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Ukraine's air defense adapts with more sophisticated technology, equipment

Over the weekend, President Joe Biden announced that the US will support a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots. Administration officials also said that the US will allow its allies to supply Ukraine with advanced fighter jets, including US-made F-16s. The battle for air superiority in Ukraine has been ongoing since Russia's invasion, and now, Ukraine hopes that F-16s can help them counteract Russia's advantages. 

The World

The US has once again buckled under pressure from European allies and Ukraine's leaders and agreed to provide more sophisticated weapons to the war effort. This time, it's all about F-16 fighter jets.

Ukraine has long asked for advanced fighter jets to give it a combat edge as it battles Russia's invasion, now in its second year. And this new plan opens the door for several nations to supply the fourth-generation aircraft and for the US to help train the pilots. President Joe Biden laid out the agreement to world leaders meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, on Friday, according to US officials.

So far, however, the US has provided no details and said decisions on when, how many, and who will supply the F-16s will be made in the months ahead while the training is underway. Details on the training are equally elusive. 

In Hiroshima, Biden was asked whether these decisions could potentially escalate the war.

“I have a flat assurance from [Ukrainian President] Zelenskiy that they will not use it to go on and move into Russian geographic territory, but wherever Russian troops are within Ukraine and the area, they will be able to do that,” Biden said.

Zelenskiy said that his priority is to strengthen Ukraine’s air defense as Russia continues to bombard Ukraine from the sky. The battle for air superiority in Ukraine has been ongoing since Russia's invasion, and now, Ukraine hopes that F-16s can help them counteract Russia's advantages. 

Already, US equipment has been instrumental in Ukraine’s air defense.

Earlier this month, Ukraine shot down multiple Russian hypersonic missiles called Kinzhal, meaning “dagger” — which Russian President Vladimir Putin has called “unstoppable.” The missiles were reportedly shot down with the American-supplied Patriot air defense system.

Valery Romanenko is a Ukrainian aviation and air defense expert.

“Last year, we were able to hit only the Russian planes, helicopters and cruise missiles. Now, we can hit all the Russian types of attack weapon, ballistic missiles including.”

Romanenko said that air warfare in Ukraine is evolving in other key ways as well.

“The Ukrainian Russian war is the first war of drones. Russians use both attack and recon drones and are very dangerous for us.”

Russia has often deployed these drones to damage Ukraine’s electric grid.

But in recent months, Ukraine has mostly withstood these attacks.

“Our air defense confirmed their high efficiency. For example, [in the] last two drone attacks, all 100% of drones were destroyed.”

Ukraine isn’t just defending itself from drones. It’s also using them as a weapon.

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Juice is a 30-year-old Ukrainian fighter pilot. Juice is his call sign. He doesn’t reveal his name or his face because of security concerns.


Anastasia Vlasova/The World

Yaroslav Markevych commands a drone unit in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Markevych said that at drone command centers, they’re able to provide intelligence to troops fighting on the front lines. They use drones to gather intelligence, and then that information is uploaded to a digital map that Ukraine’s military uses.

“We can see our enemy’s positions,” Markevych said, adding, “As a result, our decision-making is much more effective.”

Drones are also useful when soldiers are low on heavy ammunition. They use the drones as a replacement for artillery — they’re rigged with grenades and other munitions that can be dropped on enemy positions.

But he said, “The enemy is also adapting.”

Russia jams Ukrainian signals, which is the most effective way to take out drones. Markevych said that he believes that drones are the future of modern warfare. But the military insists it also needs modern jets to win the war. 

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 Yaroslav Markevych commands a drone unit in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine.


Anastasia Vlasova/The World

“We needed to start the process like a half year ago, and nowadays, we would have combat-ready pilots,” said a 30-year-old fighter pilot who goes by his call sign, Juice. He didn’t reveal his name because of security concerns.

“At the moment, we have almost no air-to-air capabilities against the Russian air force,” Juice said. “We are absolutely not able to counteract Russian fighters and bombers, because of very outdated radars, because of very outdated and not capable at all air to air missiles.”

That’s why Juice is so adamant that Ukraine needs modern jets like the F-16. But until Ukraine has those jets in hand, Juice said that the country’s fighter pilots will still manage to pull off some successful missions.

“Usually, it’s like one mission per day, and you’re ready to get in your jet in like a few minutes and just to take off as soon as possible to intercept missiles or drones.”


Yaroslav Markevych, who commands a drone unit in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, shows a model of a munition that can be attached to a drone.


Anastasia Vlasova/The World

He called this a multilayered air defense system. Missile batteries try to shoot down Russian projectiles from the ground and fighter pilots try to shoot them down from the sky.

“You’re feeling adrenaline and you’re talking with your jet, like, let’s try, please, let’s do it, let’s kill these missiles, let’s intercept them, let’s save the people on the ground.”

Juice said that F-16s would significantly improve his ability to hit incoming Russian missiles.

He also said that these jets will help Ukraine’s offensive capabilities.  

“We can’t just wait for a miracle. We need to fight, we are ready to fight, we are trained, we are motivated, we need the tools.”

After Biden’s announcement in Hiroshima, it looks like Ukraine’s pilots will get the tools that they’ve been waiting for.   

The Associated Press and Volodymyr Solohub contributed to this report.


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