Ukrainian air defenses have shot down at least 55 Russian warplanes since the start of the war in late February, a U.S. general said Monday, saying the huge losses are a major reason Russian fighter planes and bombers have not played much of a role in the conflict.
Ukrainians took down those planes using older Russian-made air defenses, forcing the Russians to severely limit the sorties they flew near Ukrainian positions. The shootdown also cut Russian ground forces off from the kind of air support they would need to take and hold territory, Air Forces in Europe and Africa commander Gen. James Hecker told reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference.
That lack of protection from the sky has been one of the big surprises of the war, as most analysts expected Russia to quickly establish dominance over Ukraine’s airspace in the early days of the invasion. That failure allowed the Ukrainian air force to regroup and survive mostly intact. Hecker estimated that Ukraine retains about 80 percent of its air force, seven months into the war.
At the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany this month, one of the “big asks” from the Ukrainians was more SA-10 and SA-11 air defense systems in order to fend off Russian drones and aircraft, Hecker said.
The U.S. doesn’t produce or use the missiles, so the onus is on European allies to supply them to Kyiv.
One thing that won’t likely make its way to Ukraine soon is the U.S.-made F-16 fighter plane, which Hecker said wouldn’t arrive for two to three years after any political decision was made to send them, due to training and logistical issues. The general wouldn’t count sending F-16s out, however, saying “folks are starting to think more long term” in how to equip Ukraine for a war he said will likely last years, not months. POLITICO reported last week that officials are conducting early discussions over whether to send the jets to Ukraine, along with Patriot missile batteries.
But the aid is all contingent on decisions made by politicians in Washington and across the capitals of Europe, leading to delays in some weapons the Ukrainians have for months insisted are critical for their survival. There is increasing pressure on Germany in particular to allow third-party countries to send German-made Leopard tanks and artillery systems to Ukraine, something Berlin has so far refused to do.
There’s a similar trepidation within the White House, which is declining to send longer-range missiles for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, for fear Ukraine would begin hitting targets inside Russia. Current missiles can travel about 50 miles, as opposed to the 180 mile range of the missiles Ukraine has been clamoring for.
Those self-imposed curbs on aid have frustrated Kyiv and others who want to more quickly and fully equip Ukraine to hit Russian forces harder. For now at least, “Ukraine has what they need to survive and fight and try to protect their sovereign country without turning this into World War III,” Hecker said.
The general did acknowledge that the U.S. is providing Ukraine “time sensitive” intelligence to Ukraine, but insisted that the Americans are not picking targets for them.
Specifically, the U.S. passed on information about the location of Russian supply depots and logistics hubs inside Ukraine, Hecker said. “We would pass on where some of this equipment was, and then it was up to them whether they wanted to target it or not,” he said.
In the early days of the war Ukrainian forces were having a hard time hitting those targets, which were behind the front lines and out of range of much of their artillery. “But then they got HIMARS,” he said.