Dismal Performance Of Russian Air Force In Ukraine, What Went Wrong?

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February early morning, sending its air force, also known as VKS, to bomb Ukrainian cities and send troops to various Ukrainian cities via Donbas regions, Crimea, and Belarus.

Ukraine’s own air force is still flying, which is vastly outmatched by Russia’s military in terms of raw numbers and firepower. Its air defenses are still deemed viable – a fact that is baffling military experts reported Reuters.

According to RUSI think tank Justin Bronk, the Russian Air Force used limited aircraft and precision-guided munitions that visibly lacked coordination and started sporadic bombing in Ukraine.

According to Radio Free Europe, Daily Mail and India Today, Ukrainian Army had managed to intercept Russian Su-25, Su-34, Su-35 and Ka-52 helicopters and shot down several of them.  

Let’s look at why the Russian air force is flying over Ukraine un-coordinated and not using PGM?

Russian Inventory

Russia operates Soviet-era Ka-52 helicopters, Mi-17 helicopter, Su-24, Su-25, Su-27, MiG-29, Su-34 and Su-35. Russia upgraded some of its aircraft to Su-30SM2 standard and Su-35 standard.

According to British Janes, Russia only received 128 upgraded Su-35 and used several in Ukraine. 

Operational Planning

Russian decided to invade Ukraine in a short period, giving its air force limited time to prepare such a large-scale operation. The Russian air force had some experience in Syria, but the Syrian war was a counterinsurgency and not combat against a military with fighter jets.

Russian convoy stuck in mud with no food and fuel is an example of poor mission planning and logistics management.

Russia had limited aerial refuelling, transport and airborne surveillance capability, making it impossible for the Russian Air Force to plan a long-range strike mission. Its air force maintains the distance of anti-air cover by its S-400 systems. Beyond the S-400 strike capability, the Russian air force fighter jet is vulnerable to Ukrainian S-300, Buk, Tor and Stinger missiles. 

Targeting Pod

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian Federation never invested in microelectronics, nor did it have modern electronics industries. Constraint by backward electronics, Russia imports semiconductors from Taiwan, China and South Korea.

The crews of the Su-34 fighter-bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces fly in Syria with Garmin GPS. Source JPost.

Even upgraded Su-35 don’t carry any targeting, Pod. MiG-35 intended a targeting pod, but Russia stopped receiving semiconductors from South Korea due to western sanctions, forcing Russia to suspend manufacturing any Targeting Pod and Irbis-E radar. Without a reliable targeting Pod, Russian fighter jets rely on visual confirmation of target and fly low, making its fighter jets and pilots vulnerable to surface-to-air missile attacks.

Precision Guided Munition

NATO countries have the mandate to store and maintain large stockpiles of missiles and precision-guided munitions and regularly replenish their stocks with new missiles and bombs.

Russia’s $70 billion defense budget is not enough to maintain such a large military. Russia prioritizes defense spending on nuclear forces, ballistic missiles, hypersonic missile development and surface-to-air missiles. 

Russian Air Force never anticipated a large-scale war with its neighbor. Due to budget constraints, Russia does not maintain a required number of precision-guided munitions. Russian pilots used TV-guided bombs in Syria, where a pilot had to guide the bomb to the target. Hence Russian Su-34 has two pilots, one pilot has to fly the aircraft, and another pilot has to guide the bomb to the target.

Russia used some laser-guided bombs in Syria and Ukraine however, not all fighter jets are equipped with a targeting pod. Only Su-24 is fitted with SVP-24 targeting system. This is why Russia still uses Soviet-era Su-24 in Ukraine and Syria.

Data Link

Link 16 is a standardized communications system used by U.S., NATO, and Coalition forces for transmitting and exchanging real-time tactical data using links between allied military network participants, also known as TADIL J.

On the contrary, Russian forces have limited data link capability in their fighter jets, air-to-air missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. Russian forces have a coordination problem identified by the Reuters news agency. Russian air forces pilots cannot confirm a target, nor Russian army can call-in airstrike because ground forces have no direct contact with the pilots. Lack of data link between the ground and airborne assets forced Russian VKS to initiate limited operations to avoid friendly fire.

Russian MiG-31BM aircraft is fitted with the R-846 radio system, a limited form of low bandwidth radio communication.

According to national interest magazine, Russia is in the process of developing and fielding the next generation OSNOD datalink for Su-57.

Identification Friend or Foe (IFF)

Identification Friend or Foe is an identification system designed for command and control. It enables military and civilian air traffic control interrogation systems to identify aircraft, vehicles, or forces as friendly and determine their bearing and range from the interrogator.

Unlike Western fighter jets, Russian aircraft do not carry an advanced threat library, nor its aircraft record the radar signature of opponents like the Saab Gripen or Lockheed’s F-35.

Ukrainian and Russian aircraft have the same Soviet-origin and same type of equipment. The Russian ground-based assets such as Pantsir and S-400 have some IFF threat libraries, but not substantial compared to the Western IFF system. Buk missiles do not have IFF threat libraries which is part of the Russian convoy heading to Kyiv. Buk missile system poses a serious threat to Russian pilots and can inflict friendly fire.

“They’re not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots,” a senior U.S. defense official said to Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Russian air force fighter jets are vulnerable to friendly fire without a threat library. In the 2021 military exercise in Russia, the Russian Su-35 shot down a Russian Su-30 aircraft in a friendly fire accident. Russia does not want to repeat that incident in the Ukraine invasion and embarrass itself. 

Airborne Surveillance and EW

Russian does not have many airborne surveillance systems and dedicated electronic attack platforms like the EA-18G Growler of the U.S. air force. Without proper electronic surveillance, Russian pilots and commanders cannot contribute to mission planning in dynamic modern war.

Su-35’s L175M Khibiny-M electronic countermeasures system is designed for self-protection but not a complete attack platform like the Thales SPECTRA EW Pod or AN/ASQ-239 EW pod. Khibiny-M’s electronic countermeasures system is limited to airborne threat counters and has no ground attack capability against modern radar.


Armies that don’t have good logistic systems will usually fail – at least until they sort out their logistics problems.

In Ukraine, we’ve seen many images of disabled and burning Russian armoured vehicles, including tanks. Tanks, being tracked, lack the range of wheeled armoured vehicles and gas-guzzlers, requiring continual refuelling. They’re also vulnerable to anti-tank weapons if not protected by infantry. It’s not clear whether the tanks are being destroyed by the Ukrainian Ground Forces’ stock of old Soviet anti-tank weapons or the U.S. supplied newer Javelin ATGM weapons.


The slow progress of Russian forces in Ukraine must be very frustrating for Putin, who probably expected to have Ukraine done and dusted within a week.

Something noticeable in Ukraine is that some of the Russian invasion forces (which seems to be mainly young conscripts) aren’t particularly aggressive. For example, they’ve stopped their vehicles amid low morale. That’s likely to change as Russian soldiers see their comrades being killed and wounded.

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