(Editor’s Note: The U.S. Air Force operates the largest fleet of aircraft in the world, but some sources claim the Navy may operate more “aircraft” when UAV are included in these numbers, especially the smaller MQ-11 drones that the Marine Corps flies.)
Russia and the US have stood as world superpowers for decades. While the US Air Force is the second largest air force in the world (behind, sigh… the US Navy), Russia’s Aerospace Forces are not to be dismissed. Although the Russian AF has not been fully brought to bear in the invasion of Ukraine, there is a lot of combat aircraft waiting to be flown.
The big question is: why hasn’t the Russian Air Force established air dominancy? Not for lack of equipment, at least according to GlobalSecurity. Though lagging well behind the US, the Russian Air Force fields nearly 1,600 fighter and attack aircraft, including roughly 125 bombers. Compare that to Ukraine’s minuscule 98 fighters and attack aircraft (no bombers), and you begin to see the gulf. (These numbers do not show helicopter or drone totals, only fixed or swept-wing fighter, attack, and bomber aircraft).
Ukraine did operate bombers as recently as 2000. Russian-made Tu-22M Backfire bombers, to be precise. They were dismantled as part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and START I Treaties. They were dismantled with the assurance that Russia would not attempt to invade or annex the country.
Ukraine stands in a deep hole compared to Russia. If Russia desired it, their air force could simply swarm the Ukrainian defenses, overwhelming them with superior numbers. Why haven’t they? Maybe they are not as technologically advanced as the US? Maybe Ukraine’s air defenses are too effective? Reports coming out of Ukraine point to both.
The Russian Air Force operates at a “near-peer” level with the United States. Their MiG- and Su- series aircraft are on the same basic level as our F-16 and F-15 models. The Su- series of jets are the base platform for much of Russia’s upgraded inventory. The Su-35 stands as Russia’s attempt to answer America’s fourth-gen fighters. The Su-57, the premiere fifth-gen fighter, has only recently been fielded, and there are currently only four operational.
Even without the newest Su-57 in the inventory, the Russian Air Force should still dominate in the skies over Ukraine. They outnumber Ukrainian air forces 20 – 1. Russian forces have access to ten times as many Mig-29 fighters as Ukraine. Russian military might overall is nearly three times that of Ukraine. Why, then, have we not been barraged with video of Russian jets systematically taking Ukraine’s air defenses, air force, and morale out of the fight?
Some have speculated Russia does not have the munitions to arm all those aircraft. Others say there aren’t enough pilots trained to man a sustained air superiority campaign. Still, others posit the idea that rank-and-file Russian troops don’t have the stomach for this fight. It is likely a combination of these things, plus limiting factors the Western world has no awareness of.
Does Putin have enough munitions to arm all those fighter aircraft? Russian operations over Syria may give us an idea. Russia was widely condemned in the mid-2010s for its heavy-handed approach to targets in Syria. The United Nations investigated Russian actions in Idlib, Syria, and determined they had been responsible for multiple war crimes, indiscriminately dropping munitions on schools, hospitals, and residential areas.
“Most of their actions in support of the Syrian army was to exact a high civilian death toll in order to break the morale of the people. And eventually they succeeded in basically dismembering the Syrian opposition as a result,”
Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute explained how the Russian government used attacks on civilian targets to break morale and force the Syrian people to capitulate.
After nearly a decade of fighting in Syria, stockpiles of Russian munitions have dwindled, making us wonder what they’re fighting with. Most signs point to the Russians dropping “dumb” bombs t low altitudes, which strongly suggests the Russians have limited numbers of PGMs in their inventories. Precision-guided munitions (PGM) are the bread and butter of modern fighter and attack aircraft. They are what allow the pilots to pick a target, select the right munition type, then send that munition through the window of the truck carrying the bad guy. Gravity bombs are simply that: drop them and let gravity do the work.
Gravity bombs are how London was razed nearly to the ground. They created craters the size of swimming pools in Cambodia and Vietnam. Unguided munitions may or may not have been the ones dropped on a children’s hospital in Mariupol, killing and injuring an unknown number of civilians, including small children.
Unguided munitions used over a delineated battlefield may be acceptable, owing to the fact all those under its umbrella are (ideally) combatants. Their use over civilian areas should be, and is, considered an egregious offense and could be used as the basis for charges of crimes against humanity. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians does not conform to the ideas of military necessity, proportion, or collateral damage. Russia’s use of “dumb” bombs could point to a lack of weaponry, or it could be a symptom of a much different problem.
Are there enough pilots trained to fly these fighters? Are those trained pilots familiar and comfortable with the deployment of PGMs? Some of the strikes in Ukraine are from mortars, some are from ground-based rocket systems, and some come from the air. Twitter users in Ukraine have posted footage of what appears to be a Su-34 Fullback strike fighter streaking across at a low-level, just before explosions that may or may not have been from dropped munitions. The low-level flight followed by no air trails signaling launched munitions points to the use of gravity bombs.
YouTube and Twitter abound with footage of supposed Russian fighters being shot down. The “Ghost of Kyiv” and the “Grey Wolf” are two mythic operators credited with the awesome destruction of Russian forces. While the Ghost is still shrouded in mystery and probably myth, Oleksandr Oksanchenko, the “Grey Wolf, “was a Russian-turned-Ukrainian Su-27 Flanker pilot well-known for his flying prowess. No matter the veracity of the Ghost, Ukrainian forces appear to be clearing the skies of Russian aircraft quite handily. Oksanchencko came out of retirement to fight for Ukraine and was shot down and killed by a surface-to-air missile last week.
Dogfighting has largely become a thing of the past as far as warfare is concerned, so reports of “aces” flying above Ukraine right now are most likely false. When you dig down into it, more aircraft have been downed by surface fire than any other way. So why are those surface emplacements still there? Russian pilots seem to not have the proficiency, support, or supplies to dominate the skies over the battlespace.
The media has helped to aggrandize the capabilities and technological advancement of Russian forces, but that is a big game of smoke and mirrors. If Russian forces had access to training and manpower to equip the amount of weaponry splashed all over news outlets, the invasion would have lasted two days. Three tops. Indeed, those were the expert predictions when the war began, Kyiv would fall in two days and the whole country in less than a week in part because the Russian Air Force would take over the skies and rain death from above on Ukraine’s ground forces. Coming up on a month now, the Russian military in Ukraine appears to be lost in the Walmart parking lot trying to find their car.
Motivation plays a huge role in the will to fight a war. Until 1991, Ukraine had been a part of Russia, one of the first republics to fall under the newly minted Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. The borders of Ukraine have changed often over the intervening years. Poland invaded western Ukraine and sliced it off, then proceeded to attempt to wipe out the idea of Ukraine. Polish officials restricted Ukrainian rights, targeting speech, attacking the church, and subjugating the people. The USSR stepped in and sliced off the western half for themselves and immediately began to subjugate the population.
Throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Ukraine has had a host of occupiers. Whether Poles before WWII, Germans during, or Soviets afterward, someone else has always been ready to step in and take over. Ukrainians have had to become resilient over the decades. They have learned to stand up and fight when called upon, knowing their neighbors have overwhelming superiority. The resolve shown by the Ukrainian people since the invasion kicked off has had a deleterious effect on Russian forces.
What are the odds some of those Russian pilots have families that live in Ukraine? Those ground troops abandoning tanks in farmers’ fields? Even if it isn’t Grandma or Uncle Fyodor, bloodlines run deep and strong in Eastern Europe. When Russian forces began amassing on the Ukrainian border last year, many rank-and-file people were probably not told an invasion was in the works. They were there for a training exercise, sucking rubber and eating cold rations for a few weeks so some General could check off a training box.
So when the order came to roll across the border and take Kyiv, a lot of those soldiers and airmen said, “Huh? THAT isn’t what we came here for!” Putin made a mistake in keeping his plans so close to the vest. Those troops, if presented with the plan while still warm and snug in Moscow, would have either readied themselves for a real fight or disappeared into the mist, refusing to fight a war with their fellow countrymen. If they were volunteers, that is. Some reports say the ground troops are poorly-trained conscripts, ready to lay down their weapons and surrender at the earliest opportunity.
Ground forces surrendering wholesale give a glimpse of the problems facing the Russian war machine. These reports, and their accompanying videos, show the faces on the ground. Those same faces are the ones in those fighter jets NOT currently dominating Ukrainian skies. Russia has thousands of jets in its air force inventory. It has thousands of pilots “trained” to fly and fight in those jets. On paper, anyway, Russia has a world-class air force. Without world-class, motivated-to-win pilots to fly, though, all those fighters and bombers are multi-billion dollar paperweights.
One factor that can’t be discounted, and is inferred by the absence of the Russian air force is a lack of maintenance. The Russian air force used to operate aircraft that were pretty simple in terms of technology and maintenance. As a design philosophy during the Cold War, the Soviets had thousands of aircraft that could operate off rough airfields, even dirt roads if necessary, and were easy to fix and keep flying. This meant a marked lack of technological sophistication compared to the U.S. Air Force, but they believed sheer numbers would win out in the end. The guys the Soviets would be using to fix their planes would not be highly proficient in maintaining these aircraft, and they were known for having a very high rate of “broken” affecting their sortie availability for individual squadrons. In our own Air Force, a commanding officer who couldn’t manage an availability above 95% for his combat aircraft being mission-ready would lose his job quickly. In the Soviet air forces, it was more like 70%, which means they accepted close to a third of their combat aircraft not able to fly missions as a matter of routine.
The reasons for this were probably a combination of several factors, maintenance personnel not being fully proficient and supply problems that kept aircraft grounded no matter how good your ground crews were. We think there is some of that at work here too. Keeping them flying in peacetime operations is a very different thing than combat operations in terms of turnaround and wear and tear. Combat sorties eat up a lot of gas, ordnance, and material very quickly. Low flying aircraft get hit by small arms and have to be patched up and their crews may not have much experience with combat operations. Given the problems the Russians are having on the ground getting supplies to their troops, it’s easy to imagine they are having even bigger problems with their air force that does not appear capable of even making an airdrop of supplies to ground forces.
Ukraine has been begging for the U.S., NATO, or the UN to close their airspace with a No-Fly Zone over their country. From here it looks like the Russian air force has done have the job themselves already
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