Ukrainian “cat and mouse” battle to keep Russian missiles at bay

  • The ground forces succeed in intercepting many Russian missiles
  • Fighter aircraft play a complementary, but limited role
  • Hundreds of missiles and drones targeted the Ukrainian power grid
  • Moscow says tactic is legitimate in its ‘special operation’
  • Kyiv says it amounts to war crimes, and seeks more weapons from the West

Kyiv (Reuters) – As Russian cruise missiles accelerated toward their target this month, a Ukrainian pilot chased down an aging Soviet MiG-29 fighter jet and captured two of them, but couldn’t shoot: a big city and too risky.

He said he moved the targets to Ukrainian ground-based air defenses who shot them down, as they have done hundreds of missiles since October, minimizing the impact of Russia’s air campaign aimed at destroying the country’s power grid.

“Luckily for us they succeeded,” the 29-year-old pilot, whose code name was Joss, told Reuters, describing the accident on Dec. 5.

Such skirmishes are common in the skies over Ukraine, and their outcome has a direct impact on the lives of millions of people left 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 partly aimed at depleting Kyiv’s supplies of air defenses and finally achieving dominance in the skies over the country.

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 hamper the economy. It is already set to shrink by at least a third this year, as department stores and heavy industry struggle to keep the lights on.

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Russia has launched nine large-scale air strikes – usually firing more than 70 missiles at a time – since Oct. 10, knocking out power, running water, cell phone signals and heating.

The missile hit record in Ukraine has ranged from around 50% to as high as 85%, with more recent attacks approaching the upper limit, according to Reuters calculations based on Ukrainian data.

After the latest attack on Friday, it said it had shot down 60 of the 76 incoming rockets.

However, the ones that come through will cause serious damage. Ukraine had to implement emergency power cuts across the country, and much of Kyiv was left without electricity and water for several days.

‘cat and mouse’

Air defense units are spread thinly across a country twice the size of Italy, mostly deployed close to cities and key infrastructure, while fighter pilots like Juice cover the wide gaps in between.

It’s a tall order. 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 efficiently,” said the pilot, who is on a constant high alert at an undisclosed location in central Ukraine.

He said it was difficult to identify incoming targets with old radars, especially in the case of Shahed’s low-flying, slow-moving aircraft that look like moving trucks on a radar screen.

On occasions, such as December 5, Joss was unable to fire on targets because he was too close to densely populated areas.

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Uri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Air Force, said that the ground air defense units are the ones that shoot down the vast majority of missiles and drones, not the old warplanes.

He said, “Both missiles and drones fly along riverbeds to be as low as possible and disappear from radars. If low enough, they just disappear…and then reappear; it’s a game of cat and mouse.” Ahnat.

After a major missile barrage, a days-long pause tends to follow, Ukrainian officials told Reuters, as Russian intelligence assesses what has been hit and what has been lost, tracks the repositioning of Ukrainian air defenses, and looks for vulnerabilities to exploit.

“Air defenses do not stay in one place: we cannot cover the whole country…”.

For Ukraine, intelligence gathering by both domestic and Western spy agencies plays a key role in preparing for Russian air strikes, 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.

Opening rocket stock

The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence has estimated that Russia may have high-precision weapons sufficient for a few major airstrikes.

But Ukrainian officials also acknowledge that their stockpile of defensive weapons is dwindling as the invasion approaches the 10-month mark.

Despite Western supplies of air defense systems to Ukraine including advanced US NASAMS systems and German IRIS-T systems, Soviet-era systems form the core of Ukraine’s air defenses, Ihnat said.

“Our Soviet air defense system is depleting – that’s the S-300 and BUK, which are the base. We can’t maintain that indefinitely because all the unique spare parts for these systems are made in Russia,” he added.

Western air defense systems provided to Ukraine have performed well, but the supplies fall far short of what is needed, according to Air Force officials.

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“Russian equipment is getting old; we are losing missiles. I’m not (saying) it will run out in a few days or a few weeks… It will still depend on the intensity of the Russian attacks,” Smaznyi said. .

Russia’s operator said that by December 7 it had fired more than 1,000 rockets and missiles at Ukraine’s power grid.

On Wednesday, the United States announced $1.85 billion in additional military aid to Ukraine, including the transfer of the Patriot air defense system. Smazny said such systems would provide protection against the ballistic missiles Ukraine is now vulnerable to.

Ihnat said that IRIS-T production was already at maximum capacity and that Ukraine should therefore focus on obtaining as many NASAMS supplies as possible.

“We are approaching one month of winter, we have another month and then February, which is a short time. I think we will survive. But it is better to provide missiles than generators,” he said.

Goss, who speaks fluent English, said many of his peers in the Air Force have been taking English lessons in their spare time, waiting for Ukraine to one day receive Western aircraft such as the US F-16 multi-role fighter jet.

There was no indication that any F-16 delivery 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

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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