Russia reportedly has 3,863 military aircraft and has been consistently ramping up its strength for the last 20 years. However, experts say Russia’s Air Force still do not enjoy total superiority in the skies above Ukraine despite its overwhelming numerical advantage.
According to strategic intelligence research service Janes, Russia’s Air Force comprises 132 bombers versus none for Ukraine, 832 fighter jets against 86 for Ukraine, and 358 transport planes against 63 for Kyiv.
Other aerial weapons show a similarly crushing asymmetry, except for drones of which Ukraine has 66 and Russia 25.
Russia’s combat aircraft fleet
According to World Air Force Report, 2022, Russia has the third-largest combat aircraft fleet size in the world with 1,571 planes behind the US (2,740) and China (1,571). The report said the Russian Air Force has 273 Su-24, 192 Su-25, 350 Su-27/30/35 and 125 Su-34.
The Russian fighters accounted for 7 per cent of the global combat aircraft fleet with the US topping the charts with 15% of the total.
As of December 2021, 14,713 combat planes were in operational service in military aircraft fleets across the world, the report said. The Su-27 fighter jet first flew in May 1977 and since then it has undergone many upgrades with new versions unveiled giving the Russian Air Force a major advantage.
Russian news agencies have said over 70 Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jets will be delivered to Russian troops by 2027.
The Sukhoi Su-57 is a fifth-generation fighter that can destroy air, ground and naval targets.
Ukraine Air Force
According to a US Congress report, Ukraine’s Air Force had suffered significant losses during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 which weakened its forces.
However, in 2020, the Ukraine Air Force launched an expansive modernisation plan “Vision 2035” setting a budget of $12 billion to purchase new multi-role fighters, trainer jets, transport aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles including Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones and air defence systems.
Ukraine’s air assault brigades had played a key role in combatting Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine seven years ago. It has since increased its size and transitioned into an independent command with heavier equipment.
Formed with US and NATO assistance, Ukraine’s special operations forces operate along with NATO standards and principles, the report said.
Ukraine’s air power
In the opening hours of the campaign in Ukraine, Russia had specifically targeted Ukraine’s air defence and military infrastructure in a bid to disable the country’s military capability.
According to reports, Ukraine has 200 aircraft of all types. It has 50 MiG-29 fighters including 32 Su-27s including a sizeable number of Su-24. It also has the older version of the Mi-8 and Mi-24. The country’s Air Force was established in 1992 after the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Reports claim Ukraine has 98 combat aircraft in its arsenal.
Russia runs of munitions
Billions of dollars have been poured into Russia’s warplanes over the past decade. Between 2009 and 2020 the air force gained around 440 new fixed-wing aircraft, as well as thousands of drones. At the outset of war, it was widely assumed by defence analysts and officials that Russia would quickly destroy its enemy’s air force and roam freely over the country, using its air superiority to pick off Ukrainian forces at will.
Yet in the first two weeks of combat, Russia’s air force has played a minimal role. Air activity is difficult to track and Russian air strikes may have increased in both number and complexity in recent days. It is clear, though, that the Russian air force has held back its full capabilities. “Fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night,” notes Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London.
When hostilities began, Russia sent a volley of cruise and ballistic missiles towards Ukraine’s air bases in an attempt to ground its planes and air-defence systems, and to hobble its radars and anti-aircraft missiles. That effort failed. Ukraine had wisely dispersed its air-defence systems, making them harder to find. American defence officials say that Ukrainian air and missile defences consequently “remain effective and in use”—a claim that can be corroborated with open-source intelligence.
A recent example comes from Kharkiv, which sits 30km from the Russian border. Russian forces failed to take the city with a raid in the first days of the war. Since then, they have surrounded and bombarded it with air, artillery and missile strikes. But Ukraine is not defenceless.
Thomas Withington, an air-defence expert, says that the first missile seems to miss the target, its fuse detonating. The second, though, is a direct hit.
The interception was probably the work of a medium-range surface-to-air missile like the Buk, a mobile system that can shoot and scoot, emerging to fire and then hiding away again. Because these sort of systems use radar to find their targets, and radar cannot see over the curvature of the Earth, one countermeasure is for pilots to fly low. That is what Russian forces seem to have been doing.
But it solves one problem by creating another. In recent weeks, America, Latvia and Lithuania have sent Ukraine smaller, shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which home in on the hot engines of aircraft flying below roughly 3,500m. The weapon rose to prominence during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, when CIA-supplied Stingers were used by the Afghan mujahideen to take down more than 300 Soviet helicopters and 100 jets. Video footage posted by Ukraine’s defence ministry shows a Stinger-type missile streaking into a helicopter flying low over a field supposedly near Kyiv.
There is another reason why Russian pilots may be forced closer to the ground, and thus within range of shoulder-fired missiles. In its war with Georgia in 2008, Russia’s air force was almost entirely limited to firing unguided or “dumb” bombs. Now it has precision-guided munitions, which can hit targets using satellite navigation and other means. But it is still using the older weapons, too.
Images that appear to show the wreckage of a Su-34 attack jet shot down over Chernihiv suggest it was armed with unguided bombs. This is telling, says Mr Bronk, because Russia’s Su-34 regiments are “the most proficient and regular users” of precision munitions in the air force when available. Images released by Russian state media show other Su-34s parked on a runway armed with more unguided weapons; others reportedly from Chernihiv and Kharkiv show exploded unguided bombs littering urban areas, including one that landed in a house.
One theory is that Russia’s stock of precision-guided munitions is running low. More likely, argues Michael Kofman of CNA, an American think-tank, is that Russia is holding some in reserve, either for later in this war or in anticipation of a bigger one. Either way, the use of dumb bombs creates a dilemma. As Tim Robinson of Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society notes, pilots can either fly low to see targets and risk getting shot down or bomb from high or medium altitude with less accuracy.
The result is that Russia has lost substantial numbers of aircraft. Stijn Mitzer, an Amsterdam-based analyst and his colleagues at Oryx, a blog, have studied imagery available on social-media sites to establish the number of proven Russian losses. These currently run to 11 fixed-wing aircraft, 11 helicopters and two drones. Ukraine’s government claims to have destroyed at least 39 planes and 40 helicopters, though these figures are unverified. By way of comparison, America lost 40 or so fixed-wing aircraft during the entire five-week air war with Iraq in 1991.
Russia’s failure to take out Ukrainian air defences “is becoming a serious hindrance”, says Rob Lee of King’s College London. It will probably be regarded as one of the “key mistakes” of this war, he reckons. It means that Russian planes cannot freely patrol the skies to ward off Ukrainian ones, and that attack aircraft cannot provide proper air support to troops on the ground. Ground-surveillance and airborne early-warning aircraft must stay back from the battlefield, reducing the flow of intelligence.
There may be a lesson for NATO. Russia’s initial failure to gain air superiority could be explained away by the Kremlin’s secrecy over the decision to go to war and a lack of planning time, says Mr Bronk. But in his view, the air force’s passivity could also reflect inexperience or incompetence. Russia’s air force, with less flying time per pilot and lacking in the advanced simulators and extensive training ranges available to Western air forces, “lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale”. The coming weeks will clarify whether that is so.
Russian military lacks data links, communications, logistics, modern targeting Pod, guided weapons, proper multi-domain training and operational experiences.
Another bad news Russia is running out of bombs and missiles for its air force and navy.
Three weeks into its invasion of Ukraine, the scale of Russia’s military blunders are becoming clear. According to Oryx Blog, Russian forces fired more than 700 cruise missiles, 2,500 unguided bombs, 200 guided bombs and 50 FAB500 guided bombs.
The outcome of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is still far from certain: little information exists on Ukrainian forces’ rates of attrition, while Russia’s military still outmans and outguns that of its neighbour.
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