One of the greatest mysteries of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces and Russian navy.
While the lack of early warning could explain the early VKS failure to establish air superiority, coordination capacity (data link) and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS as an air combat branch of Russian Federation lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale.
The VKS has gained some combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm.
When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts most of its training flights in singles or pairs.
This means that its operational commanders have minimal practical experience in planning, briefing and coordinating complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.
This is a factor that many Western airpower specialists and practitioners often overlook due to the ubiquity of complex air operations – run through combined air operations centres – to Western military operations over Iraq, the Balkans, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria over the past 20 years.
Most VKS pilots get around 100 hours’ of flying time per year – around one-tenth of that flown by most NATO air forces. They also lack comparable modern simulator facilities to train and practise advanced tactics in complex environments.
The live flying hours which Russian fighter pilots do get are also significantly less valuable in preparing pilots for complex air operations than those flown by NATO forces. In Western air forces such as the Royal Air Force and US Air Force, pilots are rigorously trained to fly complex sorties in appalling weather, at low level and against live and simulated ground and aerial threats.
To pass advanced fast jet training they must be able to reliably do this and still hit targets within five to ten seconds of the planned time-on-target. This is a vital skill for frontline missions to allow multiple elements of a complex strike package to sequence their manoeuvres and attacks safely and effectively, even when under fire and in poor visibility.
It also takes a long time to train for regular live flying and simulator time to stay current at. By contrast, most VKS frontline training sorties involve comparatively sterile environments, and simple tasks such as navigation flights, unguided weapon deliveries at open ranges, and target simulation flying in cooperation with the ground-based air-defence system.
No airborne early warning system
The A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C) was developed and manufactured by the Beriev Aircraft Research and Engineering Complex Joint Stock Company based at Taganrog in the Rostov Region of Russia. The A-50 aircraft was developed from the llyushin IL-76MD military transport aircraft manufactured by the Ilyushin Aviation Complex Joint Stock Company based in Moscow.
The aircraft is known in the West by the Nato codename Mainstay. Beriev aircraft normally carry the Russian designation Be- followed by the number, however, the A-50 aircraft retained the well-known A-designation which Beriev allocated to the original prototype.
The A-50U airborne radar warning and guidance system is the Soviet-era doppler Schnel-M radar produced by Vega. The Schnel-M is limited to coordinating 12 fighter jets or airborne assets only. The system cannot communicate with ground, naval and air assets simultaneously.
Russia never produced a reliable data link comparable to the NATO Link-16 communication system, limiting the collection data and fusing that data into modern computer systems, avionics and weapons platforms.
Only modernized MiG-31M has some limited air communication and interdiction capability to communicate with each other via the onboard radio link.
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