US Air Force Discusses Tactics with Ukrainian Air Force as Russian Advance Stalls

U.S. and NATO intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets on NATO’s eastern flank are providing tactical information to the Ukrainian Air Force as new air defense assistance arrives inside Ukraine, though the U.S. is being careful to avoid steps that might be seen as escalatory, a defense official told Air Force Magazine.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III postponed a previously scheduled Minuteman III test in order to prevent possible escalation with Russia. The postponement followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “dangerous and irresponsible” announcement Feb. 27 that he had placed his nuclear forces on special alert, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said March 2.

“We did not take this decision lightly but instead to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power,” Kirby said of the ICBM test delay. “This is not a step backwards in our readiness.”

Russia’s three-pronged military offensive to capture the major population centers of Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Mariupol is stalled due to logistical failures and heavy Ukrainian resistance, a senior defense official told Pentagon journalists March 3.

A 17-mile convoy of Russian military vehicles inching toward the capital from the north has been attacked by Ukrainian forces, DOD confirmed. Russian forces, meanwhile, have made progress in the south where they appear to move closer to the city of Mariupol from two sides, the Sea of Azov and Donbas, an apparent effort to cut off Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine.

The slow advance in the north, Kirby said, is being used by Russia as a tactical “regrouping” as battles rage outside Kharkiv and Kyiv.

“They haven’t, from our best estimates, made any appreciable progress, geographically speaking, in the last 24 to 36 hours,” Kirby said at an afternoon briefing. “We believe the Russians are deliberately actually regrouping themselves and reassessing the progress that they have not made and how to make up the lost time.”

A Change in Tactics

A senior defense official told reporters earlier in the day that Putin had committed 82 percent of the forces that he had amassed on Ukraine’s borders since the fall.

“They remain stalled outside the city center,” the senior defense official said, summing up the lack of Russian progress in taking population centers after the first week of conflict.

The senior official confirmed that fuel and food shortages have ravaged the Russian military, leading to morale problems, including abandoned vehicles, and have prevented Russian forces from reaching city centers. As a result, Russia has increased its missile and artillery barrage of population centers, now targeting civilian infrastructure.

“Clearly, they’re hitting civilian targets. Clearly, they continue to cause civilian harm,” the senior official said while declining to confirm casualty numbers on either side. “At least in the media space, they’re doing it deliberately.”

On March 1, Russia struck a TV tower in Kyiv, limiting Ukrainians access to television channels. However, DOD said Internet access remains intermittent.

The senior official also said the Russian tactic of targeting civilian infrastructure has led to at times indiscriminate and imprecise artillery rocket fire into the cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv while ground troops failed to enter due to stiff resistance.

Russia has also failed to integrate its ground and air combat forces.

“They don’t appear to be integrating their combined arms capabilities to the degree that you would think they would do for an operation of this size and scale and complexity,” the senior official said.

Russia brought to the war in Ukraine combined arms capabilities, including armor, artillery, infantry, special operations, combat aviation, logistics, and sustainment.

“In addition to seeing some logistical and sustainment issues, [and] … a little bit of risk-averse behavior, … we are also seeing that the integration of these elements appears to be lacking,” the senior official said.

Meanwhile, U.S. defense assistance continues to arrive to Ukrainian forces.

“We are going to continue to flow security assistance to the Ukrainians, and we have done that, just even in the last 24 hours,” the official added.

Past defense assistance to Ukraine has included Stinger air defense systems, anti-tank Javelins, and ammunition.

ISR and Air Defense Assistance

“Ukraine needs additional deliveries of weapons, especially for our Air Force, now, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 3.

A defense official who spoke to Air Force Magazine on the condition of anonymity said the U.S. Air Force and NATO are conducting “a lot” of tactical-level discussions with the Ukrainian Air Force.

Earlier in the day, DOD confirmed that the air space over Ukraine remains contested with Ukrainian aircraft and air defenses still viable.

The ISR shared with the Ukrainian Air Force by the United States and NATO includes NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) data and data gathered by AWACS in NATO eastern flank air space as well as by satellites, radar systems, and radio and communications. The data is being used to help the Ukrainian Air Force develop an air picture of what’s flying and where, the official said.

Roughly 25 KC-135 and KC-10 refuelers from the United States, Turkey, and the Netherlands are supporting the effort, the defense official confirmed.

The U.S. Air Force is also sharing sensor data picked up by some 30 American fighter jets, including F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and F 35s, operating on air policing missions on the NATO eastern flank.

“They can see a long way into Ukraine,” the official said.

The United States is not flying over the Black Sea, however, in order to avoid potential escalation with Russia, the official confirmed.

On Feb. 28, the European Union committed to providing $560 million in defense assistance to Ukraine, including transferring the same type of Soviet-era fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots fly. Discussions are underway for the transfer, which includes MiG-29s from Poland and Bulgaria.

The Defense Department is not involved in the fighter jet transfer.

“Our support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces right now is very largely in the form of security assistance, which continues to flow and gets into their hands,” Kirby said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine.

Believed to be at the helm directing the war, Putin has showed no indication he will let up despite international condemnation and strong Ukrainian resistance.

“We know that Mr. Putin wants to topple this government and replace it with his own,” Kirby said. “The Russians have a significant amount of combat power applied in Ukraine, and they still have some significant combat power that they have not engaged in the fight.”