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Ukraine's pilots are flying high-risk 'wild weasel' missions first developed in the Vietnam War by the USAF, says defense analyst

Cameron Manley   

Ukraine's pilots are flying high-risk 'wild weasel' missions first developed in the Vietnam War by the USAF, says defense analyst
  • Ukrainian pilots fly dangerous "wild weasel" missions to suppress Russian air defenses.
  • Advanced US-supplied missiles have played a critical role in these missions.

Pilots in Ukraine's Soviet-era airforce, a fraction of the size of Russia's, are using a tactic first developed by the US Air Force to contest the skies above the 600-mile frontline.

Videos in recent months appear to show Ukrainian pilots conducting so-called "wild weasel" missions.

The strategy involves jet pilots luring enemy antiaircraft defenses into targeting them with their radars. The radar waves are then traced back to their source, and the Ukrainian pilots retaliate with weapons like the US-made AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs) before the Russians van lock onto them with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

Since mid-2022, the US has supplied Ukraine with HARMs, which have provided Ukrainian pilots with Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) capabilities.

The US Air Force pioneered SEAD tactics in the Vietnam War. So-called wild weasel aircraft were tasked with destroying enemy air defense radars to clear the way for attack aircraft to fly through.

The wild weasels had radar receivers to locate enemy air defenses and were initially armed with bombs and later special missiles that could target radar.

The term "wild weasel" originated from Project Wild Weasel. This US Air Force anti-SAM strategy used direct attacks to suppress enemy air defenses, according to the National Museum of the US Air Force.

These missions, originally called "Project Ferret" — a reference to the small predatory mammal that enters its prey's den to kill it — were renamed Project Wild Weasel so as not to be confused with the code-name "Ferret" that was used during World War II for radar countermeasures bombers.

HARM is the latest of these air-to-surface missiles: a projectile of around 770 pounds, with a range of some 90 miles. These missiles can locate and strike enemy radar even after the radar systems have been turned off.

HARM has been used in wars in Libya, Iraq, and former Yugoslavia, The Economist previously reported.

This experience is being put to use in Ukraine.

"Ukraine clearly is learning from Western military thought," Frederik Mertens, a Strategic Analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, told Business Insider. "Ukraine is putting great emphasis on SEAD and DEAD missions."

These missions can be "very dangerous," especially for wild weasels, he said. But the Russian air defenses are a "key target."

"This game is worth the candle," Mertens said.

But, he added Ukraine's tactics "go far beyond the classic wild weasel missions of Anti-Radiation Missile equipped aircraft."

From special forces raids to land-launched missiles like GMLRS and ATACMS as well as UAVs of all sorts, "Ukrainians use all weapons, troops, and systems they have at their disposal to suppress and destroy Russian air defenses," Mertens said.

Adapting Western weapons for use in Ukraine

The difficulty of adapting HARM for Ukraine is due to the incompatibility of old Soviet-era jets, such as the MIG-29 and the Su-27 fighters, with modern Western technology.

Last month, US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante told reporters at a Washington DC conference that Ukraine had been using iPads in an attempt to make Ukrainian jets compatible with Western weapons.

He described how Ukraine's aging fighter planes could now take many Western weapons and get them to work on their aircraft as they were "basically controlled by an iPad by the pilot. They're flying it in conflict like a week after we get it to him," he said.

Since making the necessary adaptations, Ukrainian pilots have fired hundreds of HARMs at Russian air defense radar systems. However, their technique has changed, Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower & Technology at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told BI.

"While they initially achieved a number of successful kills against Russian SAM systems and radars when first introduced; Russian SAM operators quickly adapted their tactics," Bronk said.

Now, HARM launches serve "a suppressive rather than a destructive purpose."

When launched, "the missiles force Russian SAM operators to turn off their radars and relocate to avoid being hit by them," Bronk said. "This leaves a short window within which other strike systems like HIMARS rockets or Storm Shadow missiles can get through to nearby targets with much less risk of being intercepted by the Russian SAMs."

Awaiting F-16s

While modified Soviet-era fighter jets allow Ukrainians to use HARM missiles, the modifications do not allow Ukrainians to make the most of all their features.

"It doesn't have all the capabilities that it would on an F-16," Gen. James Hecker, commander of United States Air Forces in Europe, said previously during a roundtable at the Air Force Association's Air, Space Cyber conference.

Therefore, the delivery of F-16s will be crucial for increasing Ukrainian air superiority.

Earlier this week, the Netherlands announced plans to start delivering its F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine this autumn, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said during a press briefing in Vilnius.

Denmark previously said it would begin transferring its aircraft in the summer,

"Dealing with Russian GBAD [Ground Based Air Defense] will be crucial to enable future Ukrainian air strikes once the F-16 fighters arrive," Mertens told BI.

While the delivery of such a small number of F-16s should not be overestimated, Mertens believes they could significantly impact Crimea.

"Crimea is vulnerable: the Russians have relatively limited maneuver space on the Peninsula, resupply is dependent on the Kerch bridge, and here Putin has a lot to lose both politically and militarily," he said.

"If a limited number of fighters can have a real impact, it is here."

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