Editor’s Note: This piece is a companion to the latest members-only podcast, The Russia Contingency with Michael Kofman. In this latest episode, Michael speaks with Justin Bronk and Jack Watling, both senior research fellows at the Royal United Services Institute, in great detail about the air war over Ukraine, and their recent observations from field research in the country.
The Russian Aerospace Forces have struggled during the war against Ukraine. However, Russian jets and helicopters were far more active in the early days of the war than has been 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 initial weeks of the war. These ground-based air defenses have kept Russian airpower at arm’s length and consequently ineffective since mid-March 2022. However, the Russian Aerospace Forces remain a major threat if Ukrainian air defense systems are allowed to run out of ammunition and steadily attritted. Ukraine is also under sustained missile and loitering munition bombardment that is draining air defense ammunition and causing nationwide electricity and water blackouts. Therefore, Ukraine’s Western partners need to prioritize sending air defense assistance such as the Western-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, along with shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems and modern anti-aircraft gun systems like the German-built Gepard.
The Unseen 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 advancing Russian ground forces and hundreds of cruise missile and ballistic missile strikes. The fighter jets and bombers of the Russian air force appeared to be largely absent during the first few days of the invasion, and then subsequently began to suffer losses in low-level bombing attacks against Ukrainian positions and besieged cities in early March. Since then, Russia’s inability to win air superiority over Ukraine has been a major factor in determining the course of the invasion. In the absence of the capacity on either side to use airpower effectively at scale, the war so far has been decided by land-based artillery firepower, guided by drones against maneuvering armored vehicles 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 fighter patrol operations with its combat aircraft during the first days of the invasion than had previously been documented. According to interviews with Ukrainian Air Force commanders, Russian electronic warfare attacks, effective use of aerial decoys, and long-range missile strikes suppressed or damaged most of Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems at the start of the invasion. This left Ukraine’s outnumbered and outgunned fighter pilots trying to defend the skies on their own, and they took significant losses until the ground-based defenses could be restored to effective operations after the third day of the conflict.
During this initial three-day window, Russian strike aircraft flew hundreds of sorties to bomb targets up to 300 kilometers inside Ukrainian-controlled territory. They would have continued to do so if the Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems like the long-range S-300, medium range SA-11 “Buk,” and short-range SA-8 “Osa” had not been brought back into action to make flying at medium and high altitudes prohibitively dangerous for Russian aircraft. Once Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems were back in action, Russian jets and helicopters were unable to effectively find, suppress, and destroy them. Consequently, they were instead forced to fly very low, which left them unacceptably vulnerable to the short-range shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems that the West supplied in large quantities to Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the RUSI report has also shown that Russian fighter aircraft flying near the frontlines continue to inflict serious losses on Ukrainian pilots, who are stuck flying Soviet-era jets that are completely technically outclassed. Essentially, the Russian air force only failed to win air superiority over Ukraine thanks to its inability so far to hunt down and destroy Ukraine’s mobile surface-to-air missile systems. However, these are hard for Western partners to resupply because they are Soviet-made systems that the West has never manufactured. Replacing them with Western systems is also difficult because Western militaries have few surface-to-air missile launchers and limited missile stocks as a result of having had assured air superiority in conflicts since the end of the Cold War. This matters, because the Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems that are so crucial to holding back the Russian air force are not only being slowly attritted, but they also have finite ammunition.
So far Western military aid has overwhelmingly focused on ground equipment like tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers and anti-tank rocket launchers. This was for good reason — the Russian army has been by far the biggest threat to Ukraine up until now, especially because the Russian air force has not been able to operate effectively since the first few days of the invasion. However, the Russian air force remains a serious threat to Ukraine’s hard-won progress on the ground. If Ukraine is not provided with urgent additional support in terms of missile ammunition for its Soviet-era surface-to-air missile systems, as well as new Western ones such as the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems in quantity over time, then Russian jets could find themselves with much more freedom to bomb Ukrainian troops, cities, and infrastructure near the frontlines in the coming months.
Russia’s Missile Bombardment Strategy
Ukraine is also under renewed and potentially very serious bombardment from Russian cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 loitering munitions. The Russian military has so far failed to concentrate its limited arsenal of expensive cruise and ballistic missiles on any one target set to cause strategically decisive effects. Ukraine is, after all, a huge and resilient country. However, with the addition of the Shahed-136, this latest strike campaign is more threatening. The small loitering munitions are relatively “dumb” weapons, being quite slow, relatively easy to shoot down individually, and only able to reliably hit fixed targets. However, they are cheap — around $25,000 per munition — and their 20 to 40 kilogram warhead capacity is sufficient to badly damage smaller infrastructure targets and buildings.
Russia is using these weapons to target the Ukrainian electricity and water grids as winter approaches, using its remaining expensive cruise and ballistic missiles to hit large targets like major power stations and interconnectors while using hundreds of Shahed-136s to hit smaller substations and pumping stations. This is having serious effects after only around a month of strikes. Most Ukrainian cities are down to a few hours of electricity and water per day. Ukrainian forces continue to shoot down the majority of the Shahed-136s and more than half of the cruise missiles fired. However, this effort is rapidly depleting Ukraine’s stocks 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 resupply shipments of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and additional radar-guided anti-aircraft guns like the German Gepard that can reliably destroy the Shahed-136 loitering munitions at a sustainable cost per interception.
While the general perception that the Russian Aerospace Forces have been ineffective during the invasion so far is largely correct, this should not obscure the real threat that they still pose if Ukraine’s air defenses are not urgently reinforced. During the first three days of the war, Russian jets flew hundreds of strike sorties and fighter sweeps, and the Ukrainian Air Force fighter pilots took serious casualties trying to hold them back. The reason why Russia’s airpower has been so ineffective since then is that the Russian Aerospace Forces lack the capacity to plan, fly, and sustain the sort of large and complex strike packages required to conduct effective suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses against Ukrainian mobile surface-to-air missile systems. However, they still possess formidable fighters and strike aircraft with heavy firepower that could be devastating if they are allowed to regain the ability to operate sustainably at medium level over Ukrainian territory.
If Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles are allowed to be attritted away over time by drones and artillery without reinforcement or replacement, and their ammunition depleted, then the Ukrainian Air Force will not be able to hold back Russian airpower over the frontlines. There are limited numbers of Western surface-to-air missile systems available, and procuring missiles and replacement launchers and radars for Soviet-made systems from elsewhere in the world to supply to Ukraine is politically difficult, so this will be a serious challenge in the medium term. Ultimately, therefore, a sustainable air defense posture for Ukraine is also likely to require at least some Western fighter aircraft able to engage Russian fighters on more equal terms. Such fighters would need to be able to operate from the small, relatively rough dispersed airbases that Ukraine’s fighters use to avoid being hit by Russian missile strikes.
The military momentum on the ground has swung decisively in Ukraine’s favor, especially following the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, and it has a real chance to drive Russian forces from the occupied territories in spring and summer 2023. However, this will not only 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 up to now, and to repel the ongoing assault on the critical infrastructure that Ukrainian civilians rely on for warmth, light, and clean water this winter.
Justin Bronk is the Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology in the Military Sciences team at the defense and security think tank RUSI in London. His Twitter handle is @Justin_Br0nk
Image: Wikimedia Commons