Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?


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.


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