As the United States and NATO last month began to publicly acknowledge the sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft systems moving into rebel held areas of eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev asked for gear that might be used to counter those weapons.
According to a former senior U.S. defense official who has worked closely with Ukraine’s military and a former head of state who has consulted with the government there, Kiev last month requested the radar jamming and detection equipment necessary to evade and counter the anti-aircraft systems Moscow was providing the country’s separatists.
Those anti-aircraft systems were almost certainly used to shoot down MH17, the Malaysian air passenger jet shot out of the sky last Thursday. U.S. officials have pointed the finger at Russia for providing that equipment, though no final assessment has been made of culpability for the incident.
Philip Karber, a former strategy adviser to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, has conducted detailed assessments of the country’s military since the crisis began this year. Karber returned from the Ukrainian front earlier this month. He told The Daily Beast, “I was told in June by the Ukrainians that one of their top five priorities that they had conveyed to the United States and NATO that month was to get help in electronic warfare,” which gives a military the ability to detect, spoof and jam the radars of enemy anti-aircraft missile batteries.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of the Republic of Georgia, also said that in his meetings this month with Ukraine’s leadership he was told by the country’s national security adviser, Andriy Parubiy, that Ukraine had requested technology to detect anti-aircraft systems. Saakashvili was Georgia’s president when Russia invaded two Georgian republics—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—in 2008 and has offered his views to Ukraine as they face a similar crisis today. “He told me they desperately needed electronic warfare capabilities from the Americans,” Saakashvili told The Daily Beast.
Some senior U.S. officials asked about the Ukrainian request by The Daily Beast said they were not aware of it. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Daily Beast, “The Ukrainian government has requested support, but we’re not going to detail the types of support they have requested.”
Ukraine’s request is particularly important because Western electronic warfare technology could protect its planes from Russian anti-aircraft systems. Ukraine’s current equipment is old and out of date.
“They have some jamming capabilities now, but it’s all compatible with Russian systems. That means the Russians know exactly what they can do and therefore they can use alternative frequencies and do other things to offset it,” Karber said.
Karber and other experts interviewed by The Daily Beast said that even if the White House had agreed immediately to send Kiev specialized planes or ground based jammers and radar detection systems, the equipment would not have arrived in time to protect MH17 or the other Ukrainian aircraft that rebels appear to have shot down since March.
A Ukrainian government timeline seen by The Daily Beast lists 21 incidents when separatists have fired on its aircraft in the sky since March. Ten of those incidents included the mobile rocket launch system known as the man-portable air defense sytsem or MANPAD.
U.S. officials have said the MH17 was brought down by a more sophisticated system known by NATO as the SA-11. The SA-11 system that brought down MH17 was operating alone, without the support of additional radar systems, three senior U.S. intelligence officials told reporters Tuesday. Typically, such a system would be used as part of a networked grid of radars, but the separatists using the system were using only the radar they had attached to their unit, these officials said.
The limited range and detail capabilities of the radar on the SA-11 operated by the separatists contributed to the mistaken identification of the commercial airliner as a military cargo place, the officials said. The Russians gave the separatists the weapon but not the support system to use it properly.
“In theory, the United States could have given the Ukrainians some of our excess electronic warfare aircraft which would have been able to detect the radars of this missile system,” Karber said. “However, realistically this was not perceived to be a high-priority issue for the West at the time and it would have also taken time and training to get them up to speed on this.”
Nonetheless, the request illustrates how cautious the United States has been to enter Ukraine’s war with Russia and the separatist militias Moscow has lavished with support.
One U.S. defense official who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity said any Ukrainian request for jammers and other electronic warfare technology would be met with some skepticism. “These are highly sensitive systems, we don’t trust Ukrainian military folks on this,” this official said. (The Ukrainian military is believed to be thoroughly penetrated by Russian intelligence.)
Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the United States has been reluctant to send them sensitive military technology.
The Daily Beast obtained this week a list of equipment Ukraine requested in April that included encrypted communications gear, mine-detection vehicles, and night-vision equipment—some of which has arrived only in recent weeks.
In May, The Daily Beast reported that it took months for the United States to even send the most rudimentary gear to Ukraine like boots, uniforms, and spare tires.
In June, the Pentagon said it would be sending small teams to Ukraine to assess the military’s medium- and long-term needs. It has also stepped up some assistance, sending Ukraine non-lethal items like concertina wire, flashlights, binoculars and sleeping bags.
Rep. Michael Turner, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees U.S. tactical air and land forces, told The Daily Beast on Sunday, “The administration has been very slow to react, both in terms of sharing information with Ukraine about what the Russians are doing, giving them technical advice on how to respond, and equipment necessary to counter what they are facing with the pro-Russian separatists.”
But after the shoot-down of MH17, the White House may begin to look at sending more sophisticated equipment to Ukraine. Karber said there were a few options available to the administration to improve Ukraine’s ability to jam and detect the anti-aircraft systems used by the country’s separatist militias.
For example, the American military has older equipment in its arsenal—aircraft due to be phased out of service—that could provide at least some warning of a surface-to-air missile being fired.
“We could remove the most sensitive material to give them a surveillance aircraft that would allow them to see the entire combat zone and would be able to detect when radars come on to either jam them or to warn other aircraft they could be targeted,” he said.
—with additional reporting by Josh Rogin