Podcast: Mobilizing Military Aid For The War In Ukraine

In addition to the weapons that NATO is planning to send to Ukraine, in a dramatic role reversal, Russia is appealing to China for help in replenishing its weapons stocks.

Aviation Week editors Jen DiMascio, Steve Trimble and Tony Osborne discuss the flow of materiel on both sides of the wrenching conflict after weeks of fighting.

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Rush transcript

Jen DiMascio:

Hi, and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for defense and space. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the focus has been on what the West could send to Kyiv. It's very much in the news, right as we speak. The Ukrainian president just addressed the U.S. Congress, asking Congress to close the skies, to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine and barring that, send air defense systems.

            Later today, NATO is supposed to take up the issue and discuss sending additional aid to Ukraine. But as the war enters this new phase, U.S. officials are reportedly warning that Russia is also soliciting military aid from a country that's become increasingly friendly to it, and that's China.

            Meanwhile, the long-term implications of this ongoing brutal fighting in Ukraine have started changing the security landscape in Europe and raising new questions about the relevance and the role of long-range, conventional missiles, and even nuclear forces.

            With us today to discuss this are Defense Editor, Steve Trimble, and London Bureau Chief, Tony Osborne. Steve, let's talk a little bit at the outset here about these reports about China. If they're true, what does China have that Russia wants?

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. Thank you. Well, it's a very interesting question. I should start by just saying, I hope this doesn't actually happen, if it's true. Anything that prolongs the war, and this would only do that, is not something I'm particularly keen about at this point, but it's worth going through this.

            This war has changed a lot of things around the world, a lot of things about the security landscape, especially in Europe, but even here. Just the idea where there's the possibility now of a reverse arms flow from China to Russia, where it's always been the reverse. I'm not aware of anytime where Russia has to taken arms shipments or weapon shipments from China. Maybe there's been small things in the past, but nothing of any scale.

            So now we have these reports, there was one report in the Washington Post and another in the Financial Times citing U.S. intelligence officials, or citing U.S. officials quoting intelligence reports, that Russia had requested some form of a security assistance from China. And then there was a follow-up report by the Financial Times saying that China had agreed to some of that assistance. Not a lot of details on what actually would be requested or transferred, but just looking at what China has and what Russia needs in a conflict like this, and perhaps for the long term, there's a few things I thought I could share on that.

            The model is very similar to what Ukraine needs. It's really no good for Russia to take things that are going to take a lot of training and a lot of upfront infrastructure investment to absorb into their force structure. So, a new fighter that isn't in the Russian Air Force inventory isn't really going to help them much in the near term for what they're trying to do.

            In fact, probably things very similar to the things that have proven so effective for Ukraine, would be anti-tank missiles and manned-portable air-defense systems. For China, the anti-tank missile that they've developed on their own is the HJ-10. That's the kind of man-portable (MANPADS) system that can be somewhat easily transferred to the Russian forces and without too much training, without too much logistics and infrastructure support, be able to go into service almost immediately.

            And then of course the FN-6 is there MANPADS, their manned-portable air-defense system. It's similar to our Stinger or to the Russian Strela or Igla. And it's just a small missile with a short-range shoulder-fired system. Russia's biggest worry in Ukraine has not really been Ukrainian aircraft. Now we know from U.S officials that the Ukrainian Air Force still exists and is still active, but they're not attempting to be a decisive force on the battlefield at the moment. They're playing a very supportive role in being used in very particular spots. And presumably with the goal for Ukraine to not lose all of them.

            Along the same lines, with precision-guided munitions, we know that Russia's used a whole bunch of unguided munitions in Ukraine, unfortunately, but they've also used a large amount of guided weapons, which would include their laser guided KAB-500 smart bombs. Russia's ability to replenish and replace those kinds of weapons has been an open question, not just with their production capacity and their productivity within their industrial base, but also just their ability to get the kind of electronics that they need to build those kinds of guided weapons.

            We don't know, really. I'm sure there's some good intelligence assessments on some classified networks about that, but it is certainly at least an open question and worth doubting that Russia could replenish those as fast as they're using them, certainly. So China does have some things to offer there. They're not perfect analogs to the Russian equipment. So there are some reports, some people out there will say that the LT-2, the laser-guided 500-pound bomb that China has, is derived from the KAB-500.

            That's probably incorrect. It was actually probably more of a paved way derived weapon with their own Chinese systems. So that's going to be difficult to immediately integrate on Russian aircraft, not sure how quickly they could do that, but it is possibly an option. Along the same lines of another munition that we know Russia and the Russian Air Force has been using quite a bit in Ukraine is the Kh-31. It's what the U.S Air Force would call the HARM-ski.

            It's a high-speed antiradiation missile that performs the same role as the US Air Force's AGM 88 harm missile. We've known that the Russian air force has used quite a few, several dozen of those missiles in Ukraine. They've been spotted flying with Kh-31s on the wings of SU-35s and other fighters. The Chinese ordered 200 of the KH-31Ps a couple decades ago, and then started reverse engineering it and producing their own version of it, known as the YJ-91.

            Again, not entirely clear how straightforward it would be to reintegrate those on Russian Air Force fighters, even a very similar types. There could be some differences in software and the integration on the aircraft, which sometimes is very important, but it is a possibility. Also, along the same lines of munitions are surface to air missiles. I talked about MANPADS with the FN-6. We know that Russia has lost a lot of mobile ground launched surface air to missile systems, especially Buks, Tors and Panstirs. In a way perhaps good news for Russia is that they allowed China to copy a lot of their surface to air missile systems.

            So the HQ-16 is essentially a Buk interceptor system using a wheeled launch or a Chinese wheeled truck versus a Russian truck vehicle. So that gives them an opportunity to perhaps use the same interceptor with the same launch tube, if they need to transfer that. And then the HQ-17, in China is a reverse engineered version of the Tor. And that's being phased out right now in China as the HQ-29 surface to air missile system goes from development into operational service. So there may be some surplus capacity there.

            And finally, they have the HQ-9, which is essentially a copy of the S-300 surface to air missile system. I'm not sure how many of those types of interceptors that Russia has used. Again, there's not a whole lot of activity by the Ukrainian air force, but those HQ-9s include the Chinese versions of the 9M96 and the 48N6 interceptors, which may be used. And finally, I'd say on aircraft themselves, the Russians could probably use some new Su-25 Frogfoots and some new Su-34s. They've been taking quite a beating so far. In the war so far, they've lost a lot of those, but China doesn't really have anything quite like it.

            So the KJ really is China's closest comparison perhaps to the Frogfoot. And that just is not something Russia could integrate quickly. And along with the Su-34, there's nothing. On the other hand, I mean, we've seen a lot of Mi-8s go down, the helicopters. Russia used up a lot of those and lost several of those in this conflict already. There is some good news there for Russia in terms of China as a potential supplier there, because they got a whole bunch.

            They started license producing Mi-171s, which is the export version of the Mi-8. And so they have production capacity and they also have their own stock of Mi-17 helicopters. There are some reports that they're phasing those out and replacing them with Z-20 helicopters, which is their version of the U.S. Black Hawk. So again, they may have some surplus capacity there as well, but we'll see how that goes. We'll see how far China is willing to support this and to engage with Russia on this request. Those are a lot of the options, at least on the aerospace side.

Jen DiMascio:

Tony, did you want to weigh in there on the helicopters?

Tony Osborne:

Less so on the helicopters, one suggestion I guess, could be that maybe Russia would like some Chinese drones given that Russia has been pretty unsuccessful in developing its own long endurance platforms. I wonder what Steve thoughts were on, perhaps could the acquisition of drones be higher up on the list of Russia's wish list?

Steve Trimble:

Well, that's interesting question. Certainly Russia's use or lack thereof, of especially their medium altitude drones, because they had the Orion and the Inokhodets, which is the latest version of the Orion. They use that in Syria. We've only seen it pop up once in a Russian Ministry of Defense propaganda video about the Ukraine war and no other sightings, no other shoot down sightings or anything like that. So not sure what's going on there.

            I do think even if they had them, I'm not sure if they're really that interested in using them. But the other thing that I do wonder about, I should have mentioned is loitering munitions. China has got quite a few of those, several different types. That's something we do know Russia started using, especially in the second and third weeks of the war. We've seen the debris of loitering munitions scattered about different parts of Ukraine. Those are the ones that crashed. There's probably quite a few more that didn't crash or serve their purpose and actually blew up when they were supposed to. And I think loitering munitions for sure would be part of something a Russian might be interested in.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, Steve, if China even agrees to provide weaponry to Russia, how would they get those systems to Russia? And how would Russia be able to integrate them into their force? I mean, it seems like a lot of these are copies of Russian systems, so maybe it's not too difficult.

Steve Trimble:

Yeah, sure, exactly. So there is the logistical part of it. And how do you integrate these into your force structure? How do you get your training set up? Your supply chain and your sustainment pipeline set up? There's that part of it, but then there's also just the question of how do you transport them. Easy way to do it is just pick up a bunch of... Fly in some IL-76s from Russia, they're big transport, they're sort of C-17 comparable aircraft load them up and fly them back. We haven't seen them do that. On the other side of that, Russia has sent a lot of major weapons shipments to China, they've done it by ship. In fact, there was one particular case that we became aware of a few years ago when it turned out that when they exported the S-400, they took it by ship out of St. Petersburg.

            And then that ship got hit by a storm, as it was approaching Guernsey Island and the English Channel. And the storm actually damaged the 40N6 interceptors, which is the 40N6 is one of three intercepts in the S-400, but is the one that makes it the S-400, it's the 400 kilometer anti-radiation missile, probably the world's most powerful long-range interceptor for air defense. And so the ship actually had to go back to St. Petersburg and they had to build new ones for China and to bring it back. But if that shipping route, which in this, I mean, it would be a lot cheaper to do it. There may be some more urgency to it so that there will willing to pay the extra cost of actually flying an aircraft and bringing them back by air.

            But the shipping route would be interesting because it would probably be necessary to take them around Africa and bring them up through the Baltic Sea, where they could be intercepted by NATO coast guard or NATO Navy vessels, which is very interesting potential development in the future, possibly for these kinds of weapon shipments. The other alternative is by land, of course, it's a long train ride from, say a ship or if there's some overland transport point by rail, perhaps from China through Manchuria into Russia where I could link up with the Trans-Siberian rail line and take it that way west to the Ukrainian border if possible. They haven't used that. We've seen in the past for weapon shipments, but it's possible they could use it from going from Russia to China, but maybe it could work in the reverse in this case. So those are some of the options, but it really makes you start thinking, especially on that sea-based route, what they might do and what options NATO might have to kind of stop that.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, speaking of NATO, they are about to meet later today, Tony what is the latest, what are they going to be discussing?

Tony Osborne:

The more of a response really to what they can do to provide Ukraine with what President Zelensky wants, which is sort of more anti-tank weapons, more air defense systems. And so on. Certainly the early suggestions, hint that NATO may be willing to supply more capable ground based air defense systems, sort of Soviet era systems that at the Ukraine are familiar with. So some of the suggestions put out there are SA-OSs, SA-10s and SA-14s, but they're sort of more advanced MANPADS. So SA-8. So radar guided wheeled truck mounted short range system SA-10 of courses the famous S-300, which is a sort of medium to long range system that is actually still in service with some NATO nations. So I think once again, we might be sort of approaching what was proposed with Poland and some of the other NATO countries when it came to perhaps handing Warsaw Pact era fighter jets, such as the mid 29 or the Su-25 Frogfoot instead go in NATO countries to hand over their Soviet era air defense systems to Ukraine, and perhaps replacing those with Western equipment.

            We know for a fact that several nations, notably Finland and Czech Republic should, of course, Finland not being a NATO country, but Czech public for example, is getting rid of SA-6 systems. So there is a move across NATO to get rid of the Soviet era defense systems. And maybe some of those will be the subject of this transfer to Ukraine.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, the war Ukraine's now entering its fourth week, and there really aren't any signs of a let up in the bombings. If anything, things are getting more intense there. What do we know about how the war could change Europe?

Tony Osborne:

That's a really good question. And we've certainly saw sort of comments from the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen in the first days of the conflict where NATO's viewpoint on Russia had transformed in faster in six days that had done in the past, sort of eight years since Russia invaded the Crimea. Here, there's going to be some big steps. I mean, we've already seen Germany making big headlines about massive defense spending that is going to be followed through by numerous other nations. We've already seen Poland taking steps towards a three percent GDP spend on defense. Denmark is pushing 2%. It's a country that had never previously intended to do that. The Baltic states are putting more on. France has indicated that it will spend more. And of course these are nations France, the UK, Germany, they all sort of started looking towards the issues in the East to Russia. Sorry, to China being more of a threat to the world.

            And they had sort of planned an Asia Pacific pivot. Of course, that pivot is now almost certainly going to start looking back to towards Russia. And I think you hinted a few things earlier about, it's a sort of deterrence effect of nuclear weapons, such as Trident systems as operated by the UK and France with its submarine ballistic missile systems, still an effective deterrent. When Russia can literally plant a hundred thousand troops on the border of Ukraine and they invade without us really being able to do anything against another nuclear power. So I think there's going to be a lot of questions about how are doctrines across Europe, the doctrines, the spending, and so on is going to evolve as a result of this conflict. I think we're still in the early stages of seeing that there's going to be an awful lot of white papers, an awful lot of studies in the aftermath of this, but of course the aftermath of this might take some time to come about.

Steve Trimble:

But I'd love to chime in there too, because I was kind of a child of the Cold War. I grew up a lot in Europe with my dad in US Air Force on European Air Force bases. And the closest thing I can remember to anything like this was what happened in the late 1970s when Russia, I'm sorry. I say the Soviet Union deployed SS20s and ground launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, SS20s were the nuclear ballistic missiles, short range, medium range ballistic missiles with mobile launchers and that scared Europe so much or alarmed them that they agreed to allow the US to base... Basically reciprocal systems, the armies pushing to, and Griffin ground launched cruise missiles.

            And my dad, I was part of that Griffin cruise missile deployment. One of the four bases in Europe that had those, and those were nuclear missiles, which is a whole nuclear short-range missiles with very short response times. Ten-minute flight times to Moscow from where we were. A very scary time, but Europe stood firm, NATO stood firm, and it forced them to sign the INF Treaty.

            It forced Soviet to sign the INF Treaty and US which of course is now defunct since a few years ago. This has galvanized Europe in a way that, I mean, it goes beyond even that, from what we've seen with Germany, especially so far. Not just what they're doing, but just their entire mindset on this and the sort of recognition in the populations that this time Putin has gone too far, and they understand now what they need to do. And it's very clear in the polling where the populations in Europe stand. It's just an amazing thing to see. So as you look forward, as the INF Treaty lapsed, there was a lot of questions about why are we letting this happen because sure, Russia's may have these non-compliant missiles that they've deployed in Kaliningrad, for example, but where in the world could the United States base its missiles?

            These are medium range, intermediate range systems. And I'm talking about precision strike missile that's in development by Lockheed Martin, the mid-range capability that the army is developing, which is basically a ground launch version of the Tomahawk cruise missile, as well as a land-based version of the SM-6 for anti-ship applications. So the question was, where are we going to put those? Because the idea was, in 2019, 2020, even just a few months ago, that there was no way you were going to put those in Europe. There was no way, even in some parts of Asia. It was still a big question whether or not even in Asia, you could get a host nation to agree to base those missiles on its soil. And I think that whole conversation that discussion has changed now, especially in Western Europe, you could actually see quite a few opportunities now to base the precision strike missile, maybe even the long-range hypersonic weapon for the army, and even the mid-range capability, at least the cruise missile part of it, and several different countries.

            It could be Poland, could be Romania, could even be Germany. That hasn't happened yet. And it doesn't need to because those weapons are still in development and won't be ready to deploy for a year or two anyway, but that is coming down the line. And I think this whole event, this whole process. It really reminds me of what happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And you can sort of see the next step in that process. The other thing, as Tony mentioned, the nuclear deterrent, I think, is going to be a very interesting conversation now in Europe. It was just a few months ago where, I mean, there was leading members of the German political coalition that's ruling. Now that was talking about getting rid of what is kind of left of their nuclear deterrent, which is just maybe a couple dozen, probably less, the number is classified, but there's a US government owned B-61 nuclear bombs that would be delivered by German Tornado fighters right now in Germany.

            And just in November, they were leading politicians in Germany saying, "Let's get rid of all of, we don't want anything to do with this. We want to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and just get rid of this." And that I think is going to be revisited. I don't know if that means that Germany will start developing its own nuclear deterrent, but I think the B-61s in Germany are there to stay, perhaps I'm mean that's something I'd want to look at first. And then whether or not Germany might be interested in cost sharing. That'd be a question if I could talk to the German ministry of defense, cost sharing with France and Britain on their nuclear deterrent, especially as those start to get modernized and there's several different programs.

            And each of those Tony mentioned Trident, France is also working on a hypersonic cruise missile with a nuclear warhead and even actually a hypersonic glide vehicle with a nuclear war... Possibly with a nuclear warhead. And so perhaps Germany could participate in that way, but still early days for that, but as you see they start to play out, you start thinking about the long term consequences. That's sort of where you're going with this. I don't expect other countries in Europe to be that interested in investing in a nuclear deterrent, but certainly Germany with what it has today and where it could go. I think there could be some real changes there.

Jen DiMascio:

Tony, did you have something to add there?

Tony Osborne:

Just a small clarification, really. I mean, to the coalition government of Germany, when it was elected in September, it obviously took them some time to form a government, but they did commit to continuing the nuclear sharing mission. And so with the B-61. So the so that's, and of course we've just seen that nuclear sharing mission will be continued by the purchase of the F-35, which German ministers announced this week would be happening as opposed to the Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet. I think all those nations will continue to commit to that nuclear sharing mission.

            You got Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany. I think Turkey's possibly still involved in that through the basing of weapons. I think all those nations having seen what's going on will probably continue to commit to that probably more and more or less because of it gives them a seat at the top table of decision making within NATO and also United nations. They'll want to hold onto that. That's going to be a pretty purposeful mission. The big question will be, as I think Steve so alluded to is whether these hugely expensive projects such as Trident and France SLBM and maybe even sort of the nuclear trial in the states. Do we sort of rethink some of that? Do we sort of start thinking maybe going down again, the tactical nuclear weapons, rather than strategic nuclear weapons, just because of this Russian approach and what they've done.

Jen DiMascio:

I think that's a very interesting example that you shared Steve about the 1970s, and you wonder if some of these moves that Europe is making, that the United States is making might have a role in bringing this to an end sooner rather than later.

Steve Trimble:

Well, and to amplify on that, I mean, the most amazing thing that I think has happened, really probably in the 70 year history of Alliance is that this time Europe is taking the lead. I mean, arguably you could say that perhaps not with troop deployments and forward basing, but certainly with taking the leading role in sanctions, which has been the primary economic weapon wielded by the West and NATO so far. They are just so much more, Europe is so much more exposed to oil and gas sanctions and even Russian oligarch spending habits than we in America are. And so to actually see them take that lead in this way is a remarkable thing. It's something I'm not sure I ever expected to ever happen, and I'm still sort of grappling with how fast and how dramatic things have changed just in the last few weeks. But just to throw that out there.

Jen DiMascio:

Tony, I'll give you the final word.

Tony Osborne:

It's interesting. Yeah. I mean, Steve mentioned sanctions. When the nations were discussing sanctions, there's obviously an impact that the sanctions don't just hurt Russia. They also hurt us. Obviously there's a lot of Russian money in the economies, but also sort of trade and so on is all impacted by all this. And plus certainly here in the UK, we are already feeling things like oil prices skyrocketing, and it means that the UK government is now having to sort of go to the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, and essentially plead with the government there to start pumping oil and sort of try and get the oil prices down because of the wide to impacts on the sort of quality of life here in Europe.

            That's not to say that obviously everyone acknowledges what's going on in Ukraine, but there is a wider aspect to the sanctions that have a direct impact on life here in Europe and the pinch is being felt here too, because of this, but it's absolutely essentially these sanctions are absolutely critical to trying to cut down on Putin's ability to wage this conflict. And there's no sign of them yet having a direct effect on his warfighting ability, but I'm vaguely optimistic that some of that will kick in soon.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, unfortunately we have to leave it there. Join us again next week for another episode of Check 6. And until then we were just talking about sanctions, but check out Aviation Week's MRO Podcast covering the aftermarket and the BCA Podcast on Business Aviation. Both have released episodes this week covering the implications of Russian sanctions on those particular markets too. And you can find those podcasts wherever you're listening to this one. If you're listening in Apple Podcasts, take a look at the Aviation Week Network channel where you see all of our podcasts. Bye for now. And thanks for listening.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.