An Alternative to a “No Fly Zone” Over Ukraine: A Fluid, Airborne Minefield
By Chuck de Caro
Given the US and NATO reluctance to establish a No-Fly Zone or to overtly provide surplus Polish Migs-29 to the Ukrainians, the United States might want to reconsider the entire concept of a “No Fly Zone,” an air exclusion zone over a defined area through which hostile aircraft will be intercepted and destroyed.
In the recent past, over Iraq for example, this meant lots of USAF and coalition jets and their pilots trying creating air dominance over large sections of that country.
Attempting to create air dominance over Ukraine in the face of belligerent Vladimir Putin and his very large, well-equipped air force would certainly lead to escalation of the worst kind. This is especially true of the contemporary Putin, who would see it as a gigantic dare which he would immediately take.
What is really needed in Ukraine is local air superiority over specific zones at specific times, an economy of force evolution much like laying land mines to canalize enemy ground forces. Why not create a fluid “flying minefield” to canalize enemy air forces?
It would be possible to re-purpose the MQ-9 REAPER UAV fleet into a “Flying Minefield” to attrit the Russian Air Force. in lieu of establishing a No-Fly Zone.
Due to time constraints, it is imperative to use operational Reapers rather than bone-yard Predators for this mission; as USAF Air Combat Command seems to be
“unhappy” with the Reapers, this should be a rather painless method for eroding Russian air dominance.
Given the shock effect needed upon the Russian force as a whole, it is imperative to sell the whole fleet of MQ-9s to Ukraine, paint them with Ukrainian markings and transport them by ground across the border.
Meanwhile USAF UAV satellite control stations should be leased to the Ukrainians, then moved from Nellis AFB to a friendly non-NATO country in the northern hemisphere. Contractor personnel would be hired to train Ukrainian operators to actually fly the missions. Only US civilian contractor personnel will be on the ground in Ukraine training Ukrainians to support the aircraft.
Next, downsize the old USMC Short Airfield for Tactical Support (SATS) with launchers and arresting gear and adapt them for Reaper operations. The little airstrips can then be emplaced and re-emplaced at frequent intervals in Ukraine to keep from being targeted by Russian bombing.
Alternately, appropriate roadways can be used, with or without the launch and recovery gear.
Strip the Reapers of any advanced sensors leaving just the Electro Optical camera ball, and arm each of the Reapers with 12 Stinger missiles.
Launch flights of four Reapers flying in wide, line-abreast “combat spread.” The breadth of the formation will be set as to optimize the hemispherical Stinger kill zone in front of the Reapers.
The UAVs will fly at low altitude (but above light anti-aircraft fire) and at low air speed to take advantage of radar ground clutter and the “digital notch” so that Russian moving target indicator (MTI) radars will have a hard time seeing them.
Meanwhile, flying over friendly territory, USAF and NATO E-3 AWACS aircraft are watching for Bogies flying across the Ukrainian border. The bogey data can then be satellited to the UAV control station and the Ukrainians can maneuver their flight of lumbering Reapers as if they were a WWII U-boat wolf pack using rudeltaktik:
Fly the Reapers in the general direction of the enemy, plodding along until the hostile aircraft are in range. Then ripple launch all missiles in a volley.
Russian aircraft must then dodge a wave of 48 heat-seeking missiles, at close range, with no prior intelligence as to the missiles point of origin, no radar warning receiver (RWR) alert tone, and not nearly enough IR decoy flares.
The advantages of this “flying minefield” are:
1.) No direct US or NATO aircraft involvement over the combat zone.
2.) Local and temporary zones in which Russian air superiority will be eroded.
3.) No US military personnel on the ground, just a handful of contractors.
4.) SATS strips make targeting difficult for the Russians.
5.) Flying Minefields make the Russians’ planning and logistics problems worse.
6.) Russian laying siege on Ukrainian cities will have to be diverted against the Reapers.
The beauty of a flying minefield is that all the parts are off-the-shelf and can be deployed quickly without the effect of challenging the Russians to defeat an in-your-face NATO no fly zone.