KYIV, Ukraine — Emotional compartmentalization is among the fighter pilot’s most essential skills. Especially in wartime, when there is little time to reflect on one’s mortality, or to honor the dead. Apart from their fears and sorrows, however, there is another emotion, unique to war, which Ukrainian fighter pilots must now also control each time they fly.
It is their rage, provoked by the Russian pilots who continue to bomb and murder Ukrainian civilians.
“Sometimes you respect your opponent, but not in this case,” a 29-year-old Ukrainian air force MiG-29 pilot, who goes by the call sign “Juice,” said about his enemies. “They’re crazy. They’re not human. It’s a sin for all your life to kill people like this. It’s absolutely stupid and immoral, and I can’t imagine how they will live with this through the years … and their families, too.”
After a pause, Juice added: “But as professionals, we should keep calm and keep our minds cold.”
The New Experts
Prior to Russia’s full-scale war, many military experts anticipated that Russian air power would swiftly overwhelm the Ukrainian air force and achieve air superiority over all of Ukraine’s skies. One month into the full-scale war, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the Ukrainian air force remains in the fight thanks to the creativity, guts, and talent of its pilots and ground personnel. Russia has achieved true air superiority over only limited pockets of airspace in southern and eastern Ukraine. Over the vast majority of the country, the skies remain contested and Ukrainian fighter pilots continue to fly daily combat missions.
“The Russians thought it would just be a walk in the park. They were absolutely not ready for resistance,” Juice said. “They have a lot of losses, too. They’re still afraid to fly higher and to feel comfortable in our sky.”
During a video call interview conducted from an undisclosed air base in Ukraine, Juice discussed his wartime experiences with Coffee or Die Magazine. Due to security concerns, he asked that his full name not be published. Sporting a full beard and long, unkempt hair, Juice spoke fluent and idiomatic English and was quick to crack a joke. When a missile alert was sounded during the interview, Juice simply laughed and said, “I don’t give a fuck,” before carrying on with his train of thought.
While on 24/7 quick reaction alert, or QRA, Juice alternates 24-hour time blocks with a fellow MiG-29 “Fulcrum” pilot, trading spots as either No. 1 or No. 2 — meaning he’s either at the plate or on deck, always ready for “intercepting targets.” That arrangement is shared by the other pilots in his squadron. There is no true day off.
“We sleep just near the radio,” Juice said. “The farthest location I can go is to the WC [bathroom].”
The pace of wartime flight operations is grueling. Juice said he flies a combat sortie “almost every day, sometimes twice a day, during daytime and at night.” Preflight briefings and careful ground checks, staples of a fighter pilot’s peacetime ground operations routine, are pushed aside by the necessity to simply get in the air and into the fight as fast as possible.
Juice’s MiG-29 unit has a specific area of responsibility within which they fly. If Ukrainian ground-based radar units detect an immediate air threat, they scramble jets to intercept. At other times, the MiG-29s launch on combat air patrol missions to demonstrate their presence and “hold the line.” One month into the full-scale war, Ukrainian fighters and air defenses continue to deter Russian warplanes from entering Ukraine’s contested airspace.
“Sometimes it’s just a patrol, sometimes it’s an immediate interception,” Juice said. “The combat air patrol mission is very important, just to show our presence here and push the Russians farther from our peaceful regions. We are trying to hold the line here, but it’s very difficult.”
As of this article’s publication, many of the tactics and techniques employed by the Ukrainian air force to achieve their remarkable results remain classified. However, according to what this correspondent has learned — much of which cannot yet be published — it is clear that the Ukrainians have reset the bar on a wide range of established air combat doctrine and dogma.
“The Ukrainians are defining modern warfare,” said Jersey, a retired F-15C pilot who flew training missions with the Ukrainian air force as a member of the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, which has worked with Ukraine since 1993. Jersey, who began working with the Ukrainian air force in 2013, asked to be referred to by his call sign for this article.
“Whatever ideas, assumptions, and tactics we believed were set in stone were done so by a nation that has not faced a peer threat for a very long time,” Jersey told Coffee or Die. “Let me be clear, we trained the Ukrainian pilots as the experts, but there is no substitute for aerial combat. They are the experts now.”
The story of the Ukrainian air force, once fully told, will undoubtedly influence the thinking of air power theorists and combat aviators for generations to come. Above all, in this age of advancing technologies, Ukraine’s fighter pilots have clearly demonstrated the enduring importance of the human element in aerial warfare.
“Maybe it’s stupid, but we don’t give a shit about technologies — we’re just trying to do everything with what we’ve got,” Juice said. “It’s our land, it’s our families, it’s our cities. We are defending them. That’s the main motivation for us. And we succeed in this, because the Russians are surprised. They are fucking surprised. Especially about our ground air defenses, and also about our fighters. Because they were not expecting resistance in the air at all.”
“There is no motivation that compares to defending your home and family. It surpasses technology and numbers,” Jersey said. “Additionally, the Ukrainians are choosing the time and the place of their engagements. Invading Russian aircraft have to be effective at all times, but the glorious defenders have to be effective only when they decide to be.”
In contrast, the Russian air force appears to have been complacent after years of flying in the uncontested airspace over Syria. And that complacency likely contributed to their underestimation of Ukraine’s air force.
“Syria was just a training range for them,” Juice said. “They were working at high altitudes or medium altitudes without real resistance. [In Ukraine] they were prepared for typical missions in good weather conditions and with total dominance of all technologies, like GPS systems and electronic warfare systems. But here in Ukraine, there is an absolutely different situation. We use much more advanced systems than in Syria. And it’s a problem for the Russians to conduct their missions here. Even with the clouds, even with the bad weather. It’s a problem for them.”
For their part, the Russians also appear to be sending their warplanes head on into Ukraine’s air defenses — effectively sacrificing their pilots as Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles are steadily exhausted.
“The Russians are fucking crazy. They don’t count the lives of their pilots,” Juice said. “They’re sending and sending jets across the border. They know about our MANPADS, they know about our Buks and our S-300s [anti-aircraft systems], but they’re still sending jets and helicopters to our border, to the front line.”
MacGyvers of the Sky
Creativity is one key pillar of the Ukrainians’ air war. For example, after the Russians destroyed many of the Ukrainians’ ground-based navigation aids, the Ukrainian pilots improvised ad hoc solutions to navigate their aircraft. When it comes to Russian air defenses, the Ukrainians simply fly “lower and faster,” Juice said, underscoring another key attribute of the Ukrainian air force — the courage to take extreme risks.
“It’s very difficult to fly low levels at night without night vision, without GPS, with obstacles,” Juice said. “We are more flexible than the Russians. Since 2014, we are trained for not typical missions. We are trained to do some crazy shit. We are ready to be deployed on absolutely not operational airfields. We can do everything.”
A native of eastern Ukraine, Juice is unmarried and has no children. Without sugarcoating the air war’s emotional strain, he demonstrates a jocular attitude toward the lethal dangers he faces. While explaining that his beard doesn’t interfere with his oxygen mask forming a tight seal around his face, Juice joked that the beard is “some tactical shit,” which will allow him to blend in with Ukrainian special operators if he has to be rescued after an ejection.
To the uninitiated, Juice’s upbeat, even cavalier demeanor may seem incongruous with the daily dangers he faces. The truth is, however, that humor is a purposeful defense against the astronomical levels of stress that combat pilots face in wartime. The joking, the cool demeanor, the compartmentalization, the sterile vocabulary — it’s all part of a well-honed fighter pilot culture, which ingrains the mental resilience needed to survive.
“All of us are ready to fight. Even with our losses, we are still doing our job in this real combat mood, real fighter mood, with crazy jokes,” Juice said. “We have great morale. But it’s also limited, because we don’t want to die. And for the guys with families … it’s way harder for them.”
While speaking with Juice, even through the remove of a computer screen, it’s hard to overlook the many burdens weighing on this young man’s shoulders. He refers to air combat against technologically superior and more numerous Russian jets as a “one-way ticket.” He laments the loss of his fellow fighter pilots but does not dwell on the dead — there will be time to honor their memory after the war is won, he said. Apart from the mortal threats he faces, Juice is also responsible, each time he flies, for the safe care of one of his country’s limited number of fighter jets — an especially precious commodity the longer the war drags on and takes its steady toll.
“We still have this air war, and we still need more hardware, and more advanced stuff, to be successful,” Juice said. “I don’t want a one-way ticket, I want to kill somebody, not just be killed. That’s the main point. We are ready to be killed. We are ready, but we don’t want. We want to be effective. That’s why we need the tools.”
“We are ready to be killed. We are ready, but we don’t want. We want to be effective. That’s why we need the tools.”
Despite Russia’s advantages in technology and numbers, the Ukrainian air war has, in effect, become one of attrition. At this point, therefore, the Ukrainians’ top priorities are finding ways to replenish their stocks of expended anti-aircraft missiles and downed warplanes.
“I can’t estimate how many days, how many weeks we can hold the line in the air,” Juice said. “Surface-to-air missile systems and new jets are our priorities, to shore up our losses and maintain our air policing and to push away Russian jets. We can break it up into two stages. The first, easiest, and quickest stage is for Ukraine to receive old Soviet stuff, like MiGs, S-300s, Buks, [9K33 Osa surface-to-air missile systems], and other systems.”
“At the same time,” Juice added, “we need to start, as soon as possible, a second stage of delivering more advanced, Western systems — including US fighter jets. Both stages are essential for us to gain air superiority.”
To date, Ukrainian ground-based air defenses have been “pretty successful with a lot of kills,” Juice said. Even so, Russian anti-radar missiles — the Kh-31P, in particular, which is launched by Su-35 fighters — are taking a toll on Ukraine’s limited ground-based air defense assets.
Apart from backfilling Ukraine’s Soviet-era air defenses, Juice suggested the West also immediately supply Ukraine with more advanced systems such as NASAMS — a ground-based version of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), which is used to defend high-priority sites around Washington, DC. Regarding the timeline for Ukraine to employ such a novel, advanced air defense system, Juice said, “It might take months, but we must start now.”
The Ukrainian pilots and their ground crews now operate in bare-bones conditions, living in ad hoc, secret bases established after the war began — their families don’t know where they’re located, and communication between units is kept at a minimum. Even so, Ukrainian pilots are never able to fully escape the threat of Russian missile strikes and airstrikes, which have spared no corner of Ukraine’s territory. In the air, they are taking losses as they face Russian warplanes that wield more sophisticated weapons and are bolstered by Russian airborne early-warning radar systems.
“The main problem is equipment,” Juice said. “We are absolutely on different pages of technologies, between the modern Russian air force and Russian air defenses and our stuff.”
One key disadvantage the Ukrainians face is their air-to-air missiles, which rely on semi-active radar targeting. That means that Ukrainian missiles, once launched from a jet, rely on the pilots keeping their aircraft’s onboard radars pointed at the Russian opponents until the “moment of explosion,” Juice said. The Russians, on the other hand, have their own active-radar missiles, allowing them to hone in on an enemy with no help from the jet that fired them. That means the pilot can turn away or turn off his own radar after firing his missile, a so-called “fire and forget” technology. “Unfortunately, we don’t have something like that,” Juice said.
“We cannot gain air superiority without good radars … and without good missiles,” he continued. “And also, [the Russians’] situational awareness is much better because they have AWACS — the A-50. This aircraft, and also some signals intelligence, are also patrolling near the [Ukrainian] border, and they’re giving all the information about our flights to their fighters. So they know everything about us.”
“We are absolutely on different pages of technologies, between the modern Russian air force and Russian air defenses and our stuff.”
Juice recounted an engagement in which 12 Russian fighter jets engaged two Ukrainian jets in a beyond visual range, or BVR, aerial engagement. One Ukrainian pilot was killed in that encounter.
“Our guys were trying to intercept them, to push them from the border. And one by one the Russians were trying to shoot our guys. Unfortunately, their missile found the target,” Juice said.
“We need the platform for advanced missiles,” he added, pressing for the US to deliver fighters, such as the multirole F-16, which is capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
By Juice’s account, Ukraine’s ranks of battle-tested and experienced fighter pilots — some of whom have already gained exposure to US jets during training exercises — could be trained to operate US airframes within months and be “effective warriors.” He also said that Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly US fighter jets in less time than it would take to upgrade Ukraine’s fleet of aging fighters to use more advanced missiles.
On the American side, Jersey said the US dropped the ball in the years after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukrainian territory when it failed to help the Ukrainian air force modernize. Now, in the face of a full-scale war, Jersey said the US should give more credence to what the Ukrainian pilots say they need — after all, there are few US analysts or pilots who possess the kind of practical air combat experience possessed by the Ukrainians.
“What the Ukrainians needed most was for us to prioritize their modernization. We did not, but it’s not too late,” Jersey said. “They need the MiG-29s from Poland. This was agreed to by NATO, but then pulled back at the last minute. Some of the reasons were ludicrous — that they wouldn’t be trained to operate them? I think the [Ukrainian air force] pilots would know what they need better than our Pentagon analysts sitting at desks who have never stepped foot in Ukraine, nor seen inside the cockpit of a Fulcrum.”
The early days of the war were harrowing for Ukraine’s pilots — both in terms of the air war and the persistent threats faced on the ground between missions. During the war’s opening days, Juice’s home base was hit by missile strikes, airstrikes, and helicopter attacks, and faced the constant threat of raids by Russian special operations units. “It was something terrible, we had a lot of threats around the airfield,” Juice said.
Between combat sorties, Juice threw on a body armor vest and grabbed a gun to help defend his air base from the ground. As Russian air defense systems drew near, Ukrainian fighter jets were forced to fly “just below the trees, or lower” immediately after takeoff.
On Feb. 24, Juice, like many Ukrainians, was awakened by the sounds of Russian missile strikes. Expecting the war ahead of time, he’d bought himself medical supplies and body armor, as well as a stockpile of rounds for his personal AR-15 assault rifle. He had even purchased a new car especially for wartime use. Still, Juice said he felt a moment of stunned disbelief when the war actually began — as if his psyche needed an extra beat to actually believe what his senses were telling him.
“I was preparing for this, but I was still not ready,” he said. “It was a few minutes delay, for understanding the situation. During this delay of the first minutes, I asked myself, What the fuck is happening?”
Juice immediately made calls with the wives of some of his fellow fighter pilots (including one who was pregnant) to make sure everyone was okay — and then he reported for duty. Passing the checkpoint for his air base, which had been hit by a Russian missile, he got a flat tire on his brand-new car.
“It was very emotional and very hot on my home base,” he said.
Juice’s MiG-29 unit has since relocated within Ukraine out of range of Russian air defenses. Compared with those early days, Juice says his current location feels like a “beach resort,” even if he and his fellow pilots still live under the constant threat of Russian missiles and airstrikes.
“The fighters of Ukraine are this generation’s Spartans,” Jersey said. “They have been fighting Russia for a very long time, well before the invasion. Over the years, they have honed their tactics to do what they are currently doing. This is no surprise to anyone who knows their pilots and their tactics. This is not an upset; they knew they would wreck the plans of the dictator from the East.”
Another emotional burden that Ukrainian pilots must face in wartime is their families’ safety. Although most pilots have evacuated their families away from the front lines, no quarter of Ukraine has been spared from Russian missile attacks.
“The missile threat is the main threat of this war, even for peaceful regions of Ukraine,” Juice said. “So you can’t be sure that they are in safety.”
Apart from taking a shot of vodka and a piece of bread, there is no particular ceremony or tradition to honor the fallen within the Ukrainian air force. The pilots simply carry on with fighting the war and take solace in the idea that full honors for all the fallen will be given once victory is won. Because most of the Ukrainian air force’s activities remain classified in wartime, it’s also not possible to give families of the fallen a full accounting of how their loved ones died.
“It was very hard to speak with my classmate’s wife, with two very young children,” Juice said of one fallen friend. “But we have to be morally ready for another flight.”
There is a fraternal bond between the US and Ukrainian fighter communities, forged over decades of working together. In particular, there is the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, which is partnered with the Ukrainian air force through the US government’s state partnership program, or SPP. As part of that relationship, Ukrainian fighter pilots, including Juice, have traveled to California for training. And in 2018, US F-15Cs deployed to Ukraine for the Clear Sky exercise — Ukraine’s largest air combat exercise since the end of the Cold War. Sponsored by US Forces in Europe, it was the first-ever joint, multinational exercise hosted by Ukraine.
Prior to the war, Juice took part in NATO training in the US, Turkey, and Norway. However, he said that Clear Sky 2018 was the most important air force exercise in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. He still evokes its motto, “Together for Peace and Victory,” as the lodestar for continued cooperation between the US and Ukraine in wartime. Despite its significance, the exercise took a tragic turn when an American and a Ukrainian pilot were killed during an Su-27 fighter jet crash.
“It was an awful situation, but I personally think it was a huge moment in tying the California Air National Guard and the Ukrainians together,” said a US Air Force officer who was involved in the Clear Sky exercise.
“Everyone bucked up and pulled it together to fly the remainder of the exercise, and the most complicated sorties at that,” said the officer, who asked not to be named due to restrictions on communication with the media. “They and we recognized that the training was that important to continue. I think that bond and the training is paying dividends now.”
That bond between Ukrainian and American fighter pilots has deepened since Russia’s full-scale war began in late February. For Jersey, who made it a point to mentor the younger Ukrainian fighter pilots, this war is particularly personal.
“Juice, from the start, was a pilot that we invested the most in,” Jersey told Coffee or Die. “He was a talented fighter pilot, he was charismatic, and he cared about his air force and wanted to improve it. Don’t get me wrong, the [Ukrainian air force’s] older pilots are just as incredible and patriotic, but we saw the future in Juice and the other younger pilots.”
“The Ukrainians are defining modern warfare. Whatever ideas, assumptions, and tactics we believed were set in stone were done so by a nation that has not faced a peer threat for a very long time.” — Jersey, a retired US F-15C pilot
Ukraine’s fighter culture does not possess as many rituals and traditions as do their American partners. That said, one US fighter culture tradition that Juice wants to adopt is the naming ceremony. Juice’s own call sign, in fact, was awarded to him during a ceremony with his American partners.
While in California for a training exercise, Juice’s teetotaling drew the attention of his Ukrainian and American counterparts. After all, a time-honored way for fighter pilots to relieve steam is to enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage. (Note: See Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.)
Juice recounted the origins of his call sign: “From the first day in Fresno, just from the plane, we went to some bar, and our guys put vodka on the table, and I started from this party just drinking juice. And all the time, in all the bars, just juice. So it was something strange for them, since everyone knows that pilots drink a lot … especially Ukrainian pilots.”
Thus, when it was time for his naming ceremony, Juice’s fellow pilots voted between a few different call sign options and settled on his current namesake.
“In Fresno, we decided that we should start the tradition of naming in the Ukrainian air force,” Juice said. “I guess my naming ceremony was the first official one for the Ukrainian air force.”
There’s little leftover emotional bandwidth in wartime for Ukraine’s fighter pilots to create new traditions. Especially when it comes to honoring the dead. However, if Juice had his way, he and his fellow pilots would be referred to by individual call signs, rather than flight numbers, while in the air.
“I still believe that I will be able to start this tradition,” Juice said. “Now, in combat conditions, many more people understand this stuff … it’s cool to have a call sign and not some number. Nobody gives a shit about numbers in the air. When you know the voice of your wingman, of your leader, your flight lead … in combat conditions, you hear this call sign, it’s something more, much more, than a nickname. When you hear the call sign of somebody on the radio … you hear exactly your mate, and you understand that he’s in trouble, and that you must help him survive this fucking hell.”