Military briefing: Why Ukraine needs air defenses, not a no-fly zone

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, referred to Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and Martin Luther King and had a key message for members of the US Congress in his emotional speech on Wednesday: “Protect our skies”.

Demanding that NATO impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine was a constant call from Zelenskyy and his ministers during the three weeks of the Russian invasion – and a flat NATO rejection was the constant response.

But as Kiev’s demands expand from empty to contested skies, the US, Britain and other countries are eager to join Stock up of air defense systems — an alternative that Western officials say is not only more viable but also better for Ukraine’s military prospects.

The USA On Wednesday approved a new weapons package for Kyiv, including 100 kamikaze drones and 800 shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. This is in addition to the portable high-speed Starstreak surface-to-air missiles being sent by the UK and other systems from Denmark, Germany, Italy and other EU militaries.

The US is also negotiating with Eastern European countries for the supply of Soviet-developed S-300 air defense systems Replenish reserves of Ukraine.

“The fact that the Russians failed to establish air superiority is a direct consequence of the effectiveness of Ukraine’s air defenses,” said a senior NATO intelligence official. “From a Ukrainian point of view, the list of things they ask for is . . . are very specific: they need air defense ammunition.”

A no-fly zone has countless obstacles. First and foremost, it would require NATO aircraft to enforce it, including attacking any Russian aircraft seen in breach – a move that would spark a broader NATO-Russia war. It would also require the military alliance to attack Russian air defense systems inside Russia to disable them and prevent them from attacking NATO jets.

“Are we really going to launch missiles at sovereign Russia? let’s be honest We are not,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on Wednesday.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says some of Russia’s deadliest attacks could not be prevented by a no-fly zone © Jakub Gavlak/EPA/Shutterstock

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that US President Joe Biden has vowed not to engage in direct combat with Russia, which would require a no-fly zone.

“There is no easy or simple way to do this,” he said. “A no-fly zone means you are in a conflict.”

Wallace also pointed out that the requested no-fly zone would apply to all parties, not just the Russians.

“I’m not entirely sure if that only favors the Russians. The Russians have an overwhelming number of ground-based artillery and precision missiles. . . one of the few weapon systems that the Ukrainians have to get into the depths [drones] and airplanes,” he said.

“If you take that out of the system . . . the Russians could keep shooting indiscriminately day after day because nothing could attack them.”

Some of Russia’s deadliest attacks could not be prevented by a no-fly zone, Austin said Thursday, pointing to a Russian Cruise missile attack on a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border, which killed more than 35 people.

“A no-fly zone wouldn’t have prevented that,” Austin said in Bratislava.

Another problem in enforcing a no-fly zone would be ensuring that ground soldiers, armed with Western-supplied anti-aircraft missiles, are trained well enough to distinguish neutral patrolling aircraft from adversaries.

“Don’t forget that we have flooded the conflict with light anti-aircraft weapons,” said Christopher Donnelly, a longtime former NATO adviser to the Russian military. “Can you tell a MiG29 from an F15 – a big plane coming at you with two tails? Most people can’t do that, in uniform or without. The problem with a no-fly zone is its sheer impracticability.”

The shift in debate from the no-fly zone to better Ukrainian air defense capabilities has underscored that the struggle for control of the airspace is crucial to the conflict’s outcome, analysts said.

A European military official from the Baltics said the coming days are a critical moment for Ukraine, which urgently needs resupply of its air defense systems.

Demands for a no-fly zone in Kyiv were more leverage than serious consideration, he said: “What they need and what they know they need are more serious air defense systems.”

So far, Ukraine has carefully used its Soviet-designed anti-aircraft batteries. “They kept them moving, they were disciplined. . . and they’ve had some success beating Russian fixed-wing aircraft and missiles,” said Justin Bronk, research fellow in aeronautics at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

But the Ukrainian defense was also worn down. Of the 350 powerful S-300s Ukraine possessed at the start of the conflict, Russia’s military claims to have destroyed 123.

Missile inventories are also now critically low. The Ukrainian armed forces are more selective in their targets, ignoring Russian missiles in favor of higher quality aircraft. Military briefing: Why Ukraine needs air defenses, not a no-fly zone

Adam Bradshaw

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