­most 6 per­cent of the na­tion’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct — has of­fered them hope.

Crip­pled by years of un­der­fund­ing, dras­tic post-Soviet cuts, and a rapid loss of skilled per­son­nel, the UAF is try­ing to rise again as a com­bat-po­tent force. The mis­sion is now to pre­vent Rus­sia, the world's sec­ond great­est air power, from en­croach­ing on Ukraine's in­tegrity and in­de­pen­dence.

With swarms of Rus­sian war­planes based closer to Ukraine’s borders ev­ery month, the UAF is now fever­ishly train­ing more pi­lots and mod­ern­iz­ing their air­craft. But its ag­ing fleet, in­her­ited from Soviet times is draw­ing close to the end of its op­er­at­ing life­time.

Within the next decade, the UAF needs a new fleet of mod­ern war­planes ca­pa­ble of con­duct­ing a full spec­trum of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions — oth­er­wise, Ukraine’s skies will be largely de­fense­less.

Fall from grace

In 1991, in­de­pen­dent Ukraine emerged as the world's third largest air power, trail­ing only the United States and Rus­sia.

It in­her­ited an im­pres­sive Soviet air fleet of over 2,000 war­planes, in­clud­ing 44 Tu-22 and Tu-160 heavy strate­gic bombers, di­vided into four air armies oper­ated by 122,000 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 27,000 civil­ian staff.

But the fol­low­ing years brought noth­ing but de­cay and cuts. In com­pli­ance with the 1994 Bu­dapest Mem­o­ran­dum, Ukraine got rid of its nu­clear stock­pile and dis­posed of its strate­gic bombers by 1998, un­der se­cu­rity as­sur­ances from Rus­sia, the United States, and the United King­dom.

Other air­craft were sold off by the dozen. Be­tween 2007 and 2017 alone, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures pro­vided by the State Ser­vice of Ex­port Con­trol, Ukraine sold as many as 65 com­bat jets (Su-27s, Su-25s, and Su-22s, MiG-29s and MiG-21s), 41 L-39 Al­ba­tros trainer air­craft, six An- 72, An- 74, and An-12 mil­i­tary trans­port air­craft, three Il- 78 tankers, 50 Tu-143 re­con­nais­sance drones, 44 Mi-24 and Mi-24 he­li­copters, and 802 mis­siles of var­i­ous types (mainly R-24, R-27 and R- 73 air-to-air mis­siles, and the Kh-59 air-launched cruise mis­sile).

The years of sales brought the state mil­lions of dol­lars, but since 1991 the UAF has not re­ceived a sin­gle new air­craft.

Rid­ing the storm

Worse yet, bud­gets in all ar­eas — from train­ing to rou­tine ser­vic­ing — were tiny.

"In the early 2000s, young pi­lots were grad­u­at­ing the Kharkiv Air Force Univer­sity with very weak flight ex­pe­ri­ence," Lieu­tenant Colonel Yuriy Gnat, a UAF spokesman told the Kyiv Post.

"We had to give them sup­port jobs on the ground. There was barely enough fuel for com­man­ders and in­struc­tors, far less for the young pi­lots. We had a sit­u­a­tion when se­nior of­fi­cers — from squadron lead­ers to brigade com­man­ders — were the only ones to per­form na­tional air de­fense flights.

"It was just sur­vival. Mod­ern­iza­tions and over­hauls were com­pletely out of the ques­tion."

Se­vere per­son­nel cuts and the clo­sure of en­tire air com­mand head­quar­ters con­tin­ued too. Ac­cord­ing to the Mil­i­tary Pros­e­cu­tion Of­fice, as many as 19 UAF units were dis­banded in 2012–2014 alone. This even­tu­ally led to Ukraine's air power be­ing to­tally par­a­lyzed in the wake of Rus­sia's in­va­sion of Crimea in early 2014.

The sur­ren­der in Crimea was a dev­as­tat­ing blow to the UAF. It lost its best in­fra­struc­ture in the penin­sula and as many as 126 air­craft. Ukraine later man­aged to re­cover only 92 of the planes — the Rus­sians de­cided to keep the rest.

But worse — the Krem­lin's proxy war in the Don­bas — was yet to come.

De­spite an ob­vi­ous lack of prac­tice and mod­ern equip­ment, Ukrainian air power played an im­por­tant role in early bat­tles of Slovyansk and Kram­a­torsk in the spring of 2014, as well as in the bloody fight­ing for Donetsk Air­port and Ilo­vaisk.

The low­est point in the UAF’s his­tory came overnight into June 14, 2014, when an Il-76MD mil­i­tary trans­port plane was downed by Rus­sian-led forces over the Luhansk Air­port. All 49 men on board, in­clud­ing 40 para­troop­ers and 9 crew, were killed in the crash.

The dra­matic months of 2014 cre­ated mod­ern air force he­roes — such as Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Va­syl Nik­i­forov, who early in the war called up a dozen of his old friends, re­tired vet­eran pi­lots, to drill young­sters in fight­ing the in­vaders, or Ma­jor Vlas­dyslav Voloshyn, who sur­vived be­ing shot down be­hind en­emy lines dur­ing the bat­tle of Ilo­vaisk.

But the UAF's ac­tive in­volve­ment in the war ef­fec­tively ended in early Septem­ber 2014, when, af­ter the crush­ing de­feat and slaugh­ter of Ukrainian forces by Rus­sian reg­u­lar troops at Ilo­vaisk, Moscow made a to­tal ban on the use of air power a pre­con­di­tion for the first Minsk peace agree­ment.

Dur­ing the war, Ukraine has lost 51 UAF ser­vice­men, in­clud­ing 16 pi­lots.

Still go­ing strong

To­day, nearly 50,000 per­son­nel serve in the UAF, now based in Vinnytsia, a city of 370,000 peo­ple lo­cated 200 kilo­me­ters south­west of Kyiv.

Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, a Lon­don-based re­search in­sti­tute, the UAF now has nearly 125 com­bat-ready air­craft.

These in­clude ap­prox­i­mately 37 MiG-29 and 34 Su-27 fight­ers, 14 Su-24M at­tack air­craft, 31 Su-25 close air sup­port air­craft, nine Su-24MR and three Antonov An-30 re­con­nais­sance air­craft, 32 L-39 train­ing planes, and five Ilyushin Il-76 and three An-26 mil­i­tary trans­port air­craft.

The force also has a pool of 14 Mi-9, 30 Mi-8, and two Mi-2 he­li­copters. Ukrainian skies are also guarded by 250 S-300P/PS/PT and 72 Buk-M1 sur­face-to-air mis­sile sys­tems.

While to­day's UAF is a shadow of what it was in 1992, Ukraine still re­mains among the few na­tions op­er­at­ing all prin­ci­pal branches of air power — bombers, fight­ers, at­tack air­craft, re­con­nais­sance, trans­ports, and drones, in ad­di­tion to mis­sile and elec­tronic war­fare forces.

In­creased spend­ing on air power, reach­ing a to­tal of Hr 8.3 bil­lon ($320 mil­lion) in 2019, has al­lowed the grad­ual re­sump­tion of reg­u­lar prac­tice flights. Ukrainian fighter pi­lots now get be­tween 40 and 60 fly­ing hours a year, and all air­bases hold two or three flight ses­sions ev­ery week.

"That’s more or less enough to main­tain pi­lot­ing skills," said Lieu­tenant Colonel Ar­tur Gaika, a fighter squadron leader with the 40th Tac­ti­cal Avi­a­tion Brigade.

"But we aim for a lot more, es­pe­cially for the young pi­lots."

There are no il­lu­sions re­gard­ing the strong ad­ver­sary the young pi­lots will face in the case of all-out war. So the old hands drill them in close-com­bat tac­tics, which, they be­lieve, would some­what negate Rus­sia's tech­no­log­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity in com­bat.

They are trained hard to fly as low as pos­si­ble to avoid Rus­sian radar de­tec­tion.

"You should have your jet's belly painted all yel­low from sun­flow­ers on the ground," pi­lots joke.

Like any ac­tive air force, the UAF from time to time suf­fers tragic ac­ci­dents that take the lives of even its most ex­pe­ri­enced fly­ers.

As re­cently as Oct. 27, 2018, a Su-27 crashed dur­ing the Clear Sky 2018 multi­na­tional aerial drills near Vinnytsia, killing Colonel Ivan Pe­trenko and his co-pi­lot, Lieu­tenant Colonel Seth "Jethro" Nehring from the U. S. Na­tional Guard's 144th Fighter Wing.

Limit of strength

The over­all in­crease in de­fense spend­ing due to the war has al­lowed the UAF to up­grade some of its air­craft.

Ac­cord­ing to UkrOboronP­rom, Ukraine's gi­ant state-run de­fense pro­duc­tion con­cern, the air force re­cieved over 50 mod­ern­ized and re­paired air­craft in 2018, with bet­ter nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems and radars in­stalled on some of the UAF's work­horse jets.

But a more se­ri­ous and strate­gic prob­lem is the ag­ing of war­planes that have oper­ated since 1970s and 1980s.

"What we have is gen­er­ally enough for ful­fill­ing our cur­rent tasks as for now," Lieu­tenant Colonel Gnat said.

"But you can't re­pair and mod­ern- ize planes end­lessly — most of them are now older than their pi­lots. Their air­frames are draw­ing closer to their op­er­a­tional lim­its, and their ser­vice lives are get­ting harder and harder to ex­tend."

Soon the UAF could be left with no planes to fly, he added, and the na­tion needs to start think­ing about pur­chas­ing new air­craft abroad.

"Ukraine will not be able to de­sign and pro­duce its own new jet fighter in the fore­see­able fu­ture," the of­fi­cer said. "To cre­ate one would take at least $10 bil­lion and at least 10 years. But we don't have those bil­lons or those years."

But mean­while, lit­tle progress is be­ing made. Plans to launch the li­censed pro­duc­tion of Swedishde­signed Jas-39 Gripen fight­ers in Lviv, mulling since 2014, even­tu­ally ended in noth­ing. The only pur­chase made so far was of 12 Turk­ish Bayrakatar strike drones in late 2018. They have just been de­liv­ered, and are not yet in ser­vice.

As the UAF's chief avi­a­tion en­gi­neer Ma­jor Gen­eral Petro Sko­renkiy told the Kyiv Post, presently bud­get fund­ing is in­suf­fi­cient ei­ther for for­eign pur­chases or a full mod­ern­iza­tion of air­craft, and the na­tional de­fense in­dus­try can pro­vide only 30–35 per­cent of the work re­quired by the UAF.

"We’re mod­ern­iz­ing vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing we have," the gen­eral said. "But we still have big prob­lems with aim­ing sights. In terms of tar­get ac­qui­si­tion, we're lag­ging be­hind both Western mil­i­taries and the Rus­sians. But we're work­ing on this."

He said the UAF still has up to two decades of op­er­a­tional life left — but that's the most up­beat as­sess­ment.

"We hadn't flown much for years, so even when it comes to the old planes, their op­er­at­ing lives are not ex­hausted. I be­lieve we can make it to nearly 2040."

"But nonethe­less, as early as within the next 10 years, we need to start re­plac­ing the whole air fleet, squadron by squadron."

Mean­while, Rus­sia, which, ac­cord­ing to Ukraine's mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, has based nearly 500 tac­ti­cal jets and 340 strike he­li­copters close to Ukraine's bor­der and in oc­cu­pied Crimea, is quickly gain­ing nu­mer­i­cal and tech­ni­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity.

While Ukraine's mod­ern­ized warhorse fight­ers, such as the MiG-29 and Su-27, are 4th gen­er­a­tion jet fight­ers, Rus­sia op­er­ates the more ad­vanced 4+ gen­er­a­tion Su-30 and Su-33, and the 4++ gen­er­a­tion Su-35 war­planes, and is pre­par­ing to in­tro­duce ul­tra­mod­ern 5th gen­er­a­tion Su-57 fight­ers.

Avi­a­tion dream­ers

But, avi­a­tors say, this tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tage could be largely nul­li­fied in com­bat by the ef­forts of well­trained and ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lots and tech­ni­cians.

Yet this is where the UAF still faces big prob­lems, hav­ing been rav­aged by years of post-Soviet de­cline.

Very lit­tle is be­ing done to mo­ti­vate ei­ther young or ex­pe­ri­enced per­son­nel to stay in the mil­i­tary — very poor so­cial se­cu­rity and hous­ing drive many skilled, highly trained spe­cial­ists out of the UAF to seek bet­ter prospects for their fam­i­lies.

Even top-gun pi­lots — the best-paid elite of the armed forces — earn just $1,000 a month. Many are be­ing head-hunted by civil­ian air­lines look­ing to hire skilled per­son­nel for wages of tens of thou­sands of dol­lars.

"This is re­ally a ma­jor is­sue," Gaika said.

"The health cri­te­ria are very de­mand­ing, and the pro­fes­sion is a risk that not many can put up with. Even en­roll­ments are down — only 10–15 young pi­lots grad­u­ate the acad­emy an­nu­ally, of whom only one or two come to (our) brigade."

Even so, the na­tion should be able to sat­isfy the UAF’s de­mand for fighter pi­lots in five or six years, pro­vided that no new air force brigades are cre­ated.

But more than that, Ukraine needs to raise a gen­er­a­tion of aspir­ing pi­lots.

"A true pi­lot's train­ing starts from pri­mary school age, from the mo­ment a kid sees a beau­ti­ful plane roar past," Gaika, the lieu­tenant colonel, said.

“I be­lieve we need more air­plane clubs through­out the coun­try, more avi­a­tion de­sign camps in schools. Many young peo­ple think about civil or mil­i­tary avi­a­tion ca­reers af­ter at­tend­ing these clubs. In other words, we should make sure Ukrainian kids don’t stop dream­ing of the sky." ■

A ser­vice tec­n­ni­cian walks on a Mikoyan MiG-29 jet fighter's hull dur­ing han­gar re­pair works at Ukraine's Air Force's 40th Tac­ti­cal Avi­a­tion Brigade in the city of Vasylkiv on Feb. 14, 2019. (Volodymyr Petrov)

Lieu­tenant Colonel Ar­tur Gaika, a squadron leader with the UAF's 40th Tac­ti­cal Avi­a­tion Brigade.

The es­ti­mated num­ber of com­bat­ready war­planes and air de­fense mis­sile sys­tems avail­i­able at Ukraine's Air Force as of 2018.

Ukrainian Air Force's war­planes take off a run­way strip for a prac­tice flight at the 144 Fighter Brigade air­field near Ivano-Frankivsk dur­ing the Clear Sky drills on Oct. 14, 2015. (Min­istry of De­fense of Ukraine)

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