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Putin Has a Problem: The Russian Air Force Looks Like a Joke in Ukraine

Russia's Su-34
Russian Air Force Su-34 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

What is up with the Russian air force? It has a quantitative and qualitative advantage in airplanes – plenty of modern fighters and powerful bombers (almost 4,000 altogether). Vladimir Putin and his generals thought that Russian warplanes would make mincemeat of the Ukrainian air force and destroy multiple targets on the ground to achieve air superiority in a matter of days. It’s been months since the invasion, and we still don’t have much evidence that Russia can dominate the skies like they thought they could.

As of June 24, Russia has lost 81 aircraft, while Ukraine has lost only 39.

What Has Kept the Russian Air Force From Delivering the Goods?

Russia was supposed to destroy Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems in the opening days of the war to create initial separation and safe flying for its airplanes. This didn’t happen. It was supposed to be shock and awe but early attacks accomplished little. And Russian ground forces suffered from a lack of close air support, especially when it came to saving tanks and armored personnel carriers traveling in long columns. The Bayraktar TB2 drone took over and Ukrainian fighters bombed Russia’s armor to great effect.

Stay Away and Fire from Long-range

Generally, the Russian airplanes are flying out of range of Ukrainian air defenders and firing standoff guided munitions that are not really changing the status of the war, according to British Military Intelligence.

They Are Running Out of the Best Weapons

They may have achieved some superiority over the Donbas region, but Justin Bronk, writing in RUSI.org doesn’t think this will be a decisive contribution to winning the fight from the air. Russia’s precision-guided missiles are sparse. Fighters such as the Su-34 and Su-25 that have a reputation of being “tanks in the air” have been forced to rely on unguided dumb bombs and rockets.

Now Flying Low to Avoid Air Defenses

Lacking smart munitions, these fighters have been forced to fly low to the ground to avoid SAMs and create a better sight picture for their bombs and rockets. This has resulted in pilot error and the loss of two Su-25s that have crashed into the ground. Shoulder-fired Stingers and medium-range radar-guided air defenders have also taken a toll on Russian airplanes.

The Russian Air Force had Little Real-World Experience in Contested Airspace

Russia may have bombed targets in Syria successfully, but this was not contested air space. Same with the war against Georgia in 2008. They simply don’t have experience utilizing air power in a larger theater with numerous enemy air defenses and fighters.

“Russia has never fully appreciated the use of airpower beyond support to ground forces,” David A. Deptula, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, told The Atlantic.  “As a result, Russia, in all its wars, has never conceived of or run a strategic air campaign.”

It May Be Poor Training

Some of these failures go back to training. Russia doesn’t have continuous major air exercises that replicate battles, and they don’t train their pilots with elaborate flight simulators as Western pilots do.

Overall Lack of Air Force Talent

Russian officers also do not have the skills to accomplish the difficult staff work that can support air operations. This takes ample planning and operational foresight. Flying these missions also requires effective teamwork from leadership, maintenance staff, ordnance and avionics technicians, and pilots at a high scale to be successful. Russia seems to lack all of these concerted efforts.

The Russian Air Force had Problems Before the War

Maintenance may also be a factor. The rigors of warfare require technical crews and ample spare parts to keep the airplanes in the air. Even before the war, Russia’s air force struggled with faulty ejection seats that led to dead aviators and in-air collisions involving fighters that killed even more pilots.

The human factor of war is a variable that is difficult to predict. How will pilots, support crews, and battle planners react to a shooting war? The Ukrainians are playing for keeps and flying like heroes to protect their homeland. Are Russian air force personnel even up to the challenge? They seem to have overplayed their hand and entered the war overconfident – lacking real training or experience in prior wars. Now they must fly extremely low altitude missions that can lead to accidents or fly out of range of air defenses while expending all of their precision-guided munitions. This is not leading to a successful air campaign.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 30, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    Russia can manufacture replacement artillery shells more quickly than it can manufacture replacement aircraft. This reality seems to be driving their approach at this point.

  2. Olga

    June 30, 2022 at 1:59 pm

    The Russian troops are a joke the Russian Air force are a joke the leadership is non existent and if Russian never had so much artillery the would have been crushed already by Ukraine. Putin is a compulsive liar and are all these super new weapons he brags about actually as good as he says? No is the answer its all mouth Russia build cheap weapons and they come back to haunt them. Take Russian Air systems s 300 s400 touted can take out missiles 3 million miles away easily yet Ukrain has destroyed 112 Russian Air defences since Hitler 2 the Neo Nazi Russian little 1 inch price putin invaded , speaks volumes the 1 inch clock putin gas been so busy with his cronies and kremlin robbing Russia blind all maintenance for military have been overlooked and basically they have a mass of dated rusty old shit weapons that are no use to man or beast that is of course unless you are buffalo Bill the inch clock putin if he fired a nuke has every chance of boomeranging back to Russia and nuking Russia. Inch man tiddler putin might decimate his own country.if he don’t we will .

  3. Old Desert Coyote

    June 30, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    War is a complex, nasty, and expensive business. I have a friend who made quite a lot of CHC, “Cold Hard Cash” by buying brand New Cj-5’s from China, Re-engining them with Lycoming O360’s, up dating the avionics to modern Collins stuff, and making a bundle. He then returned all the original engines and avionics to china to be purchased by the Chinese air force as new for spares. Now you might ask how he got brand new CJ-5’s? Simple he had a Col. in the Chinese Air force that was declaring these CJ-5 surplus and then sold them to any buyer he could find.
    Similar deals could be had from the Russian Air Force.

    Hell he had a side deal where he would buy spare parts for MIG-21’s and MIG-23’s and sell to India and Indonesia. (I won’t even mention his dealings with American alphabet agencies) to get modern Soviet combat Aircraft and transport aircraft plus spare parts for their own black bag operations. Massive corruption runs rampant in Russian and Chinese militaries.

  4. speedster

    June 30, 2022 at 9:14 pm

    Informative article, the Global corruption rank of 136, for Russia, speaks volumes for its lack of performance in Ukraine. China is ranked 66, and most western countries are within the top 20 ranking.
    Obviously Putin and his regime can be blamed for the dilapidated state of the military.Russia is a communist state in all but name, when you consider that Putin was a KGB, operative in Berlin when the wall fell.

    Communism or socialism by its other title is ostensibly to champion the workers share of the profits of their labour. Unfortunately and inevitably the bargain always turn a out that a socialist is appointed dictator. Russians would like to hide the fact that Hitler was a national socialist party member. So Nazism and communists are related.

    The other side of socialism is the obvious concentration of power through the dictator, leading to cronyism and lack of dissent. Since inevitably media is controlled there occurs a perfect breeding ground for corruption in a grand scale. Perhaps the disgruntled worker might start thinking that capitalism wasn’t so bad.

    • Garrett

      July 1, 2022 at 4:57 pm

      What a moron. It’s the Democratic Republic of North Korea does that make it Democratic. Sorry wingnuts Nazism is a far right ideology it’s all yours. Ps don’t make me explain Buffalo wings to you

  5. Fluffy Dog

    July 1, 2022 at 9:53 am

    Soviet pilots had never had sufficient air training, and the simulators were way behind the Western versions and very few in numbers. Russian pilots had even less air time. It had been documented by Western analysts. Ukrainian pilots, while part of the USSR, had the same problems as the Russians, naturally.
    After gaining independence, Ukraine turned out to be as corrupt as Russia but without any sense of the problems associated with statehood. Ukrainian AF did not have the money to let pilots fly for 20 years.
    That changed after 2014 when Ukraine started training pilots for real. Today, after observing Russian pilots, Ukrainians claim that they can take off and land during the day, and that is it. That comports with observed Russian experience in Syria: no opposing air defenses, no opposing AF – do what you want. That is not flying.
    Ukrainians learnt a lot since 2014, and their pilots show that they can fly low and can dogfight the Russians as equals even though their aircraft lags behind Russian aircraft by 20 years technologically.

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