Main Image Credit A Sukhoi Su-27UB Flanker of the Ukrainian Air Force pictured in 2019. Courtesy of Adrian Pingstone / Wikimedia Commons
With few good air defence options, Ukraine’s best strategy is likely to be to forgo challenging Russian freedom of action in the air over the frontlines and instead attempt to inflict a steady drumbeat of losses on any deep-penetration strike or air assault sorties via defence in depth.
As Russian forces continue to build up around the Ukrainian borders with both Russia and Belarus, the disparity of forces on the ground and at sea is matched in many ways in the air domain. This significantly limits the options available to Kyiv in the event of a Russian invasion or strike campaign, but it does not mean that Russian aircraft would have complete freedom to operate in Ukrainian skies.
The Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF) can field approximately 50 Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-29 and just over 30 Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, alongside around a dozen Su-24 bombers and a similar number of upgraded Su-25 ground attack aircraft. These aircraft were manufactured during the Soviet era, and although they have received various avionics upgrades from Ukrainian domestic industry over the past decade, they are still largely limited to Soviet-era air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons systems.
By contrast, Ukrainian military intelligence estimates that the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) can draw on 313 fixed wing combat aircraft within easy range of the border at present. This tallies with the established VKS strength of around 110 fixed wing combat aircraft in the 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army (6 A VVS PVO) based in the Western Military District and over 200 in the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army (4 A VVS PVO) and 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment (43 OMShAP) based in the Southern Military District. This standing strength has been augmented by various regiments being temporarily moved from other military districts to the regions bordering Ukraine in recent months. One example is the 12 Su-25SM ground attack jets which flew from the Eastern Military District to Belarus in early February. With the exception of some older Su-27s in the 4 A VVS PVO, most of the fixed wing combat aircraft the VKS can draw upon for any operation against Ukraine are either recently manufactured or have been through extensive mid-life upgrade programmes. In any direct clash with the UkrAF, VKS fighters could also draw on more modern and longer-ranged R-77-1 active radar-guided missiles for beyond visual range engagements and R-73M heat-seeking missiles at close range. For strike operations, the VKS fields a wide array of radar-guided and GLONASS/GPS-guided standoff missiles and TV-guided bombs.
Russian pilots are likely to be better prepared for the complexities of any armed clash than their Ukrainian opposite numbers
The disparity in the air goes beyond the qualitative and quantitative mismatch in fast jet fleets. Offensive counter-air and strike sorties by the VKS would also be supported by A-50M AWACS to provide a ‘look-down’ wide area surveillance, early warning and coordination capability, and a range of airborne and orbital ELINT/SIGINT platforms. The effect would be that UkrAF fighters would be operating at a distinct situational awareness disadvantage, even deep within their own territory. Ground-based early warning radar stations would likely be primary targets for initial Russian long-range precision strikes, leaving Ukrainian pilots operating comparatively blind against more numerous opponents flying more modern and capable aircraft with longer-ranged weaponry. Russian pilots have also built up significant experience of operating in a complex and congested combat environment in recent years as the VKS cycled units through kinetic tours in Syria. The fact that aside from the Su-34 Fullback units, most of the combat sorties involved attacks with unguided bombs and rockets against ground targets does not alter the reality that Russian pilots are likely to be better prepared for the complexities of any armed clash than their opposite numbers in the UkrAF fixed wing community. Put simply, the UkrAF will be rapidly destroyed if it attempts to directly oppose VKS fixed wing sorties near the lines of contact.
The situation is complicated by the presence of layered air defences on the ground on both sides. Once again, Russian forces are protected by dense short-, medium- and long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. These include the S-300VM/V4 (SA-23), S-400 (SA-21), 9K37M1-2 (SA-17) and 9K332 ‘Tor M-2’ (SA-15). Compared to Ukrainian equivalents, these all feature far more capable radars and longer-ranged missiles, and they will operate as part of a cohesive integrated air defence system. The long-ranged systems can make Ukrainian fixed wing or rotary wing operations close to the frontlines all but impossible during any large-scale clash, except at very low altitudes. At low altitudes the threat from man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and anti-aircraft fire (as well as SA-15) would be similarly prohibitive – as the UkrAF found during the war in Donbas. However, it is worth bearing in mind that in order to allow its ground-based air defence systems to sanitise the airspace over the frontlines, Russian VKS sorties would need to be rigidly deconflicted to prevent friendly fire incidents. Running a joint engagement zone for SAMs and fixed wing aircraft is a complex and difficult task during peacetime live-fire exercises for any air force. During the chaos of a major military assault on Ukraine, the combination of massed ground-based fires, electronic warfare, SAM launches and UAV use, and rotary and fixed wing sorties by both sides would likely force Russian (and Ukrainian) forces to prioritise either ground-based air defence or combat aircraft sorties at the expense of the other in the immediate battlespace to ensure safe deconfliction. However, for Russian forces, a lack of close air support is of limited importance given the overwhelming firepower which their ground manoeuvre formations can call upon.
By contrast, Ukraine has a significantly more limited number of Soviet-era SAM systems, including S-300PS/PT (SA-10) long-range, 2K12 ‘Kub’ (SA-6) and 9K37M ‘Buk M-1’ (SA-11) mobile medium-range and 9K330 ‘Tor’ mobile short-range systems. All have had their systems indigenously modernised to improve their performance and make them less vulnerable to Russian countermeasures. However, they are still reliant on missiles and radars which are well known to and routinely trained against by Russian pilots. The long-range Ukrainian SA-10 sites are largely static due to a chronic lack of key Russian-made spare parts, which leaves them highly vulnerable to being rapidly destroyed by Russian long-range precision strikes at the outset of any clash. Furthermore, the practical degree of integration between Ukrainian SAM systems limits them to presenting standalone threats to any Russian incursions, rather than forming an integrated air defence system.
The only air defence for Ukrainian forces on the frontline is likely to be provided by significant numbers of MANPADS of Soviet, Russian and Western manufacture
For Ukrainian ground-based SAM systems, the choice is stark: if they operate close to the frontlines to provide a measure of cover against Russian rotary and fixed wing air attacks for their own troops, they will be rapidly unmasked and destroyed by ground-based indirect fire and aerial stand-off attacks. However, if they conserve their strength by remaining out of range of most Russian indirect firepower, they may be able to provide a measure of enduring threat to VKS strike packages which penetrate deeper into Ukraine, but will leave the Ukrainian Army exposed. The only air defence for Ukrainian forces on the frontline, therefore, is likely to be provided by significant numbers of MANPADS of Soviet, Russian and Western manufacture. These will present a significant threat to Russian aircraft at low altitudes, but are only point-defence weapons. The preponderance of unguided weapons in the VKS inventory, and the lack of rotating targeting pods to enable stand-off orbits for the delivery of laser-guided weapons, mean that Russian attack aircraft and helicopters must generally fly predictable flight paths at medium-to-low altitudes in order to find and hit concealed targets. Therefore, where Ukrainian troops are dug in in concealed positions or in urban areas, the threat from MANPADS will significantly limit VKS battlefield fire support options.
In summary, Ukraine has few good air defence options in a direct confrontation with Russian forces. The best strategy is likely to be to forgo challenging Russian freedom of action in the air over the frontlines. Instead, Ukraine will probably pursue a defence-in-depth strategy where the combination of fighter sorties and pop-up SAM threats can at least threaten to inflict a painful – albeit not prohibitive – toll on Russian deep-penetration strike sorties or airborne assault operations. However, Ukrainian troops on the frontlines will be left to rely on cover, concealment, MANPADS and Russian airspace deconfliction capacity to limit the practical effectiveness of Russian battlefield attack sorties.
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