Amid high tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and widespread Western claims of a Russian intent to invade its neighbour, a team from the U.S. Department of Defence completed a mission to assess Ukrainian air defence needs. This was confirmed by Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, who announced the team’s return at a press conference in December 20. Other missions assigned to the team included discussing Ukraine’s ability to respond to Russian naval, electronic, and cyber attacks. Ukraine inherited a robust air defence capability from the Soviet Union in 1991 including early variants of the S-300 air defence system, as well as longer ranged but immobile S-200s and large numbers of shorter ranged systems such as the BuK-M1. Although state of the air for its time, Ukraine’s air defence network have seen few improvements over the past three decades and are not expected to significantly challenge Russian air or missile strikes particularly as their electronic warfare countermeasures are thought to be far outdated. The situation only worsened due to questionable maintenance, and reports that Ukraine transferred some of its S-300PTs to the United States for testing purposes which removed its most formidable air defence asset. Ukraine did inherit the Soviet Union’s most formidable air superiority fighter, the Su-27, although these too have seen negligible improvements to their armaments, sensors or electronics. Combined with highly questionable pilot training and low availability rates, this has left them with only very limited viability to tackle modern Russian fighters such as the Su-30SM or Su-35.
It remains uncertain how the United States could support an improvement in Ukraine’s air defences particularly considering the latter’s limited defence budget and the risk that any sensitive American equipment provided could fall into Russian hands. American assistance is likely to centre around asymmetric systems, namely handheld low altitude MANPADS, much as it provided handheld anti tank missiles rather than selling Ukraine M1 Abrams tanks or M2 Bradley fighting vehicles to counter Russian forces asymmetrically. The Avenger air defence system, which mounts variants of the handheld Stinger missile systems on an armoured car, is likely to be the top system the U.S. is willing to export but is still very short ranged, restricted to very low altitudes and fails to match the performance of Ukraine’s existing Soviet era inventory. It has also been proposed that the U.S. provide Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets from its reserves as military aid, although transitioning the Ukrainian Air Force from Soviet to U.S. equipment would be costly and time consuming. While F-16s have lower maintenance needs than fighters Ukraine currently operates, those in American reserves do not have any notable performance advantages over Ukraine’s existing fighters.