Editor’s Note: This piece is a companion to the latest podcast for members only, The Russia Contingency with Michael Kofman. In this latest episode, Michael speaks with Justin Bronk and Jack Watling, both senior researchers at the Royal United Services Institute, in great detail about the air war over Ukraine and their latest observations from field research in the country.
Russian Space Forces fought during the war against Ukraine. However, Russian planes and helicopters were much more active in the early days of the war than previously reported. If not for Ukraine’s Soviet-era mobile surface-to-air missile systems, the Russian military could have overwhelmed Ukraine’s defenses in the first weeks of the war. These ground-based air defenses have kept Russian air power at arm’s length and thus ineffective since mid-March 2022. However, the Russian Air Force remains a major threat if Ukraine’s air defense systems are allowed to run out of ammunition and are constantly damaged. Ukraine is also under constant rocket and munitions bombardment that is draining air defense munitions and causing power and water outages across the country. Therefore, Ukraine’s Western partners should prioritize the delivery of air defense assistance, such as the Western-made advanced national surface-to-air missile system, along with shoulder-mounted air defense systems and modern systems of anti-aircraft weapons like the German one. built Cheetah.
Unprecedented air war
When Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, the view of the war for outside observers was one dominated by advanced Russian ground forces and hundreds of cruise missile and ballistic missile attacks. Russian air force fighters and bombers appeared largely absent during the first days of the invasion, and then began to suffer losses in low-level bombing raids against Ukrainian positions and besieged cities in early March. Since then, Russia’s inability to gain air superiority over Ukraine has been a major factor in determining the course of the invasion. Lacking the capacity on either side to use airpower effectively at scale, the war has so far been decided by ground-based artillery firepower directed by drones against maneuvering armor and infantry.
However, a new RUSI report based on fieldwork conducted in Ukraine in October 2022 suggests that Russia conducted significantly more extensive strike and combat patrol operations with its warplanes during the early days of the invasion than previously documented. According to interviews with Ukrainian Air Force commanders, Russian electronic warfare attacks, effective use of air decoys, and long-range missile attacks overwhelmed or damaged most of Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems early in the invasion. This left Ukrainian fighter pilots scrambling to defend the skies themselves, and they suffered significant losses until ground-based defenses could return to effective operations after the third day of the conflict.
During this initial three-day window, Russian attack aircraft flew hundreds of sorties to bomb targets up to 300 kilometers inside Ukrainian-held territory. They would have continued to do so if Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems such as the long-range S-300, SA-11 “Buk” and short-range SA-8 “Osa” had not returned. in action to make mid- and high-altitude flight extremely dangerous for Russian aircraft. Once Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems returned to action, Russian jets and helicopters were unable to effectively locate, suppress, and destroy them. Consequently, they were forced to fly very low, which left them unacceptably vulnerable to short-range mobile air defense systems, which the West supplied Ukraine in large numbers.
However, the RUSI report has also shown that Russian fighter jets flying near the front lines continue to inflict serious losses on Ukrainian pilots, who are stuck with Soviet-era aircraft that are completely technically superior. Basically, the Russian air force has failed to gain air superiority over Ukraine thanks to its inability thus far to shoot down and destroy Ukraine’s mobile surface-to-air missile systems. However, these are difficult for Western partners to resupply because they are Soviet-made systems that the West has never produced. Replacing them with Western systems is also difficult because Western militaries have few surface-to-air missile launchers and limited missile reserves as a result of securing air superiority in conflicts since the end of the Cold War. This matters because the Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems that are so important to deterring the Russian air force are not only slowly being destroyed, but they also have limited ammunition.
Until now, Western military aid has largely focused on ground equipment such as tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers and anti-tank missile launchers. This was for good reason – the Russian military has been by far the biggest threat to Ukraine, especially since the Russian air force has been unable to operate effectively since the early days of the invasion. However, the Russian air force remains a serious threat to Ukraine’s hard-won progress on the ground. Unless Ukraine is provided with urgent additional support in terms of missile munitions for its Soviet-era surface-to-air missile systems, as well as new Western ones, such as advanced national surface-to-air missile systems, in quantities over time, then Russian jets could find themselves with much more freedom to bomb Ukrainian troops, cities and infrastructure near the front lines in the coming months.
Russia’s Missile Bombardment Strategy
Ukraine is also under renewed and potentially very serious bombardment by Russian cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 cruise missiles. The Russian military has so far failed to focus its limited arsenal of expensive cruise and ballistic missiles on any given target to produce decisive strategic effects. Ukraine is, after all, a large and resilient country. However, with the addition of Shahed-136, this latest strike campaign is more threatening. Small stray munitions are relatively “dumb” weapons, being fairly slow, relatively easy to drop individually, and capable of reliably hitting only fixed targets. However, they are cheap – about $25,000 per round – and their 20- to 40-kilogram capacity is enough to severely damage smaller infrastructure targets and buildings.
Russia is using these weapons to target Ukraine’s electricity and water networks as winter approaches, using its expensive cruise and ballistic missiles to hit large targets such as major power stations and interconnectors, while using hundreds of Shahed-136 to hit substations and smaller pumping stations. This has serious effects after only about a month of strikes. Most Ukrainian cities have few hours of electricity and water per day. Ukrainian forces continue to shoot down most of the Shahed-136 aircraft and more than half of the cruise missiles launched. However, this effort is rapidly depleting Ukraine’s stockpile of man-portable air defense systems and other air defense missiles.
To defeat this ruthless Russian strategy of plunging millions of Ukrainian civilians into darkness, cold and thirst this winter, Ukraine needs urgent supply shipments of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and additional radar-guided anti-aircraft weapons like the German Gepard. can reliably destroy Shahed-136 cruise munitions at a sustainable cost per interception.
While the general perception that the Russian Air Force has been ineffective during the invasion thus far is largely correct, this should not obscure the real threat they still pose if Ukraine’s air defenses are not urgently strengthened. During the first three days of the war, Russian aircraft conducted hundreds of sorties and sorties, and Ukrainian Air Force fighter pilots took heavy casualties trying to intercept them. The reason Russia’s air power has been so ineffective since then is that the Russian Air Force lacks the capacity to plan, fly, and maintain the kind of large and complex strike packages required to effectively suppress and destroy enemy air defenses. against the mobile surface of Ukraine. – air missile systems. However, they still possess formidable fighters and strike aircraft with heavy firepower that could be devastating if allowed to regain the ability to sustainably operate at medium level over Ukrainian territory.
If Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles are allowed to be fired over time with drones and artillery without reinforcements or replacements, and their ammunition depleted, then the Ukrainian Air Force will not be able to hold back Russian air power over the front lines. There are a limited number of Western surface-to-air missile systems available, and procuring replacement missiles and launchers and radars for Soviet-made systems from elsewhere in the world to supply to Ukraine is politically difficult, so this would be a serious challenge in the medium term. Ultimately, therefore, a sustainable air defense posture for Ukraine is likely to require at least some Western warplanes capable of engaging Russian fighters on more equal terms. Such fighters would need to be able to operate from the small, relatively scattered airbases that Ukraine’s fighters use to avoid being hit by Russian missile attacks.
The military momentum on the ground has shifted decisively in Ukraine’s favor, especially after the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, and it has a real chance to expel Russian forces from the occupied territories in the spring and summer of 2023. However, this not only will require sustained support for the ground war, but also urgent Western air defense support to keep the Russian air force as ineffective as it has been until now, and to repel the continued assault on critical infrastructure that Ukrainian civilians rely on for warmth, light and purity. water this winter.
Justin Bronk is Senior Researcher for Airpower and Technology in the Military Science team at the defense and security think tank RUSI in London. His Twitter handle is @Justin_Br0nk
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