It took ‘couple of months’ to put US anti-radiation missiles on Ukrainian fighters, USAF reveals

Fourth Quarter Load Competition 2021

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Mario Resendez, 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit weapons load team chief, secures an AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missile before loading it onto an F-16 at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Dec. 6, 2021.  (Airman 1st Class Leon Redfern/US Air Force)

AFA 2022 — It took only a “couple of months” for defense contractors to equip the Ukrainian air force’s Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters with American-made AGM-88 High Speed Radiation Missiles, the head of US Air Forces in Europe said today.

“It was quite the effort,” said Gen. James Hecker during a roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space Cyber conference. “We have some early smart contractors that were able to make this happen. Now, is it as integrated as it is on an F-16? Of course not. So it doesn’t have all the capabilities that it would on an F-16.”

On the battlefield, Russia is able to thwart the use of HARM missiles by turning off its radars. But that can benefit Ukraine as well, Hecker said. “Even though you don’t get a kinetic kill … you can get local air superiority for a period of time where you can do what you need to do.”

In August, the Defense Department confirmed it had provided anti-radiation missiles to Ukraine, days after images were posted on the social media site Telegram which appeared to show fragments of an exploded AGM-88 missiles that had allegedly been used by Ukraine against Russian targets.

“We’ve included a number of anti-radiation missiles that can be fired off of Ukrainian aircraft that can have effects on Russian radars and other things,” Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters then.

At the time, a major source of discussion was if the US had assisted the Ukrainians with outfitting the HARM missiles on its Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft or whether a new ground-based launcher had been created. Photos from the website RevengeFor — which is crowdsourcing funds for weapons for Ukraine — showed a MiG 29 outfitted with an AGM-88, with an adapter visible that allows the HARM missile to connect to the aircraft’s LAU-118 pylon, reported The War Zone on Sept. 16.

Hecker today declined to comment on which contractor had integrated the Ukrainian planes with the HARM missiles, asking with a laugh, “If you were that contractor, would you want Russia to know?”

Over the course of the war, the Ukrainians have shot down at least 55 Russian aircraft, mostly using SA-10 and SA-11 surface to air missiles, Hecker said. If losses on the ground are counted, that number rises to more than 60 warplanes.

During the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, one of Ukraine’s biggest requests was for additional SA-10 and SA-11 missiles, Hecker said. However, those weapons are Soviet-made and are not in the United States’ stockpile.

The Russian air force’s combat losses against Ukraine — a significantly smaller and less resourced force — exemplifies the threat of surface-to-air missiles, which when fielded in large quantities presents a challenge even to the most seasoned air forces.

“They’re hard to take down. They really are. They’d be hard for us to take down with fifth-generation stealth aircraft and better aviation,” he said. At the same time, Russia made key tactical failures by failing to make a “concentrated effort” to take down Ukrainian air defenses at the beginning of the conflict. “That would have been our first priority.”

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