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The Air War over Ukraine: Why Can’t Russia or Ukraine Claim Victory?

Su-35 over Ukraine
Su-35 over Ukraine. Image Credit: TASS/Russian state media.

Five months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what lessons can we draw from the air war?

SEAD Is Hard

For analysts, one of the most surprising developments of the first weeks of the war was the inability of the Russian air force to establish supremacy and operate freely across Ukraine. This judgment was formed from experience of American and NATO wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, where Western aircraft quickly swept the skies of enemy aircraft and the ground of enemy defensive missiles. Over Ukraine, Russian aircraft have struggled to identify and destroy Ukrainian defensive systems. Indeed, many of the successful Russian attacks on Ukrainian SAM systems have come on land, rather than through the air.

And as Justin Bronk points out, the SEAD problems revealed during the Russia-Ukraine War may portend future difficulties for the West. At this point, no country other than the United States should have much in the way of confidence about being able to exert its will over an enemy SAM network. Indeed, used effectively, modern air defenses appear capable of exerting attrition on air forces that even the United States has not been willing to tolerate in recent conflicts.

Air Supremacy is Hard to Establish

Even now Russia has not been able to establish air supremacy over Ukraine. The problem facing the Russians is not, as was the case in Vietnam, political; the Russians have no compunctions against striking airfields and staging areas deep in Ukraine. What they lack is the means to do so safely and effectively. Ukrainian fighters operating within defensive missile networks and near their own bases can hold their own against Russian interlopers, even with massive Russian numerical superiority. Ukrainian pilots can (and do) decline battle under disadvantageous circumstances, and Russia lacks the long-range strike capabilities to force them to engage. This means that despite lacking advantages in numbers, the Ukrainian air force can continue to fly and engage in operations that support Ukrainian land and sea objectives.

Human and Industrial Capital

Building an air force is hard, apparently.

Both Russia and Ukraine have struggled with stocks and flows of airpower. On the Ukrainian side, visions of supplying Kyiv with a ready-made air force rapidly fell apart in the face of the need to train pilots and maintainers on new aircraft and new variants of old aircraft. A lack of spares and maintenance facilities have made it difficult for Ukraine to keep its available planes in the air, although this problem has eased a bit as the floodgates of Eastern European equipment have opened. The aircraft of today are sufficiently distinct even from the jets of the 1960s in their complexity that the lead time for putting effective pilots into cockpits that they can operate has grown to months and even years. Thus, any strategy of delivering new aircraft to Ukraine requires considerable institutional and industrial effort.

This has also affected Russian strategy. Despite substantial stocks of existing aircraft, Russia can simply not afford to throw aircraft into an offensive in which it would suffer high levels of attrition. Russian industry can’t replace the aircraft and Russian training infrastructure can’t replace the pilots. Russia has no interest in grinding its existing fleets into dust in this war, a decision which has limited the extent of its use of airpower.

Both Drones and Fixed Wing Make a Contribution

Drones have undoubtedly played a huge role in the war thus far, with Ukrainian UAVs helping to blunt and eventually disintegrate the reckless Russian offensives of the first weeks of the conflict. Relatively cheap and relatively expendable, these aircraft played a critical role at a desperate time. As the war has continued, the primary contribution of drones appears to have been less the showy strikes conducted by TB2s, and more the short-range reconnaissance undertaken by diverse families of short range UAVs operated by infantry and artillery teams on either side of the conflict.

But here also there is pushback. Russia has dramatically improved its electronic countermeasures, disrupting Ukrainian control over UAVs and making them easier to destroy. The density of Russian forces in the Donbas has made possible the use of a variety of anti-aircraft weapons that can deal with different drones at different altitudes. Altogether, drones are playing a very similar role to that played by recon and light strike aircraft in previous wars, but they have by no means completely replaced the contribution made by larger, faster fixed-wing aircraft.

Parting Thoughts

The air war over Ukraine has not been decisive in any of the ways that we normally use the term. Neither Russia nor Ukraine can claim decisive victory, as the former has not destroyed the latter and the latter has not insulated the airspace from the former. At the same time, it would be wrong to argue that airpower has failed. The success of airpower missions (from long-range strike to close air support to reconnaissance to transport) have been critical to local victories (the defeat of the offensive on Kyiv, the success of the Russian offensive in the Donbas) if not to the war as a whole.

In the next several months, the ability of Ukraine to draw upon Western assets to win air superiority (or at least equality) could have dramatic effects on the course of the war.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. TG

    July 21, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    I am no military professional, but it would seem to me that “AirPower” still exists, in a functional sense, just it has moved away from manned aircraft.

    What did AirPower do in the past? Well, airplanes would fly over enemy airspace, scout targets, and strike them. If you lose AirPower to an emery, you lost the ability to maneuver etc.

    But airplanes are expensive and fragile, and there are too many cheap and effective ways of shooting them down. But now we have a variety of scouting technologies: drones, yes, but also satellites, electronic surveillance, etc., and can use those to surveil the battlefield – and then strike anything you want with precision artillery or rockets etc.

    So in a functional sense, the Ukrainians have air superiority (or at least, parity) over the Russians! If the Russians try to organize a ground assault, the Ukrainians can watch all the forces assemble in real time, and then pound them on all side as they try to advance. Even if the Russian try to move their forces behind the lines, increasingly the Ukrainians can still target and pound on them.

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    July 21, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    Is a weapons system that is too expensive/valuable to lose really worth having? That may be THE big question in 21st century military affairs.

  3. Legionnaire

    July 21, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    Are you high? Ukraine barely has an air force or air defense network to speak of since the first week of the war, at least not ones that can be used with any serious affect. Russia won the air war in the first few days. The few remaining aircraft and air defenses Ukraine has can barely be used. They have maybe 1 S300 that managed to survive the opening SEAD sorties, and its the one somewhere around Kiev that shot at some air targets not too long ago. The Ukrainians are reduced to manpads as their only significant air defense “system”. The surviving Ukrainian air force and few airfields that can still be used allow Ukraine to run an extremely low amount of sporadic and very dangerous sorties that are pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

    What you dont understand is that NATO’s way of war is NATO’s way of war, not Russia’s. Russia’s military doctrine includes a focus on the ground force’s ability to fight without total air superiorty, and the air force’s role as defensive/reactive in nature. This is almost the exact opposite of the way the US fights.

  4. HAT451

    July 21, 2022 at 3:53 pm

    There is one other major contributing factor. Russian air doctrine calls for limited air superiority, within the operational area, while US doctrine calls for total superiority. In this aspect the Russians will fight as they trained to fight.

    Although this conflict started somewhat of an symmetrical in terms of technology with assistance to Ukraine, it is turning into an asymmetrical, as flow or replacements outnumbers the losses Ukraine is suffering in the air battle. While, at the same time Russia has a military industrial complex sufficient to replace their losses.

    Russia’s mistake especially in the early part of the war, was it’s underestimation of the effectiveness of drones, on the battlefield, everything from a militarized toy quadcopter to systems akin to the US’s Predator.

  5. Eric-ji

    July 21, 2022 at 4:08 pm

    Does this writer get paid to create profound ideas such as, “In the next several months, the ability of Ukraine to draw upon Western assets to win air superiority (or at least equality) could have dramatic effects on the course of the war.”?

    I am stunned. Not by the perspicacity of this writer but by his shallowness. Reminds me of a college friend, an economics major, who said “if you knew what you were doing, I think a person could make a lot of money in the stock market”. True story.

  6. pagar

    July 21, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Air war, or air power, is GENERALLY effective only if your ‘victim’ is isolated i.e. has no ‘back support mountain’.

    Reason being air war is expensive and hard to operate. Air war on iraq was successful because saddam was isolated.

    But air war or air power was’nt successfully in nam, afghanistan or yemen. In ukraine, kyiv has massive support from biden and NATO, so massive that part of the ‘aid’ has been diverted to the black markey.

    Russia caan’t maintain air power due to severe crippling sanctions and china has been threatened outright by biden officials, including yellen (!) if it so much so dared to donate or sell one single chip or missile part to russia.

    Thus russia today needs to rely on artillery and ground missiles to whack the fascist-nazist ukro mobs refusing to let go of donbass.

  7. Andrew M Winter

    July 22, 2022 at 9:52 am

    There is an issue here that no one is looking at. Background. The US has been training Ukraine’s Air Force up to the NATO interoperability standard since 1993, according to this article, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/44965/u-s-f-15-pilot-on-what-it-is-like-fighting-against-ukraines-fighter-pilots.

    The program, for which there is a link in the above article, is this one,
    https://www.nationalguard.mil/leadership/joint-staff/j-5/international-affairs-division/state-partnership-program/

    So Ukraine has the knowledge base. Ukraine’s air force has the training program that can train new pilots up to standard. Know How isn’t the problem. Assets are.

    But there is a huge geopolitical problem with simply “giving” Ukraine the air power they need to dominate over the skies above Russian Forces. Once Ukraine can do that exactly what geographical point the “Russian Forces” are sitting on no longer matters. Those forces could be defending the outskirts of Moscow and it wouldn’t matter, the sky is the sky and it knows no political boundaries. If you gain air superiority it isn’t limited geographically by anything other than the range of your aircraft.

    So what happens when Ukraine has the means to achieve and maintain Air Superiority? WE DO NOT KNOW.

    Morally, Ethically, even religiously and philosophically there just isn’t that much of a difference between a Russian and a Ukrainian. The People and the Armed Forces of Ukraine are PISSED OFF. They are angry and very very hungry for PAYBACK. Not mere reparations, but real, massacre generating PAYBACK. Okay fine, this is understandable. But, …

    Yeah but,…

    Russia has nukes, and if Ukraine demonstrates the ability to literally drive Russia out of Ukraine, Ukraine will be demonstrating that they have the wherewithal to stage and offensive thrust from Kharkiv to Moscow, which is only a matter of 400 miles. They have the tanks, that have the speed. They have been training to take advantage of Russia’s blind sides since 2014, all that’s missing is the Air Superiority.

    But Russia has nukes. NATO knows Russia has nukes. Give Ukraine the means and they go ape S**t nuts and invade Russia proper and start winning? Russia goes to her nukes, and about an hour later humanity is staring extinction the face.

    NATO knows this, and Gawd Help Us ALL if NATO screws this up.

    My prediction is this, Ukraine will never be given the means to dominate the air over Russian Forces. The best that will be achieved is some kind of military political maneuver wherein Russia is baited into shooting first at a NATO asset. At that point NATO in a measured response could establish a “NO FLY ZONE” over the Black Sea and Ukraine. The peace could be kept, and nuclear war averted.

    Unleash Ukraine, and you could be unleashing Armageddon. This mess in Ukraine has brought us closer to nuclear war than the Cuban Missile crisis did.

  8. SuzanneL

    July 22, 2022 at 11:29 am

    Why? They were waiting on the drone fleet sale to the Russians from Iran with
    the drones reverse engineered from the “crashed” drone Obama gave them.

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