Size Isn’t Everything
Despite having the second largest Air Force on the planet, the Russians cannot, and will not, gain air superiority in Ukraine. This fact has played a massive role in the ongoing slugfest of a ground war that we’ve observed in that nation over the past seven months. This was not Putin’s plan for his “special military operation,” and I’m sure he’s not happy with the progress, or lack thereof.
As reported in mid-March by Business Insider and multiple other news outlets, Putin expected a “swift and decisive” victory in Ukraine, hoping to redraw the nation’s borders and execute regime change in the capital city of Kyiv. However, he believed his own propaganda and overestimated the willingness of his troops to fight and die for Mother Russia.
Just minutes after making the televised statement shown above, Russians started bombing several critical areas in Ukraine, including the capital city of Kyiv. US intelligence agencies, of course, had been analyzing the situation for many weeks and came up with their own assessments and theories. The Director of the CIA, Bill Burns, informed US lawmakers that he believed Putin’s goal was to take Kyiv “within the first two days of the campaign.” He went on to say how he believed the city could not fight off the invaders for more than a day or two.
But, in general, Mr. Burns, the CIA, and US intelligence were wrong…Kyiv did not fall, and Ukraine did not give up in a matter of days. Quite the opposite. Today, after months of bloody combat and tens of thousands dead on both sides, Ukraine seems to have the upper hand, pushing the Russians back up against their own borders.
A Weak Start to the War
How did this happen, and how did Moscow not gain the immediate air superiority they had hoped for? Let’s start at the beginning. In the opening days of the war, Russia launched over 775 ballistic and cruise missiles across the border into their neighbor. Many of these struck military targets such as airfields, and some took out communications centers. An unsettling aspect of the missile launches is that many were aimed at purely civilian targets, such as large apartment complexes. This was done for no other reason than to dishearten the Ukrainian people and show them who is boss. They hoped to cause a public outcry for their troops to give up so the shelling would stop. Instead, this steeled the resolve of the citizens, and they dug in for a hard fight.
According to flightglobal.com, at the onset of hostilities, Russia had over 940 multirole fighter aircraft, 467 attack aircraft, 124 bombers, and over 500 attack helicopters. The Ukrainians, by contrast, had almost 100 combat aircraft and roughly an equal number of combat helicopters spread among their Air Force, Army Aviation, and Naval forces. All these numbers are to be taken with a big grain of salt because simply having the aircraft does not mean they are fully operational and combat-ready.
One would expect that once the Russians softened targets in Ukraine by taking out radars and communications systems, they would follow up with several combat sorties to take out additional targets and prove air superiority. Why would they want to do this? According to US military doctrine, “In modern military operations, achieving this level of control of the air is a critical precondition for success.”
What is Air Superiority?
How, then, do we define air superiority? According to the US Air Force, “The air superiority condition is achieved when friendly operations are able to proceed without prohibitive interference from
opposing forces.” Simple enough, you can fly around and do as you will over enemy airspace without the overwhelming fear of being shot down.
Air Force documents explain the situation further,
“In modern military operations, achieving this level of control of the air is a critical precondition for success. Air superiority provides freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom of action, freedom of access, and freedom of awareness. Importantly, it also precludes adversaries from exploiting similar advantages. As such, air superiority underwrites the full spectrum of joint military operations and provides an asymmetric advantage to friendly forces. A lack of air superiority significantly increases the risk of joint force mission failure as well as the cost to achieve victory both in terms of resources and loss of life.”
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.
🇬🇧🇺🇸🇺🇦🇪🇺 Ukraine Territory Defence Forces Destroyed a Russian Cruse Missile Flying through the Skies. That happened early tonight Russian has ordered it military to step up attacks on Ukraine West can those long range weapons be fast tracked, so Ukraine can stop up strikes. https://t.co/3IhFeTH8uB
— Jessica Martina Winfield (@Jessica72351918) July 16, 2022
Here we see a Russian cruise missile being knocked out of the sky by Ukrainian Air Defense Artillery. That’s a multi-million dollar fireworks show.
Missiles are great at knocking out fixed or static targets. That’s why the major militaries of the world utilize mobile rocket launchers. Initial missile and rocket barrages are usually followed up by multiple sorties of fixed-wing aircraft hunting out and destroying enemy mobile radar units and rocket launchers. That’s phase II, if you will, of SEAD. The Russians, however, never really employed phase II. And their phase I was limited at best.
False Claims by Russia
Why was this? I feel that Putin had such misplaced faith in his ground forces and underestimated his Ukrainian enemy to such an extent that he felt an air war was unnecessary. However, it appears that Russia had a plan because on February 28, just four days after the onset of hostilities, Russia declared total air superiority over Ukraine through its state news agency Tass and military spokespeople. The Institute for the Study of War wrote that their false claims were aimed at “reinforcing misleading perceptions of an easy military operation in Ukraine to the Russian public.”
Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, lied and claimed on the 28th that Russia had achieved air superiority over all of Ukraine. He also falsely claimed that Russian forces captured the city of Enegodar as well as the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. At the time he said this, both remained under Ukrainian control. Russian state TV used this ruse to tell the people, “The Russian military cannot back down now.” The implication was that since they supposedly gained air superiority, the ground troops were clear to continue the mission.
In reality, the Russians flew limited sorties after the beginning of the war, and they lost multiple aircraft. The website Oryx maintains a list of all aircraft losses during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. They break it down by type of aircraft destroyed (or damaged), and somehow they have acquired images of most of them. Coverage is for both the Russian and Ukrainian sides.
Despite the statements of Konashenkov, the Pentagon put out an official statement saying that airspace over Ukraine was still contested. The document read, “Ukrainian air and missile defense remain effective and in use. The Ukrainian military continues to fly aircraft and continued to employ air defense assets.”
The Russians did manage to destroy some radar installations and surface-to-air missiles, but many more remained undamaged. SOFREP chronicled how the world was quick to come to the aid of Ukraine with both offensive and defensive military equipment. In April, we looked at the AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder Radar systems that the United States sent to Ukraine. In addition, I wrote about how we sent AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel Aerial Surveillance Radar systems to help see incoming hostile fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, drones, or missiles so they could be taken out before doing harm.
The Ukrainians also helped themselves out a good bit by capturing a couple of Russian Barnaul-T mobile command posts used to coordinate anti-aircraft batteries. The Ukrainians were familiar with these and were about to put them to immediate good use in their 72nd Mechanized Brigade. They are compatible with multiple short-range air defense (SHORAD) systems. Ukraine also has eyes in the sky, and it is widely believed that NATO is sharing radar and reconnaissance intelligence with Ukrainian ground forces.
Around that same time, in mid-April, the Brits lent a helping hand in keeping Russian aircraft firmly on the ground by sending Stormer anti-aircraft vehicles to Ukraine. They are capable of firing salvos of up to 17 Starstreak anti-aircraft rockets to knock out enemy rotary or fixed-wing aircraft. To my knowledge, this is the fastest short-range anti-aircraft system in the world, and the Starstreak rounds can reach speeds of more than 2,000 mph. Around this time, multiple Western countries were sending thousands of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian warriors.
The relative abundance of adequate radar systems combined with anti-aircraft artillery managed to keep most of the Russian Air Force from flying effective missions. And then there was the fact that Ukrainian forces scored the occasional kill when the Russians did get brave and take to the air. The Twitter video below shows a Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber aircraft that was not so lucky. It appears to be in a flat spin and rapidly losing altitude.
Su-34 – No Time For Caution (prod. Hans Zimmer) pic.twitter.com/gvOREoyNbv
— Mr Ghostly (@mr_gh0stly) April 25, 2022
Ukrainians Lack Air Superiority as Well
On the Russian side, they still retain quite a bit of anti-aircraft radar and anti-aircraft artillery capable of downing Ukrainian planes and helicopters. This, and the fact that they have a limited number of aircraft, to begin with, is why the Ukrainian side has not achieved air superiority. Time and time again, the idea has been floated that the US or other NATO countries send fighter aircraft to Ukraine, and time and time again, the idea has been (excuse the pun) shot down. Why? For the same reason, we are not sending them long-range ballistic missiles (at least not yet). Sending fighter aircraft would likely be seen as a provocation to Moscow…that the US is enhancing Ukraine’s offensive capabilities to the point where they could strike targets inside of Russia if they so decided.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby is quoted in Politico as saying that providing Ukraine with additional aircraft was “not likely to significantly change” the Ukrainian Air Force’s ability to fend off Russian attacks. We even squashed the idea the Poles had to transfer multiple Mig-29 aircraft from their inventory to the Ukrainians to be then backfilled with US-made aircraft. It’s almost as if we don’t want the Ukrainians to gain air superiority either, but I think it’s more about the US wanting to keep NATO out of the fight.
But it’s not as if we haven’t provided Ukrainian forces with any aircraft; back in late April, we wrote about how in an odd twist of fate, the United States was sending eleven new Russian-made MI-17 Hip helicopters to them. We had purchased the helicopters from a Russian state-owned arms exporter to give to Afghan troops during our 20-year war there. When that war ended, I suppose you could view the helicopters as sort of Army surplus.
So, having decided not to provide our Ukrainian friends with any additional fighter aircraft, we began looking at ways in which they could best utilize the ones they already owned. In a press briefing conducted by Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl on August 24, he discussed how best to utilize the aircraft the Ukrainians already have to maximum effect. But, unfortunately, American-made weapons don’t just snap onto Russian-made fighter aircraft.
Here is what he had to say about that:
“So, as it relates to aircraft, our current priority as it relates to aircraft is making sure that Ukrainians can use the aircraft they currently have to generate effects in the current conflict. So, for example, the last time we had a briefing here, we broke some news and talking about the fact that we had provided them some of these anti-radiation missiles, the HARM missiles, and we had adapted those missiles to be able to fire off MIG-29. So, they of course, were not designed to fly off Russian equipment — they were designed to fly off our aircraft and the Ukrainians in recent weeks have been using the HARM missiles to great effect to take out Russian radar systems.”
As it turns out, necessity is still the mother of invention. We Americans have gotten really good at modifying our weapons systems to work with just about any foreign weapons platforms you can think of.
According to the official website of the US Air Force, “The AGM-88 HARM, or high-speed anti-radiation missile, is an air-to-surface tactical missile designed to seek and destroy enemy radar-equipped air defense systems.” But, of course, they are assuming that you already know that “AGM” refers to the fact that this is an “air to ground” missile. Fired from the air, it blows up stuff on the ground. It’s been in service with the American military since 1985 and was initially developed by Texas Instruments, yes, the same people who made the ancient calculators with the red LED displays. It’s now manufactured by defense giant Raytheon Technologies.
If verified, this would be the first ever images of Ukraine's Su-27 (and in fact, first Su-27 anywhere in the world following the MiG-29) to be modified and armed with HARMs. https://t.co/VX0g29l7gv
— Collin Koh 🇸🇬🇺🇦 (@CollinSLKoh) September 11, 2022
After doing a little Twitter-digging, I found these images of a Ukrainian Su-27s Flanker fighter jet seemingly equipped with HARM anti-radar missiles in addition to Soviet-developed R-27 and R-23 Archer air-to-air missiles. It’s a veritable flying UN of destruction. Such an aircraft has definite advantages in eliminating airborne threats while maintaining a solid ability to knock out ground-based radars.
So, What Do Anti-Radiation Missiles Do Anyway?
According to “as” a previously undiscovered cornucopia of online information, anti-radiation missiles destroy the radar abilities of your adversary. Simple enough. Why would you want to do that? Because it blinds and deafens your enemy. Radar provides you with real-time information about the battle space. It allows your forces to track enemy and friendly weapons systems, ships, and aircraft, depending on your area of operations.
Knock out your enemy’s radar, and you can more safely operate friendly aircraft in enemy airspace. Missiles such as the AGM-88 can knock out those valuable targets before they are close enough to be engaged by hostile ground forces. One of the elements we are trying to defeat is the Russian S-400 missile system (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler). These mobile units have both surface-to-air and anti-ballistic capabilities. Their presence is not to be taken lightly as they have a 400 km range against aerodynamic, i.e., moving targets. After firing a missile, it can achieve speeds up to Mach 14 (no, I did not forget a decimal point there), that’s 4,800 meters/second or 11,000 mph. Blink, and you’ll miss it.
Please watch this video from our friends at CRUX. They always come up with lots of footage of weapons being put to good effect. Video from YouTube via CRUX
These weapons are tried and true. We’ve been using them all over the world since the mid to late 80s. Unfortunately, the Air Force specs sheet on the missile is vague at points. Among other stats, it tells us that the missiles are roughly thirteen and a half feet long with a little more than a three-and-a-half foot wingspan. They list the speed as “supersonic,” but other open source documents quote a peak velocity of over 1,400 mph and an operational range of 92 miles.
In addition to the unspecified number of HARM missiles, the latest (dated September 8, 2022) Presidential Drawdown includes (among other items) more ammunition for HIMARS (amount unspecified) 36,000 105mm artillery rounds, 1.5 million rounds of small arms ammunition, and 100 Humvees.
According to the Department of Defense, the package is valued at $675 million, and “This authorization is the Biden Administration’s twentieth drawdown of equipment from DoD inventories for Ukraine since August 2021.”
So, here we sit in late September 2022, more than seven months into the war, with neither side having air superiority. This is inevitably prolonging the conflict. Even if the Ukrainians didn’t have such effective anti-aircraft abilities, the truth is that the Russian Air Force isn’t the best in the world. Most pilots in NATO countries receive at least 200 hours of cockpit time per year. Contrast that with the 60-100 hours that your typical Russian pilot might get. If a US pilot specializes in SEAD missions, they will receive at least 200 hours of flight training in SEAD missions alone. This is because they require additional training with specialized munitions. The Russian Air Force does not place such emphasis on SEAD missions.
Russian Ops in Syria: Lessons Not Learned
Regarding Russian air operations in Syria, most sorties were flown with one or two aircraft. The Russian Air Force does not have experience flying multiple-aircraft missions. This has proven to their detriment in Ukraine. Russia could be putting up multiple aircraft in a “seek and destroy” mode to ferret out the location of enemy surface-to-air missile locations. The US has used this method of destroying anti-air batteries to good effect in past conflicts.
The SAM site will lock in on an aircraft and fire, allowing other aircraft in the formation to locate and eliminate the Sam site. True, the probability is that the Russians would likely lose some aircraft using this method. Still, they could also eliminate many anti-aircraft sites and make those that remain to think twice before firing on formations containing multiple aircraft. But, the Russians are not doing this as they lack experience flying the more complicated multi-aircraft missions.
They may also be having problems keeping their planes in good working order and mission-ready judging by what we’ve seen of the rest of their military.
As a result, most Russian sorties these days are carried out at night at low altitudes and at extremely high rates of speed. The Russians are accidentally flying their jets into the ground in order to avoid being shot down. Those are moves of desperation carried out by an Air Force that will not achieve air superiority in this conflict.