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Russia’s Air Force Can’t Own the Skies Over Ukraine. We Know Why

Su-57 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Su-57 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Why can’t Russia’s might Air Force dominate over Ukraine? The reason are complicated: As experts the world over continue to try to divine why Russia has failed to capture air dominance over Ukraine nearly two weeks into the fighting, stories, pictures and videos of Russian aircraft being downed by Ukraine’s military continue to surface. It would seem that popular perceptions of Russia’s military—which have been intentionally shaped by Moscow for years—are beginning to unravel as Russian forces pour further into its embattled neighbor.

On paper, Russia’s Air Force outnumber Ukraine’s by more than 20 to 1, and while no one expected Russia to send every combat aircraft they have into Ukraine, Russia’s inability to dominate the skies despite such a massive numbers advantage, and while further bolstered by advanced surface-to-air defense systems like the S-400 Triumpf, is hard to wrap your head around.

Regardless of the reasons behind Russia’s failure to secure air supremacy, the nation’s inability to do so has allowed for valuable tactical and political victories for Ukraine over the past two weeks, from the legends of a Ukrainian ACE MiG-29 pilot known as the Ghost of Kyiv inspiring Ukrainians and others around the world, to stories of small Ukrainian drones destroying Russian armor in a 40-kilometer long traffic jam of Russian hardware headed toward Kyiv.

Because of Russia’s dominant numbers, the story tends to be focused on what Russia’s doing wrong, but that shouldn’t discount the incredible bravery and heroism shown by Ukrainian warfighters and civilians alike, often using man-portable anti-air weapons (MANPADs) to take on Russian aircraft directly. And not to be dismissed either are the incredible Ukrainian pilots, men and women like the Grey Wolf—who was shot down near Kyiv last week—who are taking to the sky despite overwhelming odds to square off with some of Russia’s best as they defend their nation.

Russia’s Air Force isn’t facing one problem, but a symphony of them

Numerous arguments have surfaced to explain Russia’s lack of air supremacy, from their lack of precision ordnance limiting the pace of sorties to Russian pilots’ and air defense system operators lacking combat competency—making the chances of friendly fire too high. In an excellent piece of analysis from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), research fellow Justin Bronk offers a number of insights into Russia’s air superiority struggle. While the article warrants reading, here are some important conclusions from Bronk’s essay:

In another story from The Aviationist, defense analyst Guy Plopsky offers some further explanation for Russia’s inability to dominate the skies over Ukraine, adding to Bronk’s list. Plopsky highlights how some Ukrainian air defense systems seem to still be in operation days after the war began, and points to Russia’s lack of a dedicated suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) platform akin to America’s Wild Weasel F-16s, which are modified specifically for their role in hunting down and destroying air defense systems.

“On this note, while Russia’s operational-tactical aviation includes many aircraft types capable of employing anti-radiation missiles, it lacks a dedicated SEAD platform. There are no Russian ‘Wild Weasels,’” Plopsky explains.

A lack of a dedicated SEAD platform and training alone isn’t the culprit, but it may be when added to Russia’s very slow processing of strike packages followed by even slower battle assessments of those strikes, Plopsky points out. In short, Russia’s approach to attacking air defenses is proving rather ineffective.

The most logical explanation, as laid out by experts around the world, seems to be an unwieldy combination of problems, some of which are related to the current fighting, and many of which can likely be attributed to Russia’s funding priorities in recent years.

Russia’s military prioritizes perception of capability over actual capability

As we’ve covered time and time again at Sandboxx News, Russia has devoted a huge amount of resources into converting its defense apparatus into a rolling advertising platform for foreign weapons and equipment sales. The nation’s stagnating economy, already struggling under international sanctions, has severely limited Russia’s ability to modernize its military force. But Russia has continued to fund the development of new weapons and systems aimed at garnering a great deal of attention, rather than focusing on maintaining or improving its existing equipment fleets. Why would Russia do such a thing?

Well, to put it simply, Russia just can’t afford to mass-produce advanced platforms like the Su-57 stealth fighter or T-14 Armata tank without foreign interests footing the bill.

Russia’s annual defense budget floats at right around $60 billion annually, but to be fair, that figure can be a bit misleading. Russia spends less on just about everything across the board, from salaries and benefits for personnel to manufacturing and material costs, but even when accounting for these discrepancies, their total spending power is still a mere fraction of America’s or China’s. We’ve discussed before how China hides a great deal of its defense spending behind the guise of domestic programs, as well as how China pays its troops significantly less than other developed nations, but even if we didn’t include those factors, China’s claimed budget remains nearly three-times that of Russia’s.

But whenever the media covers advanced military capabilities like stealth fighters or hypersonic weapons, Russia is presented not just as a peer to big spenders in the East and West, but it’s often even suggested that Russia may be ahead of the United States in developing and fielding new technologies. This isn’t just the result of wanton sensationalism in Western media (though that certainly plays a role), it’s important to remember that this hype is a product of Russian design.

Reflexive Control and stealth fighters

The Kremlin’s approach to information operations (IO) has long been based on the Reflexive Control methodology that’s taught in Russian military academies and leveraged within Russian military doctrine.

“Reflexive control is a ‘uniquely Russian’ concept based on maskirovka, an old Soviet notion in which one ‘conveys to an opponent specifically prepared information to incline him/her to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action’. That is, reflexive control is a sustained campaign that feeds an opponent select information so that the opponent makes the decisions that one wants him/her to. “

Disinformation and Reflexive Control: The New Cold War” by Annie Kowalewski; published by the Georgetown Security Studies Review

Reflexive Control is usually brought up in conversations about Russia’s efforts to meddle in foreign elections, sew discord in foreign populations, or discredit efforts to hold Russia accountable for its aggressive actions, but it has proven just as effective in managing perceptions of Russia’s military-industrial complex in recent years.

The Kremlin is well aware of how the world’s media reports on advanced military technologies, leaning hard on sensationalized headlines based on national or manufacturer claims and almost always without any broader context into the history or potential use of the new hardware. When Russia unveiled their new Su-75 Checkmate—said to be a budget-busting stealth fighter many compared to America’s F-35—we saw the media (including Sandboxx News) flood the world with coverage, highlighting what Russia says this new fighter will do and comparing it to what we know (or believe) other 5th generation platforms are capable of.

But was the fervor surrounding Checkmate actually justified? Russia unveiled what proved to be a largely wooden mock-up of what this notional fighter might look like if one is ever built, but as far as most of the world’s coverage was concerned, Russia might as well have already put this jet into production. The media wasn’t forced to report as such, nor were they colluding with Moscow. It’s just a matter of the modern media industry and Russia’s willingness and ability to manipulate it for their own ends.

The truth, however, is that Russia’s Checkmate is currently nothing more than a design on a sheet of paper. To date, Russia has struggled to kick-start production on their existing stealth fighter, the Su-57 Felon. In fact, while the U.S. and China both operate stealth fighter fleets with unit counts in the triple digits, Russia has only 12 hand-built prototypes and 2 serial production stealth fighters in all.

Without a foreign investor willing to pay to build the Checkmate, we’ll likely see it follow in the Felon’s footsteps… with a token number of hand-built jets flown in parades and called “highly capable” as Russia continues to court partners with deeper pockets.

Russia knows exactly how to stir the media into a frenzy over dramatic new advances in military technology, but it’s also well aware of how the media won’t be nearly as interested in corrections to come weeks or months later. Russia’s Uran-9 ground combat drone, for instance, was deployed to Syria with great fanfare for Russia. Months later, when reports of the drone’s repeated and egregious failures finally bubbled to the surface, media coverage of its failure was simply drowned out by the trending outrages and anxieties of the day.

Russia’s first hypersonic weapon, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, is another excellent example. It’s actually a 1988-era Iskander short-range ballistic missile married to a new targeting apparatus and mounted on a dated fighter (the MiG-31). Once again, Russia’s stockpile of Kinzhals is reportedly limited to just 10 weapons, but that hasn’t stopped outlet after outlet from reporting on them as though the Kinzhal represents a significant leap in Russian weapons technology.

Su-35 Russia

Su-35 fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

With so little money to go around, Russia’s heavy investment in problem-ridden but headline-grabbing programs like nuclear-powered cruise missiles, stealth fighters, infantry drones, UCAVs, nuclear drone torpedoes, hypersonic weapons, and others has clearly come at the expense of modernizing or even maintaining large swaths of the force.

After nearly two weeks of fighting over Ukraine, that problem with priorities seems to extend into Russia’s air power apparatus, substantiating conclusions others have made about a lack of training, a lack of precision weapons, and a lack of capability to conduct complex operations in a hectic environment.

Russia still poses a threat, despite its failings

The problem with writing stories like this, especially while Russian forces continue to push into Kyiv, is that our modern upvote/downvote culture struggles to appreciate the nuance in saying Russia is not nearly as capable as they may seem but are also capable enough to warrant concern. As such, demonstrating Russia’s ineffectual approach to military priorities might read a lot like a dismissal of the threat Russia poses to the U.S., its allies, or its interests at large.

That isn’t the case. Instead, this sort of analysis is aimed at ensuring our efforts to mitigate Russia’s threats are based on the reality of their capabilities, rather than public perceptions of them.

Russia’s military, despite floundering in Ukraine, remains among the largest in the world, and of course, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is nothing to be dismissed. But concerns about Russia expanding this conflict into a global war, invading Europe, or taking on the United States are based more on Russia’s hard-earned perception of might than on Russia’s mediocre military reality.

Russian Military

Image Credit: Russian Military.

Russia New Stealth Fighter

Image of Russia’s Su-57 fighter. Creative Commons.

Russia’s massive collection of air assets could feasibly lay waste to huge swaths of Ukraine if ordered to do so. The nation boasts the airframes and ordnance necessary, but blanketing the nation in unguided bombs has—thus far—not been a part of Putin’s plan to quickly replace Ukraine’s government with a friendly asset. Their inability to perform complex operations with high precision shouldn’t be seen as an inability to kill thousands if their objectives shift.

But to be clear, Russia should have already been able to secure air dominance over Ukraine without resorting to carpet-bombing anything that even resembles an air-defense system or soldier carrying a MANPAD. The fact that they haven’t is a solid argument in favor of the idea that… maybe they simply lack the ability to do so, lack faith in their troops to pull it off, or lack the training necessary to succeed.

In any regard, the perceptions of Russia’s military prowess are finally starting to align with Russia’s military reality, and nowhere is that more clear than in the skies over Ukraine.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.