Ukrainian MiG-29 Pilot’s Front-Line Account Of The Air War Against Russia

A MiG-29 pilot talks tactics and tribulations in the desperate fight to keep Ukraine’s skies free from Russian domination.

byThomas Newdick| UPDATED Apr 2, 2022 4:13 AM
Ukrainian MiG-29 Pilot’s Front-Line Account Of The Air War Against Russia
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When The War Zone first made contact with the 29-year-old Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot known to the outside world only by the callsign ‘Juice,’ he’d just stepped out of the cockpit of his jet. “Fucking night patrol,” he remarked, with typical candor. Our first scheduled attempt at an interview then got pushed back after we had received a message from Ukraine that Juice’s base had just been issued an alert warning of a potential incoming Russian missile strike. Hours later, he checked in again, having scrambled from his home airbase and touched down at an alternative airfield elsewhere in the country, to protect his jet from the bombardment.

This, it has become clear, is very much the life of a Ukrainian Air Force fighter pilot these days. There is also doing battle with hordes of Russian aircraft, of course.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Juice is probably among the most in-demand fighter pilots anywhere in the world right now. In what’s been an unprecedented air war so far, Juice has become something of a semi-official spokesman for Ukraine’s fighter arm. Before The War Zone managed to sit down with him for a videoconference meeting, he had already described the air force’s heroic defensive actions to several outlets, fitting interviews (that are well worth a read) in between Russian missile strikes and alert scrambles. But in the two hours we spent with Juice, he painted an incredibly detailed, if not unprecedented picture from his incredible vantage point of the sometimes heart pounding and at other times outright bizarre air war over his beloved homeland.

Early days

Eventually, we caught up with Juice on one of his non-flying days. It was a day somewhat like this, spent out of the cockpit, that changed the course of Juice’s flying career — and the destiny of his country — forever.

Juice standing next to his armed MiG-29., Juice/Ukrainian Air Force

On February 24, Juice was sleeping at his home when at around 5:30 AM he was woken by the sound of Russian missile strikes directed against his own base. After seemingly frozen for a moment, the reality of what was happening hit home. Single with no children, Juice’s first responsibility was to check on the wives of those of his pilot colleagues who were on alert and were now about to go to war. Some would likely never return. After emotional phone calls to the spouses to explain what was happening, Juice grabbed his personal AR-15 assault rifle and ammunition and jumped into his car to make the short trip to the base.

As his colleagues took off in their MiGs to disperse to other, safer bases, Juice’s own war began — not in the cockpit, but as an infantryman defending his installation against Russian attacks.

“Actually, for the first few days, there were no cockpits for me, we had no free jets for me on the base, because they were on another airfield,” Juice explained. “So, my mission was to provide ground defense for my squadron, with some special [operations forces] guys, to help them, because I know this place better than they do.”

The first days of fighting saw Juice’s base come under attack from Russian special operations forces inserted by helicopters and there were also attempts to use Il-76 transports to deliver airborne troops. “Fortunately, my guys shot down two of them,” Juice recalled. One of the transports fell to a Su-27, flown by one of Juice’s good friends, while a MiG-29 from his unit was credited with the other. So far, however, despite widespread reports of the shootdowns, no images of the wreckage have emerged.

“It was a crazy week, the first week, a lot of missile strikes, lot of airstrikes, helicopters around the base, and sabotage groups in the city,” Juice said.

A Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 launches from its base for a training flight., Rich Cooper

Juice’s preparations, including acquiring a new car, had paid off and ultimately the attacks on the base were repulsed. But the fact that he’s grabbed his rifle, rather than his flying helmet tells a story that remains just as relevant to the Ukrainian Air Force today, five weeks into the conflict: there are more pilots available than jets, explaining, in part, Kyiv’s persistent requests for new fighter jets. The fighter pilot cadre has been swelled, in fact, by reservists called up and although a steady stream of airmen has been shot down, many have lived to fight another day. By no means all, however. On the day we spoke to Juice, he’d received the news, albeit unconfirmed, that another two pilots had lost their lives.

Juice admits that while not all of his immediate air force colleagues necessarily believed that a Russian invasion was inevitable, he was convinced — hence his early preparations. “I was absolutely certain … and that Russia was preparing for this,” Juice explained. In fact, ever since Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, he had been waiting for this to happen. Whether fighting the invaders on the ground or in the air, it made little difference, and the fact that he didn’t have immediate family back at home to worry about him only made picking up his rifle to defend his base easier. “Everyone should be ready to fight as an infantryman,” he reflected.

While opinions as to the likelihood of an invasion differed within his unit and the air force in general, everyone took part in preparations for just such an eventuality, with a long period of training. This was informed, to a considerable degree, by the fact that Ukraine has been in a state of war since 2014 with Russia and Russian-backed separatists.

At the height of the fighting in 2014, the so-called ‘hot phase’ of the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation,’ or ATO, in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, there had been considerable use of airpower, at least until the signing of the Minsk agreements in September of that year. Older pilots who’d seen combat in this campaign have since shared their knowledge with new graduates joining the air force, like Juice.

An armed Ukrainian Army Mi-8, foreground, and a Mi-24P, at a military base in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, in 2014., AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov

“They had pretty interesting experiences,” said Juice, of the ATO combat veterans. “Of course, we use that during our training: low-altitude flights, using alternative airfields, etc.” Above all, the training since 2014 has emphasized flexible tactics and keeping aircraft on the move, reducing the chance of the enemy catching them on the ground as part of their air interdiction efforts. What the Ukrainian Air Force hadn’t practiced before was large-scale high-intensity conflict, of the kind that the U.S. Air Force and its allies routinely drill in exercises like Red Flag.

For younger pilots like Juice, who had not experienced combat missions in the ATO, there was still the chance to fly quick reaction alert (QRA) and air policing sorties as part of the follow-on Joint Force Operations, or JFO, which superseded the ATO in 2018. The objective of JFO was to continue to show resolve in the east of the country, with better coordination of defense and security agencies with the long-term aim of regaining Donetsk and Luhansk.

A Ukrainian MiG-29 trials its brake chute after a training flight., Rich Cooper

For pilots like juice, the JFO involved interceptions and regular combat air patrols, and while the situation was nowhere near as dangerous as it had been in 2014, sorties still took them close to the front lines and exposed them to enemy ground-based air defenses. Juice recalled: “It was an interesting experience and a pretty difficult task; we also used different airfields, non-familiar airfields, and flew some difficult routes. It was very useful for us.”

The Ukrainian Air Force learned yet more valuable lessons during exercises with the U.S. Air Force, particularly the Clear Sky series of drills, the biggest of which in 2018 was the first-ever joint multinational exercise hosted by Ukraine. Here, the regular sparring partners for the Ukrainian were the F-15Cs of the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, while the Polish Air Force participated too.

A Ukrainian Su-27 taxiing after landing following a Clear Sky sortie, with California Air National Guard F-15s on the ramp in the background., Rich Cooper

For the first time since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Clear Sky gave the air force the opportunity to see the inner workings of NATO tactics on home soil. Pilots like Juice got a much better understanding of the NATO fighter pilot mindset, leadership roles, and standards. Once again, the importance of operational flexibility was paramount, in order to be able to take the fight to a much more advanced enemy — namely, Russia.

While the F-15s that took part in the Clear Sky maneuvers were older than the Ukrainian MiGs, they had been significantly modernized and were judged much more capable than the local MiG-29s and Su-27s, which have undergone only modest and piecemeal upgrades.

During Clear Sky, the F-15s were used to replicate the tactics and performance of Russian Su-30 and Su-35S Flanker fighters to do battle against the Ukrainian MiG-29s and Su-27s. The Eagles, with their modern tactics, radars, and missiles, were a good stand-in for the new-generation Flankers, but the Ukrainians were “sometimes pretty successful, just using our flexibility and creation of non-standard decisions,” Juice recalled. The experience has several parallels with the infamous Cope India exercise, in which U.S. Air Force F-15s met upgraded Indian MiG-21s with some surprising results. 

Speaking to The War Zone, recently-retired Jonathan ‘Jersey’ Burd, the lead planner for the 2018 Clear Sky exercise, recalled: “We did plenty of [basic fighter maneuvers] with our F-15Cs against their MiG-29s and Su-27s and to be honest we could tell instantly that their pilots were very good. They are very tactically inventive, they know their airframes and also understand what they are lacking. I mean, they fly old jets. Our F-15s for example are old airframes, but they have been constantly upgraded with new avionics.”

“All participants in these exercises became much more ready to meet this enemy in the air and just to know sometimes not to engage under certain conditions, for example, or to engage in some specific ways,” Juice continued. So useful was the 144th Fighter Wing’s involvement, and their sharing of methods to defeat Russian tactics, that, for Juice, it might have made the difference between life and death for some of his fellow pilots: “Maybe that’s why our guys are still alive,” he mused.

Clear Sky also brought new terminology to the Ukrainians, including the first experiences of conducting all missions using only English brevity radio communications. Today, combat missions use the Ukrainian language, however. Another new development was more intensive debriefing after missions, with small debriefs and a larger, conference-style after-action debrief, a vital part of modern air warfare, but one that was new for the Ukrainians.

A video from the cockpit of Juice’s MiG-29:

All in all, the exposure to the U.S. Air Force and NATO way of doing things made a significant impression on the Ukrainian Air Force, but it also highlighted deficiencies in the service that were not so easy to address. Namely, the need for new-generation fighter aircraft. “Even if you’re trained, even if you’re very smart, if you don’t have the right tools, unfortunately, you can’t be effective,” Juice contends. “That’s why we’re trying to ask the West to provide us with some new stuff. New jets, new ground-to-air defenses, etc.” 

So far, Ukraine's quest for new jets has proven elusive, and international efforts to deliver additional surface-to-air missile systems have been more successful. Meanwhile, Juice notes that the air force is still in touch with the 144th Fighter Wing, which is providing informal advice as well as items of personal equipment that the pilots need.

Defenders in the air

For now, the MiG-29 and Su-27 are the two fighter jet types flown by the Ukrainian Air Force and the two are operated in different ways. The MiGs, for example, have also been employed for air-to-ground, as well as air defense missions. The Su-27s, though also capable of delivering unguided bombs and rockets, are preserved as much as possible for air-to-air missions. Not only is the Su-27 an altogether more powerful air defense asset, but early losses mean that the size of the Flanker fleet, which was always smaller than the MiG-29 fleet, has contracted even more.

As well as counter-air missions, which make up the bread and butter of the MiG-29 fleet’s work, these jets are also used for escort missions, providing protection for Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft. The Ukrainian Air Force's Frogfoot community seems to have suffered disproportionate losses in terms of aircraft and pilots.

A rare, pre-war shot of a Ukrainian Su-25 together with some of its weapons options, including Kh-25ML (AS-10 Karen) laser-guided air-to-ground missiles., Rich Cooper

“[The Su-25s] are flying very actively and that’s why they have a lot of losses,” Juice pointed out. “Sometimes we’re trying to help them by flying our own close air support missions or strike missions. Of course, it’s not very useful because our systems are a little bit worse than those the Su-25s have, but still, we can provide it with reasonable precision. But unfortunately, we don’t have any armor for our cockpit, our engines, and that’s why we’ve lost some MiGs during these air-to-ground missions, too."

The Ukrainian Air Force’s other strike asset, and its most capable, in theory, is the swing-wing Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer. Juice said that although these jets have been “very busy, unfortunately, they are not very numerous.” The Su-24s have proven much more expensive and labor-intensive to repair than the other jets, which likely explains why they haven’t been seen in action so far. Problems are compounded by a lack of spares, most of which are only produced in Russia, in contrast to the MiG-29 and Su-27, for which parts have historically been able to be sourced locally.

Maintainers attend to a Ukrainian Air Force Su-24M strike aircraft during a pre-war exercise., Rich Cooper

As it is, Juice spends most of his time taking the fight to Russian foes in the air, not on the ground. At the time of our interview, he hadn’t experienced “any real engagements using missiles,” but had multiple radar contacts, mostly when operating as part of the second line of defense, some way away from the front lines. 

He explained what a typical MiG-29 air defense mission involves:

“I am patrolling in the area and trying to find something, ‘free hunting,’ or sometimes it’s like pushing the enemy from your area. If they have us on their screen, especially if we have a few guys patrolling the area, they don’t want to get into trouble. So, we can push them from this area.”

“My standard missions are all pretty similar but sometimes it’s very complicated because sometimes our GCIs [ground control interception units] are vectoring us closer to the front line, and you have very powerful signals of electronic warfare and of enemy surface-to-air missiles, enemy radars. You need to try to find aerial targets and maneuver so as not to be shot by ground air defenses. It’s pretty challenging and sometimes you can land on a completely different airfield, in another region.”

The view from the cockpit as Juice flies a fully armed alert MiG-29 over Ukraine., Juice/Ukrainian Air Force

That had been the scenario when our original interview with Juice had to be postponed. Subsequently, he provided some more details of this especially demanding sortie. 

“I was patrolling not in my area and after that landed on another base. At night I was returning back to my base and still patrolling in my area. It was a pretty nervous mission because of bad weather and indications of aerial threats and ground threats. It was a large group, maybe 10 or more Su-35s. They were not very close to my area, but they were locking me even from this large distance and making some trouble with electronic countermeasures. I was trying just to not become a target for them and trying to be ready to maneuver and ready to get closer and to engage. There were also some guys up from a closer airfield, and they also helped us to push them away. Hopefully, it was pretty successful in their area too. Anyway, we are alive!”

As well as Russian manned aircraft, the MiGs are also tasked with hunting drones and cruise missiles.

“I have one mission trying to find some enemy drones, but unfortunately I had a pretty low fuel rate at that moment, so I returned to my base,” Juice recalled. “Drones are also a great problem for us, but I think it’s a much bigger problem for them, our Bayraktars are much more capable than their UAVs.”

Cruise missiles are also notoriously difficult to counter. The low radar cross-section of the cruise missiles, especially when combined with their low-altitude flight path, and electronic warfare jamming by third-party sources, can make it impossible to detect them using radar, or visually. “I think ground air defenses are much more capable against them,” Juice admitted, “they have a lot of kills of cruise missiles every day.”

The fog of war means it’s not always possible to get confirmation of aerial kills or if such information is available, it doesn’t always filter down to the squadron level. Kill claims are also made more complicated by the frequency with which both fighters and surface-to-air missiles are engaging the same target. Nevertheless, whatever the respective victory tallies, the Ukrainians know that they are having a significant impact on the enemy by virtue of the fact that the Russians are desperately seeking to adapt their tactics — “almost every day,” Juice stated — with their aircraft trying different altitudes, formations, and operating areas in an effort to stay ahead of the defenders.

Despite this reality, Juice says that the ‘Ghost Of Kyiv’ — an unnamed MiG-29 pilot reported to have become ace in a day in a day early in the campaign — is for real. “There are a lot of versions now on the internet,” he admitted, “but the first stuff [reported] about him is actually the truth. Of course, some fiction has since been added. But actually, he’s from my home base, my unit … I couldn’t tell you all the details now, but I think after the victory you will know everything about him.”

While hopping frequently from one airfield to another is now a regular part of air force operations, Juice said that, so far, these distributed operations have been limited to runways and airstrips rather than highways. Although the air force has practiced operations from roads in the past, there are currently sufficient alternative airbases to remove this particular requirement.

A Ukrainian Su-27 snags a road sign during a highway exercise in 2020:

Having bases to fly from is just one part of the operational picture. Russia has made efforts to disrupt Ukraine’s ability to maintain its MiG-29 fleet by launching strikes against both the Lviv State Aircraft Repair Plant, responsible for deep maintenance of the jets, and the facility in Lutsk that is responsible for repairing the jets’ RD-33 engines. The results of these attacks are classified, but Juice reckoned that the Lviv raid likely will have significant implications.

An image taken just hours after the attack on Lviv, showing the demolished hangar and building to the west, as well as the crater on the ramp to the east., PHOTO © 2022 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

On the other hand, Ukraine's air force is fortunate to have a lot of well-trained maintenance crews, and fortunately, the MiG-29 is considered very simple to maintain. “It’s a very cool tactical platform,” Juice noted, “it’s very easy to assemble and reassemble, to change any stuff, so that’s not a problem for us."

And, should the worst come to the worst, and a MiG-29 pilot gets shot down, potentially over Russian-controlled or contested territory, there are a network of combat search and rescue (CSAR) teams that may well be able to bring them to safety. Search and rescue units are located in different regions, some of them offering specific skills, like the U.S. Air Force’s pararescue jumpers, but the task of picking up downed aviators can also be taken on by other units that happen to be in the right area at the time.

An upgraded Ukrainian Army Aviation Mi-24PU1, a type that’s been used for CSAR operations in the past., Bennorey/Wikimedia Commons

In terms of personal survival, Juice noted that the original Soviet-supplied survival kit was “bullshit … and even the Russians they tell the same.” Instead, the Ukrainian pilots fly into combat with their own survival kits, based on commercially available vests that can accommodate a pistol, first-aid items, navigation aids, and sometimes even grenades. The original survival kit included an AKS-74U compact assault rifle under the seat, but in practice, there’s rarely time to retrieve this as the downed pilot tries to leave the crash site as quickly as they can. Some pilots still have the rifle under their seat, while others opt to carry it in the cockpit — though Juice admitted that this is hardly an ideal solution should they need to eject.

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen from the 131st Rescue Squadron train their Ukrainian counterparts at Vinnytsia Air Base, Ukraine, as part of Clear Sky 2018., U.S. Air National Guard/Master Sgt. Joseph Prouse

Overall, though Juice considered “it’s a great advantage that you can make this [survival] kit personally; you don’t have an order from some old colonel that you should take this, this, and this. No! I don’t give a fuck about this stuff. I need only this stuff. This is our responsibility.”

Defenders on the ground

Manned fighters like Juice’s MiG-29 are just one part of a multi-layered network of Ukrainian air defense assets and the fighters work closely with ground-based air defenses (GBADS).

The concept of cooperative defense sees sectors separated into different engagement zones, which helps avoid Ukrainian fighters being in airspace defended by friendly GBADS. At the same time, working together, the manned fighters can try and push Russian aircraft into these GBADS kill zones where “the more stupid ones” can then be picked off.

“It’s very important to communicate with [the GBADS] to prevent friendly fire so we’re always on call with them and our HQs or command and control units are also on call with them,” Juice explained. “Even during our interceptions, during our air patrolling, we’re trying to communicate through our GCIs to be sure that we are, for example, locked on by the enemy’s GBADS, not our ones.”

As for the different GBADS used by the Ukrainians, Juice judged the S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system to be “very capable,” but one that’s increasingly showing its age and which is not very mobile, putting it at risk of airstrikes. On the other hand, the medium-range Buk surface-to-air missile system is “very mobile and it’s very easy to hide … they are afraid of this and it’s a great danger for them.” 

A Ukrainian Buk road-mobile surface-to-air missile system., UKRAINIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE

The ability of the Buk vehicle to be hidden among trees, for example, provides a powerful ‘pop-up’ threat to the Russians, with an especially heavy toll having been inflicted on their Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft, and their higher-flying Su-30 escorts, according to Juice. Between them, Juice reckoned the S-300 and Buk likely enjoyed a similar kill tally.

A transporter-erector-launcher associated with one of Ukraine's S-300PS surface-to-air missile systems during a rehearsal for the Independence Day military parade in Kyiv, 2018., VoidWanderer/Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the lower-level systems, such as the Osa and various man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), which are “also pretty effective.” While the Osa system, in particular, is now fairly old, civilian volunteers have helped modernize these systems in recent years, adding computer technology and more modern communications. The Osa and U.S.-made Stinger MANPADS are both considered fairly effective against Russian Su-25s, as well as against helicopters and sometimes against the low-flying Su-34s.

Video footage apparently showing a Russian Mi-28N attack helicopter downed by a MANPADS:

Unfortunately, as with Ukraine's fighter force, a steady stream of losses has eroded the fighting ability of the Ukrainian GBADS and there’s an urgent requirement to backfill depleted units with additional equipment.

The invaders

As for the Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS, the Ukrainians have so far found Su-30 and Su-35S aircraft undertaking almost all of the air-to-air missions. Juice explained that while there may be some older Su-27SM3 models in use, too, likely in the south, this type is not very common.

While the Su-30 is used to cover VKS attackers and sometimes for air superiority missions, the Su-35S is used for both air superiority and for anti-radar missions, armed with supersonic Kh-31P missiles. On several occasions, large groups of Su-35S fighters have included jets configured for both anti-radar and air-to-air missions.

Juice said he considers the Su-35S the most dangerous threat, on account of its combination of powerful radar, with a long effective range, as well as R-77-1 air-to-air missiles. This weapon, an improved version of the basic R-77 (AA-12 Adder), has an active radar seeker so it can be used in a ‘fire and forget’ mode, a capability that’s absent from the Ukrainian armory. The R-77-1 reportedly had a range of 68 miles and incorporates improved jamming resistance compared to the original R-77.

“It’s very capable, unfortunately for us,” said Juice of the R-77-1. “Actually, the lack of fire and forget missiles is the greatest problem for us. Even if we had them our radars couldn’t provide the same distances [as the Russian fighters].”

Another major issue is electronic warfare (EW), where the Russian capabilities again outmatch the Ukrainian. “They use individual electronic countermeasures and some group ECM,” Juice added. “For example, in groups of strikers they use this formational ECM, which is very powerful, and there are also some choppers with EW on the border, and some more stuff on the ground. It makes it very hard to find anything, to lock onto something.”

Russia’s use of A-50 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft is also a major headache for the Ukrainians. These aircraft are able to monitor significant swaths of airspace from their station above Belarus, providing the Russians with alerts for when Ukrainian jets launch and keeping tabs on them once they are airborne. Other A-50 patrols have been noted to the east and in the south, perhaps over the Azov Sea. The A-50s can ‘look down’ and spot low flying targets that ground-based radar typically cannot. Again, Ukraine has no equivalent AEW&C capability, although it remains possible that some data from NATO E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft on patrol in the region is shared with Ukrainian authorities.

The VKS has made extensive use of helicopters in the campaign so far and these have also on occasion fallen prey to Ukrainian fighters. “Some friends of mine have shot down some choppers,” Juice explained. “Actually, it’s very difficult to find them above the trees, above the fields, but sometimes it’s pretty successful. If they are just getting a little bit higher we can lock them with the radar or just find them visually and use our ‘heaters’ [infrared-guided missiles] or just the gun.”

One particular weapon that has been used by fighters to destroy helicopters is the infrared-guided version of the medium-range AA-10 Alamo missile, the R-27T. Available only to the Su-27, this weapon has, according to Juice, proven “pretty useful against low-altitude strikers or against helicopters.” The seeker has a reported lock-on range of between 9 and 31 miles, depending on conditions.

A Ukrainian Su-27 armed with a pair of infrared-guided R-73 dogfight missiles (outboard) plus a medium-range R-27T, which also operates as a heat-seeking weapon., Rich Cooper

Reports that Russian aircraft are flying mainly at night were confirmed by Juice, although he noted that there have been notable exceptions, including Su-25s and helicopters. Also, Su-34s undertook more daytime missions in the first weeks of the conflict, but are now also almost only flying at night.

Russian Ministry of Defense video purportedly showing the destruction of an ammunition warehouse by VKS Su-25s:

Sometimes, the VKS sends aircraft into Ukrainian airspace in the west of the country, including reconnaissance flights out of Belarus. “Sometimes they’re just trying to exhaust us,” Juice stated, “flying near the border to get us to scramble, just to exhaust our manpower with these fucking stupid night flights.” With a significant advantage in sheer numbers, this tactic makes sense for Russia — after all, the Ukrainian jets can only be in one place at any time.

When asked where he thought the VKS was being successful in the air war, Juice pointed to their air-to-air missions, but with a significant caveat:

“It’s not a gentlemen’s style of engagement because sometimes it’s one versus 12 or two versus 12. They have the advantage of situational awareness, radar range, missile range, missile [guidance] principles, and electronic warfare, and they still are sending so many jets against one MiG. Come on, guys! It’s not a real fight, it’s something stupid. You know, sometimes you respect your enemy but not this time.”

In Juice’s opinion, this kind of overkill should actually be unnecessary for the VKS, not just due to their technological edge but also the fact they know the Ukrainians’ MiG-29s and Su-27s inside out, and how best to defeat them. “You know you need just two or four Su-30s or Su-35s against them, but 12?” Juice continued. “Sometimes there are even more, sometimes we saw around 24 jets in the air near the border, trying to shoot our jets. We need some F-15s to kick their asses, and a lot of AMRAAMs, we have simply too many targets here for them!”

Then there is Russia’s “absolutely stupid” bombing campaign directed against Ukrainian cities, which is reserved for Juice’s sternest critique: “I think their greatest mistake is that they agreed to conduct these missions. Stupid but still very dangerous missions. As for me, as a pilot, I don’t just want to be a kamikaze for some stupid mission, bombing cities, civilians, hospitals, etc. Every pilot wants to be a hero, but they definitely won’t be.”

A Ukrainian serviceman stands next to the vertical tail fin of a Russian Su-34 lying in a damaged building in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 8, 2022., AP Photo/Andrew Marienko

Ultimately, the fear in Ukraine is not so much about the technological advantage enjoyed by the Russians, but their ability to continue their onslaught potentially long after Ukrainian inventories are exhausted. Juice observed that the Russians “have a lot of manpower and they have a lot of stuff, and they are producing more and more every day.” Using the performance of the Kh-31P anti-radar missile as an example, he added: “They don’t have such a quality level of weapons as NATO, but the number is a great problem for us and even for NATO — they understand that unfortunately. Russia is a stupid but dangerous enemy.”

Alongside the Russian manned aircraft involved in the conflict, there is also a bewildering array of different GBADS that together make up some of the most capable air defenses assets ever employed in combat.

Juice pointed out that one of the biggest problems for the Ukrainian Air Force right now is the fact that Russian GBADS is getting very close to Ukrainian airfields. “For example, my home base, maybe not at low level but at medium altitudes, we are within the range of Russian SAMs. You’re just taking off and you’re on the lock on some airfields. Of course, it’s very difficult to operate when you always have a few types of threats, both aerial and on the ground.” In the past two weeks, the Pentagon has also described Russian SAM coverage as now extending across much of the country.

The video seen in the Tweet below, which was apparently shot recently, shows a Ukrainian MiG-29 operating at very low level:

Among the advanced Russian GBADS equipment singled out by Juice for particular concern are the medium-range Buk-M2 and the latest Buk-M3 version, and of course the long-range S-400. The S-400s are deployed close to Russia's border with Ukraine, or sometimes even across the border, in an effort to contain Ukrainian air activity. 

“It’s a real problem for us and for our strikers,” Juice admitted, “and [in response] they are trying to fly low and use some types of electronic countermeasures and different kinds of maneuvers. Unfortunately, the SAMs are still very effective.”

What comes next?

The question of what equipment Ukraine needs to continue to take the fight to the Russians and even achieve more of the kinds of reversals that it’s made in recent days has been occupying defense observers and politicians alike in the last few weeks.

“At the moment I think we have almost everything that we need to maintain our MiGs,” Juice said. “But unfortunately, due to the losses we need some more, just to fill up our squadrons. But still, [with more MiGs] we couldn’t do our job effectively, we’re just trying to push them away, but we can’t engage them equally, effectively, and safely. Every week, almost every day, we have some losses of fighters, of attackers, and choppers, and a lot of airstrikes, a lot of missile strikes — we couldn’t do anything about this with MiGs.”

The possibility of supplying ex-NATO MiG-29s appears to have been shelved for the time being but, in Juice’s opinion, former Polish Fulcrums would not have been the most useful kit to make up for Ukrainian losses.

A Polish Air Force MiG-29., Jakub Hałun/Wikimedia Commons

“They would help us to provide air patrols for the hunting of strikers, low-altitude targets, and some choppers, but it’s not for air dominance, not for air superiority,” Juice told The War Zone. “These MiGs have almost the same radars, a little bit modernized. The MiG is very capable, it’s a great fighter but the main problem is its missiles, and the Polish use the same missiles as we do. That’s why we need to receive something new, with really capable weapons.”

What Juice would really like to see delivered to Ukraine is a Western fourth-generation fighter, most likely F-16s, but potentially also F-15s or F/A-18s. Unlike the MiGs, or even more Su-27s, jets like these would actually have the chance to establish air superiority, even if only in localized areas.

A U.S. Air Force F-16C taxis past Ukrainian MiG-29s and Su-27s at Migorod Air Base, Ukraine, July 2011, during Exercise Safe Skies 2011., U.S. AIR FORCE

Juice thinks that provided with a flight of four F-16s, his colleagues could learn to fly the jets within “a few days.” This would be only familiarization flying but getting to grips with using it as a tactical system might only take “a few weeks.” During that time, pilots, ground crew, and radar operators would need to undergo a crash course that focused on entirely new systems like Western navigational aids and the Link 16 data-sharing network. The Ukrainian Air Force, too, has said that its pilots could be trained to operate F-15s or F-16s within two to three weeks. 

This is an extremely ambitious timeline that many would say is not achievable, even if cutting some corners, especially bearing in mind the six-plus weeks the U.S. Air Force allocates for just its transition course, which takes a fully trained and experienced Air Force fighter pilot and transitions them just to fly the F-16 from another type. A normal B Course student will take at least 37 weeks for training on the F-16. Usually transitioning a foreign air arm to the F-16 takes many months, if not years, to accomplish and that isn’t during a full-out war at home. 

A new fighter with a datalink would be especially valuable to boost the Ukrainians’ situational awareness. With no equivalent system available on the MiGs and Sukhois, “We use only radio communication with our GCIs to understand the situation around us,” Juice confirmed.

The question that Juice often hears is whether the Ukrainian Air Force actually has the few weeks that he says would be needed to master — in the best-case scenario — a new fighter. “I think yes because we have a lot of free guys, free from combat duties because they just don’t have the jets. We could send them to Poland or the United States, it doesn’t matter.”

A Polish instructor teaches a Ukrainian soldier how to fire a Polish-made Grom MANPADS. , U.S. Army

In fact, Juice would like to see his fellow Ukrainian pilots start preparing for such an eventuality sooner rather than later. He recommends studying manuals on the internet to start the mental preparation for a Western type. He also sees a role for commercially available flight simulation software, to get a better idea of the cockpit layout and radar functions of an unfamiliar jet.

As well as manned aircraft, Ukraine needs more drones, namely the Bayraktars that have recorded significant success against Russian vehicles in particular. However, these UAVs have also been victims of Russia’s effective ground air defenses.

“We also need something against the ground-to-air defenses,” Juice added. “It’s our dream to have some anti-radar missiles or maybe guided bombs to kill their SAMs and to secure our manned and unmanned vehicles.”

Providing Ukraine with additional GBADS is something we have examined in depth in the past and it’s a requirement that is arguably even more pressing than the need for new fighter aircraft. As well as backfilling depleted units with more of the same Soviet-era equipment, Juice would like to see moves made to acquire new GBADS, too.

“I hope we will get some S-300s,” Juice said. “While Slovakia does not have a large number of systems or missiles, they would still be very useful. I also think we need some Buks, maybe some Tors, some Osa systems, just to fill up our losses.” The situation as regards GBADS parallels that of the pilots, with air defense operators now without any vehicles or missiles with which to fight with. “They want to defend their country, but they can’t,” Juice lamented.

Even if such GBADS can be acquired, these systems are old, and their effectiveness is limited. For that reason, Juice wants to see plans take shape for a wholesale modernization of the country’s GBADS and he proposes the NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) as the best solution. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also made recent calls on Norway to provide Ukraine with NASAMS, a system that currently protects Washington DC, but which has a relatively limited maximum range, of around 20 miles.

This medium- to long-range system uses the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile and can be mobile. Juice would like to see it operated within a broader air defense network also including long-range Patriot missiles. These would also offer an anti-ballistic missile capability to tackle Russian ballistic missiles in a much more effective manner than is currently possible.

A NASAMS firing unit launches an AMRAAM., DUTCH MINISTRY OF DEFENSE

Again, available personnel could start training on these systems long before they arrived in the country.

“We understand it’s fucking expensive,” Juice says. “It’s like science fiction for us at the moment, but we need to start the decision-making process because it’s also our priority.”

With the Russians knocking out Ukrainian S-300s “almost every day,” the need for new GBADS is urgent, to say the least. Who knows for how many more weeks the current systems will remain in action?

“We need to start the modernization of our air force right here and right now, fighter jets as well as ground air defense,” Juice contended. “We need a political decision to start the process.”

Juice is clearly an impassioned proponent of modernizing Ukraine’s air defenses, however long that might take, and his day-to-day experience of the air war means that his viewpoint is one that should be considered seriously. After all, while politicians grapple with the question of how to provide new aircraft or missile systems, starting instruction on them could indeed begin almost immediately and would save valuable time in the long run, no matter how long the training actually takes in the end.

A training flight involving single-seat and two-seat MiG-29s. Juice is flying as lead, with the Ukrainian flag in the cockpit. , Yurii Kysil

Juice’s main message is an undeniably powerful one: “We are not able to defend our ground forces, our civilians, our families, and children … the issue of air superiority and of ground air defense is one of the most important in this war. We are losing our men on the ground and in the air, we are losing a lot of strategic objects, we are losing a lot of fuel storage.”

Soldiers and civilians alike have shown that Ukraine is willing to fight against the odds and to make a dent in the Russian war machine, stopping it in its tracks in some places and even forcing reversals in others. To do this, however, it needs more weapons, and quickly, with uncertainty as to how long current stocks will last.

When asked if there was anything that those in the West could do to further Juice’s goals and those of the wider Ukrainian Air Force, his answer was straightforward: continue to pressure Western governments into providing Ukraine with new equipment — fighters and GBADS, in particular. 

Currently, there isn’t a shortage of highly motivated and well-trained soldiers to operate them, but time may well be running out for them to consolidate the remarkable successes they have achieved so far.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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