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Russian airpower in Ukraine – Nuisance or Menace?

Introduction and Purpose – After Hubris came Nemesis

One year after Vladimir Putin unleashed his war machine for what he thought would be a short little war to crush Ukraine, Ukraine is still standing while his reputation as a master strategist and that of his ‘invincible’ war machine lie in tatters.  While Russia has indeed succeeded in subjecting Ukraine and its people to misery and brutality on a scale not seen in Europe since 1945, none of the stated aims for Russia’s war – to subjugate Ukraine, to hobble NATO, and for a reborn Russian empire to dominate Europe – have been achieved.  On the contrary, he has managed to unite Ukraine and made it Russia’s enemy for generations.  By anchoring Ukraine to the West, he has unwittingly acted as the midwife in the rebirth of NATO, and he has destroyed the aura of power that once surrounded him and Russia’s armed forces while making Russia a pariah state in the eyes of the civilised world.  One aspect of the war has been the failure of Russian airpower. 

The aim of this article is to summarize, highlight and reflect on some of the major observations and findings of the Western analytic community so far concerning the air war in Ukraine – namely Russian airpower – particularly the performance of the fixed-wing branch (VVS) of the Russian aerospace forces (VKS).1 Therefore, this article is not primarily based on identifiable data from the field, but on data and judgements provided in major reports from the war, in combination with the Swedish National Defence Research Institute’s (FOI) almost continuous following of events since mid-December 2021.  By necessity, such a compilation must sacrifice some nuance and granularity in order to achieve clarity and brevity.  

This article begins with an overview of the fighting so far, dividing the war into four phases.  The use of Russian airpower is analysed in each phase before the final section makes some observations or conclusions about the overall failure of Russian airpower in Ukraine. 

The image of a gleaming Russian war machine propagated for fifteen years by Russian sources and uncritically repeated by Western analysts – the ‘second best army in the world’ – has turned out to be as false as Brezhnev-era claims of having a world-class standard of living.  While perhaps not quite a Potemkin army – it makes up in ruthlessness and brutality much of what lacks in prowess – it has shown to be riddled with incompetence and corruption, while much of its equipment has performed poorly, been broken or non-existent.  The catastrophic character of the Kremlin’s decision-making and the lacklustre performance of its armed forces has by now been the subject of many articles and reports from think tanks and analysts, and need not be repeated here beyond a short overview necessary for context.2

There is still much uncertainty about events in the war and the fighting, and some data or judgements that we now rely on may later prove to be wrong or misleading.  At the time of writing, it seems possible to create a reasonably correct preliminary picture of events so far, including not only what happened but also why, and what this says about actual capabilities and performance.  As Russia’s war in Ukraine is arguably the first large-scale war between developed major states since 1945, the lessons from the war are of obvious interest and importance to a wide gamut of security specialists and decision-makers in the developed world, especially in Europe and America.    

Part 1 – An overview of the fighting

First phase: Guile and speed

The fighting in the war so far can be divided into four phases.3 During the first phase, from late February to mid-April 2022, Russia attempted to quickly capture Kyiv, causing a collapse of the Zelensky government and allowing the installation of a puppet regime.  This was to be accomplished by a coup de main attack on Kyiv combining infiltrated hit teams to kill key decision makers and an airborne landing close to the city centre, to be reinforced by ground units quickly advancing from Belarus and the North to achieve a link-up.  At the same time, concentric but uncoordinated ground and air attack attacks were launched in the East (Charkiv and Donbas) and in the South (Kherson and Zaporizhzhia), making the operation reminiscent of the German attack on Poland in 1939.

As we know, all the elements of the push for Kyiv failed, albeit narrowly: the hit teams were caught by the security services, the airborne landing was contained by ground troops and neutralised with artillery, the link-up force became stuck in long and vulnerable columns on the roads north of Kyiv, and neither the Zelensky government nor the Ukrainian will to resist collapsed.4 However, on all other fronts Russia was more successful and made substantial inroads on the ground, particularly in the south.  Moreover, when the initial grab for Kyiv failed, Russia still pushed on for more than a month hoping to overwhelm the defenders, but this effort became stuck in the suburbs of Kyiv.5

In this initial phase, Russian airpower manifested itself as a campaign of air strikes deemed at later (but not at the time) to be ‘massive’.6 This campaign used penetrating aircraft and long-range missiles, supported by electronic attack.  Initial targets were at pre-designated air defence units, such air bases, air defence radars and ground-based air defence (GBAD) units, as well as command-and-control nodes, ammunition dumps, troop assembly areas and industrial targets.  These attacks were mostly carried out with unguided bombs and by single fighter-bombers, seldom in pairs and never by more than six aircraft.7

At the same time, modern Russian fighter aircraft flew at high altitude looking for Ukrainian fighter and strike aircraft below, scoring several kills due to their more capable aircraft radars and missiles.8 Somewhat later, the VKS also used high altitude aircraft operating in Russian airspace to provoke Ukrainian air defence radars to light up, then vectoring strike assets at low level to attack them.9 

Massive in scale but not in effects

The primary aim of this air campaign was for Russian airpower to ‘…establish an unchallenged aerial environment…’ for Russia’s invasion, with the attacks being carried out from medium to high altitude.10 While perhaps massive in scale, this campaign was not massive in its effects.  This can be largely attributed to the fact that the Ukrainian military had dispersed many vulnerable key assets just days or hours before the strikes commenced.  There is no doubt that poor Russian targeting and battle damage assessment also played its part. 

The displacement caused by the hurried dispersal of Ukrainian GBAD units meant that these were unavailable for combat during the first three days, putting the onus of defence on fighter aircraft that had survived and were operable.  Ukrainian aircraft were outgunned as well outnumbered, but still managed to inflict some losses on the VKS.  According to a forthcoming memo from FOI, Russia had more than 300 combat aircraft stationed in the region as the invasion started, while Ukraine had about 80, with Russia initially generating 200-300 sorties per day, while Ukraine managed 20-40.11 When the Ukrainian GBAD units began to operate again after relocating it was not in the traditional role of continuous air defence of territory but in pop-op engagements of Russian aircraft, increasing their chances of survival in the face of Russian attacks with anti-radiation missiles.12

Obviously counting on that the war would be a cake walk, the Russian columns attacking Kyiv from the north and northeast marched in administrative order and without a communications plan, not ready for ground combat or for air defence.13 This allowed Ukrainian strike aircraft, helicopters and armed drones to successfully attack the vulnerable columns on the roads. 

Entering the realm of the MANPAD

As it became clear that the initial push for Kyiv had failed, and as Ukrainian GBAD came on line again, the VKS shifted both targets and tactics, replacing mid-level attacks on fixed air defence targets with low-level attacks on tactical targets in support of the army.  Low-level attacks, however, were demanding for the pilots and reduced the chances of finding and hitting the right targets, while making Russian aircraft vulnerable to man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) like Igla and the Stinger, which the Ukrainians had in great numbers, causing significant losses.14

This soon led to a switch to night-time low level attacks (as the operators of MANPADS need to see their targets).  This further change in tactics limited Russian airpower even further as only Su-34 fighter-bombers and their crews were equipped and trained for this task, placing a strain on those aircraft and crews.15 The VKS had access to some precision-guided bombs and missiles, as proudly demonstrated in Syria, but according to The Economist they used up half of their stock just during the first month of the war.16 

As the Russian army had got its own GBAD into order after the initial confusion, Ukrainian aircraft also adopted low-level tactics, but the Ukrainian pilots had reportedly trained more for this.17 Russian GBAD-units also managed to shoot down several of their own aircraft, indicating a lack of equipment or procedures for identifying friends and foes (IFF).18   

Here, two factors need to be highlighted for context: First, as a result of air defence being a key task for the Soviet armed forces, both Russia and Ukraine inherited big and strong GBAD establishments, with Ukraine having the second highest density of GBAD in Europe (presumably second only to Russia).19 Secondly, in order to create a really hostile environment for enemy aircraft a combination of medium-range and short-range GBAD in the same area is needed, a lack of one of them means the enemy can find sanctuary either at medium altitudes or at low level.   

Russian SU35 (Wikimedia Commons)

Layered GBAD proves its worth

As all available kinds of air attacks on Ukrainian military targets – daylight or night time, mid-level or low-level – proved ineffective or too costly for the Russians, Russian airpower was used to simply bombing besieged cities as they had in Syria.  In crushing pockets of resistance in Mariupol, the VKS even used daylight raids by heavy bombers to reduce the city to rubble (in conjunction with artillery).20 

Finally, four factors deserve special mention.  First, while both sides used military drones for reconnaissance to very good effect, Ukraine had the upper hand in both the wide-spread use of civilian quadcopters and in having armed drones, notably the widely-published Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.  These drone attacks were cleverly exploited by publishing ‘kill-cam’ videos of successful engagements on the internet. 

Second, while VKS offensive electronic warfare was reportedly very effective in blinding Ukrainian radars, spoofing navigation systems and jamming communications, they were non-discriminating and were also highly effective in cancelling out Russian radars and communications, which fairly soon led to more sparing use.21

Third, with the exception of a few Pantsir units, there are no reports of VKS GBAD assets – such as S-300 or S-400 – operating on contested territory in Ukraine.  This confirms our view – not shared by everyone – on the importance of differentiating between the GBAD of the Russian army and of the Russian air force.  Simply put: VKS air defence units are intended, equipped, organised and tasked for the air defence of Russian territory (or territory under secure Russian control, like Crimea), while the army’s air defence units are meant to protect the army wherever it goes, at home or abroad.  Thus, the scenarios where Russia grabs a piece of foreign territory and quickly forward-deploys S-400 units there – rather common in the Western discourse – seem highly unlikely.  Nonetheless, S-300 and S-400 units based in Belarus and Crimea have due to their long range still been able to play a role, and have reportedly managed to down Ukrainian aircraft near Kyiv and Kherson. 

Fourth, in June 2022 we were of a view that Russia had a limited capacity for suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD).  It now appears that they both have missiles than can home in on radars, and tactics for making enemy GBAD units reveal themselves, localising them, and hitting them with artillery, attack helicopters and strike aircraft.  This capability, however, still does not seem to be very developed as compared with the exquisite capabilities of the US.  

Second phase: Massed force

Putin’s Blitzkrieg-type attempt having failed, the Russian army withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv, instead reverting to type and started an offensive in Donbas relying on the intense firepower of massed artillery and the forward momentum of massed troops.  This second phase of the war lasted from mid-April to mid-August 2022, with Russia gaining some ground attacking against prepared defences and some of Ukraine’s best troops, but at the cost of big losses in men and materiel.  Ukraine also suffered significant losses, pushing newly mobilised men into what many saw as a meat grinder, before the Russian offensive ran out of steam.  During the phase, Ukraine also managed to sink the Russian cruiser Moskva with its fairly powerful anti-aircraft systems, causing a shift in the military balance on and over the Black Sea.22 

Mutual denial of airspace

In the air domain and by this time, the strong Ukrainian and Russian GBAD presence in combination with both parties’ lack of an effective SEAD/DEAD-capability, had created a state of mutual denial in the contested air space, where neither side could operate freely but both parties could operate from time to time, albeit cautiously and with high risk.23 As a result, Russian airpower focussed on low-level attacks with unguided bombs or rockets on military targets close to the front and identified by the army, and on stand-off attacks on infrastructure targets further back using missiles launched by aircraft safely in Russian airspace (in some cases also by ground launchers and ships).

The VKS seemed to have given up on conducting penetrating missions deep into Ukrainian airspace with crewed aircraft, instead relying on mid or long-range missiles to do the job.  In combination with poor targeting and poor accuracy of the missiles used, this meant both that death and destruction was visited on targets with no military value, such as apartment buildings and shopping centres, and that the consumption of missiles was high.  As a result, a gamut of older missiles as well as anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles were used for land targets.24 

Zabrodskyi et al highlights that by this time there was a significant reduction in the scale and complexity of VKS operations over Ukraine, and claims that the VKS entered the war with less than 100 fully trained and current [presumably fighter and fighter bomber] pilots, and that attrition had fallen disproportionally on this cadre.25 Thus both the change to a less demanding pattern of air operations and the reduction in the intensity of operations may be due to pilot fatigue or to sinking morale among Russian pilots, or both.26

During this period it became clear that drones were an indispensable tool for both warring parties, both in the reconnaissance and arms-delivery role, but that their life expectancy was very short – averaging three flights for quadcopters and six flights for fixed-wing drones.27 It was also reported that in Donbas the combination of Russian electronic warfare and GBAD created so hostile an environment that Ukraine would not risk its remaining Bayraktars there, instead using them for tasks in less heavily defended areas such as the Black Sea.   

Third phase: Counterattack

As Russia had exhausted its offensive potential in Donbas during the summer and as Ukraine had taken delivery of Western precision-strike systems with longer range (notably GMLRS rockets for HIMARS and M270 launchers), the Ukrainians took to the offensive in late August.  First they used GMLRS rockets to strike vulnerable key Russian assets like ammunition dumps, command posts and bridges that previously had been out of reach, then they launched ground attacks east of Kharkiv and on a little later also on the west bank of the Dnipro towards Kherson.  The attack on a weakly defended part of the front east of Kharkiv in September resulted in a breakthrough and a rout, leading to the liberation of fairly large areas around Izium.  The attack towards Kherson met harder resistance, but in the end the position of the Russian forces west of Dnipro was untenable, and they withdraw across the river in good order, allowing Ukraine to liberate Kherson city and a large part of its eponymous province by mid-November.28 Adding insult to injury a Ukrainian sabotage team managed to blow up part of the Kerch bridge, drawing Putin’s ire.29

American missiles on Ukrainian MIGs

In the air domain, the perhaps most significant development was that Ukraine had somehow managed to integrate (i.e. made them work together) American-made and supplied HARM radar-homing missiles on its Soviet-made Mig-29 fighters.  This is was no mean feat technically and probably involved a bit of ‘dirty engineering’, but gave the Ukrainian air force a basic SEAD/DEAD capability that quickly payed off by killing or suppressing some of Russia’s GBAD in Ukraine.30 This in turn caused the VKS to set up a high-altitude air defence against Ukrainian fighters.  While reportedly effective this has also consumed a lot of fighter planes and pilots, with 96 sorties needed just for the daylight hours of each day.31 

Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 carrying american AGM-88 HARM and soviet R-73 missiles
Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 carrying American AGM-88 HARM and soviet R-73 missiles (Wikimedia Commons August 2022)

Perhaps connected with the fielding of HARM-missiles, Ukrainian ground attack aircraft became more active, supporting ground offensives east of Kharkiv and  towards Kherson, while the strike tempo of similar Russian aircraft did not increase despite the Ukrainian ground offensives.  As in the previous phase, Russian strike aircraft generally limited themselves to dropping unguided bombs or rocket on targets close to the front; instead, Russia relied on cruise missiles for so-called precision engagement of targets further from the front.32

While the accuracy of the somewhat haphazard mix of ground-attack missiles Russia employed – which by now also included low-tech Shaheed-136 cruise missiles/drones supplied by Iran – remained poor, the intensity increased and the targeting definitely became smarter by going for Ukraine’s electric grid, a shift associated with Colonel General Sergey Surovkin assuming overall command of the operation.33 Modern societies are exceedingly dependent on the uninterrupted supply of electricity, and Russia probably hoped that crippling Ukraine’s supply of electricity as winter set in would sap Ukraine’s will and capability, but Ukraine has so far been able to cope, making impressive efforts to repair and cope.34 

Fourth phase: Deadlock

This phase extends from mid-November to the time of writing.  In mid-September, following the failure of the Russian summer offensive in Donbas and Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive east of Kharkiv, Putin upped the ante by ordering a partial mobilisation – the first since 1945, threatening to use nuclear weapons, and by annexing four of Ukraine’s provinces (preceded by sham “referenda”).35 The annexation was largely ignored as an empty gesture, especially after Ukraine had liberated parts of the provinces in question.  The nuclear threats got a lot of attention when first made, then slowly subsided, reportedly after the US had made clear that any use of a nuclear weapon in the conflict would be met with a devastating response.36 The partial mobilisation triggered the flight abroad of hundreds of thousand Russian men of military age, and at first also appeared shambolic.  However, with time they appear to have raised some 300,000 men of which 70,000-150,000 were sent to the front at once to flesh out units depleted by losses, while the rest were to be trained and formed into new units, to be used for a coming offensive. 

Effects of Russian missile strike in Dnipro, January 2023 (State Emergency Service of Ukraine Telegram channel)

Although there has been many reports of freshly mobilised men being thrown into combat with little training, preparation or equipment, Russia appears to have succeeded in shoring up its defensive lines and there have not been any major Ukrainian advances since the liberation of Kherson city in November.  Both sides have probed or pushed the other side along the front, but to little avail, probably reflecting a state of determined exhaustion where both can hold their ground but neither can successfully attack – in other words a deadlock.  The sole major exception to this pattern has been around Bakhmut where the private Wagner group of mercenaries and riff-raff has taken tremendous losses in an attempt to seize this inconspicuous town.  The reasons behind this costly effort are yet unclear – ambition and pride on the part of Wagner’s owner has been suggested, but the fact that Ukraine has taken many casualties in defending Bakhmut suggests that another motive could be to ‘bleed’ the Ukrainians (Verdun-like), or to tie up Ukrainian forces so they could not be used in an offensive.  

Russia’s spring offensive – neither shock nor awe  

This state of affairs – reminiscent of the Western Front in the winter of 1914/1915 – could potentially last for years, and Putin is betting that Russia has greater endurance and capacity for enduring hardship than both Ukraine and the pampered West, hoping to be the last man standing at the end of the day.37 Both parties are also said to be training and equipping forces for coming offensives to break the deadlock.38

At the time of writing, pundits are debating whether the Russian winter offensive is still pending or has already started, but to little avail.  According to one view, now in ascendance, the unsuccessful and costly attacks we have recently seen on Bakhmut (after the army took over from Wagner) and Vuhledar are the long awaited Russian offensive, and this is as much as they can do.39 As the head of Ukrainian military intelligence put it: ‘Russia’s big new offensive is underway, but going in a way that not everyone can even notice it’.40  

On activities in the air domain during this fourth phase, there is much less data and reporting. Still, the intensity of fixed-wing operations has dropped considerably, reportedly to as little as 10 Russian tactical aircraft sorties a day.41 If correct, this could be because of exhaustion, low morale, or because resources are being husbanded for a coming offensive or a possible escalation to war with NATO.  Similarly, the missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have been kept up but with reduced intensity compared to this autumn’s blitz.  There are numerous reports of a shortage of ammunition and predictions of long-range missiles running out on the Russian side, but there have been many such predictions since the summer, so far the Russians can still fire their guns and their missiles.42

Part 2 – Some observations from the air domain

Note: This part of the article draws on observations about the Russian airpower and the air war in Ukraine made during my and my colleagues’ almost continuous following of events since mid-December 2021, some of which were included in a memo I wrote in November.43 Thus, no separate references will be given for data or the conclusions drawn.  Some of the points made below have the character of preliminary findings while other are more of hypotheses or assertions.

Four relevant overarching factors must be clearly stated before diving into the list of observations: First, the Russian aerospace forces and their fixed-wing arm (called the VVS) most probably suffer about as much from the organisational culture of corruption and sleaze that is endemic to Russia and its armed forces, and seems to be the principal cause of its shortcomings.44

Second, throughout this war Ukraine – by all appearances – has benefitted greatly by having access to top-notch Western communications links and intelligence data, probably including much of the situation in the airspace (Recognised Air Picture, RAP) well into Russia proper, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data, targeting methodology and services, and Battle Damage Assessment methodology and services.  As these functions constitute vital links in a kill chain, having access to them can spell the difference between success and failure, especially as Russia appears to have only rudimentary capabilities in many of these areas. 

Third, in this conflict, Ukraine has had an enormous advantage in morale and motivation compared to Russia.  It is not clear that Russian forces would perform as poorly if they defended their homeland against an aggressor instead of needlessly attacking a peaceful neighbour. 

Fourth, throughout this conflict, Ukrainians have displayed an impressive capability for military innovation and improvisation, creatively cutting corners and applying civilian high-tech solutions to defence tasks.45

The Russian air force is different

Western analysts have tended to view Russian airpower through a lens distorted by Western practices and Western – especially US – concepts.  Thus, we have mirror-imaged and assumed that as Russia acquires more advanced aircraft and weapons, they would use them in a Western manner.  But while the US has been a predominantly air and sea power since 1945, giving those services an independent or leading role, Russia has always been and remains a land power.  This means that Russia does not entertain concepts of an air campaign in the Western sense, as demonstrated in the two Gulf Wars and Kosovo (although they may have played a little with the thought during the intervention in Syria). 

Instead, Russian airpower has two main tasks: protecting the homeland against Western air attacks with GBAD and air defence fighters and supporting the army with fighter-bombers and helicopters near the front.  Moreover, the Soviet legacy of discipline and control means that fighter pilots are tightly controlled by control officers on the ground and are given little or none of the leeway given to Western pilots to make decisions on their own.  And as we know, organisational culture eats strategies for breakfast.

VKS’ lacklustre performance in Ukraine

While some early reports of the VKS’ poor performance in Ukraine may have been overdone in the light of later findings, it remains that Russian air power has put up a lacklustre performance, especially compared to what many Western analysts expected at the start of the war.46 The reasons for this are probably manifold – besides too high expectations.  Among these are the general: sleaze and corruption, having armed forces for show but not for war, low morale, a destructive and dysfunctional organisational culture, lack of resources, and technical backwardness. 

There are also factors at play specific to the VKS, such as too few qualified pilots, too few flying hours, too few precision-guided munitions, lack of effective range, poorly maintained equipment, lack of modern equipment for target acquisition and engagement (e.g. targeting pods) for the aircraft, slow and cumbersome targeting procedures, perfunctory battle damage assessment, lack of equipment or procedures for differentiating between friend and foe, as well as lack of initiative and being tied tasking and control from the ground.

No air supremacy – but mutual air denial

The VKS has decidedly enjoyed technical superiority over the Ukrainian air force in the air-to-air role – due to more modern radars, aircraft and missiles.  Although this has been reflected in kill ratios, it has not – as widely expected – been translated into Russian air supremacy.  Ukraine has still been able to conduct both air-to-air and air-to-ground sorties, albeit with a degree of caution against too many losses.  Instead, a state of mutual denial of the contested airspace has ensued, based above all on the strong GBAD presence of both warring parties and their lack of well-developed SEAD capabilities.  That a significant result of the air war in Ukraine would be mutual denial was unexpected, and the reasons for this and its consequences need to be analysed further.

An air force on a leash

One consequence of maintaining tight control while having the two prime tasks of homeland air defence and flying artillery for the army is that the VKS (apart from the heavy bomber force, which has a more independent role) is tied tightly to its home turf, rarely straying beyond the airspace that can be surveyed by Russian ground-based or airborne radars, about 300 km away.

Unable to do large or complex air operations

As a consequence of being an air force with these two main tasks and of being tied to the home base and its backwardness, VKS has no capability for large and complex air operations in the Western sense.  These typically involving strike packages of different kinds of combat aircraft as well as specialised ‘enablers’ in an orchestrated effort to achieve operational aims more or less independently of what happens on the ground.  The VKS may envy and fear US capabilities but see little opportunity or need to emulate this.

Few or no enablers

As a consequence of their focus on expeditionary operations and complex air operations, the major Western air powers are highly dependent on enablers such as tankers, airborne radars, electronic warfare or surveillance aircraft, although these are often provided by the US.  In contrast, with its more limited role close to home, VKS has little need for such capabilities.  Even if it had, Russia would be hard-pressed to acquire them, given its technical backwardness and general lack of resources.  For example, in 2022, Russia had only nine airborne radars and 15 heavy tankers, compared to the US, which has 105 airborne radars and 401 heavy tankers.47  

Russia’s lack of tankers and especially airborne radar, command and control aircraft has most probably hobbled Russia’s operations in the air.  Having so few airborne radars while still prioritising the air defence of the homeland means that you will not risk these platforms by operating them forward.  But holding the airborne radars back means you will not have as good a picture of the situation in the air over Ukraine as you would operating the radar aircraft move forward.  And a weaker or patchy air situational awareness will negatively impact on your ability to fulfil both defensive (spotting incoming enemy aircraft) and offensive (planning and directing strikes) tasks.

Likewise, Russia’s dearth – or even complete lack – of airborne or orbital stand-off ISR assets means that Russian ground commanders have not had the situational awareness or the kind of intelligence, targeting and battle damage assessment data that Ukraine’s Western partners have probably provided, greatly helping their defensive efforts.  

Strong GBAD but little SEAD

As a consequence of the historically rooted emphasis on air defence of the homeland against a US strategic air campaign, the VKS has a large and modern territorially oriented GBAD establishment, probably integrated with air defence fighter aircraft and their ground controllers.  The army likewise has its own well-developed GBAD-units, intended to deter or blunt attacks in the field from Western air forces.  A lack of an independent role for the air force, Russia’s technical and resource constraints, and considering the weak GBAD of Western armies, there has been little need or room for VKS to develop an advanced SEAD capability.48 

Little capability for finding and hitting mobile targets or for dynamic targeting

It is striking – no pun intended – that Russia so far seems to have been unable to hit any of the Western arms shipments to Ukraine or depots and training centres for such assets, despite these being of crucial importance politically and militarily.  While Ukraine remains tight-lipped about losses and Russia often issues hyperbolic claims seldom taken seriously, there are few credible rumours of successful Russian strikes on, e.g. HIMARS launchers in the field.  This state of affairs is probably due to deficiencies in several different links of the Russian kill chain. 

Russia seems to essentially lacks ISR-resources for finding and identifying mobile targets, keeping track of them, trained staff and procedures for quickly doing the targeting, targeting pods or similar sensors for strike aircraft, and resources for proper battle damage assessment.49 As a result, Russian strike aircraft and fighter-bombers have mainly struck – besides apartment buildings, schools, theatres and shopping centres – infrastructure targets determined well in advance, and increasingly as the war progressed only tactical targets close to the front designated by army units. 

No real shock and awe initially

It was widely expected in the West that the war would start with a ‘shock and awe’ air blitz, emulating the start of the two Gulf wars, now that Russia had acquired the cruise missiles and PGMs that had been trialled out in Syria.  While the Russian campaign started with considerable air and missile strikes on key targets in Ukraine’s rear areas, the effect was neither shock, awe, nor paralysis.50 Possible reasons for this include poor accuracy and high failure rate for cruise missiles, overestimation of both the ‘kinetic’ and psychological effects of these new weapons, underestimation of Ukraine’s determination and resolve to resist, poor targeting, inaccurate maps, avoidance of infrastructure and energy targets because Russia expected soon to occupy the country, and finally but perhaps most importantly, that Ukraine’s armed forces decided to disperse its assets just before the initial attack.

Dispersion may have saved Ukraine

That Russia did not – as widely expected – win quickly and that we are now considering the possibility of a Russian defeat was contingent on several factors, not least Ukrainian resolve and resilience and Russian bungling.  But a key factor was almost certainly that the Ukrainian armed forces managed to disperse critical assets like aircraft, air defence units, and army units from their peacetime locations just days or hours before the initial attack.  Russia attacked these exact locations with cruise missiles and strike aircraft at the outset, and had the assets remained, they would probably have been destroyed, as Khan concludes.51 As Russia now can strike fixed installations all over Europe with cruise missiles, this underlines the imperative that Western air and air defence forces in Europe need to be able to disperse to alternative locations at short notice and to continue to operate from there.  Moreover, this capability needs to be exercised and tested regularly, and the mechanisms for triggering it honed.  

French Mistral surface to air missile
The French Mistral surface-to-air missile is in service with the Ukrainian Army (Wikimedia Commons)

The critical role of GBAD

A significant conclusion from this war is that the well-developed GBAD of both sides has been very effective in limiting the enemy’s freedom of action in the air domain and that the importance of ground-based air defence has been underestimated in the West.  Moreover, having just one kind of GBAD or just in a few places does not suffice.  To attain the effects seen in this war, one needs both medium-range (or rather medium-altitude) and close-range batteries, as the combination of the two makes life hard and dangerous for enemy aircraft.  Absent either one of them, the enemy can choose to fly at an altitude not effectively covered, either mid-altitude (approx. 4000 m above ground level) or low-level, where aircraft can often hide in topography and ground clutter.  But with both systems present in the same area, enemy aircraft has no such safe refuge. 

Close-range GBAD has also proved necessary to protect army units against strike aircraft and attack helicopters and infrastructure against attacks by cruise missiles and armed drones.  This means that they are needed in great numbers, and as most Western armed forces cut down on their GBAD savagely after the fall of the Berlin wall, there is a great need for recoupment and investment. 

VKS GBAD is only for home defence

As mentioned earlier, a bone of contention among Western analysts in latter years has been whether Russia has a single integrated air and missile defence system (IADS) where different components can communicate seamlessly and be interchanged or whether Russia does have three separate IADSs organised and subordinated along service lines.  A corollary of the first view is that in wartime, potent Russian VKS air defence systems like the S-300 and S-400 could be moved like pieces on a chess board and forward-deployed to contested or recently occupied territories, like, for example the Swedish island of Gotland.  In contrast, the second view is very sceptic of such notions, holding that while the army’s GBAD-assets are highly mobile and structured to follow the army into combat in the field, VKS GBAD assets are rather movable and structured for protecting a designated geographic area and working from safe and prepared positions. 

Russian S400 surface to air missile
Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile (Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, the war in Ukraine has provided a test for these two hypotheses, and it seems to come down in favour of the second hypothesis, as there is not a single report of VKS S-300, S-400 or S-350 units being deployed to the contested ground in Ukraine (excluding Crimea occupied since 2014). There are reports of S-300/400 units in Belarus and Crimea engaging targets in Ukrainian airspace, but none of any deployment there.  The only reports of VKS GBAD assets operating on contested terrain in Ukraine are of several Pantsir close-defence units being captured in the early part of the war.  Pantsirs are typically used for close defence of selected S-400 units but have also been deployed to Syria and Libya.  Their function during the initial invasion of Ukraine may have been as protection against Turkish Bayraktar drones.    

Cruise missiles replace penetrating strike aircraft 

It seems clear that the VKS is not even utilising the potential deep-strike range (up to a depth of 300 km, if the tied-to-a-leash hypothesis holds) of even its most modern strike aircraft but operating these close to the front line while relying on cruise missiles for deep strikes against fixed targets.52 This may not have been the intention initially, but seems to have evolved as a result of the dangers of flying in the face of the strong Ukrainian GBAD, in combination with the focus on infrastructure targets.  It is possible that the VKS would return to doing deep strikes (up to 300 km) if the Ukrainian GBAD ran out of missiles.  Still, it feels pretty sure that for strikes beyond 300 km, Russia will primarily rely on cruise or possibly ballistic missiles.

Limited effects of thousands of missiles

According to data from the Ukrainian MoD from November Russia had by that time fired about 3.500 long-range land-attack missiles on targets in Ukraine, but still, the Ukrainian will and capability to resist seems unbroken.53 The meagre results may partly depend on factors already mentioned, like early dispersal of military assets, high failure rate and low accuracy of missiles, and poor targeting and battle damage assessment.  But the most important factor is probably the resilience and resolve of the Ukrainians, as well as the stamina and resourcefulness of the repair crews. 

Perhaps the Western analytic community had before the war overestimated the paralysing effect that strikes on the electric grid, on public transport or the telecommunications networks would have – or their impact on the public’s morale.  At the same time, an initial strike on a major city can have significant political or psychological effects – such as the Royal Air Force attack on Berlin on 25 August 1940, or Dolittle’s raid on Tokyo in 1942 – historical experience should have taught us that terror bombing of cities seldom shatters civilian morale; on the contrary, it often hardens. (Unless the city is almost totally flattened like Hamburg 1942, Dresden 1945, Tokyo and Hiroshima 1945, or more recently Grosny, Aleppo or Mariupol.)   

Ukrainian Bayraktar
Ukrainian Bayraktar (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Drones – vulnerable yet indispensable

Drones of various kinds have proven an indispensable tool in the war so far, and they have even been called the ‘new high ground’ of the battlefield.54 As already mentioned, accounts from the war’s first phase often highlighted the successes of armed drones, notably Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 supplied to Ukraine, often accompanied by suggestive kill cam videos.  Public collections were held to raise funds for more drones, and it was even reported that mothers gave their newborns the name Bayraktar.  After the war had gone into the less mobile and more deliberate phase two, these kill-cam videos became less frequent, and reports started to emerge of high losses of drones due both to electronic warfare and to ‘kinetic’ kills, leading to a very short life expectancy.  It seems reasonable to conclude that this shift was due to drones being hyped in the initial reporting and to a rapid evolution of countermeasures. 

My FOI colleague Andreas Hörnedal has suggested that in the coming years, we will see a rapid evolution of means, countermeasures, tactics and technology for drone warfare, similar to the transformation air warfare underwent during the First World War and the interwar years.  As drones have proved indispensable in this war, Western armed forces may have to accept a shot-gun approach to acquisition and a shorter shelf-life for the equipment they buy.   

Part 3 – outstanding issues

How are Russian air forces really led and commanded?

As mentioned, many Western analysts and military establishments have tended to capability-based threat assessments and mirror-imaging their views of how the Soviet Union or Russia would use their air forces in a major war, applying Western concepts of airpower and air campaigns.  But there has always been a different strand of thinking – perhaps especially in intelligence circles – based more on Soviet/Russian doctrine and organisational culture.  This tradition emphasises that the primary tasks have remained air defence of the homeland and support to the army (and sometimes navy).  In contrast, the pilots remained tightly controlled by control officers on the ground and were given little leeway to decide things independently. (This, of course does not fully apply to long-range aviation,  i.e. strategic bombers, and perhaps not to the transport fleet.)

Reports on how the command and control for the VKS have been set up so far during the war give rise to further questions.  Zapbrodskyi et al. write that ‘…the coordination of air operations was subordinated to the military district command posts of the Ground Forces rather than the VKS.  Rather than running operations from a central combined air-operations centre, coordination of air tasking was managed by ground-based C2 and planned separately by air armies assigned to support each operational group of forces.’55

However, not long ago, what today is more or less one air force (the VVS within the VKS) were several entirely separate air forces: the air defence forces for the homeland (PVO Strany), the air force (mainly frontal aviation for supporting the army), naval aviation (part of the navy), and army aviation (mainly helicopters and part of the army).  Service-cultural inertia and the different roles played by other branches of a single service suggests that they might be led differently.  While maintaining tight control over fighter aircraft by control officers on the ground assisted by radar may be sub-optimal from a Western perspective, it might still work acceptably for the task of air defence of the homeland, but not as well for fighter-bombers given offensive tasks in hostile airspace.  There, coverage by Russian ground radars might be patchy at best, especially at the low altitudes where strike aircraft often need to fly. 

Something similar applies to reconnaissance aircraft.  Instead of direct minute-to-minute remote control from the ground assisted by radar, these types of missions would seem to call for tactical mission planning ahead of a flight, and – once a flight goes outside the airspace covered by Russian radars – for the pilots or the commander of a mission to have a greater degree of latitude and control.  The more we could find out about how this works in the VKS, the better.

Is the VKS really on such a short leash?

The implications of the conclusion that in wartime, Russian tactical ground strike aircraft would rarely venture beyond the airspace covered by VKS radars, or at most 300 km from friendly airspace, are potentially enormous.  However, the advent of cruise missiles reduces its impact somewhat.  Thus the reliability and validity of this conclusion need to be double-checked and triple-checked.  

Human versus material factors

The air war over Ukraine has turned out surprisingly even, despite Russia having considerable advantages in both numbers and the technological level of its kit.  As already noted in the initial dispersion, the strong Ukrainian GBAD and weak Russian SEAD capabilities probably played major roles in this.  But so probably did Russian hubris in planning, bungling in execution and low morale and motivation in the face of danger.  This raises the issue of the relative importance of human and material factors and to what extent and under what circumstances advantages in the human element can trump disadvantages concerning materiel and numbers.  We already knew that low morale can make even a well-equipped force more or less useless (cf. the Afghan army in 2021), but also that high morale does not come automatically to those who defend their homeland against invasion (cf. France 1940), and that strong motivation might not suffice against a capable aggressor (Poland 1939).  

Mementoes

Before Western readers of this text indulge too much in Schadenfreude or, even worse, entirely writes off Russia as a military threat in Europe, it behoves us to consider some mementoes.  It is easy to point fingers and act as a Besserwisser from a safe position on the bleachers.  However, should other European countries be subjected to the same ordeal that Ukraine is going through, they would probably be much worse, both in capabilities and will.  Although the reasons are different – a deep-seated peacetime mentality instead of endemic corruption and sleaze – the results can be similar: hollow armed forces not fit for fighting wars.  And the fabulous ‘Western’ military capabilities alluded to in this article are almost all American.  Without US participation, it would seem doubtful that a European defence could stand up to a weakened Russia. 

Although Russia’s military capabilities have turned out to be less impressive than many in the West thought before this war, the Russian armed forces are neither an operetta-type outfit nor a pushover.  As already noted, they can put whole provinces and cities to waste and make up in ruthless brutality much of what they lack in professionalism and prowess.  They wage war in an old-fashioned manner, so old-fashioned that we are talking about the Old Testament or the Thirty Year’s War, but unless stopped, that can be terrifyingly effective, as shown in Chechnya.  They have probably killed 100.000 Ukrainians and driven 10 million from their homes; they are still attacking and still hold on to 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory.

Although the Russian armed forces are likely resistant to profound change, they have already shown that they can adapt for various cultural and structural reasons during this war.  Moreover, the experience of humiliating defeats and the desire for revenge can be powerful motives for adaptation and deep military reforms – it has happened before in Russian history.  We should recall that only six years after being routed, defeated and humiliated in the Six Days War, the Egyptian army managed to shake Israel to its roots when they attacked across the Suez Canal with new tactics, new arms and an entirely new offensive spirit, initially making significant gains.  

The Yom Kippur War should also serve as a reminder.  Far-reaching conclusions were initially drawn in the West from the first week’s fighting, many prophesying the ‘death’ of the tank and the crewed aircraft due to Egypt’s successful use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.  Some perceived lessons from Russia’s current war in Ukraine may likewise be sui generis or ephemeral.

    

Robert Dalsjo HeadShot
Robert Dalsjö

Robert Dalsjö is a Swedish specialist in politico-military affairs, focussing on European hard security. Recent publications include two reports on Russian A2/AD and a forthcoming report on Western Military Capabilities. On Twitter he is @MansRAD.

Footnotes

  1. The ground-based air defence units of the VKS (except a few Pantsir units) have remained in Russian territory (plus Crimea) while the actions of attack and transport helicopters have been excluded due to economy of effort.
  2. Cf. Robert Dalsjö, Michael Jonsson and Johan Norberg, “A Brutal Examination: Russian Military Capability in Light of the Ukraine War, Survival June-July 2022; Johan Norberg and Robert Dalsjö, ”Why we got Russia wrong”, in Jenny Lundén, Göran Bergström, Peter Bull, Jan Henningsson, Johan Norberg, Peter Stenumgaard and Annica Waleij (eds.), Another Rude Awakening — Making Sense of Russia’s War Against Ukraine, FOI-R—5332—SE (Stockholm: FOI, 2022); Erik Berglund and Andreas Hörnedal, “The cruise missile will always get through”, in Lundén et al, Another Rude… ; Justin Bronk, with Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling, The Russian Air War and Ukrainian Requirements for Air Defence, RUSI Special Report, 7 November 2022; Mykhalo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds, Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February-July 2022 (London: RUSI, 2022); Michael Jonsson and Johan Norberg, “Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Military Scenarios and Outcomes”, Survival December 2022-January 2023; Ismail Khan, The Aerial War Against Ukraine – The First Six Months, FOI Memo (forthcoming); plus coverage in the major media like New York Times and Washington Post, blog posts by Lawrence Freedman and tweets and podcasts by Michael Kofman etc.
  3. Jonsson and Norberg, ”Russia’s War Against Ukraine…”, p 93-96. I have adapted the border between phases three and four somewhat.
  4. Paul Sonne, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Serhiy Morgunov and Kostiantyn Khudov, ”Battle for Kyiv: Ukrainian valor, Russian blunders combined to save the capital”, Washington Post, August 24, 2022.
  5. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 26-34.
  6. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 24; Justin Bronk, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force”, RUSI Commentary, 28 February, 2022.
  7.  Justin Bronk et al, The Russian Air War…,  p. 8.
  8. Bronk  et al, The Russian Air War…, p. 10. Since 2015 (which was rather late) Russian fighters have been equipped with active radar-guided missiles (like the US AMRAAM), which bestows several advantages as compared to the earlier types of semi-active radar-guided missiles Ukraine still uses. IISS, Russia’s Military Modernisation: An Assessment, (London: IISS, 2020), p. 129-130.
  9. Bronk et al, The Russian Air War…, p. 16.
  10. Ismail Khan, p. 8.
  11. Khan, pp. 1, 7.
  12. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 26-34.
  13. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 28.
  14. Justin Bronk, ”Getting Serious About SEAD: European Air Forces Must Learn From the Failure of the Russian Air Force Over Ukraine”, Luftled, Nr 2 2022.
  15. Khan, p. 7-8; David Axe, “Ukraine Said To Have Mauled A Russian Fighter Regiment, Shooting Down A Quarter Of Its Crews”, Forbes, 29 September, 2022.
  16. Khan, p. 5-6; “Neither shock nor awe”, Economist, February 25, 2023.
  17. Mike Pietrucha, “Amateur Hour Part II: Failing the Air Campaign”, War on the Rocks, August 11, 2022.
  18. Max Seddon, Christopher Miller and Felicia Schwartz, “How Putin blundered into Ukraine- then doubled down”, Financial Times, 23 February, 2023.
  19. Khan, p. 7; Since 1945, the US has essentially been an air-sea power, while Russia has always been primarily a land power.  Thus the USSR thought it needed very strong air defences.
  20. Bronk et al, The Russian Air War…, p. 15. Zabrodski et al (p. 34) puts this down to the absence of Ukrainian GBAD in the besieged city, but Khan (p. 8) puts it down to recklessness, claiming that Kyiv still had GBAD in place.
  21. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 51; Bronk et al, “The Russian Air War…”, p. 7, 13.
  22. Jonsson and Norberg, p. 94. The fact that Ukraine managed to hit and sink it with two shore-based anti-ship missiles indicates that the Moskva’s air defence system was far from faultless.
  23. Jonsson and Norberg, p. 94
  24. Zabrodskyi et al, pp. 40-41; Bronk et al, The Russian Air War…,
  25. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 47.
  26. Khan, p. 10.
  27. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 37.
  28. Jonsson and Norberg, p. 94-96. I have moved the far end of this phase a bit as compared to Jonsson and Norberg to encompass the withdrawal from Kherson.
  29. Hannah Ritchie, Tim Lister and Josh Pennington, “Massive blast cripples parts of Crimea-Russia bridge, in blow to Putin’s war effort”, CNN, 8 October, 2022.
  30. Kyle Mizokami, “Somehow, Ukraine Slapped U.S. Anti-Radar Missiles Onto MiG-29 Fighter Jets”, Popular Mechanics, 1 September 2022; Bronk et al, p. 18.
  31. Bronk et al,  The Russian Air War…, p. 18.
  32. Lawrence Freedman, “Gradually, then suddenly”, Comment is freed-blog, 10 September, 2022; Bronk et al, “The Russian Air War…”, p. 19.
  33. Sarah Dean, “‘They hated him.’ Former subordinate recalls serving under Russia’s new top commander in Ukraine”, CNN, 15 October, 2022; Greg Myre, Russia strikes again at Ukraine’s energy system, but damage is limited”, NPR, 5 December, 2022.
  34.  Suriya Evans-Pritchard Jayanti, “Ukraine struggles to repair electric grid as Russian airstrikes continue”, Atlantic Council blog, 13 January 2023.
  35. Pjotr Sauer, ” Putin announces partial mobilisation and threatens nuclear retaliation in escalation of Ukraine war”, Guardian, 21 September, 2022.
  36. Edward Helmore, “Petraeus: ‘US would destroy Russia’s troops if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine’”, Guardian, 2 October, 2022.
  37. Cf. Jonsson and Norberg, pp. 106-111.
  38. Lawrence Freedman, ”The Storm Before the Calm”, Comments is freed-blog, 9 February, 2023.
  39. Andrew Kramer, “In an Epic Battle of Tanks, Russia Was Routed, Repeating Earlier Mistakes”, New York Times, March 1, 2023; Lawrence Freedman, ”One Step at a Time: The Stages of War, Comments is freed-blog, 26 February, 2023; “Neither shock nor awe”, Economist, February 25, 2023.
  40. Andrew Kramer, Russia’s New Offensive Sends Conscripts Into the Teeth of Ukraine’s Lines, New York Times, 27 February, 2023.
  41. Khan, p. 7.
  42. Freedman, ”One Step…”; “Neither shock nor awe”, Economist, February 25, 2023.
  43. Robert Dalsjö, Några observationer från kriget i Ukraina av relevans för svenskt försvar, FOI Memo 7970, 11 November, 2022. The memo is being translated into English.
  44. Norberg and Dalsjö, ”Why we got Russia…”.
  45. ”The might of miltech”, Economist, February 25, 2023.
  46. Cf. Justin Bronk, ”Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?”, RUSI Defence Systems, March 4, 2022; Pavel Luzin, “Russian Air Power: Vanished or Overstated to Begin With?, Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 20, 2022, Pietrucha, “Amateur Hour Part II… “.
  47. IISS, The Military Balance 2022, (London: IISS, 2022), p. 201 and pp. 54-60. The figure for US airborne radars includes 74 Navy E-2s.
  48. Here it should be stated that in the West it is currently only the US (and Israel, if you wish) that has a useable capability for SEAD, the UK, Germany and Italy having let their capabilities lapse. This may change now. Cf. Justin Bronk, “European Air Forces Must Learn…”.
  49. Cf Berglund and Hörnedal, “The cruise missile…”, p. 32
  50. Cf Berglund and Hörnedal, “The cruise missile…”, p. 31-32
  51. Khan, p. 7.
  52. This was noted already in June: “Russia has used long-range missiles (ballistic and cruise missiles), instead of aircraft, as its primary means of reaching deep into defended Ukrainian territory, with moderate effect and at a high missile expenditure.” Berglund and Hörnedal, “The cruise missile…, p. 31
  53. This figure includes heavy anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles used in a land-attack mode, but not Shaheed-136s provided by Iran. Igor Kossov, “How many missiles does Russia have left?, Kyiv Independent, January 13, 2023. Berglund and Hörnedal (p. 29-30) quoted figures from Newsweek claiming that by mid-May Russia had already fired 2905 long-range land-attack missiles.  Both figures can hardly be correct, given the intensity of the barrage during the autumn of 2022, especially after the Kerch bridge was struck.
  54. Josefine Owetz and Annica Ögren, ”Krigets påverkan på svenskt försvar”, Officerstidningen, Nr 1 2023.
  55. Zabrodskyi et al, p. 45.

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