Main Image Credit Jetting off: a Sukhoi Su-35S taking off from Khotilovo Airbase in Tver Oblast, Russia. Image: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Compared to its initial operations around Kyiv and in the southwest of Ukraine, Russia likely has a measure of localised air superiority in Donbas. However, this is unlikely to produce decisive results on the battlefield.
The first phase of the air war over Ukraine was characterised by the Russian Air Force’s inability to win air superiority, and in particular its failure to mount an effective suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) campaign. This gave the Ukrainian Air Force space to operate its Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and fast jets to conduct airstrikes against Russian columns. It also limited the Russian Air Force’s ability to conduct round-the-clock bombardments of besieged Ukrainian cities, except for those very close to Russian airspace such as Kharkiv and Mariupol. The ongoing air war over Donbas is likely to revolve around a different set of dynamics.
The air picture is far more positive for Russia in Donbas and in the southeast of Ukraine compared to other parts of the country. Ukraine’s medium- and short-range mobile SAM systems such as the SA-11 and SA-8 have also taken steady attrition since the invasion began, especially its SA-8s, which have to position relatively close to the frontlines in order to cover friendly troops. This attrition has been primarily inflicted by Russian ground forces in ambushes and UAV-directed artillery strikes, but it means that the Russian Air Force now has significantly greater freedom of action at medium and high altitudes over Donbas and around Mariupol than it has achieved so far around Kyiv or in the southwest. This has enabled it to conduct regular combat air patrols with fighters, which pose a significant threat to Ukrainian UAVs and fast jet sorties near the frontlines. The density of Russian ground-based air defence systems is also much greater here, including long-range SAMs like the S-400 near the borders and mobile SA-17 and SA-15 systems moving with Russian formations closer to the frontlines.
As a result of these factors, the Ukrainian Air Force will have much less ability to influence the course of the ground war in Donbas over the coming weeks than it had around Kyiv or in the southwest around Mykolaiv. Airstrikes on Russian troop movements or frontline positions in the east will carry very high risk, and so are likely to be rare. Furthermore, the distances to the Donbas frontlines from relatively safe airstrips in the central and western parts of Ukraine will stretch the already short range of the Ukrainian Mig-29 fighters. This will be made worse by the requirement to fly at very low altitude to avoid Russian SAM threats and fighters, since jet engines are much less fuel efficient at low altitude. As such, Russia is likely to have localised air superiority over much of Donbas during the next phase of ground operations. However, this may not translate into significantly increased effectiveness against the Ukrainian army on the battlefield.
The air picture is far more positive for Russia in Donbas and in the southeast of Ukraine compared to other parts of the country
The Russian Air Force has several critical limitations which stand in the way of it being able to provide effective close air support and battlefield interdiction against Ukrainian forces during the new Donbas offensive. The first of these is a shortage of modern air-dropped precision-guided munitions (PGMs) for battlefield use. Although the Russian Air Force has access to laser- and GLONASS/GPS- guided bombs and missiles, they are expensive and have been produced in very limited numbers compared to Western equivalents, such as the JDAM and Paveway series bomb kits or Maverick and Hellfire missiles. Furthermore, most Russian fast jet pilots do not have significant experience using precision-guided munitions. The specialised Su-34 ‘frontal bomber’ fleet is an exception, but even these specialist strike aircraft (and the similarly ground attack-focused Su-25s) have so far conducted the vast majority of their sorties over Ukraine with unguided bombs and rockets due to limited stocks of PGMs.
What this means is that Russian pilots will have to deliver attacks against battlefield targets using continuously computed impact point (CCIP)-type deliveries. CCIP is a fairly old technique where the pilot visually acquires a target and then flies the aircraft to place an automatically calculated impact aiming marker over it, releasing the weapons at the right moment. Such attacks can deliver unguided weapons with considerable accuracy, but only if they are released fairly close to the target. Accurate deliveries also require the pilot to spot and identify targets visually, and then to fly a stable approach in a dive. As such, the use of unguided munitions against small battlefield targets like vehicles or weapons emplacements will require Russian pilots to fly predictable flight paths by day at low level over the battlefield in order to reliably find and hit targets. If they do this, however, they are likely to suffer unsustainable losses from a combination of anti-aircraft fire and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS). The Russian Air Force attempted similar low-altitude sorties by day over northern and southern Ukraine in early March and lost at least nine fast jets in just a few days; subsequently, Russia switched mainly to night operations for low-altitude strike sorties to reduce the MANPADS threat.
The second key limitation which prevents Russian fast jets from being effective in close air support over Donbas is that they lack targeting pods comparable to the Litening or Sniper pods routinely carried by Western multirole fighter aircraft. Targeting pods allow fighter aircraft to orbit above the effective range of MANPADS and anti-aircraft fire, using powerful optics to search for, identify and then designate battlefield targets for precision-guided weapons deliveries by day or by night. The Russian Air Force lacks these pods, and instead relies upon retractable forward-looking sensors with limited zoom and resolution in specialised ground attack aircraft only. This further reduces their ability to effectively identify and hit Ukrainian vehicles and fighting positions without placing themselves at unacceptable risk.
Most Russian fighter pilots are unlikely to be currently capable of conducting close air support in a complex and highly contested environment such as Donbas with unguided munitions
The third key limitation for most Russian fighters in a close air support role is very limited flying training hours for aircrew. Russian fast jet pilots were receiving between 80 and 100 flying hours per year before the invasion of Ukraine. This is significantly fewer than their Western counterparts, and Russian fighter pilots also lack access to modern high-fidelity simulators to train in realistic virtual environments when not live-flying. As such, Russian pilots are only likely to be combat ready in their primary mission set, which is usually the pure fighter role. Close air support is a highly complex and technically demanding mission set which requires regular practice and deep familiarity with ground-to-air integration practices, weapon and targeting switchology, delivery profiles and deconfliction procedures. It is not something which can be done well without significant training beforehand, even with access to modern PGMs and targeting pods. Therefore, the majority of Russian fighter pilots are unlikely to be currently capable of conducting close air support in a complex and highly contested environment such as Donbas with unguided munitions. This is especially true given the composite and degraded nature of many Russian units in the area of operations at this stage, meaning joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) integration and distribution is likely to be uneven at best. Without large numbers of well-integrated JTACs on the Russian frontlines, coordinating close air support with ground forces will be even more challenging.
It is also worth noting that in addition to ubiquitous JTAC presence in ground units, Western close air support since the end of the Cold War has largely been conducted in desert environments where cloud cover is generally limited or non-existent. This has greatly enhanced the ability of fighter aircraft to find and identify and subsequently strike targets on the battlefield from medium altitude. Over the east and south of Ukraine, at this time of year there is often dense, low-level cloud cover. The Russian Air Force is far less well-equipped and trained to work around this than Western air forces, who would also find such conditions challenging, especially for laser-guided working deliveries and target acquisition.
For these reasons, although the Russian Air Force is likely to have a measure of localised superiority in Donbas, at least compared to the situation elsewhere in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely to be able to use this to decisive effect on the battlefield. Unlike the Russian Air Force’s failure to achieve superiority during the initial weeks of the invasion, this should not come as a surprise for long-term Russian military analysts. The Russian Air Force has never prioritised close air support as a mission set, which partly explains the lack of targeting pods and investment in direct-attack PGMs. This was due to the Russian (and Western) assumption that the Russian Army’s preponderance of tanks and heavy artillery would give it the advantage in any ground conflict, provided that its ground-based air defences could keep NATO air forces at bay. It is the failure so far of the Russian Army to exploit its firepower advantage successfully in Ukraine that is the surprise. In this context, however, it is suddenly significant that even with local air superiority, the Russian Air Force is unlikely to be able to tip the balance against the Ukrainian Army in Donbas.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology