Why Russia's air force failed to dominate Ukraine

·Producer
·4 min read

LONDON — Many observers expected Russia’s air force to blow away Ukraine’s forces in the opening days of the Kremlin’s invasion. Ukraine’s military would be left completely vulnerable as Russian warplanes could pick off targets at whim.

But that hasn’t happened.

More than two months later, Russia has still not established air supremacy over large swaths of Ukraine, despite having the world’s second-largest air force — and a highly advanced one at that. The New York Times reported Monday that, according to the U.S. Defense Department, Ukraine “continues to fly its own fighters and attack jets against Russian troops.”

A pair of Russian Su-35 fighter jets fly in the sky.
A pair of Russian Su-35 fighter jets in the sky in Russia in November 2021. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Russia’s air force has even been timid as Ukraine’s relatively scrappy anti-air defenses remain a formidable threat. NATO countries have done their best to flood Ukraine with man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, like the U.S.-made Stinger missile. The Stinger system can be fired by a single operator, whose missile locks onto aircraft with infrared guidance.

“The Western supplies of MANPAD and other types of air defense systems allowed Ukraine to increase and to improve its capabilities,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian armed forces expert and contributor at the Jamestown Foundation.

William Alberque, the director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Yahoo News that Ukraine was able to effectively distribute these air defenses so it became too dangerous for Russian combat flights.

Two service members, from behind, wear camouflaged helmets and fatigues. One holds a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile as they face toward a lone plane against white clouds in a blue sky.
U.S. Marine gunners provide surface-to-air defense using the FIM-92 Stinger during an exercise on Okinawa, Japan, in March 2021. (Lance Cpl. Ujian Gosun/U.S. Marine Corps)

NATO countries have also been providing Ukraine with increasingly advanced military hardware as Russia’s war drags on. Slovakia announced last month that it had donated its Soviet-era S-300 long-range air defense system to Ukraine.

Russia has been further hampered by its combat aircrafts’ lackluster weapons systems. U.S. officials say Russian pilots are “unable to quickly locate and engage targets on the ground,” and missiles launched into Ukraine “often miss their targets — if they work at all,” according to the Times.

Alberque said Russian stocks of precision-guided munitions are significantly smaller than NATO’s. This observation was backed by security analyst Oliver Alexander, who said on Twitter that with Russia’s lack of precision-guided munitions, “they are forced to use dumb munitions [unguided bombs] to operate at scale.”

A Russian MiG-31 fighter jet aloft with landing gear down is seen from behind against a gray sky.
A MiG-31 fighter of the Russian air force takes off at an air base during a military drill in Tver region, Russia, in February. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

But technology alone does not fully explain Russia’s failure to establish air superiority. Experts say Russia’s air doctrine has been poorly thought out and haphazardly executed from the opening days of the war.

“They thought it would be all over very quickly, with a complete Ukrainian collapse at first contact and [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky either captured or fleeing,” Alberque said. If the Kremlin had predicted Ukrainian resilience, the Russian military would have “done a lot differently and their air power would be far more devastating now,” he said.

And because Moscow believed it would capture Ukraine the first few days, Russian military command was keen not to destroy Ukrainian infrastructure it wanted to keep for controlling the country after the war, Alberque said.

Two soldiers, seen from behind standing before a large, ornate building, appear to look up at six jets flying in formation against a blue sky, each emitting red, white or blue exhaust trails.
Russian air force Sukhoi Su-25SM jets leave trails of smoke in colors of the national flag during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow in 2021. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Phillips Payson O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Edward Stringer, a retired Royal Air Force air marshal, published a Monday essay in the Atlantic delving into the Russian air force’s failures. They argued1 that the Russian military struggles to creatively use air doctrine because it is philosophically wedded to being a traditional land power with massive reserves of soldiers at its disposal.

“When the invasion started, the Russian air force was incapable of running a well-thought-out, complex campaign,” they wrote. “Instead of working to control the skies, Russia’s air force has mostly provided air support to ground troops or bombed Ukrainian cities. In this it has followed the traditional tactics of a continental power that privileges land forces.”

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