In early May 2014, separatist rebels and their Russian backers in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine shot down three Ukrainian Mi-24 attack helicopters. The following month, separatists shot down an Mi-8 transport helicopter, an An-30 reconnaissance plane, two transport planes (an An-26 and an Il-76) and three Su-25 attack jets.
More than 60 Ukrainians have died in the shootings. Kiev has withdrawn its planes and helicopters. Seven years later, Ukrainian helicopters and planes have still not returned to the Donbass battlefield. Don’t expect this to change if and when Russia extends its war on Ukraine, as many observers fear.
The Donbass is a dangerous place for Ukrainian planes. If the Russian army currently massed along the Russian-Ukrainian border – 100,000 troops and 1,200 tanks plus hundreds of other vehicles – rolls west, the Donbas will likely be even larger. Following dangerous for anything that flies.
The separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, with the help of Russia, jointly operate two air defense battalions with dozens of portable Igla air defense systems and surface-to-air missile vehicles at close range Strela, Tunguska, Tor and Osa between them.
If this Russian army arrives, many additional MANPADS and SAM vehicles will accompany it. They, combined with longer range SAMs on the Russian side of the border, could force the Ukrainian army in the Donbass to fight without the benefit of any air support.
Lester Grau and Charles Bartles, in their The Russian Way of War, detailed the myriad of air defense systems that accompany the tactical groups of the Russian army’s battalions in combat.
“Russia has deployed the most modern integrated tactical ground air defense system on the planet,” noted Grau and Bartles. Each brigade, each with up to four tactical groups of 900 people, travels with one air defense battalion. This battalion is full of missiles.
To start with, 27 Igla or Verba infrared guided MANPADS with a range of a few kilometers outside and a few kilometers above. Two-thirds of the MANPADs accompany the frontline companies, generally standing at least a few hundred yards from the front edge of the battle. A third remains behind at the brigade command post.
MANPADS are disassembled systems. Soldiers must jump out of their vehicles to shoot an enemy drone, helicopter, or plane. It is not a good idea in the heat of the moment. To cover the troops on the ground as bullets fly, a Russian brigade also travels with six Tunguska tracked vehicles.
A Tunguska contains two cannons and launchers for eight infrared-guided missiles that can reach a range of six miles and two miles high.
Six Strela-10 vehicles – light armored tracked vehicles firing the same types of short-range missiles as the dismounted teams – complement the Tunguskas and, according to Grau and Bartles, tend to stay close to the brigade’s artillery to protect the big guns.
The brigade’s tracked Tor vehicles – a dozen of them – fire medium-range, command-guided missiles about 10 miles away and four miles from height. The Tors have dispersed throughout the brigade for what Grau and Bartles call “zonal cover.”
These frontline air defenses are quite self-sufficient. The air defense battalion’s radars can warn them of approaching planes, but the batteries themselves fire infrared-guided or commanded missiles that do not require radar.
“The intention of this dense air defense is to prohibit the enemy from using combat helicopters, fighter-bombers, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial systems,” said Grau and Bartles.
There is no reason to expect this not to work. The Russian force deployed near Ukraine includes dozens of tactical group battalions protected by a possible majority of the Russian army’s 15 air defense brigades. That’s hundreds of frontline air defense launchers.
A separatist air defense system with far fewer missiles drove the Ukrainian Air Force out of Donbass in 2014. If Ukrainian aircrews try to find their way in 2022, they are going to take a bad shock.