A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 26, 2022

Why US-Supplied HARM Anti-Radar Missiles May Give Ukraine Air Superiority

Just turning on radar enables the HARM missile to target it. Which means the Russians will be cautious about turning on their anti-aircraft radar for fear of being attacked. 

And that can give Ukraine's smaller air force local air superiority. JL 

Peter Olandt reports in Daily Kos:

The appearance of the HARM in Ukraine means (it) will be able to achieve local air superiority where they need it, even with the smaller Air Force.  The HARM doesn’t just destroy enemy RADAR, it also encourages the enemy to not even turn their RADAR on for fear of losing it to a HARM strike. (And) Russia continues to have to worry about Ukrainian SAMs.  There is a reason the wild weasel patch has YGBSM on it (You’ve Gotta Be Shitting Me).  The pilot’s first step in the mission is to get the enemy SAM radar to turn on. This means Ukraine can put up more fighter patrols.

Throughout the war much of the commentary on it has had built in assumptions that whatever the current dynamic of the war was would persist.  A certain amount of that is justified and responsible as predicting certain changes based on limited public knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian plans quickly puts any analysis into highly speculative territory.  It’s one thing to predict incremental changes and look for already announced systems.  It’s entirely different to predict large changes based on what aid Ukraine might get or what tactics they may be capable of but have yet to demonstrate.  It’s a good thing for me then that I lack any sense of responsibility freeing me up to continue to engage in great leaps of speculation.  But before I get to the future, I’d like to remind folks of just a subset of the surprises Ukraine has already thrown at us.

The first big surprise was the courage and willingness for Ukraine to stand up and fight.  Even though all the pundits predicted an immediate Ukrainian collapse they showed they could fight, and would fight.  While Russia quickly pushed out big gains in the early days Ukraine eventually stabilized and has pushed back.

American culture at least, has become accustomed to its liberal leaders too often not standing up to a challenge in a powerful, focused way.  It’s not that it never happens, but the simple fact that many of us are surprised that Merrick Garland is ACTUALLY doing his job only happens because too often in the past our leaders have folded to the bad guys.  Just one example is the way so many Democrats in Congress voted for the Iraq War 2 based on such bad intel that Collin Powell looked like an utter fool in his UN presentation on WMDs.  I’m so happy that Ukraine decided to stand up to the bullies.  And I’m so happy Biden has stood with them.

We were also surprised when first M777 artillery and then a little later Saint HIMARS showed up.  Neither had been previously announced and reports of the first usage of each predated official announcements that they were there.  The M777 was certainly predictable.  Ukraine had no capacity for making new 152mm shells and foreign stocks were limited.  NATO used 155mm.  If Ukraine was going to continue to fight, even defensively, they needed a replacement.  But it took time to get the guns there with supplies and to get their troops trained on new weapon systems.  Both of these things happened in secrecy long before we had any knowledge of what was going on.

More recently we discovered Ukraine had AGM-88-HARMs which is an anti-radar missile that homes in on enemy radar.  This discovery was overshadowed by mysterious booms all over Crimea but to me the HARM is both a bigger surprise and more important.  These will have a HUGE impact on the war.  Let’s first start with why these are such a big deal.  

In the first few days of the war, pundits expected Russia to quickly gain air supremacy, or at the very least air superiority due to its much larger Air Force and quantities of guided missiles.  They failed at this primarily because they did not focus enough on eliminating Ukraine’s air defense systems.  Some of this is a failure at the start of the war to focus enough on taking out mobile SAM systems such as the S-300 system.  They didn’t devote enough time in locating and tracking these systems and didn’t expend enough missiles targeting the ones they knew about.  The other part of their failure is because Russia has never put a large enough emphasis on eliminating enemy air defense in their training and preparation.  Certainly not compared to the US focus on it.  The Russians have no equivalent to the American wild weasel training, or building the systems dedicated to it.

What that meant is that Russia was unable to safely use helicopters and jets in a CAS (close air support) role to assist their ground forces.  Ukraine continued to be able to move their forces around behind the lines without fear of a large number of attacks by Russian airplanes.  (These missions are known as interdiction).  

The appearance of the HARM in Ukraine’s hands means that Ukraine will be able to achieve local air superiority where they need it, even with the smaller Air Force.  The HARM doesn’t just destroy enemy RADAR, it also encourages the enemy to not even turn their RADAR on for fear of losing it to a HARM strike. While Ukraine’s Air Force has less to worry about enemy SAMs (surface to air missiles), Russia continues to have to worry about Ukrainian SAMs.  This means Ukraine can put up more fighter patrols and more CAS missions with the Ukrainian version of the Wild Weasels ready to shove a HARM down the throat of any Russian RADAR that turns on.  Ukraine will still need to worry about man-portable systems, but their capacity has increased.

Part of the surprise of Ukraine receiving the HARM is two-fold.  First, it’s a NATO system and we received no indication that Ukraine’s jets could mount such a system.  We knew it was theoretically possible, but there was no public indication that this was at all in the works.  The second part of the surprise is that the HARM missile is not a simple one to deploy.  Pilots need training in how it works and how to survive deploying it.  There is a reason the wild weasel patch has YGBSM on it (You’ve Gotta Be Shitting Me).  The pilot’s first step in the mission is to get the enemy SAM radar to turn on.  That is something most pilots try their best to avoid.  The US would not provide HARM without also the training to go with it.

Coming back to the big booms, Ukraine has also surprised us with its recent ability to reach out and touch Russian stockpiles and air bases far beyond their known weapon systems.  My money is on special ops teams, but the GRIM-2 missile system coming online is plausible for many of the strikes as well.

So that’s just a few of the surprises we’ve already seen.  What’s to come?  Well, it’s a surprise.  But again, I have no qualms about speculating so let’s do that.

First, I fully expect the M1 Abrams and the Bradly IFV to make an appearance relatively soon.  I’ve burned myself previously attempting to give a timeline, so I won’t here, but I will say it will be far sooner than the nay-sayers indicate.  

An M1 Abrams costs just shy of $9M each so 100 M1 Abrams would run $900M.  Let’s call it an even billion dollars once you throw in the 120mm HEAT rounds and the fuzzy dice.  That is in the realm of the aid the US is shelling out to Ukraine.  The Ukrainians have stated a desire for a modern MBT (read: the T-72s from Poland were nice, but not enough).  We know the Ukrainians must have been training on HIMARS, M777s, and HARM long before they were announced.  The US has had the time to ship the tanks over and there has been (just) enough time for training, though it may take more.  It will be the Abrams and not the German Leopard as the US has shown far more willingness to share the volume and expense than Germany has.  If I were leading Ukraine, I would want my MBT (main battle tank) to come from the Americans.

The M1 is a massive upgrade over the T-72.  In a friendly fire incident during the Iraq war, one American Abrams fired on another Abrams and the front armor stood up to the round.  The US lost no Abrams to enemy action in the second Iraq war.  Losses were to friendly fire (rear armor penetration), a few stuck in mud, and a few destroyed by the Americans on purpose due to a tactical situation.  While I wouldn’t expect Ukraine to match that record as they won’t have the air cover the US did, they should help considerably.  Even if its just a company worth (20 or so), they would make an amazing tip of the spear to lead the attack.  However, it’s not invincible.  The Iraqis managed to get 20 or so (out of 60) destroyed by ISIL.

I also expect the Bradly IFV (infantry fighting vehicle) to make an appearance.  The US has quite oddly only given Ukraine 200 M113 APCs (armored personnel carriers).  We have thousands of these in both active duty and in storage.  Why just 200?  I think one reason is to send an armored vehicle to show we are supporting Ukraine in that way.  An M113, while useful, is not at a technology level that we would need to keep it a secret.  It surprised no one that we sent some and would have only surprised people if we didn’t.  Another reason is that it gives the US cover when sending “other” armored vehicles.  The M113 looks nothing like a Bradley or an Abrams, but we don’t need them to.  We keep all the vehicles covered (hopefully in such a way as to mask what’s under the cover) while in transport and hopefully Russian intelligence can’t tell for sure.  We managed to get HIMARS over there without it being on the front page of the NYT before they started using them.

Why are we going to send these systems?  Because so far the Ukrainian and American militaries have shown us they both know what they’re doing.  We haven’t seen them yet because they aren’t needed on defense (or not ready just yet).  When the Russians are sufficiently softened up, we will see them on offense.  A modern main battle tank is needed by Ukraine to better stand up to RPGs and similar man portable systems.  Plus they outrange the Russian tanks and have excellent accuracy while on the move.

The next future surprise won’t REALLY surprise you all as everyone has been clamoring for them is a NATO airplane.  Many folks expect the F-16 which is the “entry level” model.  It’s a good airplane that will get the job done.  Personally, I’m not convinced it needs to be the F-16, as there are multiple good options out there.  Regardless of which one they get, I’m fully confident something is in the works.  I have no clue how much they can compress the training timelines for pilots and technicians, but they will come as soon as they can do it.  Sorry folks, there will be no A-10 warthog from the US government.  Ukraine might source them on their own, but I doubt that.  If it were up to the task, the US would still be using them.  And I say this all as someone whose favorite airplane of all time is the A-10.

Another future surprise will be the location of the real offensive.  I’m not convinced it will be in Kherson or even towards Melitopol.  I won’t say where I think it will be.  It could be Kherson, but the Ukrainians may also be content to have effectively trapped a good portion of the Russian army in the south and go attack elsewhere (after briefer but more intense softening up there).

The final surprise is not really a surprise.  It’s that Ukraine is fully capable of the logistics to supply its forces for an offensive, even with multiple new systems including the Abrams.  The Ukrainian’s aren’t new to war.  They inherited the same Soviet system the Russians did.  While the Russians have shown themselves to be miserable at truck logistics they are excellent with the railroads.  Ukraine will have that same railroad capability plus American support with trucks and further training.  Plus, I’m pretty sure we’d have introduced Ukraine to the concept of a pallet and forklift if they hadn’t already discovered it on their own.  I still can’t figure out how it continues to elude the Russians.  Ukraine doesn’t need to emulate the American logistic system capable of supplying troops anywhere on the globe, including deployment of some forces (IRF) within 18 hours of notification.  Ukraine just has to get supplies from the Polish border to the front lines.  They don’t need ships.  They don’t need airlift.  They don’t need to supply a force beyond their original borders.  Let’s stop treating them like they’re teenagers when it comes to what they can handle.

We’ve been surprised multiple times now by Ukraine and what NATO is giving it.  I think it’s likely more surprises are on the way.  The US and Ukraine have shown they are rolling out new stuff pretty much as fast as they can be reasonably expected to.  I see absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t continue to do so.  In fact, they tell us they are doing so.  At the very bottom of the Fact Sheet on US aid to Ukraine (this is the total numbers, not just the latest) they have a single sentence: 

The United States also continues to work with its Allies and partners to provide Ukraine with additional capabilities to defend itself.


Post a Comment