KYIV, Ukraine – Ihor’s comrades were eager to show us something special. A cone, the remnants of a Russian X-101 missile that didn’t make it to its final destination. The 23-year-old clean-shaven specialist grinned slightly, on his shoulder a soviet era Man-portable air-defense system (MANPAD). Ihor is the 1st Presidential Brigade MANPAD specialist.
After months of training, he was called in December for his first combat mission around Kyiv. When alerts sounded, indicating that a Russian missile or drone was inbound, his squad rushed into position.
When he spotted the missile in flight, Ihor fired the first shot he would ever fire in combat. There was a loud sizzle of a round leaving the MANPAD, followed by cheers from his fellow guardians of the sky.
“At first, I didn’t understand anything, then I realized that this is my first rocket hit, and I was very happy.” He told us through an interpreter.
Ukrainian air defense members watch the skies to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks. (Fox News)
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That X-101 is a personal trophy to him, but it also serves as a reminder to the squad of how important every little shot can be to preventing destruction of infrastructure, to protecting civilian lives. The Brigade has operated since 2014 when bitterness between Russian and Ukrainian loyalists boiled over to a civil conflict in the Donbas region.
Since the beginning of Russia’s full scale invasion, they’ve operated around Kyiv, taking part in the defense of city in the early days of the battles of Irpin, Bucha and Moschun. Under the command of the National Guard of Ukraine, they are on shift at all times, ready to jump into action as soon as the air raid sirens sound. They use a mix of Soviet and Western-provided technology, including Javelins, Stingers and MLAWS.
Mykhailo, is a gunner for the brigade. Originally from Luhansk, he has been a guardsman since 2014 and operates the ZU-23 barreled auto-cannon, a soviet era anti-air gun. The big gun is jury-rigged on the back of a flatbed truck. Mobility is an absolute necessity when they try to intercept the path of inbound warheads that can come from any direction.
“Currently, this weapon is effective for shooting down shaheeds, kamikaze drones. UAV kamikaze Shaheeds.” But there are limits, he told us. The old weapon will not be effective against helicopters or other Russian aircraft that don’t fly close enough to be in range of the old Soviet gun. “These are outdated weapons, and we need something more modern and more technological”
A member of the Ukrainian force dedicated to defending the country’s skies from Russian attacks. (Fox News)
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To call the weapons “outdated” may only be scratching the surface. The ZU-23 he operates was made in the 1960s, and the MANPAD that Ihor uses is almost three times his age.
Leaked documents earlier this week from the Pentagon indicated that in late February, the Ukrainian air defense systems were set to begin running out by Mid-May. Ukraine relies heavily on these Soviet-era guns in their arsenal, and without them Russia would have an advantage on Ukrainian frontline positions and civilian targets
“The number of means that arrived from the West is not sufficient, and the number of rockets is certainly not sufficient. That is why we emphasize today that we need the missiles and air defense systems themselves, in order to replace the Soviet-made air defense systems,” Said Col Yuriy Ignat, a spokesperson with the Ukraine Air Command “After all, [if] these systems are destroyed and fail, we do not have spare parts, because all this equipment is produced in Russia, just like missiles. Therefore, the only way out for us is the transition to NATO standards and weapons samples.”
The U.S. has, since the end of February, seemed to recognize this weakness. The Biden administration last week authorized $2.6 billion in military assistance, which included air-defense munitions and systems such as National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), three air surveillance radars and 30mm and 23mm anti-aircraft ammunition. Ukrainian troops have also completed training on the PATRIOT Missile Battery earlier this year.
A member of Ukraine’s 1st Presidential Brigade looking to the sky. (Fox News)
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But Ukraine has still not received any indication as to whether it will be provided with the prized goal of Western combat aircraft like the F-16, which would be a significant upgrade over their Mig-29 fighters. One Ukrainian combat pilot who spoke with Fox News with the call sign “Moon Fish” says the Mig-29s are just a stopgap.
“We are running low on the spare parts, on the armament, on the missiles. And overall, yes, it is a great boost. It is a great possibility to fill the gaps filled with fuel, fill up, from the losses. Together with that, It does not provide us with any sort of new capabilities that we desire.”
Despite old equipment, the 1st Presidential Brigade does not lack a sense of purpose. They know when the attack is launched, the mobile air defense volunteers are all that stands between a deadly inbound warhead and the people of Ukraine. “It all depends on the gunner,” says Mikhailo.
Bohdan Glushko contributed to this report.