For the lasttwo days I have been writing about the Fort Pitt Museum and some infographics, environmental graphics, diagrams, and dioramas that help explain the strategic value and thus history behind the peninsula at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. In particular, we looked at Fort Duquesne, the French attempt to fortify the position, and then Fort Pitt, the far more successful British attempt.
But a fortress without weaponry is like a snapping turtle without a sharpened beak. And once the fortifications were built, the British began moving in artillery pieces and hundreds of soldiers to defend their claim on the land. Local Native American tribes invited the British in and to station soldiers, but relations soured after a few years when it became clear the British, unlike the French, were more interested in settling the land.
In 1763, Native American discontent coalesced around Pontiac, an Ottawa warrior chief, who directed the outrage into violent actions in the western colonial lands. Pontiac’s War had begun. The British, recently victorious over the French, suffered several defeats as Native American forces took several British forts and raided settlements killing unknown numbers of settlers.
At the forks of the Ohio, local Native Americans besieged Fort Pitt. For two months, Fort Pitt was cut off from resupply and local settlers, who had poured into the fort, even took up arms. But the biggest weapons the British had were the artillery at the fortress.
Though it should be noted this was the incident during which a small smallpox outbreak occurred amongst the settlers and British military forces used smallpox infected blankets as gifts to the Native Americans. In later letters, this tactic was commended by senior British military officials. However, the efficacy of the action from a military perspective is debatable at best.
The British had three main types of artillery at their disposal: cannon, howitzers, and mortars. And if you have no idea what the differences are, no worries, because the Fort Pitt Museum has several great graphics explaining their differences and the pros and cons to each.
Above we have a diagram of a cannon. At the time cannon differentiated themselves by being relatively easier to construct and maintain. They fired solid, non-explosive projectiles at relatively flat trajectories. If you ever saw the Patriot with Mel Gibson, the scene where a gun fires a ball that then bounces through ranks of infantry and severs numerous legs, most likely that was a cannon.
The remaining two types were used for launching projectiles at higher angles, almost lobbing them up and over fortifications or enemy troop formations. Howitzers were the longer-ranged of the two and whilst broadly similar to cannon, at the time they differentiated themselves by being able to fire explosive projectiles. In other words, instead of a solid ball of iron as described above, this could explode and send shrapnel down on a larger area of massed infantry.
The mortar, in that sense, is similar to the howitzer. It could send explosive shells above troops and fortifications, but it was designed to do so at high-angles. This was particularly important in counter-siege warfare when the British defenders needed ways to fire at Native American soldiers who closely approached Fort Pitt’s defensive walls.
The graphics do a great job showing just how these three types of artillery were different and could be used to different effects. The graphics don’t do too much and don’t use elaborate illustrations. They are very effective and very efficient. Well done.
Credit for the pieces goes to the Fort Pitt Museum design staff.
Last night I went to see Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 film Top Gun. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. But for those that don’t know, the first film starred Tom Cruise as a naval aviator, pilot, who flew around in F-14 Tomcats learning to become an expert dogfighter. Top Gun is the name of an actual school that instructs US Navy pilots.
Back in the 1980s, the F-14 was the premiere fighter jet used by the Navy. But the Navy retired the aircraft in 2006 and it’s been replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger and more powerful version of the F/A-18 Hornet. So no surprise that the new film features Super Hornets instead of Tomcats.
And so I wanted to compare the two.
The important thing to note is that the Tomcat flies farther and faster than the Hornet. The F-14 was designed to intercept Soviet bombers that were equipped with long-range missiles that could sink US carriers. The Hornet was designed more of an all-purpose aircraft. It can shoot down enemy planes, but it can also bomb targets on the ground. That’s the “/A” in the designation F/A-18. In the role of intercepting enemy aircraft, the F-14 was superior. It could fly well past two-times the speed of sound and it could fly combat missions over 500 miles away from its carrier.
In the interception role, however, the F-14 had another crucial advantage: the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. It was a long-range air-t0-air missile designed for the Tomcat. It does not work with any other US aircraft and so the Hornet uses the newer AIM-120 AMRAAM, a medium-range air-to-air missile.
There are plans to design a long-range version of the AIM-120, but it doesn’t exist yet and so the Hornet ultimately flies slower, less distance, and cannot engage targets at longer ranges.
However, dogfighting isn’t about long-range engagements with missiles. It’s about close-up twisting and turning to evade short-range missiles and gunfire. And even in that, the F-14 could use four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles whereas the F/A-18 carries only two on its wingtips.
By the 2000s F-14 was an older aircraft and while the moving, sweeping wings look cool, they cause maintenance problems. They were expensive to maintain and troublesome to keep in the air. But they are arguably superior to what the Navy flies today.
Moving forward, the Navy is beginning to introduce the F-35 Lightning II to the carrier fleets. Maybe I’ll need to a comparison between those three.
As Russia redeploys its forces in and around Ukraine, you can expect to hear more about how they are attempting to reconstitute their battalion tactical groups. But what exactly is a battalion tactical group?
Recently in Russia, the army has been reorganised increasingly away from regiments and divisions and towards smaller, more integrated units that theoretically can operate more independently: battalion tactical groups. They typically comprise less than a thousand soldiers, about 200 of which are infantry. But they also include a number of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), armoured personnel carriers (APCs), artillery, and other support units.
In an article from two weeks ago, the Washington Post explained why the Russian army had stalled out in Ukraine. And as part of that, they explained what a battalion tactical group is with a nice illustration.
Russia’s problem is that in the first month of the war, Ukrainian anti-armour weapons like US-made Javelins and UK-made NLAWs have ripped apart Russian tanks, IFVs, and APCs. Atop that, Ukrainian drones and artillery took out more armour. The units that Russia withdrew from Ukraine now have to be rebuilt and resupplied. Once fresh, Russia can deploy these into the Donbas and southern Ukraine.
This graphic isn’t terribly complicated, but the nice illustrations go a long way to showing what comprises a battalion tactical group. And when you see photos of five or six tanks destroyed along the side of a Ukrainian road, you now understand that constitutes half of a typical unit’s available armour. In other words, a big deal.
I expect to hear more out of Russia and Ukraine in coming days about how Russia is providing new vehicles and fresh soldiers to resupply exhausted units.
Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha.
It’s been a week since my last update and that’s in part because a lot has changed. When we last spoke, the Russians had announced they had successfully completed the first phase of the “special military operation”.
Instead, Russian forces have completed a full-on retreat from northern Ukraine, sending troops and equipment back to Belarus and western Russia for refit, repair, and resupply. These are then likely to head south towards the Donbas and eastern Ukraine, the new focus of the war.
That area, in particular the south, has been Russia’s lone area of success in this war and it makes sense for Russia to reinforce its success and take the loss in the north where it was in fact losing. In fact, during the Russian retreat we saw continued, limited gains in the Donbas and the south. There, Russia appears desirous to envelop Ukrainian forces and cut them off from resupply, especially in the area of Kramatorsk.
For those that recall my coverage back in 2014, get ready to start hearing the same cities and towns mentioned all over again.
Russia wanted to capture Kyiv and cities in the north to topple the Ukrainian government. But militarily, offensive operations in the north prevented Ukraine from reinforcing their units in the south. Since 2014, Ukraine has been conducting the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) in the Donbas. These are the best-equipped and most-experienced Ukrainian troops int he war as they’ve been fighting the Russians and Russian-backed separatists for eight years. I suspect that Ukraine’s success thus far is in no small part due to the knowledge Ukraine has gained about how to fight Russian units and counter Russian tactics in this very theatre. In other words, Russia needed to prevent these forces from being resupplied. With Russia’s retreat, this is an option.
That isn’t to say Ukraine can send its whole army south, because I imagine some Russian troops will remain on the Russian side of the border north of Kyiv just in case a moment of opportunity arises.
So if Russia cannot stop Ukrainian reinforcements by pinning or fixing Ukrainian units to the north, Russia needs to cut off routes of resupply. Not surprisingly then, we’ve been seeing increased numbers of operations to take cities and towns that serve as vital rail and road hubs. And further away from the battlefield, Russian artillery and cruise missiles have been relentlessly striking similar towns in attempts to destroy transport infrastructure.
For now, it seems as if Russian forces continue to probe Ukrainian defences in an attempt to find a weak point in their lines that they can then exploit through an artillery barrage and likely an armour and mechanised infantry blitz. What works for Ukraine is that despite being surrounded on three sides, that makes it easier to shuffle units and supplies between forces facing the most pressure. Russia, on the other hand, has to move its reinforcements along the entire circumference of that bubble.
Ukraine obviously wants to retake all the territory lost to Russia thus far. In the southwest, we have seen some successful operations in repulsing the Russians around Mykolaiv and pushing Russian forces back to the outskirts of Kherson. Kherson and Nova Kakhovka control the only two southern bridges across the Dnieper. Russia needs to defend these in order to keep Ukraine from attacking its units in the south from the rear so to speak. Russian units are holding in the cities thus far despite enormous pressure.
Russia still controls the vital rail lines leading up from Crimea that allows them to keep Russian forces in that theatre resupplied. The lack of resupply was one of the issues in the north, but Russian infrastructure is better in the south and east and that could present an obstacle to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.
Finally we have the city of Mariupol, which remains under siege. Russian units continue to make bloody but slow and steady progress into the city. What’s fascinating are reports of Ukrainian units being resupplied despite the siege. And that may explain Russian attacks on civilian convoys, because with no air, rail, or sea transport links into the city, the only way Ukraine must be able to resupply its units is under the guise of civilian lorries or cars. And if Ukrainians are using civilian vehicles to resupply their military forces, that could open civilian vehicles to being sometimes legitimate targets.
So long as Russia continues to control broad swathes of territory surrounding the city, I think it’s a matter of time until Mariupol falls. But the longer the city holds out, the fewer combat effective troops Russia will later have to reorganise for a push north into Zaporizhzhia oblast and the Donbas, which is ideal for Ukraine.
I don’t think I’m going to touch on the atrocities we’re seeing coming out of northern Ukraine in this post. But I will say that the visuals we’re seeing confirm some of the worst reports and rumours that had been circulating on the internets over the last few weeks.
I took a few days off from covering the war in Ukraine. Now it’s time to jump back in and catch up on things.
Putin and his generals have declared the first phase of his “special military operation” over and that it was a success. They claimed that their goal was never the capture of Kyiv or other major cities in the north and east. Rather, those were all feints or diversions to prevent Ukraine from reinforcing their units in the Donbas as Russia “liberates” those regions.
Of course, I believe very little of that. There is a value in “pinning” or “fixing” an enemy’s forces in place so they cannot reinforce them somewhere else. To an extent, Russian and Belarusian forces have been doing this in western Ukraine. There they remain just north of the border without having crossed it. This keeps Ukrainian forces in place to defend against a new axis of Russian invasion.
I would argue that if Putin really wanted to keep the Ukrainian units around Kyiv fixed in that area of operations, he could have done so with fewer units and with a different strategy that would have cost far fewer lives and far fewer military assets. And the same can be said for Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv.
Rather, we are seeing successful small-scale Ukrainian counterattacks across the country.
You can see how around Kyiv, Ukrainian forces have retaken several suburbs, including Irpin, the focus of weeks of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. Whilst Russian forces have been pushed back and Ukraine has liberated the city, Russia continues to heavily shell the area.
Another big change on this map from last week is the Russian advances especially south and east of Sumy. That city had been effectively isolated, but Russia has withdrawn some of its forces and looks to be sending them south of Kharkiv on the push towards and south from Izyum. Ukraine has been following the withdrawing troops and liberating towns and, crucially, reopening those supply lines into Sumy. Russian losses? They appear to be heavy. But, Russia is not abandoning the front entirely, instead they are fortifying their positions.
Another area of Ukrainian success is in the south. They’ve driven Russia from the outskirts of Mykolaiv back to near the city limits of Kherson. There’s been some evidence that Ukrainians are also pushing south from north of the city along the western bank of the Dnieper, though Kherson itself remains in Russian hands. Critically, Russia still holds the two bridges that cross the Dnieper south of Zaporizhzhia.
West of Kherson and south of Kharkiv, however, Russia has been having slow but costly successes. In Mariupol, Russia’s bloody siege continues with the town resembling 1990s Grozny more and more day by day. On the streets, Russian forces continue to take more of the city block by block in bloody, house-to-house combat. The question in Mariupol will be how many Russian forces remain intact, or combat effective, when—it no longer appears to be an if—the city falls to Russian forces? If Russia has sufficient numbers of combat effective troops to garrison the city and reinforce forces north of the city, Russia could push further into Donetsk oblast and try to take more of the Donbas. But if the losses are too heavy, Russia would be forced to only garrison the city.
Northeast of Mariupol, the Russians continue their pincer movement heading west from Luhansk towards Severodonetsk and other points. Meanwhile troops from the region of Kharkiv have been making painful progress, albeit progress, south. These are the units trying to take the city of Izyum. At the moment it appears there are perhaps three different sub-axes of advance, with Russia likely probing to find weaknesses in Ukraine’s defences in that area of operations.
And in the air, Russian artillery shells and multiple-launch rockets continue to rain down upon Russian cities. Yesterday, Russia sent a cruise missile into the state government building in Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people. Russia uses long-range standoff weapons to hit targets in western Ukraine as well as in Kyiv.
Finally, to end on a positive note.
You may recall the story of “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”. 13 Ukrainian soldiers “died” defending Snake Island. Well, it turned out they surrendered after they ran out of ammunition and Russian forces took them to Crimea as prisoners of war. They were then exchanged for a similar number of Russian prisoners of war. And yesterday one of those Snake Island defenders was given a medal for the defence of the island.
This data took far longer to clean up than it should have. And for that reason I’m going to have to keep the text here relatively short.
We still see tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Putin’s war in Ukraine. Although, we are down from the peaks early on in this war. In total, nearly four million have fled their homes for safety abroad. This does not include those people internally displaced. I’ve seen estimates that including those people, the number may be closer to ten million.
Keep in mind that Ukraine’s pre-war population was about 44 million. In other words, almost 1 in 10 people have left the country and 1 in 4 have fled their home for somewhere else. Given that most men are prohibited from fleeing the country, we also know that half of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes.
Just when I thought I wasn’t going to post an update, we get some news out of Kyiv itself. The municipal government allowed journalists to see an unclassified map of the battlefield as they understand it. It highlighted those areas where Ukrainians have recaptured areas captured by the Russians in the first four weeks.
A lot has been said about encircling Russian troops northwest of Kyiv and the local government doesn’t come close to making that claim. But, they do state that Ukrainian forces have repulsed Russian advances north of the city of Nizhyn. For several days that city has been surrounded, but it appears those forces have managed a breakout and pushed the Russians back several miles.
I’m still trying to post these updates in the morning about what happened yesterday, even though we’re well into the afternoon in Ukraine. The situation on the ground, at least in terms of territorial change, remains largely static. I mentioned yesterday how Ukraine recaptured the town of Makariv. Yesterday, Ukrainian forces made a broader push in that area and there are reports that Ukraine has cut off Russia’s lead formations in Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel from their resupply lines further north.
I haven’t made any change to the map other than showing some additional blue arrows, because I haven’t seen any confirmation of that claim. But if true, it would be a big deal. I’ve been highlighting Russian attempts to envelop Ukrainian forces in the Donbas—a plan on which incredibly slow but steady progress is being made—and how that could very well lead to the annihilation of those forces. But if the report is correct, that could well mean the Russian lead forces could be annihilated.
We’re also seeing reports that Russia is taking more seriously denying Ukrainian units access to resupply. They destroyed a rail hub on the line from Dnipro to the Donbas and another linking Kharkiv to Sloviansk, a Ukrainian-held city in the Donas. The former in particular could disrupt shipments of NATO supplies arriving via western Ukraine.
Yesterday we looked at no-fly zones. Today I want to take a brief moment to look at the status of the war on the ground. I’ve been doing this later in the evening on my social media because of the time zone difference, but I want to see if it works holding off the posting until the morning.
The status for 21 March is largely unchanged.
The biggest news is that Ukrainians seem to have counterattacked west of Kyiv and retaken the town of Makariv. It sits at a small river crossing and controls one intersection linking a north-south route to a route west. Additionally, a major highway runs east-west just south of the town.
As I’ve mentioned in my social media posts, it’s hard to see the situation improving for the Russians barring an influx of troops or a significant change in battlefield tactics or their broader strategy. The Ukrainians, however, can launch small counterattacks and slowly push back on Russian advances.
Then the question becomes, what sort of casualties are we talking about for Ukraine? Open source reporting gives us a decent idea of Russian ground losses. But those sources have a bias towards Ukraine and we often don’t get as good visibility into Ukrainian losses.
That bias presents itself in other ways, the second big thing I wanted to discuss. There was significant talk about how Russia used a cruise missile to destroy a Ukrainian shopping mall in Kyiv. I read and heard the term “war crime” to describe the attack. But just because something is horrific does not necessarily make it a war crime.
I am no lawyer, just an armchair general. But as I understand it, civilian infrastructure is protected from the type of attacks Russia has broadly been conducting. However, should the defenders (Ukraine) begin using civilian infrastructure as part of their military operation, it makes that infrastructure a legitimate target, though there are still provisions for appropriate and reasoned scale of force to limit civilian casualties.
Bringing us back to Kyiv, we often hear Russia say the evil Nazi Ukrainians used a maternity hospital as a barracks in Mariupol, therefore the horrific bombing we saw was legitimate. I rarely see instances where Russia claims are verified by visual evidence. (Evidence that is increasingly easy to fake. Just ask a designer about what we can do with Photoshop.)
The bombing of a mall is terrible and the last I read, eight people died. But, we are seeing photos and videos of Ukrainian artillery forces using the mall as a shelter for their multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) operating in the area. If this is true, and again, take Russian claims with a large grain of salt, that does not necessarily make this a war crime. The Ukrainian forces put the people in the area in jeopardy by using a civilian building as a military facility.
Do I blame the Ukrainians? Not at all. They are, after all, fighting off an invasion of their country. In their situation I would probably be doing anything I could to win, but that doesn’t mean those actions lack costs.
To reiterate, if true, this is different than the bombing of the hospitals and schools that we’ve seen. The Ukrainians may have used a civilian target as a makeshift base of operations.
I’ve also seen unconfirmed reports that journalists were not permitted near the actual impact site, though they were allowed to walk about and take photographs further away. I’ve seen a sensational claim that a local Ukrainian resident who posted a photo of MLRS systems in the building on social media was arrested for treason. (As I understand it, it’s presently a crime in Ukraine to report Ukrainian military positions.)
Those are all unconfirmed reports, but I report them only because it goes to the idea of we may not be getting the full scale and scope of the war because a lot of the sources upon which we are all relying have a definite and clear (and understandable) pro-Ukraine bias. It just means that we have to sometimes pay more attention about what’s going on with Russian forces because not everything is evil and bad and wrong. (Though a number of things clearly are.)
I took a few days off last week and on my social media I posted a series of graphics explaining why a no-fly zone over Ukraine is a terrible idea. To be clear, Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is horrific. But when Russia failed to quickly take Kyiv and capture/execute Zelensky, what we are seeing became almost inevitable. There was a great piece from Quentin Sommerville for the BBC that he closes saying:
“This is what Russia does to cities. It bombards them. It besieges them. It surrounds them. It terrorises entire populations. And if these tactics are unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention, because this is the Russian attack playbook perfected in over ten years of war in Syria.”
War is horrible and the photos and videos coming out of Ukraine are gruesome. But a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine creates a very real risk of escalating this war from a conflict between two nations to a war between Russia and Ukraine and NATO. Ukrainians have every right to want a no-fly zone and I would have been surprised if it wasn’t among their asks of the West, but that doesn’t mean the West should give it to them. And here’s a couple reasons why.
First, Russia is not Libya. Nor is it Serbia. Nor Iraq. Russia is a nuclear-armed power. It has technologically advanced fighters, bombers, and drones. And it has thousands of them. Plus it has a very capable air defence network centred around the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.
The system consists of a a radar set to find targets, another to track and engage targets, command-and-control, and finally the missile units above. A number of different missiles can be used, including one with a range of 400km and another with a range of 250km. Obviously I’m not privy to the locations of Russia’s SAM systems, but let me place four of them in hypothetical locations around Ukraine and you can see I’ve got pretty decent coverage of almost all Ukraine. Note that none of those four are actually located in Ukraine.
Most of the worst carnage Russia has inflicted on Ukraine is in cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv. You can see just how well those cities are covered in this hypothetical placement. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia’s actual locations provide similar dense, overlapping coverage of those cities.
Now, at those longer ranges, it’s harder to hit targets flying low to the ground, e.g. an attack helicopter. So for a no-fly zone, NATO aircraft would have to fly over Ukraine to intercept any Russian fighters, bombers, helicopters or drones. To do that, however, NATO aircraft would have to fly higher up in the atmosphere where there’s less air resistance for more fuel economy and more radar coverage of the ground. That puts them squarely in the targets of these S-400s. Maybe NATO’s first flight goes off without a hitch. But the moment a NATO fighter shoots down a Russian fighter, these S-400s would likely start firing at NATO aircraft.
Thus a no-fly zone needs air superiority to be effective. And to control the skies over Ukraine, NATO would need to eliminate Russian SAM systems located within Russia and/or Belarus. To be clear, NATO would be bombing or using cruise missiles to kill Russians inside Russia.
Second, most of Russia’s killing of civilians is not done with bombs dropped from lanes. In recent days we have seen air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) destroy numerous targets. These present a distinct problem for no-fly zones as this graphic shows.
It is not easy to destroy an incoming missile, especially when they utilise countermeasures designed to trick defence systems or when the missile is designed for stealth. With the Kh-101 ALCM, Russia has a long-range stand-off weapon, meaning that it can fire the weapon from beyond a range where the Ukrainians can effectively defend against the unit firing the weapon.
The Kh-101 can be fired from a Tu-95 Bear, it’s kind of the Soviet/Russian version of the American B-52. It’s old, slow, but can hold a lot of weapons. And in this case one Bear can launch from their base in Engels, Russia with eight Kh-101s. With a missile range of 2,000 miles, Russia can fire Kh-101s and hit targets from well inside Russia.
For a no-fly zone this means you need the ability to shoot down those missiles at a bare minimum. But keep in mind, this is not easy to do. And so you would probably need to shoot down the Bears in flight or maybe even target the airfield runway, which is even further inside Russia than the SAM systems at which we just looked. More bombing of Russia.
Are you noticing a pattern yet?
Third, we also need to look at what’s actually causing some of the worst damage. Here you can see two of the culprits: a BM-21 Grad and 2S19M2 Msta-S. The first is a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) and the second is a self-propelled artillery.
The MLRS does what it looks like it does. This model has forty rockets and it can very quickly launch all or just some of them. But it’s more of an area fire weapon, which means that it’s meant to saturate a target area with a lot of fire. Grad translates to Hail and you can get a sense from that word what the system is meant to do. The Msta-S is basically a big artillery gun put onto a tank’s body so that it can move around on its own without having to be towed into place. With the bigger gun, these things can do a lot of damage on their own.
Neither of them, however, would be defended against with a no-fly zone. To engage them would be more of a proper and conventional war, using aircraft and drones to take out targets of opportunity as they emerge from hiding places. Instead of just taking out Russian planes over Ukraine, Russian SAM sites on the Russian side of the Russo-Ukrainian border, and airfields deep inside Russia, now we’d be bombing Russian units operating on the ground in Ukraine.
A no-fly zone means war with Russia. And that’s bad, because Russia’s military is smaller and less capable than all of NATO, but Russia likely would not hesitate to use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against NATO targets should NATO become actively involved. Russia would then be effectively put into a corner and it has a sizeable stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons and has the doctrines to use them.
I don’t want to alarm people, so let’s take a brief aside to talk nukes. A tactical nuke is not the same thing as the nuclear weapons we associate with giant mushroom clouds obliterating entire cities. Those are strategic nuclear weapons deployed from an intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are themselves different from the short-range ballistic missiles Russia has been using throughout this war. A tactical nuclear weapon typically will have a size of 1 to 1,000 kilotons. A strategic weapon could be in the range of 30,000–50,000 kilotons (some smaller, some larger). For context, the bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons.
Even though the damage would be more confined to the battlefield, we really, really do not want a nuclear war. Radiation is still a thing. And the local effects would be catastrophic. Finally, if Russia deployed a nuclear artillery shell to eliminate a NATO armoured column advancing east from the Polish border, we would have to counter or risk continued Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons. And if we then take out a Russian tank regiment, what stops Russia from escalating to using a nuclear weapon on Polish soil to take out a NATO airbase. And then we take out one of those aforementioned Russian airbases. And then they respond with a nuclear weapon hitting Bratislava, warning us to stop. But NATO’s been nuked, so we respond and take out a smaller Russian city, maybe Rostov-on-Don or Murmansk. They then launch on New York. We respond overwhelmingly. They respond overwhelmingly. Nuclear winter descends upon the planet and lots and lots of people die.
Putin knows this escalatory ladder as well as we do. I don’t think Russia using tactical nuclear weapons is particularly high. But it’s not zero. And given how cataclysmic that non-zero risk is, it’s worth being more risk-averse in this war.
Back to the no-fly zones, to sum up, if NATO declares and then enforces a no-fly zone, NATO is declaring war on Russia. That’s bad because there’s an obvious if not highly likely route to escalation to complete thermonuclear war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
So, if a no-fly zone is a bad idea, what can we do? After all, it’s easy to say no and harder to offer an alternative.
The short version is to keep doing what we have been doing.
When President Biden announced the latest aid package from the US, he mentioned artillery radar amongst the thousands of missiles and other splashy hardware. Artillery radar, or counter-battery radar, may not be very sexy, but it is very important because it allows Ukrainians to detect incoming artillery and rocket fire from units like those BM-21s or Mstas. And once you detect those, you can pinpoint their location and direct your own artillery fire or send your aircraft or drones to take out Russian artillery. That would do the most to defend against Russian artillery.
Then there were a number of measures announced with respect to air defence systems and those fall into a number of categories.
We have all heard about Stingers. Those are incredibly effective against Russian helicopters and low-flying aircraft and drones. But there are also other options, here I’ve depicted an SA-13 Gopher, which is a Soviet-made, i.e. Ukrainians know how to use them, which is in use by several Eastern European NATO countries. The United States cannot supply those. We do have a few systems given to us by those same countries so we can train against them, but I think it unlikely we give those up. But can the United States give those Eastern European NATO countries new American-made systems and then those older Soviet-made systems are given to Ukraine?
Top in this list are some S-300 missile systems, in particular owned by Slovakia. The Slovak defence minister announced that Slovakia is willing to immediately provide its S-300 system, but only if it can receive a replacement system from NATO. If you are Slovakia watching your neighbour be invaded by Russia, I think wanting a replacement system makes an immense amount of sense. Just yesterday, Germany and the Netherlands announced they’ll send their Patriot missile batteries to Slovakia. Once they arrive, hopefully Slovakia will follow through and send its system to Ukraine.
These systems differ in terms of what they can do to defend Ukraine’s skies. The Stingers and some of Ukraine’s own short- and medium-range systems can defend the battlefield, but the S-300 could help defend larger area of operations. Ukraine did have and operate the S-300 before the war, although there have been a number of photos of destroyed Ukrainian systems, probably taken out by Russia in the opening hours of the war. So any replacement systems would allow Ukraine to better intercept aircraft at longer ranges, but also cruise missiles like the ones we’ve been discussing.
Ukraine has effectively used its air defence assets to deny air superiority to Russia. That doesn’t mean Russia doesn’t actively control parts of the sky, because it does, but Ukraine successfully contests that on a daily basis. You only need to look at the mounting numbers of aircraft, drones, and helicopters for proof of that.
Keep giving Ukraine SAMs and a lot of them. That’s the best way to “close the skies” over Ukraine.
Finally, I’ll add a few thoughts about those Polish MiGs, maybe 24 or so of them.
The MiGs are old planes compared to the front line fighters Russia has deployed to the conflict. Additionally, Russia does have airborne command-and-control assets to identify Ukrainian aircraft in the skies then vector those fighters to the area and take them out. MiGs do have some advantages: they can operate from dirt airfields and offer some air-to-ground capabilities. If they fly low enough they can mitigate some of the risk from Russia’s S-400s.
For Ukraine to try and achieve its own air superiority, it would need far more than 24 MiGs. At present, Ukraine flies only 5–10 sorties or missions per day. Russia is flying about 200. Ukrainian fighters would need to loiter in the skies over Ukraine, but we’ve already seen how Russia could shoot down those jets with their long-range SAMs. For Ukraine to establish air superiority it would need to do all the things we discussed earlier, but Ukraine has none of the tools to do that. Ukrainian air superiority is likely out of the question for the duration of the conflict.
So if Ukraine is restricted to low-altitude operations, NATO may have better options for Ukraine. Bulgaria has maybe 14 Su-25 Frogfoots. These excel at flying low and taking out ground units like tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, &c. The aircraft can be taken out by Russia’s own short- and medium-range air defence units deployed with Russian ground forces, but they can take more punishment than fighter jets.
These would be far more useful than MiGs. As with the MiGs, however, 14 is not really a number that will change the balance of air power and we don’t even know if those Bulgarian planes are still capable of flying. Regardless, the ground-based SAM units would be the best bet along with the aforementioned artillery radar systems. If we can get more of those units to Ukraine, that would be immensely more helpful than maybe two dozen MiGs.
In other words, we’re doing the best we can do. Keep giving Ukraine all the missiles it can use. But a no-fly zone should remain off the table for now.