The Russians had possibly anticipated a fast-paced operation with Ukrainians offering little resistance. They also took it for granted that NATO and the US will arm Ukrainian forces at an even pace disallowing such weapons to be effectively used before a decisive victory is notched up by the Russian military machine. However, such hopes have been smashed. One of the biggest factors resulting in operations slowing down remains the limited use of air power by the Russians. The article analyses the air aspects of the war.
On 24 February 2022, amidst global speculations and official Russian denial, Russia launched a full-scale special operation against Ukraine with coordinated artillery shelling, air, sea, and ground-based missile strikes targeting Ukrainian military targets. The roots of this invasion could be traced back to the certain key developments that occurred eight years earlier and the chain of events thereafter. The major development of the Russian occupation of Crimea in Southeast Ukraine and the subsequent seizure of territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, followed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy approving Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy towards the development of the distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of membership in NATO, became the ‘raison-d’etre’ for the present military action in the region.
Military Power Asymmetry
All the three services of the Russian Armed forces are numerically and technologically far superior as compared to the Ukraine forces. This differential is overwhelming just in numbers itself; be it in terms of regular soldiers, artillery, tanks, armoured vehicles or, aircraft, drones, High-Value Air Assets (HVAA) like Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS), Heavy Lift Aircrafts, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) of Air Force and naval assets like Carrier Battle Group (CBG), nuclear submarines and various kinds of warships. The differential gets even wider with the number of weapons of various types of precision and stand-off capability, Electronic Warfare (EW), Intelligence Surveillance and Recce (ISR), and Cyber and Space capabilities.
In any modern warfare, it has been observed that air campaign plays a pivotal role as a primary instrument of degrading the war potential of any adversary and Russian special operations in Ukraine are no exception.The Russian air Force is one of the largest air forces in the world with about 4000 aircraft including all types of fighters, bombers, special role aircrafts and helicopters along with about 500 plus drones Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UAV/UCAVs). Russian Navy and Army also have a substantial number of aircraft; mainly helicopters, amounting to more than 800 aircrafts.
In comparison the Ukraine Air Force has just about 250 aircraft in all with just about 100 plus UAV/UCAV; most of which are from countries like the US, Turkey and Israel. It is very evident that there is a huge differential in the number of aerial platforms between the two opposing sides. It is not the quantity but also there exists a huge quality differential between the two. While on one side Russia has almost 70 per cent of its aircraft and weapons of fourth-generation and above with state of art technology and precision capability, the Ukrainian aircraft and other systems are mostly of much lower capabilities.
As far as the Russians are concerned, the fighter aircrafts like SU-35, MiG-31, SU-30, SU-27 and MiG-29 with A-50 AWACS, AN-22 heavy lift and a large number of IL-78 FRA along with a large helicopter fleet of attack helicopters like KA-52, Mi-35, armed helicopters Mi-17 as well as various UCAVs, provide the Russian air force a capability to dominate the skies over Ukraine which has very limited fighters, helicopters, UCAVs as well as limited air defence capability of merely two S-300 units and limited Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) or Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) to oppose the Russian air campaign.
Limited Air Operations and Implications
The special operations by Russia in Ukraine commenced with a large number of airstrikes on 24 February itself. The notable airstrikes, mostly on military targets, included airstrikes on Chuhuive air base, Antonov airport, Avdivka, snake island, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kontop and Odessa. Simultaneously there were airstrikes on certain select military targets in areas of Mariupol, Sumy, Chernihiv and Okhtyrka. A large number of targets were military strongholds, ammunition dumps and a few air defence missile and radar sites.
The air campaign appeared to be in line with the principles of air war where Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD/DEAD) precedes any other military offensive. The next day, along with repeated attacks on these targets, air attacks on other airbases were also launched. The intensity of air attacks, as the days passed, was observed to be gradually declining rather than increasing, as also the employment of fighters. The next few major attacks were not only separated in time but also lacked full potential exploitation. The notable airstrikes after 27 February were few and far and included Vinnytsia airstrike on 6 March, Yavoriv on 13 March, Kherson on 16 March and Berdiansk port attack on 24 March.
Despite having overwhelming air superiority, instead of dominating the skies of Ukraine in the first few days itself, the Russian Air Force, except for the first five days, seemed to be limiting its airpower employment both in terms of numbers and types of air operations. Since the major objective of Moscow appeared to be of forcing Ukraine to give up its quest to become a member nation of NATO, an unprecedented force application by air to destroy assets on the ground may not have been considered logical. Secondly, since Russian forces focussed on military targets only, extensive use of airpower could have led to an unacceptable level of collateral damage to civilian lives and assets.
However, while the reasons for such limited use of airpower could be justifiable, they have resulted in Russian Army facing counterattacks from Ukraine. Secondly, the absence of air interdiction of the entire arms and ammunition supply route from Poland to Ukraine also enhanced the capabilities of Ukraine fighters to target Russian tanks and army elements continuously. The Russian Air Force, by failing to exploit its full potential and create at least a Favourable Air Situation (FAS) to minimise attrition of land forces, has indirectly pushed its land offensive into a long drawn battle.
The Russian special military operations that were expected to achieve terminal goals in a swift and short duration conflict have turned out to be a long-drawn battle. One of the major contributing factors for this operation becoming a quagmire for Russian forces appears to be the non-exploitation of overwhelming air dominance that Russia enjoys over Ukraine, as also of not employing the air power to either conduct SEAD/DEAD operations fully or interdict the enemy supply lines; the two important facets that allow freedom of operation to own land forces. It is highly possible that in the coming days of operations, the Russian Air Force may review its strategy and launch an effective air campaign to bring an early end to the conflict.
Air Cmdre SP Singh (Retd)