Lack of Funding Undermines Ukraine Air Power

Ukraine’s air force has struggled to find its role in the military conflict sparked by Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and alleged support for pro-Russian militia occupying eastern Ukraine. The reasons for the inability of Ukraine’s armed forces to make wide-scale use of air power are largely related to the fact that it has suffered from more than two decades of what has been described as “anemic” defense spending since the country gained independence from the former Soviet Union.

In addition to this long-term funding problem, the administration of the military under the previous, pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych took several decisions that amount to what both NATO member states and current Ukrainian military officials characterize as a “dismantling” of a good portion of the remaining effective units of Ukraine’s defense establishment.

A U.S. military official charged with assessing the needs of Ukraine’s military and those areas where military assistance from Washington could be most effective stated that “all of the available evidence points to the people in the defense ministry [appointed by Yanukovych] sabotaging the country’s armed forces for the purpose of rendering them incapable of conducting an effective resistance against these invasions in Crimea and the Donbas.”

Technology and Industrial Constraints

Two other difficulties facing the air force are that Ukraine’s air assets have failed to keep pace with the many innovations in the effective employment of air power since the 1990s. Combat operations in the regions of Eastern Ukraine currently occupied by Russian-backed separatist formations dictate the use of precision-guided munitions and surgical strike capability in order to minimize collateral damage, but virtually none of Ukraine’s combat aircraft are equipped with these type of modernized capabilities.

The other factor is that Ukraine lacks some of the industrial facilities that it would need to conduct a prolonged military campaign against the Russian military. Some of the most experienced and capable aircraft overhaul plants in all of the former Soviet Union for the refurbishment of Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters are located in Ukraine.

However, there are no facilities for the production of the aircraft engines–the Su-27’s Lyulka AL-31F and the MiG-29’s Isotov RD-33 models–in all of Ukraine. Again, there are overhaul facilities, but in the long term they would need to source components from Russia, which would not be possible. Additionally, a sizeable portion of the air-launched weaponry that Ukraine would need to maintain a bombing campaign is not produced in Ukraine.

Antonov Troubles

Ukraine is one of the poorest nations in Eastern Europe and cannot afford to purchase much in the way of military hardware from abroad. It does have a fairly impressive defense industrial capability, but there are no firms in Ukraine that are capable of designing and building combat aircraft. Just about all the companies that previously supplied Ukraine’s military needs, such as Mikoyan, Sukhoi and Tupolev, are located in Russia.

The one former Soviet aircraft design bureau that is located in Ukraine is the Antonov aircraft conglomerate in Kiev. However, Antonov produces only transport and passenger aircraft and has not produced a combat model in decades.

A plan proposed more than a decade ago would have seen the Antonov plant converted to a facility to modernize and license-assemble MiG-29s, but this initiative never went beyond an on-paper plan due to lack of funding and the unwillingness of the OEM in Russia, RSK-MiG, to grant full license authority to the Ukrainian firm to modify the aircraft.

In the last two decades Antonov has largely survived on the revenue generated by a fleet of aircraft it still owns–including seven An-124 Ruslan heavy cargo lifters and one six-engine An-225. These aircraft are leased out for charter flights that usually involve specialized cargo shipments that only these out-sized aeroplanes can handle.

One of Antonov’s few customers for its commercial aircraft designs is the isolated dictatorship of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The North Korean state airline, Air Koryo, has been trying to modernize its fleet by replacing its old Tupolev Tu-154Ms and Ilyushin Il-62Ms with Russian-made Antonov Tu-204s and An-148s. The second An-148 was delivered earlier this year.

These sales, plus the deliveries of a derivative model, the An-158, to Cubana de Aviación, were all financed though the Russian leasing company, Ilyushin Finance Co.  This arrangement will probably no longer be permitted due to the increased tension with Moscow and more recent embargoes instituted by the government in Kiev, which will end even this small revenue stream.

Strategic Dilemma

Ukraine’s military finds itself in a precarious situation in that if it bases its military units close enough to the front they could be overrun and encircled. However, if positioned further back from the front lines, UAVs and other assets needed to be able determine from which direction an anticipated attack from Russia might come are not available. These kinds of airborne platforms, plus the intelligence fusion centers needed to process the information that they would provide, are on the Ukrainian military’s wish list, but without foreign assistance and funding they are not likely to become available anytime soon. Both the U.S. and Europe, however, have been reluctant to provide anything beyond “nonlethal” aid despite mounting evidence that the latest in Russian weaponry continues to pour across the border into the Donbas region.

In the meantime, Ukraine’s air forces are struggling against a much more well-armed adversary that has shot down some 20 of their fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters using a combination of MANPADS; larger, mobile air defense systems; and air-to-air weaponry.

“This is what happens,” said a Ukrainian defense industry executive, “when you do not spend anything on your air force for some 20 years. You cannot expect to suddenly shout, ‘Please save us now.’ These are the consequences of more than two decades of neglect.”


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