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Is the Key to Russia’s Victory Hidden in Ensuring Air Superiority in Ukrainian Airspace? 

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A Brief History of the Tensions in Ukraine and Russia

In 1994, Ukraine agreed to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state, and former Soviet nuclear weapons in Ukraine were dismantled. In response, Russia, Britain, and the United States agreed to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity through the Budapest Memorandum. Russia firmly agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and national borders.

At the 2008 Bucharest summit, Ukraine and Georgia sought to join NATO. NATO ultimately refused to offer Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans, but also issued a statement agreeing that these countries would become members of NATO. Finally, on February 7, 2019, the Ukrainian parliament amended the constitution to state that the country’s long-term goal is to join the European Union and NATO.

Moscow sees NATO troops in Eastern Europe as a direct threat to its security. Putin has long argued that the US broke a guarantee it made in 1990 that NATO would not expand further east. Russia also wants NATO and the United States to not deploy missile systems on Russian borders and to withdraw NATO forces from Eastern Europe.

In November 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, rejected closer ties with the European Union by refusing to sign an association agreement on the eve of a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. This rejection sent angry citizens onto the streets of Kyiv. The unrest escalated over several months and security forces attempted to clamp down on the protests.

In March 2014, Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving Ukraine in a referendum. Then, Putin signed legislation that completed the process of absorbing Crimea into Russia, defying Western leaders. Most of the world recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine, following a United Nations resolution after Russia annexed the region. In 2014 and 2015, a series of international agreements aimed at ending the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, called the Minsk agreements, were signed.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine came nearly eight years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula and backed a bloody rebellion in the eastern Donbas region. Moscow accused the Ukrainian government of failing to implement the Minsk agreement.

On February 21, 2022, Russia recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, two self-proclaimed regions in Donbas controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Most Ukrainian cities have been bombed by Russian aircraft and missiles, and Russian forces have besieged key settlements such as Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Mariupol, and Sumy.

Vladimir Putin may have anticipated a repeat of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, but despite the death and destruction caused by the Russian attack, Ukraine’s military has held up better than experts predicted, and Russian advances have been slower than feared. Russian troops have failed to seize any of Ukraine’s major cities, including its capital of Kyiv, and may be running low on resources. Russia has suffered heavy losses on all fronts. According to conservative estimates, several thousand Russian troops have lost their lives.

Russian forces initially made rapid gains in the south, with their main objective being the creation of a land corridor between Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Russian forces have now fully withdrawn from around the capital Kyiv and northern Ukraine towards Belarus and Russia. A large-scale Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine has begun after Russia refocused its efforts there following its retreat from the north of Ukraine.

The consequences of using Russian military force to target cities and directly at civilians have been devastating for Ukraine. Russian military operations in Ukraine have resulted in a new refugee crisis that has displaced millions of people from the country. The invasion received widespread international condemnation from governments and intergovernmental organizations, with reactions including new sanctions imposed on Russia, which triggered widespread economic effects on the Russian and world economies.

Why Did the Russian Air Force Fail to Achieve Air Superiority in Ukraine?

In an attempt to cripple Ukraine’s military capability, Russia specifically targeted air bases, air defenses, and military infrastructure. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in February when a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. On February 24, Russian forces attacked the Chuhuiv airbase, which housed Bayraktar TB2 drones. Airstrikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. On March 6, Russian forces launched rocket strikes against the Havryshivka Vinnytsia International Airport. On March 25, Russian forces launched an airstrike against the Ukrainian Air Force command center, which is located in Vinnytsia.

Air superiority would enable Russia to protect its ground forces and easily attack Ukraine’s troops from the air. This is why Ukraine’s air force was Russia’s initial target. Effective air defense requires a full arsenal of tools on the ground and in the sky, and Ukraine started the war with a tremendous disadvantage on both fronts. Russia has six times as many planes and ten times the combat power in the air as Ukraine. The full military operation consisted of infantry divisions supported by armored units and air support in Eastern Ukraine, along with dozens of missile attacks across both Eastern Ukraine and Western Ukraine.

Much of the focus of the war in Ukraine has so far been on the battle on the ground, but the fight to dominate the skies is just as important. One of many unanswered questions is why Russia declined to use the vast majority of its fixed-wing combat aircraft. The lack of Russian fixed-wing fighter and strike aircraft sorties has also allowed Ukrainian SAM operators and troops with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) such as the US-made Stinger missile to engage Russian attack and transport helicopters with significantly less risk of immediate retaliation.

Russia already had a significant advantage in the air, deploying more than three times as many combat aircraft as Ukraine. The US Pentagon says that Russian aircraft have been flying around 250-300 military missions and carrying out some 30 airstrikes every day. But in contrast, Ukraine’s aging fleet of mostly MiG-29 fighter jets has been struggling to compete, managing at best around ten military missions a day. Despite that advantage, the Russian air force has only been able to conduct limited combat sorties and still does not enjoy true air superiority in Ukraine.

As the war in Ukraine enters its third month, the situation continues to change rapidly. Russia is still struggling to achieve air superiority, despite a massive numerical advantage in the sky. Furthermore, the almost total lack of Russian offensive counter-air (OCA) sweeps has been coupled with very poor coordination between Russian ground forces’ movements and their own medium and short-range air defense systems.

Multiple Russian assets have been sent forward beyond the reach of their own air defense cover. This has allowed Ukrainian Bayraktar TB-2 armed UAVs to operate with significant effects in some areas, inflicting important losses on Russian armored vehicles.

Ukrainian forces suffered significant losses in the early stages of the war. But despite these losses, the air defenses that survived have still been used to good effect. Ukraine requires a mix of long, medium, and short-range weapons to provide what’s known as a “layered defense.” Ukraine has destroyed, damaged, or captured at least 82 Russian aircraft, including jets, helicopters, and drones. Ukraine’s equivalent aircraft loss stands at 33. Defending Ukraine’s skies from Russian attacks is already proving a challenge. Indeed, their successes have confounded military experts, who predicted that Russia would quickly achieve air superiority over Ukraine.

One explanation for that ineffectiveness could be the military aid flowing into Ukraine. The West has been providing a significant number of shorter-range surface-to-air missiles. Various highly effective anti-aircraft weapons have been provided to the Ukrainian armed forces, ranging from smaller, man-portable anti-aircraft missiles like the US-made Raytheon FIM-92A Stinger and the UK-manufactured Thales Starstreak high-velocity missiles (HVM), to large, truck-mounted S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems. The US alone has already sent 2,000 Stingers. The UK has provided an unspecified number of Starstreak HVM too. MANPADS, man-portable air defense systems, are most effective against low-flying aircraft. In contrast, Russia mostly tries to use long-range cruise missiles and high-altitude bombing.

The longer this war goes on, Ukraine may find it increasingly hard to defend itself from Russian air and missile strikes without more significant support. So far, Western supplies have been limited to arms, ammunition, and defensive equipment like anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems. NATO members fear that supplying Ukraine with heavier offensive equipment like tanks and fighter jets could lead to direct open conflict between Russia and the alliance.

The air war over Ukraine appears to have entered a new phase, with the Russian air force boosting the number of flights it makes per day by 50 percent and deploying an increasing array of Russian drones and munitions over the battlefield. MANPADS have forced Russia to adjust its aviation operations but has not stopped them.

Ukraine’s Air Force, with its equipment from the 70s and 80s, is a remnant of the Soviet era. While the Russian Air Force has more modern and advanced planes tactically, the Russian Air Force is struggling to quell those from Ukraine. One reason could be the training received by Ukraine from other countries after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukrainian pilots have been learning modern tactics from the West through NATO countries, especially the UK and US, helping them better manage the aircraft they have. Ukrainian pilots have also conducted numerous exercises with anti-aircraft and SAM forces. They must have developed some special tactics and techniques in order to be more effective because they are fewer in number. However, Russia can make about 300 sorties a day, while Ukraine can only make 10.

The other major factor helping them is the motivation and passion for defending their own country. The Ukrainian Air Force is operating in near-total secrecy. Its fighter jets can fly from airstrips in western Ukraine, airports that have been bombed yet retain enough runways for takeoffs or landings, or even from highways. However, skill and motivation alone will not be enough to defeat an opponent with a far larger and more advanced air force.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has appealed repeatedly to Western governments to replenish the Ukrainian Air Force and has asked NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, a step Western leaders have so far refused to take. Slovakia and Poland have considered sending MiG-29 fighter jets, which Ukrainian pilots could fly with minimal additional training, but so far no transfers have been made.

Several factors may be contributing to Russia’s inability to achieve and exploit air superiority, despite vast advantages in aircraft numbers and equipment capability over the Ukrainian Air Force. The first is the limited quantities of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) available to most Russian fighter units. Currently, only the Su-34 fleet can regularly use PGMs. It can also be said that the Russian PGM stock is very limited. Combat operations in Syria may have further depleted the PGM stockpile. It means that the bulk of the 300 Russian fixed-wing combat aircraft massed around Ukraine has only unguided bombs to draw on for ground-attack sorties. And that means pilots must actually see the ground in order to achieve any degree of accuracy.

Another problem is that the lack of targeting pods to spot and identify battlefield targets from a safe distance means that the Russian pilots’ capacity to provide close air support for their forces is limited. However, the relatively modern avionics on most of their strike aircraft mean that even unguided bombs and rockets should still have been sufficient to inflict major damage on Ukrainian military facilities and also civilian buildings.

Russian doctrine doesn’t free the air force to pursue its own campaign. In Russian doctrine, aircraft are extensions of the ground force. They are inflexible vehicles for the delivery of massive firepower. The Russian aircraft are not well maintained, so they can’t fly too many sorties. Russian Air Force pilots have relatively low flight hours. Inadequate pilot training and a lack of confidence in Russian pilots are the most likely causes of failure. Another factor in the Russian Air Force’s hesitancy could be the fear of friendly-fire incidents. They are struggling to use their aircraft’s capabilities effectively in Ukraine’s complex and competitive air environment.

The success of Ukrainian pilots has helped protect Ukrainian soldiers on the ground and prevented wider bombing in cities since pilots have intercepted some Russian fighters. It should not be overlooked that Russian fighters continue to be a potentially lethal force. Threats to Ukrainian freedom of access to the air domain include, but are not limited to, advanced integrated air defense systems, adversary next-generation combat aircraft, and advanced precision strike missile capabilities that threaten ground forces, airbases, and maintenance hubs. They can be used effectively against air and fixed ground targets in the coming weeks. In order for Ukraine to resist Russia, western countries urgently need to provide fighters and long-range ground-based air defense systems.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinforced the vital importance of combat mass and resilience for modern air forces. Modern fighters and strong ground-based air defense systems can play a major role in preventing air and missile strikes. The training level of pilots, tactics, and precision-guided missiles play a key role in providing air supremacy.

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