'Buk' SAM Sytem (Photo: Ukraine Ministry of Defence)

By James Hackett, Editor of The Military Balance; Senior Fellow for Defence and Military Analysis

Ukraine’s armed forces
As noted in the latest IISS Military BalanceUkraine’s armed forces continue to operate mainly Soviet-era equipment, which is in need of upgrade or replacement. Defence spending, however, has remained stubbornly low, consistently around 1% of GDP in recent years; as a result, the services have suffered from inadequate financing and defence reforms have been significantly underfunded. In its 2012 White Paper, the ministry noted that key problems included weakness in defence legislation and insufficient finance, which affected training, readiness and combat capability. The same document also noted the relatively low proportion of defence investment allocated in Ukraine in comparison with global averages.

Procurement targets have been missed and plans to end conscription by 2011 were not achieved. This plan was revived again in 2013, and it was declared that the autumn 2013 draft would be the last for the armed forces, though conscription would remain for Interior Ministry troops. Like Russia, Ukraine aspires to fill many of its personnel slots with contract, rather than conscript, personnel. Ukrainian military sources reported in February 2014 that contract servicemen comprised 69% of the total (other reports placed it at 50% at the end of 2011), while the navy and airborne forces were, according to official sources, wholly composed of contract servicemen. Increasing the proportion of contract servicemen still further was, in tandem with other initiatives including rebooting training regimes, an aspiration of the former defence minister, and formed part of the ministry’s latest defence reform plan ‘to 2017’. Small units of Ukrainian personnel train with international partners, and just under 100 marines took part in the NATO Steadfast Jazz exercise in November 2013.The ground forces have also deployed to Kosovo with NATO’s KFOR. Ukrainian naval vessels, meanwhile, have routinely participated in counter-piracy missions, while rotary-wing aircrew have long been deployed on UN peacekeeping duties.

Aircraft availability and serviceability levels remain low, as do flying hours; the latter are likely half that recorded within the Russian air force. For aircrew allocated to the Ukrainian Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) in 2009, the 18 hours flown amounted to little over a tenth of the planned total of 160 flying hours. Flying hours were nearly the same in 2011, according to the Defence Ministry’s White Book for that year. Since then the situation has improved somewhat, with JRRF aircrews averaging almost 66 hours a year, though this continues to be far below the standards of capable Western air forces. For example, the NATO target to sustain a high level of combat readiness is considered to be baselined at 180 hours a year, although some air forces of member states now fall below this figure. Meanwhile, in 2013, Russian combat aircrew reportedly averaged 100–120 hours.

Though the Ukrainians have a notional 200 MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker combat aircraft – the majority being Fulcrums – problems with serviceability, and an enforced policy of storing a significant number of airframes, mean the total available combat fleet will be substantially smaller than the overall total. This makes the experience and training of aircrew all the more important. Ukrainian medium- and heavy-lift crews, meanwhile, will have had their flying hours boosted by contract work and attachments on foreign peacekeeping missions, as will some of Ukraine’s rotary-wing pilots; for instance, Ukrainian personnel have long flown attack-helicopter missions in support of the UN’s MONUSCO mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Funding restrictions have also constrained naval ambitions, though the programme to re-equip the fleet with a new class of corvette (the Gaiduck-class) is proceeding slowly. The navy is also attempting to return its one Foxtrot submarine to service condition, after more than a decade of inactivity. However, the future of the navy’s main base at Sevastopol is now uncertain, and Ukrainian military officials have denied reports that some Ukrainian naval vessels departed Sevastopol, stressing that they were blockaded. One issue that will be concerning naval planners in Kiev relates to the frigate Hetman Sagaidachny. As of 4 March, the vessel was reported as having entered the Black Sea after returning from counter-piracy duties; it is currently unclear whether it will attempt to dock in its homeport of Sevastopol or instead head to an alternative port, such as Odessa.

The current crisis
On 2 March, the new authorities in Kiev put Ukraine’s armed forces on full alert in response to the developing situation in Crimea, also beginning a mobilisation process whereby reservists were to report to mobilisation centres. It was reported that each would receive ten days’ training, though the combat effectiveness of recalled reservists will vary according to the time elapsed since their military service ended. The length scheduled for re-training could well be tailored to factors like how current their military skills are, and fitness levels. In any case, recalled reservists may well be assigned to backfill non-combat posts in order to allow currently serving personnel to take up assignments in front-line units. Interior Ministry troops, tasked with infrastructure protection among other duties, were also put on alert.

As evidenced by the recent defection of the newly appointed Ukrainian naval chief in Crimea, and the ongoing blockades of military facilities in Crimea, there is severe pressure on Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea to defect, disarm, or surrender to surrounding Russian troops. However, while blockades against bases and pressure to defect will be affecting morale, it remains unclear what level of resistance remaining Ukrainian forces in Crimea would put up if engaged militarily.

Many of the Russian personnel now deployed in Crimea – particularly those recently arrived – will likely hail from formations with better motivation and combat training than their Ukrainian counterparts in Crimea. This, together with the restrained behaviour of blockaded Ukrainian personnel, is one reason why live-fire incidents have thus far been limited to warning shots. But that should not be taken as meaning that the Ukrainian troops, in static defence, could not inflict losses should hostilities erupt.

The recent political upheaval in Ukraine – and Russian troop movements – will have created uncertainty in Ukraine’s armed forces, and may be exerting downward pressure on morale among forces in Crimea and wider Ukraine, but the reverse could also be true; that the morale of remaining Ukrainian forces could be bolstered by Russia’s intervention. This could also be true of those Ukrainian forces in Crimea that are still loyal to Kiev.

Some units have been reported as defecting, or switching allegiance, though it is too soon to tell whether such moves result more from the pressure units are under than from their particular political affiliation. That some units are still holding out is noteworthy, and if anything increases the risk of miscalculation – not just on the part of frustrated personnel hemmed into bases, but also on the part of those forces surrounding them who, by observed action, seem tasked with ending Kiev’s military presence in the Crimea. In any military confrontation, Russia would likely prevail, but its forces would take losses against troops in organised defensive positions.

By way of reference, the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies estimated that 67 Russian personnel died during the short 2008 war with Georgia. In that campaign, some of Russia’s notable platform losses were of aircraft being used in the tactical role, downed by Georgian air-defence systems. Ukrainian air-defence forces rely on a range of Russian-origin systems, as the Georgians did in 2008 (though the Georgians also have the Israeli Spyder system and reportedly downed one Russian aircraft with a Polish-origin Grom MANPAD) and, while Ukraine’s forces operate the capable 9K37 Buk system, and also the S-300PS, their serviceability and crew training levels are less certain. The current location of these mobile systems is also unclear, but it is unlikely that Russia will be taking chances; it is certainly possible that Russia’s tactical air force Electronic Warfare teams would in recent days have been re-examining the frequencies used by Ukraine’s air-defence surveillance and fire control radars. These wouldn’t be too hard to find as, while systems might subsequently have been modified in Ukraine, they were – like most of Ukraine’s equipment – designed in Russia. 

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