A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine

Air War Ukraine
Juice/Ukrainian Air Force

Talking to The War Zone in an exclusive interview, nine months after we first spoke to him, the Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet pilot, callsign “Juice,” provides a detailed update on the air war over his country.

Since the frenzied air combat of the first weeks of the war, the nature of the Russian threat has evolved, while the Ukrainian side has introduced new ground-based air defense systems and the air force has taken on new missions, including suppression of enemy air defenses. In a wide-ranging discussion, Juice also shared his thoughts on the prospects of the Ukrainian Air Force finally getting the new fighter aircraft and other weaponry it badly needs. You can find the first part of this interview where we specifically covered the drone war here.

A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine
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

MiG-29 missions

For Juice, the majority of his sorties involve local interception of one threat or another. However, depending on requirements, he’ll sometimes be sent to more distant areas where there is a particular demand for airpower, including the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions in the south of the country.

Escort missions are also part of his work, to protect air-to-ground assets as they work closer to the front lines. A recent video showed a pair of Su-25 Frogfoot close support jets accompanied at low level by a MiG-29. Juice explains that this was not representative of a real mission, but instead was a ‘parade’ formation put up on return from the front lines. “It’s absolutely not efficient to fly like that on the battlefield,” Juice observes. “Of course, I couldn’t tell you the real tactics, but it looks absolutely different.”

As to the status of the MiG-29 fleet, the main issues are logistical and maintenance ones concerned with keeping the jets ready for the fight at locations spread around the country, including alternative airfields. Juice tells us there were no “critical problems” and that spare parts supplied by allies had been a major help. “Sometimes it’s even better stuff than we had before because sometimes it could involve some modernized systems, but unfortunately, of course, we still have some losses.” With the overall fleet of jets decreasing, maintainers and state repair plants are being forced to refurbish increasing numbers of older jets that had long been out of service.

The radar killers

Aside from drone hunting, another new mission for the MiG-29 (and Su-27) since our first interview involves employing the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). Juice has not yet flown a HARM mission but is full of praise for the weapon and the new capability it brings.

“After the delivery of HARMs, it became a new priority for our air force to maintain and to refurbish more jets for these missions because it really works and it’s really helpful for our joint operations,” Juice says. “After that our air force became much more capable.”

Juice also considers that training pilots to master the radar-killing missile is “absolutely not a problem … I can do that right here, right now, just give me them.”

In fact, the availability of HARM means that the Ukrainian Air Force can even start to emulate Western-style operations, with suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) packages working closely to escort strike aircraft to their targets. Of course, there are still severe limitations on Ukrainian air combat capabilities, and Juice identifies key missing parts of the puzzle, such as precision-guided air-to-ground munitions, active-radar air-to-air missiles, and advanced fighter radars. “We are trying to do our best with what we have and now it looks much, much better overall,” Juice notes. In particular, he has observed with interest how Russian military bloggers have reacted to HARM. “They’re very, very angry there, because of our successes. And especially their civilians who really believed that there was already no Ukrainian Air Force and no air defense at all.”

Evolving GBADS

An anti-radiation missile was one of the capabilities that Juice had declared a priority during our March interview. At the time, he’d also made the call for more advanced ground-based air defense systems (GBADS), which has begun to be addressed through the delivery of NASAMS, IRIS-T SLM, and others.

The fact that Western systems like these are now in Ukrainian hands is, according to Juice, a reflection of the success of advocacy and public communications drives, which have included him making visits to Capitol Hill and the Pentagon to lay out exactly what kinds of weapons Ukraine needs as it continues to turn the tide of the war.

“Fortunately, we proved that we really, really need these systems and so we have secured NASAMS, IRIS-T, HAWK, Avenger, and Crotale systems.” While NASAMS and IRIS-T SLM have “proved already they are effective,” gaining the Avenger, in particular, is a win for Juice, on account of its flexibility and its ability to down drones like the Shahed, discussed in the first part of this feature. The same goes for the heavy machine guns with thermal imagery sights that the United States approved for Ukraine last month.

Looking further ahead, Juice notes that a transfer of the SAMP/T surface-to-air missile system, which has an anti-ballistic missile capability, is potentially on the cards and that new batches of NASAMS and IRIS-T SLM are keenly awaited.

“We’re grateful to all allies who provided us with this kit,” Juice adds. “But still, the required number of systems is too big. And that’s why we still hope that Western countries will help us with some additional batches. And I hope that starting from this small batch of four Avengers, we will receive much more after that. I hope that you’ll see them both protecting power stations and on the front lines.”

The changing face of the enemy

In March, Juice suggested that Russian Aerospace Forces were generally unwilling to engage with its Ukrainian foe unless the odds were stacked heavily in their favor. It seems not much has changed in this respect, according to the MiG pilot.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian admits that the Russian enemy has become much smarter, learning from its limitations and heavy losses in the first weeks of the campaign. The Russians still maintain round-the-clock combat air patrols (CAPs) with fighter jets, which are supported by A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and Il-20 Coot-A signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft.

As well as the basic Il-20 that is able to snoop on Ukrainian electronic and radio emissions, its Il-22PP Mute derivative has also been regularly present. The Il-22PP adds a standoff jamming capability and is primarily directed against air defense radars, part of a comprehensive Russian electronic warfare fleet that also includes jamming helicopters, as well as Su-24MR Fencer-E and Su-34 Fullback aircraft carrying intelligence-gathering and jamming pods.

A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine
The prototype Il-22PP, known as Prorubshik (meaning wood-stealer) SIGINT and standoff jamming aircraft seen in 2016. Alex Snow/Wikimedia Commons

“They’re doing that almost 24/7 so that’s very dangerous for our air defense,” Juice states. “The main danger is that a Su-35 on a CAP can carry not only air-to-air weapons but also the Kh-31P, PD, or PM [AS-17 Krypton anti-radiation missiles], so it could be directed by their air battle managers to engage our air defenses. And they also have their own Khibiny electronic countermeasures pods. Using all of that, it’s a great danger for us, but fortunately, it’s not so effective as we predicted.”

Another concerning new Russian weapon is the very long-range R-37M (AA-13 Axehead) air-to-air missile, carried by the Su-35S and MiG-31BM Foxhound-C. This weapon wasn’t used in the first months of the war, but appeared during the summer and, in Juice’s words, is “fucking dangerous.” The very long reach of the R-37M — reportedly 124 miles — can threaten Ukrainian aircraft even when fired from well within Russian airspace.

It seems, however, that the Ukrainians have found means to at least reduce the threat posed by the R-37M. As Juice stressed: “Fortunately, the tactical aviation [branch] can avoid that and it didn’t perform any great results [against them]. Because we understood their tactics during the engagement of this missile, we created our own techniques to help to avoid that. But still, it is limiting our capabilities to conduct our missions. Of course, if you’re maneuvering, we are not able to provide an airstrike or something else, so the game is still very, very, very tough in the air and very, very risky. If you’re not aware of the launch of a missile, you’re dead.”

A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine
An R-37M air-to-air missile under the wing of a Su-35S. Fighterbomber Telegram channel

Another feature of the Russian aggressors in the air that was not obvious in the early months of the war was the use of mercenary pilots, especially from the infamous Wagner Group.

While the Russian fighter pilots generally fly with a ‘safety first’ mantra, avoiding penetrating Ukrainian air defense zones, that’s not always the case, as Juice points out. “For example, during the counter-offensive operation in the Kharkiv region, they started this chaos once more. They were sending bombers, Frogfoots, and even fighters, over the front lines, with the usual unguided bombs. And of course, our guys shot down a lot of them right there.

A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine
Juice raises three fingers to represent the trident, the national symbol of Ukraine. Juice/Ukrainian Air Force

In Juice’s concept of fighter mentality, a cool head is a prerequisite. “It doesn’t matter what is happening, you still should have a cool head to plan the operations effectively and safely.” In the Kharkiv counter-offensive, however, the Russian adversaries thought, “‘Hey, fuck, they are on the counter-offensive, what to do? Let me send everything I have.’ It’s absolutely stupid. Fortunately for them, they now have Wagner squadrons for the stupid suicide missions. But still, it’s resources, it’s still airframes, it’s still money, and it’s still fucking lives. But they don’t care about that.”

In the case of the Wagner-operated Su-24s and Su-25s, “it’s old grandpas flying these jets, but still it’s also a threat. It’s also a threat because they’re crazy. They actually don’t have any rules of engagement because they are not official combatants. They don’t care about people. They don’t care about civilians. They’re just mercenaries — they are just murderous and that’s all.”

The appearance of the HARM in Ukrainian hands has had the desired effect on Russia’s ground-based air defenses, although they remain a fearsome adversary. “They’re scared, of course, because now every MiG, every Flanker in the air is a possible threat for them,” Juice explains. “And of course, they’re forced to turn off the radars. Still, you need to understand that they have so many systems and multiple echelons. They can just turn off something in this direction, but other systems will be operational. And, for example, in the case of the Pantsir, it also has an electro-optical station, so it’s still a threat for us.”

Overall, Russian air defenses remain a huge obstacle, although HARM clearly makes missions in its vicinity much safer. In response, Juice claims that Russia has been “forced to use some additional systems” as well as to introduce “some older systems to replace the damaged systems. But, still, it’s very dangerous to fly around the front lines, and still, there are a lot of MANPADS and other stuff.”

There’s also evidence emerging that Russia is in the process of boosting its airpower in occupied Crimea, which is already a bastion of fighter power for Moscow. While the loss of Kherson has removed a lot of good air defense sites that once protected Crimea, and despite winter weather hampering some operations, open-source intelligence available to the Ukrainian Armed Forces indicates that two batches of Su-35s, a batch of Su-30s, and a batch of Su-34s recently arrived in Crimea.

There is also the specter of increasing Belarusian involvement in the war, a scenario that Juice fears could see more airstrikes launched from this country. That might well involve Kh-22 supersonic cruise missiles fired from Tu-22M3 Backfire-Cs or Kh-59M series standoff missiles launched from Flankers. Currently, shorter-range weapons like these are mainly able to hit targets in the east and south of Ukraine, but a new air campaign waged from Belarus would put much of western Ukraine at risk, as well.

The ability of Russia to back-fill its units to make good on losses is another constant concern, although Juice also notes that the process cannot be done very quickly. At the same time, he says that Russia is starting to refurbish older Su-24s, suggesting that the supply of new-generation fighter jets is failing to meet current requirements.

The need for new fighter jets — and more

“Of course, we need many more airframes as well,” Juice continues. “But it’s not so much about the number but about the quality. You can have hundreds of Frogfoots and Su-24s with dumb bombs and rockets, but still, you won’t be effective enough and safe enough — you need something more advanced, with a high-precision standoff capability.”

This brings our discussion to the perennial issue of new fighter jets for Ukraine, something that Juice and his fellow pilots have long campaigned for.

In terms of future fighter equipment, what’s important for Juice is a jet that’s equally adept at air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. With that in mind, the promised delivery of second-hand MiG-29s from Slovakia will only be a partial solution, but it will be very useful as a back-filler to make good on attrition losses. Similar proposals to transfer Polish or Bulgarian MiG-29s have come to nothing.

The need for some kind of precision air-to-ground capability has been brought into sharp focus in the battles around the Kherson region. Here, Ukrainian Su-25s have been widely employed firing unguided rockets, with far less effectiveness than could be achieved with a more modern platform with guided weapons.

“They’re incredibly brave and they are real heroes but unfortunately it’s not enough to win in this war,” says Juice of his fellow pilots in the Su-25 community. The situation now is that Ukrainian jets flying over the river separating Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Kherson region will simply be shot down, Juice explains. Meanwhile, the range of the Su-25’s rockets is not enough to bring effective fire onto the enemy.

Therefore, a multi-role fighter jet is “a critical priority for our air force and for our whole armed forces,” Juice contends. Such an aircraft would be able “to do much more to save many more people in the peaceful regions, perform more efficient interceptions, and of course, provide the counter-offensive operations on the frontlines.”

In fact, a new precision air-to-ground weapon could potentially be integrated on Ukraine’s existing combat aircraft, following the lead established with HARM. Juice considers that, theoretically, such a modification could be a far more realistic proposition than introducing the other in-demand new weapon, an active-radar air-to-air missile.

Juice: “It’s too long and too expensive and too complicated to integrate any air-to-air systems on an old jet.” An offensive weapon hypothetically could work on the MiG-29 or Su-27, for example, but would admittedly be less capable overall than the same weapon on a Western jet. The same holds true for HARM, which appears to have been integrated on the MiG-29 and Su-27 with a fairly austere capability.

A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine
Juice at the controls of an unarmed Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 during a training flight. Yurii Kysil

Juice does believe that progress is finally being made on a new fighter. “I believe something is happening. It looks like the Pentagon is on the same page as us and they totally understand our needs. But the question of how to provide that is pretty complicated.”

As well as a new fighter, and continued supply of advanced ground-based air defense systems, Juice is also insistent that new equipment finds its way to his cousins in the Ukrainian Army Aviation branch. “Unfortunately,” he notes, “it’s not so popular in the international mass media; it’s not so well known.” More often than not, the Army Aviation crews are simply not able to advocate for their needs — they are just too busy. “They are fighting every day,” Juice continues. “In the fields, sleeping somewhere near some cows or horses, somewhere in the villages or on the farms.” Juice contributes to a charity foundation that provides Army Aviation crews with some essential survival equipment. “But we need to help them not just to survive, but also to be efficient and to help the ground units to kick the Russians out.”

Most critically, Juice says Army Aviation needs modern attack helicopters. While second-hand Mi-24s have been provided by the Czech Republic, plus Mi-17s from the United States and a few more from other countries, what’s really needed is a helicopter in the class of the AH-1W Super Cobra or AH-1Z Viper.

“I really hope that the Western governments will help us with this,” says Juice, noting that any modern attack helicopter could be put to use, whether it’s an AH-1, Airbus Helicopters Tiger, or even an AH-64 Apache. “The Apache is the best solution. It’s science fiction for us, we really want that, but even if we have something like the Super Cobra, it will be very, very important for the front lines because it’s capable of engaging targets with high-precision standoff weapons in the daytime and at night.”

The Ukrainian Air Force command is now working on securing a new fighter together with its U.S. partners and other nations. Unfortunately, as Juice observes, there is no quick solution, especially without the required political support.

“There are a lot of technical issues, training issues, infrastructure issues, but first of all, it’s a political issue,” Juice believes. “All our Western allies are ready to help us — I mean the military guys, military officials. But there’s still not enough political support to provide that. We still are pushing or message to everyone to the Western world, that it’s a critical need for Ukraine.”

As Juice sees it, providing Ukraine with a new fighter makes good sense for the West, as well. Not only will a jet be able to cover more airspace more quickly and safely, saving more lives in the process, but it will be a good investment in the future of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Ukraine itself. “And it’s good business,” Juice adds. “It’s a good deal for the supplier because we need a lot of them and it’s a deal that will run for many years.” Finally, “it’s definitely much better to intercept all the shit here and not on the Poland border!”

Juice considers that almost any kind of fourth-generation Western fighter would be put to good use by Ukraine, mentioning, as we have before, the F/A-18 Hornet, JAS 39 Gripen, and F-16 — the global availability of the Viper and the fact that many regional neighbors also operate the type makes it his logical choice.

As to the argument that the Gripen is the best fit, based on its proven ability to operate from austere airstrips, with minimal maintenance support, Juice is not entirely convinced. “I flew from the highway in the MiG-29, my mates flew from highways in the Su-27. It’s not the most important aspect of performance.” Furthermore, while “Gripen is good enough, we understand that their own [Swedish] air force needs them, and they don’t have a lot of them.”

In contrast, the more widely used F-16 has advantages in terms of the availability of airframes and spares and comes with plenty of options in terms of equipment, as Juice points out. “In the case of the F-16 you have a lot of options for different training programs, different electronic countermeasures, different engines, different everything — it’s like Lego! The technical capabilities are very close; in general, I don’t say that the F-16 is better as an aircraft itself, but it may be the most realistic choice for Ukraine, considering capability, availability, affordability, and most importantly sustainability.”

A MiG-29 Pilot’s Inside Account Of The Changing Air War Over Ukraine
A U.S. Air Force F-16C taxis in front of Ukrainian Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter jets, on the ramp at Mirgorod Air Base, Ukraine. The Viper was in Ukraine for Exercise Safe Skies 2011. U.S. Air Force

One option available to the Gripen that Juice does view with some envy is the Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-to-air missile. This long-range weapon with a ramjet motor would close the gap with the R-37M and put Russian aircraft at risk even when operating fairly deep in their own airspace.

For Juice, however, “our priority, first of all, is to shoot down their attack platforms above the front lines, not just hunt for their fighter jets, because you need a lot of resources for that. First of all, we need to cover our regions, after that to cover our ground forces, and after that, of course, we can try to just have some fun with other fighter jets. It will be a great challenge. But still, new hardware means new tactics, new doctrine for all operations, and I hope all that will help us to succeed and that the Russians won’t feel comfortable even in their own airspace.”

Moreover, there is the question of where those Meteor missiles would come from, whether Sweden would willingly hand them over or if new batches had to be built, and whether that would be politically acceptable. Meanwhile, Juice views the AIM-120 AMRAAM as a much more likely weapon, especially since it’s already in Ukrainian hands as part of the NASAMS system. Ukraine is now familiar with the AMRAAM, and the logistics arrangements would be much more straightforward.

Above all, Juice and his fellow Ukrainian fighter pilots need new jets sooner rather than later, “before it’s too late, because in some regions, the situation on the ground is pretty critical, the fights are very hard there. And unfortunately, we are not able to help there. We’re not able to help our guys.”

A new fighter jet should go some way to helping relieve situations like that. The manner in which Juice and his colleagues have continued to take the fight to the Russians, introducing new weapons and tactics in the process, suggests that a modern fourth-generation fighter could be a real game-changer once in their hands.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian Air Force will continue to do what it has become known for, beating the odds and keeping a far better equipped enemy air force at bay.

Contact the author: [email protected]

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