When the Russian Ukrainian war began, many thought that there was no place for any comparison between the two armies, and especially in the air force.
This is a graphical comparison between the two armies by CNN:
Focus on the number of aircraft and helicopters; there is no way to compare. The battle is settled; the Russian air forces are way more powerful and advanced.
Sky superiority and domination by the Russian air forces were something that no one could argue about. But what happened was actually a surprise to the world’s greatest analysts.
The Oryx military website is considered by most analysts as a reliable source since it never counts anything without a supporting video or photo. Its latest post that lists the number of aircraft lost in this war shows that the Russian Air Forces have lost a total of 153 aircraft, divided into:
- 12 Su-25 close air support aircraft
- 5 Su-30SM multirole aircraft
- 10 Su-34 strike aircraft
- 1 Su-35S multirole aircraft
- 1 An-26 transport aircraft
- 1 Unknown aircraft
- 12 Mi-8 transport helicopter
- 3 Mi-24P attack helicopter
- 3 Mi-35M attack helicopter
- 1 Unknown Mi-24/35 attack helicopter
- 5 Mi-28 attack helicopter
- 14 Ka-52 ‘Alligator’ attack helicopter
- 5 Unknown helicopter
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles:
- 1 Forpost reconnaissance UAV
- 1 Orion UCAV
- 56 Orlan-10 reconnaissance UAV
- 2 Orlan-10 jamming UAV
- 3 ‘Orlan-20’ reconnaissance UAV
- 2 Orlan-30 reconnaissance UAV
- 10 Eleron-3 reconnaissance UAV
- 2 Takhion reconnaissance UAV
- 3 ZALA 421-16Е2 reconnaissance UAV
This data was shocking to most people! How did the Ukrainian Air Force manage to accomplish such an impossible mission? What is the role of the man-portable air-defense systems? And how the US Stinger missile was able to shoot down the most advanced Russian fighter jets?
Ukrainian Air Defenses
The Ukrainian army has multiple options to counter the Russian aircraft, including their own fighter jets as well as the surface-to-air missiles system. However, these options were mostly insufficient to counter the massive Russian airpower.
This is due to the limited amount of aircraft and that the surface-to-air missiles systems were an easy target to the Russian pilots. The answer to this condition was the man-portable air-defense systems, or what is known as MANPADS.
What are MANPADS?
These are little, basic weapons that have spread over the globe. Depending on the weapon, the range may run from 3,500 to 6,000 feet, and they can reach elevations of 4,000 or 5,000 feet. They weigh around 15 kilograms (ready to use).
In an integrated multilayered air defense structure, man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems and tube guns serve as the final line of defense against attacking aircraft.
So what MANPADS does the Ukrainian Army have? And how could these weapons with such a low elevation be able to hit high flying jets?
What MANPADS does Ukraine have?
Soveit-era Soviet SA-7 and SA-14
Ukraine has the old, outdated anti-aircraft missiles from the Soviet period, including models such as the SA-7 Grail and the SA-14 Gremlin.
For the SA-7’s Strela-2M variant, the maximum range is 4,200 meters, and the maximum altitude is 2.3 kilometers. The SA-7 weighs 15 kilograms and has an explosive charge of 1.15 kg.
The SA-14 has a little higher weight, around 16 kilograms. A 1.17 kg explosive fragmentation warhead is the weapon’s primary weapon. It has a top speed of Mach 1.8 and a maximum range of 6 kilometers. Its infrared seeker is more advanced, allowing it to strike objects in its frontal hemisphere, unlike the earlier SA-7.
It also outperforms SA-7 in flare resistance, which is an aerial infrared countermeasure used by fighter jets or helicopters to counter infrared seeker missiles.
However, as we have mentioned before, they are outdated and couldn’t be the reason for such impressive numbers. Ukraine has two more MANPADS that was given by the US and Poland.
The FIM-92 Stinger is a surface-to-air missile with infrared homing capabilities that may be carried by a single person. It was developed by the United States and entered service in 1981.
Before hostilities began, the United States sent hundreds of these MANPADS to Ukraine. These missiles were also shipped by the European Union, which has publicly sided with Ukraine.
The Stinger is a 15-kilogram missile with a top speed of mach 2.2, a range of almost 5,000 meters, and an altitude of 3,800 meters. In order to be more effective against drones, the most recent version of this missile has an infrared/ultraviolet guiding warhead as well as a proximity fuze.
Grom and Piorun
These are Polish-made MANPADS, sent just before the Russian invasion began (and perhaps still being delivered now), intended to replace Poland’s vast inventories of outdated weapons such as the SA-7, SA-9, and SA-14.
They are among the most up-to-date and effective light air defense systems in Ukraine’s arsenal. Piorun, the latest member of the Grom family of missiles, was put into service in 2019.
The Grom launcher with the missile is 16.5 kg in weight. The missile’s weaponry includes an infrared guidance system and a 1.27 kg high explosive fragmentation warhead. It is able to latch on to hot target surfaces, such as an aircraft engine or turbine exhaust, and forecast the movement of the target.
When the missile reaches its intended target, it uses a contact detonation mechanism to set off an explosion. It has a range of 5.5 kilometers and an altitude of 3.5 kilometers.
Why Russian Fighter Jets Was an Easy Target for the MANPADS?
As we said before, the Ukrainian Army is relying mostly on MANPADS to shoot down Russian aircraft. But let’s face reality, most of the Russian fighter jets that were taken down, have a very high-flying altitude when compared to the maximum altitude these MANPADS could reach.
So how could these MANPADS, and especially Stingers and Pioruns, be able to target Su-25s, Su-30s, and Su-34s?
These MANPADS are advanced and could easily follow their targets and destroy them, but only if the target was in the capable range of the missiles.
A lot of the destroyed planes are planes that usually fly close to the ground to shoot their targets. Helicopters usually operate very close to the ground, making them super easy targets of the Stingers.
All footage from the Russian airborne helicopter assault into Gostomel airbase on the outskirts of Kyiv during the first days of the invasion. Includes new MANPADS launch and shootdown fotage. Multiple Ka-52 helicopters hit and shot down pic.twitter.com/Ui8J8bzI8O— Hugo Kaaman (@HKaaman) March 1, 2022
However, these Helicopters usually have countermeasures for the MANPADS. Many films show Russian helicopters throwing flares in an attempt to fool Ukrainian forces’ anti-air weapons. However, this method is not always successful.
First and foremost, the MAPANDS type will greatly impact this case. These flares might mislead an early-generation missile’s seeker with an outdated technologies. However, it is more difficult to mislead modern missiles such as the Stingers and Pioruns.
It has been confirmed that it was one of the Piorun missiles donated to Ukraine by Poland that shot down the Russian Mi-24 helicopter today.— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) March 5, 2022
Unlike Stingers, Piorun can down targets flying very low (10m altitude/400m distance).
Let’s send more!
Second, the defender’s response time is critical. In certain cases, only a few seconds pass between the launch of the missile and its impact on the target, generally a helicopter. Taking advantage of the weather, Ukrainian forces’ techniques are proving to be highly efficient.
Speaking of weather, this will greatly explain why high-altitude Russian fighter jets was also an easy target.
Among the destroyed Russian aircraft is also high-altitude fighter jets. It’s not just helicopters. How did this happen?!
Uploaded videos reveal that the sky is nearly constantly overcast with low and dense clouds making it impossible for attack aircraft such as the Su-25s or Su-30s or Su-34s to carry out their missions above the cover of MANPADS missiles.
It was essential for the jets to come closer to the ground to finish their missions, making them in the attacking range of the Stingers and Pioruns.
Russia efficiently destroyed the great bulk of Ukrainian air defense systems and equipment within the initial hours of the invasion, hitting anti-aircraft batteries, radars, command centers, air bases, etc. But some equipment survived and is being used effectively by the Ukrainian Army.
But what was not expected was the MANPADS and the weather conditions. It is very difficult to destroy those MANPADS. They are mobile, small, and could be hidden easily.
And since the Russian air forces need to fly at low altitudes, they come inside a MANPADS range as an easy target.
These mobile and dangerous systems are providing Ukraine great support and giving the Russian forces a major headache.
Until the weather condition changes, these missiles will provide great protection for the Ukrainian sky and make the Russian mission harder.