In a previous analysis by our very own Guy McCardle, SOFREP noted that one of Russia’s most significant gaps is its Air Force. With the US focusing on more ways to implement sanctions, Russia has made it more challenging for its military to procure resources. Well, they still have Iran and North Korea, but we are not sure how long this pristine partnership will last.

So, there goes the air supremacy problem.

And without air superiority, Russia is still struggling to stop Ukrainian attacks, especially with US-donated M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). The HIMARS has been strategically capitalized by President Volodomyr Zelensky’s troops, especially during their counteroffensive that started three months ago.

“To achieve air superiority, a fighting force must first employ Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), pronounced “seed.” On day one of the war, the Russians launched a little over 100 ballistic and cruise missiles into Ukraine. Most targets were military infrastructure (radar stations, runways, fixed communications towers). Many American analysts thought this was a low number as our Navy had fired over 320 Tomahawk missiles into Iraq on the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And that’s only one type of missile launched by one service.”

Russia’s reaction to Ukraine’s continued push came in the form of a “cowardly” attack on civilian regions (including Kyiv). However, even though it has caused a stir, as SOFREP noted before, this will not do much to make a dent in the war.

Jakub Janovsky, a military analyst with Oryx, supports this notion. He said that air superiority could be the deciding factor for this war.

“Failure to achieve air supremacy is one of the decisive things that cost Russia their advantage in war.”

When the invasion started in February, military analysts predicted that Russia would begin targeting Ukrainian air defenses and simply pushing their infantry troops as they sabotage supply chains. This is similar to what the US did during the Gulf Wars and Libya. Though Russia attacked some of the Ukrainian air bases, it took Zelensky’s troops less than a month to regroup. Soon afterward, Ukrainian forces attacked Russian helicopters and planes.

“Ukraine’s air force, despite early losses, kept flying and engaged Moscow’s pilots in dog fights,” according to Washington Post.

NASAMS Launcher
Placing helicopters and NASAMs in the context of the NSS at the former Valkenburg Airport (Source: Department of Defense/Wikimedia)

As a result of Ukraine’s steadfast air battles, Russian ground troops found it hard to invade regions past the borders. Almost everything started to decline after the HIMARS came into action. And now, Ukraine is pushing for expedited delivery of National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), so they could prepare for any missile attacks from Moscow.

“The Ukrainians are in a far stronger position than they would be if the Russians had achieved air supremacy,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for military airspace at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

As for Russia, they actually tried. In the first three months of the invasion, they bombed airfields and “SAM radars,” but the attacks were unsuccessful, according to Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies. Moscow had an unrealistic expectation of controlling Ukraine in a matter of three days. However, since they’ve installed pseudo-heads in invaded regions, they have become hesitant to launch all-out attacks.

“At the beginning, it was almost as if they didn’t want to break too much because they wanted the country to run smoothly” after their expected takeover, Barrie said.

Sukhoi SU-30SM
Air-to-air with a Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30SM (Source: Alex Beltyukov/Wikimedia)

Though Russia started with a larger number of aircraft than Ukraine, donations from the West hurt their chances of simply fighting by numbers. At the same time, Ukraine is very cautious when launching aerial attacks. This gives them the ability to lower the risk of losing aircraft. Recently, we’ve seen more Ukrainian planes attacking Russian air defenses because they now know Russians have minimal ability to shoot their planes down.

Russia has now pivoted from manned aircraft to missiles and drones, especially the ones acquired from Iran.

However, with more HIMARS and NASAMS on the way to Ukraine, Russia has yet to provide a more viable solution to its air defense problem, and this could ultimately become the reason they would lose this war.