Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?
Main Image Credit Sukhoi Su-25SM3 of the VKS shot down in Ukraine. Credit: Ukrainian Ministry of Defence
More than a week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Air Force has yet to commence large-scale operations. Inactivity in the first few days could be ascribed to various factors, but the continued absence of major air operations now raises serious capability questions.
One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.
In recent years, analysts, including the author, have tended to focus on the impressive combat-air equipment modernisation conducted by Russia since 2010. Most notably, this has seen the VKS acquire around 350 modern aircraft in a decade, including the Sukhoi Su-35S air-superiority fighters, Su-30SM multi-role fighters and Su-34 bombers. There has also been an ambitious modernisation drive to remanufacture and upgrade around 110 Mikoyan Mig-31BM/BSM interceptors and a smaller number of Su-25SM(3) ground-attack aircraft. Russia has around 300 modern combat aircraft normally stationed in the Western and Southern Military Districts – within range of Ukraine – and had also relocated regiments from elsewhere in Russia as part of its military build-up prior to the invasion. There was clearly an intent to at least signal their use, especially in light of the Russian military intervention in Syria since 2015 which has been characterised by heavy use of VKS fixed-wing assets for combat-air patrols and strike missions. As the Russian ground offensive struggles to make headway in the north and eastern parts of Ukraine, and heavy vehicle and personnel losses continue to be inflicted by Ukrainian forces, the lack of Russian air activity requires a serious explanation.
Unlikely or Insufficient Potential Explanations
One potential argument is that the VKS fighter fleets are being held in reserve, potentially as a deterrent against direct intervention by NATO forces. This is unlikely to be the case. If the VKS is capable of large-scale combat operations to rapidly establish air superiority over Ukraine, by not doing so, it is, in fact, weakening its potential deterrent value against NATO forces rather than preserving it. The failure of the much-feared Russian Army to rapidly overwhelm the much smaller and poorly positioned Ukrainian forces, and its heavy losses of modern vehicles and personnel, have already seriously damaged international perceptions of Russia’s conventional military power. From a NATO deterrence standpoint, the Russian General Staff and the Kremlin have every incentive to employ their airpower to maximum effect to re-establish some of this lost credibility.
Another argument has been that due to the relatively low proportion of the VKS fixed-wing fleet that can effectively employ precision-guided munitions, large-scale strikes with unguided bombs and rockets were being avoided due to a desire to avoid damaging critical infrastructure which Russia hopes to conquer and use, or from a desire to minimise Ukrainian civilian casualties. This was a potentially valid assumption in the initial days of the invasion, when the Russian leadership was planning on a quick military victory. However, as this possibility has rapidly faded and Russian forces have settled into a pattern of heavy artillery and cruise missile bombardments against multiple encircled cities – most notably Kharkiv and Mariupol – this theory no longer explains the lack of large-scale VKS strikes.
Another theory is that Russian commanders are less willing to risk suffering heavy losses to their expensive and prestigious fast jets, and so have held back the VKS due to low risk tolerance. This also does not make sense. Russian ground forces have lost hundreds of modern tanks, armoured personnel carriers, short- and medium-range air-defence systems and thousands of troops including a disproportionate number of elite paratroopers (VDV) and special forces in a week. The Russian economy is being rapidly choked by crippling sanctions, and the Russian leadership has burned its carefully developed influence networks and alliances throughout Europe and the wider world. In short, the Kremlin is risking everything – holding back the air force to avoid losses does not make sense in this context.
The Only Currently Viable Explanation
While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.
First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment. This is a factor that many Western airpower specialists and practitioners often overlook due to the ubiquity of complex air operations – run through combined air operations centres – to Western military operations over Iraq, the Balkans, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria over the past 20 years.
Second, most VKS pilots get around 100 hours’ (and in many cases less) flying time per year – around half of that flown by most NATO air forces. They also lack comparable modern simulator facilities to train and practise advanced tactics in complex environments. The live flying hours which Russian fighter pilots do get are also significantly less valuable in preparing pilots for complex air operations than those flown by NATO forces. In Western air forces such as the RAF and US Air Force, pilots are rigorously trained to fly complex sorties in appalling weather, at low level and against live and simulated ground and aerial threats. To pass advanced fast jet training they must be able to reliably do this and still hit targets within five to ten seconds of the planned time-on-target. This is a vital skill for frontline missions to allow multiple elements of a complex strike package to sequence their manoeuvres and attacks safely and effectively, even when under fire and in poor visibility. It also takes a long time to train for and regular live flying and simulator time to stay current at. By contrast, most VKS frontline training sorties involve comparatively sterile environments, and simple tasks such as navigation flights, unguided weapon deliveries at open ranges, and target simulation flying in cooperation with the ground-based air-defence system. Russia lacks access to a training and exercise architecture to rival that available to NATO air forces, which routinely train together at well-instrumented ranges in the Mediterranean, North Sea, Canada and the US. Russia also has no equivalent to the large-scale complex air exercises with realistic threat simulation which NATO members hold annually – the most famous of which is Red Flag. As such, it would be unsurprising if most Russian pilots lack the proficiency to operate effectively as part of large, mixed formations executing complex and dynamic missions under fire.
Third, if the VKS were capable of conducting complex air operations, it should have been comparatively simple for them to have achieved air superiority over Ukraine. The small number of remaining Ukrainian fighters, conducting heroic air-defence efforts over their own cities, are forced to operate at low altitudes due to long-range Russian SAM systems and consequently have comparatively limited situational awareness and endurance. They ought to be relatively easily to overwhelm for the far more numerous, better armed and more advanced VKS fighters arranged around the Ukrainian borders. Ukrainian mobile medium- and short-range SAM systems such as SA-11 and SA-15 have had successes against Russian helicopters and fast jets. However, large Russian strike aircraft packages flying at medium or high altitude with escorting fighters would be able to rapidly find and strike any Ukrainian SAMs which unmasked their position by firing at them. They would lose aircraft in the process, but would be able to attrit the remaining SAMs and rapidly establish air superiority.
Russia has every incentive to establish air superiority, and on paper should be more than capable of doing so if it commits to combat operations in large, mixed formations to suppress and hunt down Ukrainian fighters and SAM systems. Instead, the VKS continues to only operate in very small numbers and at low level to minimise the threat from the Ukrainian SAMs. Down low, their situational awareness and combat effectiveness is limited, and they are well within range of the MANPADS such as Igla and Stinger which Ukrainian forces already possess. The numbers of MANPADS are also increasing, as numerous Western countries send supplies to beleaguered Ukrainian forces. To avoid additional losses to MANPADS, sorties continue to be primarily flown at night, which further limits the effectiveness of their mostly unguided air-to-ground weapons.
This explanation may yet prove to be false; the VKS may suddenly start mounting large-scale complex air operations comparable to those routinely conducted by NATO states and other modern air forces such as Israel. If it does not, however, it will have profound implications for its potential combat power against Ukrainian forces in the coming weeks, and its value as a conventional deterrence tool against Western countries.
Justin Bronk is the Research Fellow for Airpower at RUSI
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Professor Justin Bronk
Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology