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Air Capabilities and Spending Opinion Short Read

Ukraine – lessons for Western air power

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

The Telegraph recently ran one of the more bizarre analyses to have arisen from the war in Ukraine.   In it, Gareth Corfield, supported by a long list of RAF Officers speaking about airpower lessons on the record, argued that ‘…post-Ukraine, the future of air combat is set to look very different to what was expected, teaching nations of the dangers of relying solely on technology…’.  A pre-war focus on drones, autonomous systems tech and AI ‘…almost to the exclusion of everything else’ had been overturned.  It was clear now that:

‘… that losses of expensive, complex aircraft are hard to quickly replace. Losses of skilled personnel in wartime are even more difficult to cope with, however.  Technology can only substitute for lack of critical mass up to a certain point, and no matter how advanced the aircraft, current air combat technology still requires a highly trained human sitting in a cockpit.

It is almost impossible to see how this is a lesson from Ukraine.  And indeed the article presents no evidence in support of this argument. Instead it departs on a narrative description of (piloted) Russian aircraft losses, the effectiveness of Ukraine’s surface-to-air weapons, lack of training in the Russian Air Force, and how current RAF operations are working in 2022.

Does the West need fighter jets?

If we look at what is actually happening in Ukraine, to see what it might mean for Western Air Power, the arguments run in the opposite direction.  As described in the Wavell Room article published last week many in the West are arguing Ukraine doesn’t need expensive fighter jets.  Those arguments are important for the future of NATO and Western Air Power as they are for Zelensky’s Air Force.  They beg the question: if Ukraine doesn’t need fighter jets, why do we?

Ukraine’s use of drones, from modified hobby drones, commercially available DJI drones from China, its own nationally designed and manufactured drones, US Ghost and Switchblade drones, the now famous Turkish Bayraktar’s (TB2s), and the UK’s Malloy T150 logistics drone, has allowed it to fulfil three of the four roles of airpower, to a greater or lesser extent: (1) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, (2) attack, and (3) air mobility – apparently largely unhindered by Russia’s vaunted air defences and electronic warfare capabilities.  While, as described, the final role – control of the air – is being achieved by their ground-based air defence systems (remember the Telegraph’s unsubstantiated critique of Bloodhounds?). 

Malloy logisitic drones
Malloy Logistic Drones (Sky News/Gadget.com)

Recent interviews with Ukrainian Air Force officers, published after the Telegraph article, suggest they are now worried that Russia is becoming more effective in detecting and shooting down TB2s, and worried that drones such as the Gray Eagle, designed for countering insurgencies with no surface to air threat, will be too vulnerable.  Stealth drones would overcome this risk, as would more manoeuvre able and capable uncrewed combat aircraft and systems.  It is not an argument against uncrewed systems per se, and there are different opinions amongst Ukrainian Defence officials, with one quoted suggesting the Gray Eagles would be as useful as the highly capable Switchblades and Phoenix Ghost drones for taking out Russian tanks.  Despite what the Telegraph suggests, the lesson, if there is one yet, is at best ambiguous.

Air Mobility and logistics

Larger air mobility – big transport aircraft – has been denied to both sides by the surface-to-air threat.  Helicopters and transport aircraft can only operate a great many miles from the front lines, because of modern surface-to-air missile systems, and the vulnerability of logistics hubs to attack.  Logistics are all having to move by land.  There is no reason to expect this to be different in a major conventional war in which the UK was directly participating.  Perhaps the future of air mobility is uncrewed, where more risk can be taken with delivery.  Certainly, as put forward in the Wavell Room previously, uncrewed systems could do much more for logistics than they are currently.  Overall, Ukraine’s success with relatively low-cost drones holds up an unflattering mirror to our pilot-dominated, expensive NATO air forces.

The training pipeline

One objection to the provision of jets to Ukraine that is particularly pertinent argues it would take too long to train Ukrainian pilots and engineers to a sufficient level of competence to operate Western fighter aircraft.  Timeline estimates (all from respected experts) for training Ukrainian pilots to fly new jets vary from 6-weeks to 4-years.  Furthermore, training maintainers and armaments specialists to keep these aircraft in the air and make sure their complicated munitions function, can take at least as long as training the pilots, and many more are required per aircraft.  These arguments are used to show that just gifting Ukrainian’s jets won’t be enough: there is no immediate fix.

Fighting and taking losses

But if it really is the case that it would take four years to train a pilot to perform competently in a modern air war, NATO and Western nations need a major rethink of their force structures.  As we have seen, even the Telegraph acknowledges that ‘Losses of skilled personnel in wartime are even more difficult to cope with..’  Few would contest the argument that a direct conventional conflict between Russia or China and the West would see many Western aircraft lost to surface-to-air missiles, other ground-based air defences, and perhaps in air-to-air combat (indeed, this part of the argument against giving jets to Ukraine).  But if this is so, the West must win the air war quickly, or it will struggle to sustain operations, even assuming we can manufacture at the speed and scale required, given how long it will take to train competent pilots and support crews.  This seems a misguided planning assumption, in need of greater interrogation and, if it proves true, an adjusted force structure or training plan to enable the West to keep fighting beyond the first few days and weeks of a major war.

The small matter of cost…

If it is the case that there are more cost effective ways to fight an air war than deploying jets, for example, through a mix of surface-to-air weapons, lower-cost drones, space-based surveillance (commercial and otherwise), the use of precision-guided artillery, cruise missiles and long-range fires, why are we still on the cost-curve of ever more exquisite jets, both too expensive and too few in number, to lose?

aircraft costs over time

We are focused here on lessons from Ukraine, from which it is almost impossible to conclude that the war has proved that current air combat technology still requires a highly trained human sitting in a cockpit.  The related assertion that Air Forces have been incautiously racing towards a fully autonomous pilotless future is equally open to contest – there is a reasonable argument that uncrewed systems have been severely underinvested in for decades by pilot-led Air Forces.

But that, like the Telegraph article, is not really a discussion about Ukraine.

Keith Dear

Dr Keith Dear was a senior advisor on the Integrated Review Taskforce in No10, leading on Defence, Science and Technology.  He is now Director AI Innovation at Fujitsu Defence and National Security, and a reservist Group Captain with the RAF's 601 Squadron.

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