Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson on the war in the skies
Explosions at the Saky airfield in occupied Crimea weaken Moscow’s forces (Photo:REUTERS/Stringer)
Explosions at the Saky airfield in occupied Crimea weaken Moscow’s forces, and Western anti-radar missiles can degrade Russian air defenses, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said in an interview with NV.
A series of blasts rocked the Novofedorivka airfield near the resort town of Saky, in Russia-occupied Crimea, on Aug. 9. Russia claims “several aviation munitions detonated,” causing an “accident” that killed one person and injured 14.
Quoting an unnamed Ukrainian official, U.S. newspaper The Washington Post reported that the attack was carried out by Ukraine’s Special Operation Forces.
An earlier report by The New York Times said that senior Ukrainian sources confirmed the strike was delivered with Ukrainian-made weapons. Officially, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry maintains that it is not aware of what could have caused the Novofedorivka explosions.
NV: How significant is the Novofedorivka incident for the Russians?
Ihnat: Any airfield taken out of commission weakens the enemy. Especially one that’s so close to our positions – in occupied Crimea. The Novofedorivka airfield was being used to patrol the Black Sea, providing cover for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Just as coastal batteries protect warships from air threats, fighter jets can do the same job.
Satellite images, taken shortly before the explosions, suggest there were a lot of aircraft and ammunition stored there. Such an airfield, only 200 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border, poses a substantial threat. It’s a strategic facility, along with four other airfields across Crimea, such as Dzhankoi and Belbek. These are all formerly Ukrainian airfields, and our Air Force used to operated from them.
NV: What’s going to happen to the airfield now?
Ihnat: Russia was striking at all our airfields (at the initial stage of the invasion), but we managed to bring them back online, and rather quickly at that. In this case, ammunition and fuel depots exploded, aircraft were damaged along with the landing strip, so it will take some time to repair all this damage. An entire airfield with fighter jets and ammo being taken out of commission is great news for us.
NV: What are other similar targets, whose destruction would significantly diminish Russia’s air power?
Ihnat: Well, all of them. They have dozens of airfields across Russia and Belarus. Starting with Crimea, there is a military airfield near every major Russian city close to the Ukrainian border. Similarly, Moscow is using Belarusian facilities to deploy its anti-air defenses and ballistic missiles like Iskander and Tochka-U. After realizing that this “spontaneous combustions” could happen at any time, the Russian air force now operates from airfields slightly further away.
Nevertheless, their air activity remains consistent. We constantly track squadrons of up to 20 aircraft on our radars. They are patrolling along our borders from Belarus to Crimea all the time.
Damaging enemy airfields, however, will not safeguard us from missile strikes. Their cruise missiles launch from as far away as Astrakhan (Russian city 800 kilometers away from Ukraine), the Black Sea, or Sevastopol in Crimea. The missiles have effective ranges of thousands of kilometers, enabling them to strike targets anywhere in our country.
NV: How impactful are the anti-radar missiles that the United States delivered to Ukraine?
Ihnat: The United States has confirmed the transfer of these missiles to us. They are incredibly useful to our Air Force. These anti-radar missiles lock on to enemy military equipment which emits radio waves, meaning that a seeker signal from an enemy radar would be picked up by the missiles, and they will bee-line straight at it. These weapons are designed to knock out enemy air defenses and anything else with a powerful electromagnetic signature. As we get more of these missiles, we will be able to eradicate Russian anti-air dense on occupied Ukrainian territory, allowing our fighter jets to deliver surgical strikes deep behind enemy lines.
NV: You’re saying this will open up the skies for our aircraft, UAVs, and missiles.
Ihnat: Exactly right. It’s very difficult for ground forces to advance against established enemy defensive positions without close air support. Such operations require air support from UAVs, fixed wing and rotary aircraft, from attack aircraft. Successful offensives are determined by air superiority.
NV: Have we already taken out any Russian air defenses with these missiles?
Ihnat: Well, if we’re getting them, it means they’ve already proven to be effective. The missiles were modified to be compatible with our fighter jets. Of course, we are still in need of modern F-16 or F-15 jets. Modern fighter jets are multi-role aircraft – they can do target interception and strike air and ground targets with a wide variety of Western weapons.
NV: Our Air Force has recently become more effective at intercepting Russian missiles. What’s causing this dynamic?
Ihnat: We did become more effective at shooting down conventional, subsonic cruise missiles like Kalibr, Kh-101, and Kh-555. Unfortunately, more advanced Russian missiles like Kh-22, Kh-31, Oniks, Kindzhal, and Iskander remain beyond the capabilities of our anti-air defenses. Kindzhal, for instance, is a cutting-edge hypersonic air-launched missile. It’s basically an Iskander fired from an aircraft – mostly MiG-31. This jet takes off from deep within Russian territory, climbs to a very high altitude, and fires the missile. It’s not even possible to detect every launch, as it’s a tricky target for radars to pick up and track. Kindzhal follows a ballistic trajectory during its final approach, flying at 12,000 km/h. And while is very difficult to detect the missile via radar, its outright impossible to intercept it. The silver lining is that Moscow has very few of these Kindzhals, and will probably reserve them for a handful of top-priority targets.
Meanwhile, over the course of the war, our troops have become more experienced and adept at identifying and neutralizing other enemy missiles – Kalibr, Kh-101, and Kh-555. Our units are becoming better and better at coordinating their efforts. Even when the target is flying at 900 km/h, it takes swift and reprisal action by many different specialists to detect this threat, track it, and intercept it. With experience, our forces are becoming better and better at this. Nowadays we hear reports of four out of six or so enemy missiles of a given barrage getting intercepted. It’s an exceptionally good track record, considering that we’re using gear from the 1970s and 1980s to intercept Russian missiles made in 2015. We’re doing everything possible and beyond that to reduce the amount of ordnance dropped on Ukraine.
NV: How’s the process of procuring medium- and long-range anti-air defense systems going?
Ihnat: Well, we have agreements with Norway and Germany to supply us with NASAMS and IRIS-T air defense systems, respectively. And we can see the United States including AIM-12 AMRAAM missiles for NASAMS in some of the latest security assistance packages. It clearly means that we’re definitely getting these systems. So far, officials mentioned two NASAMS batteries with a certain number of launchers included.
Getting our hands on IRIS-T won’t be fast, as the process is bottlenecked by their German production throughput. We would need a lot of these systems. I’m aware of other talks about getting more Soviet-era Buk-M1 and S-300 batteries. These are the systems that currently deter enemy aircraft from flying over Ukraine-controlled territory. We don’t have anything else to secure our skies at the moment. We hope that the first NASAMS and IRIS-T units will be delivered to us as soon as possible.
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