The largest “mystery” of the Russia-Ukraine war could easily be seen as the continued inability for either military to achieve air superiority in the now year-long conflict. Any simple look at the numbers shows Russia operates with a massive advantage in terms of pure numbers of fighter jets when compared with Ukraine, yet the Russian military has as of yet not succeeded in achieving air superiority. Why?
Certainly many of the exact reasons may be difficult to specify, as much of Russia’s apparent lack of success clearly relates to the sheer tenacity, will and fighting intensity of Ukrainians defending their homeland.
At the same time, the discrepancy in numbers is staggering. Global Firepower’s 2022 military assessments list Ukraine as operating 69 fighter aircraft, compared with Russia’s 773, a disparity one might think would lead to immediate air superiority.
Nonetheless, Ukraine’s ability to withstand and even succeed against larger numbers of invading Russian forces would arguably not be possible if Russia did in fact have air superiority.
Russian difficulties in contested airspace
One factor, as described by Senior Pentagon officials briefing reports on the conflict is that Russia has appeared to be “risk-averse” meaning its pilots are showing a reluctance to operate in high threat areas where Ukrainians have air defenses. Perhaps Ukraine’s air-defences are extremely effective or at least quite threatening such that larger formations of Russian aircraft have been hesitant to attack. One possible explanation for this is that Russia has been destroying Ukrainian targets and civilian neighborhoods with long-range, ground fired rockets able to travel 200 to 300 miles in some cases. This is something the Ukrainians previously had trouble stopping due to an inability to target them from the air.
However, the arrival of HIMARS and GMLRS long-range ground rockets have enabled the Ukrainians to attack Russian missile and rocket launch areas deeper within Russia.
Pentagon officials have also said that, at least thus far, Russia has only been using a small number of its aircraft.
One former military official explained that Russian aircraft have likely been suffering from an inability to “network” successfully when it comes to air attack formations. An inability to connect attacking planes to one another and perform necessary target identification and transmission through effective command and control would certainly impair any Russian ability to coordinate attacks or respond to fast-emerging target information.
It’s old vs. new in Ukraine
Russia operates upgraded 4th-generation Su-35 aircraft as well as Su-30s and Su-35s. Both the Su-34s and Su-35s are cited as “fighter aircraft” emerging as recently as 2014. The Su-34 is listed as a “fighter-bomber” with long-range strike capacity and the Su-35 is reported to be a multi-role heavy combat fighter.
There may be some question as to just how many of these more modern 4th-generation fighters are operational, as Russia’s arsenal of older fighter jets is likely to be larger.
Ukraine, by contrast, is reported to operate mostly 1970s and 1980s-era Soviet-built fighter jets such as the Su-24, listed as having emerged as far back as 1974. An older airframe, however, does not necessarily translate into a fighter jet with little capability.
The US has, for example, massively upgraded its 1980s-era F-15 and F/A-18 fighters with new avionics, targeting technologies, sensors and weapons. The Ukrainians have of course been receiving effective air defenses from the West, and they already have been operating a collection of Cold War era Soviet-built SAM systems, the most recent of which is the SA-15 Gauntlet from 1986. How much have these decades old systems been maintained and upgraded?
However, protecting Ukrainian skies with air defenses does not require a massive amount of actual Surface-to-Air-Missile systems, according to former Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby who told reporters a year ago that a small number of air defenses can protect almost “all of Ukraine.”
Interestingly, in a recent development, members of Congress have been pushing the Pentagon to send F-16s to Ukraine, something DoD has thus far resisted, perhaps for fear of escalation. The Biden Administration now seems to be open to allowing F-16 transfers from 3rd parties.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.