More than a week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Air Force (Voyenno-vozdushnye sily Rossii, VVS) 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.

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force

One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the VVS 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 materialize. 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 VVS flying hours.

These factors all remain relevant but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anemic VVS 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 minimize losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.

Russia engaged in a large aircraft acquisition campaign beginning in 2010. VVS acquired 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 was also an ambitious modernization 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.

One potential argument is that the VVS fighter fleets are being held in reserve, potentially as a deterrent against direct intervention by NATO forces. This is unlikely to be the case.

Another argument has been that due to the relatively low proportion of the VVS 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 seize. That might be true in part, but it wouldn’t explain the absence of a fighter cap.

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 VVS due to low-risk tolerance. This also does not make sense. Russian ground forces have lost hundreds of modern tanks, armored personnel carriers, short- and medium-range air-defense systems and thousands of troops including a disproportionate number of elite paratroopers (VDV) and special forces in a week, as discussed on Virtual Mirage yesterday.

It appears that the VVS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief, and fly complex air operations at a theater scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.

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 centers – to Western military operations over Iraq, the Balkans, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria over the past 20 years.

VVS 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 practice 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.

Russian pilots lack the proficiency to operate effectively as part of a large, mixed formation strike package, executing complex and dynamic missions under fire.

If the VVS 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-defense 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 easily overwhelmed by the far more numerous, better armed, and more advanced VVS 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 VVS continues to only operate in very small numbers and at a low level to minimize the threat from the Ukrainian SAMs. Down low, their situational awareness and combat effectiveness are limited, and they are well within the 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.

We are learning how Russian combined arms forces operate, and the myriad problems that they encounter as they fight (or don’t) Ukraine.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for a great post, Larry. This is what I was wondering in my comment the other day about who has air superiority.

    I’d love another post on the Ukraine Air Force. For example, do they have ground-attack aircraft with capabilities similar to the Warthog?

    • At the beginning of hostilities, they had 12 – Su-24 and 17 – Su-25 ground attack aircraft.

      The Su-24’s flew out of Starokostiantyniv. (Central Western Ukraine). The Su-25’s flew out of Mykolaiv, on the Black Sea and Voznesensk Air Force Base, an alternative location in the same region.

      The Su-25 Frogfoot is the Russian answer to the Warthog. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q84mj65BAOw

      The Su-24 Fencer is shown here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRHmg-07_YQ

      I don’t know how many have survived and how many were in combat flying condition before the war started. Both are long in the tooth. The Ukrainians have a lot of good quality SAMs to protect the airbases. At this point Voznesensk Air Force Base has been overrun. If I was the Ukrainian Air Marshal, I’d locate my air force on the Polish border to facilitate logistics support and protection. Make it hard for the Russians to attack them. If the Russians miss and attack Poland, it would be bad for them.

      • Russian aircraft, such as the Su-25 have big tires, air intakes are high, and they are suitable for operation from rough roads or runways. (less of a chance to FOD the engine) They’re rough and crude when compared with Western aircraft but they work and have a history of successful ground attack operations in many locations.

        Having said that, the Russians may be having difficulty getting that 40-mile long convoy going, but it will be protected by the latest surface-to-air missiles and by all accounts, they are effective. Ukraine does not have modern electronic warfare aircraft to jam those systems.

  2. This morning’s news had a “B roll” video of a Russian helicopter (all they said) being taken out by a missile. It made me think the reason we’re not seeing their air force out in big numbers is that threat. Except it seems that high altitude precision bombing wouldn’t be affected by MANPADS.

    I know our bombers are good at that. What about theirs?

    • A Tu-95 Bear could drop iron bombs on a city but I don’t know if they could fly above the ceiling of the SAMs that Ukraine has. In Afghanistan (before Big Army joined the fray) we used B-52s as airborne artillery with PRECISION strikes from each bomb. Each bomb could fly to a different target and strike accurately. The Russians don’t have that. Referencing above, I don’t think that they have the capacity to put what we would call a “strike package” together to hit a high-value target. They can stand-off and launch cruise missiles at a target and it looks as if that is their tactic of choice. It’s not a bad tactic and we do that too.

      When the USSR broke up, Ukraine was left with a significant number of SAMs launchers and reloads.

      The US Stingers (FIM-92) are effective up to 3,500 meters altitude and 8 kilometers distant, flying at mach 2.5. If the target is an airplane less than 2 miles (3.21 kilometers) high and it is visible as a shape (rather than a dot), then most likely the Stinger missile can hit it. They are extremely accurate.

      The nose of a Stinger missile has, essentially, an infrared digital camera in it. This camera might have an array of anything from 2×2 (in older designs) to 128×128 (in the Sidewinder design) infrared sensors that receive an infrared image of the scene. When the soldier gets ready to launch the missile, the missile must have the target visible in roughly the center of this sensor.

      While the missile is flying, the image of the airplane that it is trying to hit may become off-center on the image sensor. When it does, that tells the missile that it is off-course, and the guidance system in the missile must decide how to get back on course. This is where proportional navigation comes in.

      The missile looks at the angle of off-centeredness and changes its angle of flight proportionally. In other words, it uses a multiplier. If the multiplier is 2, then if the guidance system thinks it is 10 degrees off course, it will change its flight direction by 20 degrees. Then, a tenth of a second later it will look at the angle again, and change again. By over-correcting this way, it lets the missile anticipate the path of the moving plane in the same way that you anticipate the path of a moving object.

      • Russia doesn’t have anything like JDAM?

        Without air dominance, how do you defend against a dispersed bunch of guys on the ground with Stingers (or for that matter, Javelins)?

        I’m not ex-mil like most of your readers, just a civilian with a lot of questions.

        • Let me answer honestly and I can be corrected. I am not aware of a Russian JDAM that has ever been used.

          MANPADS (Stingers, etc.) are very effective against rotors and ground attack aircraft. Ukraine has some stingers and Russian variants such as the Igla. Ukraine also has a number of very good Russian design SAMs with longer ranges/higher altitudes. More on that on this blog tomorrow (noon).

          A ground game is needed to defeat troops with MANPADs. Close support of ground troops is very difficult if they have any type of surface-to-air missiles (including shorter-range MANPADS). You have to physically clear an area of enemy troops that are so armed. You point out that if they are dispersed it’s difficult — exactly.

          • Modern military aircraft have chaff/flare countermeasures that can spoof SAMs or air-to-air missiles by putting a hotter source or more radar reflective source in the air in the hopes that the missile will track on those. More modern versions of the Stinger (128×128 IR camera tracking systems) are less likely to be fooled because they saw what you were shooting at in the first place and develop a lock on that target.

          • Russian JDAM equivalent strikes in Syria are few an far between. Guided ordinance is expensive, while unguided iron bombs are cheap, cheerful and very plentiful. Air strikes involve small numbers of aircraft at a time. There are no hostile air defences to speak of, so long as the VVS stays well away from US forces.

            OTOH, the LO LO LO flight profile is perfect for nuclear missions.

      • With the corruption in that part of the world and the flood of weapons of all stripes, how long do you think it’s going to be before they start showing up in the various enclaves? How likely are they to be used? Particularly in France, but also other western nations with similar demographic issues.

        Also got to echo the thanks, I trust your sources a great deal more than pretty much all the others places I’ve been reading.

        • One of my old jobs was tracking down MANPADS in the possession of Mexican drug cartels and others on the planet. We worked with foreign governments (Mexican SEMAR for example) to organize raids or in some situations, physically seize them – even though their new owners were reluctant to give them up.

          Allegedly — The Benghazi massacre took place because Ambassador Stephens was going to buy back Stingers that Hillary authorized out of US Army inventory to terrorists/foreign fighters. She was afraid of being embarrassed before she could be coronated president and it went from a buy-back to a heist. CIA wouldn’t transfer them so she finagled them out of the Army inventory during the Arab Spring. My point is that the genie is out of the bottle.

          The drug cartels bought them from foreign militaries who allegedly expended them by testing them… They spent $1-5 million each + to obtain them. They currently have some very good British systems. I know that for a fact.

          • Thanks, I had no idea there were more recent systems out there. Most of what I’d read was based on the idea what was out there were the stingers from when the SU was in Afghanistan.

    • +1…trusted sources are getting more rare by the day. Thx LL for keeping your readership in the right loop.

  3. Precision munitions are insanely expensive. Russia GNP isn’t even in the top ten world wide. They rank behind Canada.

    • The JDAM is an iron bomb with a GPS guidance system strapped to it. Thus you’re using old munitions with new guidance. Still expensive.

  4. It comes down to the lack of pilots capable of actually using the few/costly PGMs and the fact that everything the VVS does, comes from the top. They don’t ‘trust’ the pilots to fly a mission without controls, and they don’t have enough GCA sites to actually target specific locations.

  5. Thanks for the analysis and explanations. I’d kind of thought I smelled organizational difficulties, but wasn’t sure.

    Viktor Belenko’s book was very telling in it’s day, and appears to still be accurate.

  6. Thanks Larry. Once again you cut through the chaff and deliver. Interesting about the two Russian paratroop drops onto airfields that resulted in their demise at the hands of the waiting Ukrainians. The top general got greased by a sniper while standing around dressed to the nines and everyone saluting him. It seems like they overestimated themselves and underestimated the Uks.

  7. From what some of my plane people have said (the ones in the know about things)(and this was back in the 2000’s) nothing aviation-wise since the Mig-21 has any real lasting potential and is a maintenance nightmare. Like the Mig-25 with the melting engines (only useful going supersonic once before needing rebuilding.) The later wonderplanes are a perfect example. Most places that fly them for real tend to do complete rebuilds or re-engining to make sure the planes fly. It’s what the ChiComs and India have done, buying the rights to Russky equipment and building it better.

    I think part of the issue that people are having is that, well, the modern Russians lie to themselves and everyone else just like the Soviets did. All talk, all boast, lact of follow-through.

    You see the same thing with the ChiComs. Lots of really neat missiles on parades, but if you look close enough at the super-killer-hypersonic anti-ship missiles, as they trundle by, the panels flex like they’re made of cardboard. Hmmm…

    Short analysis – The Russians aren’t as material powerful as even they believe, and it is showing.

    • The Russians have numbers but a small percentage are professional soldiers. They performed badly in the early days of the war and took heavy losses.

      All modern aircraft are maintenance pigs. To be fair, so were the high-performance aircraft used on all sides during WW2, but it’s a matter of degree. A-10’s are capable of sustaining significant battle damage and returning home, but they fly low and slow (for the most part) where they are most effective and where everything is shooting at them. The AF hates them for that.

      I’m looking forward to the coming weeks when Ukrainian commandos start blowing up trains and rails inside Mother Russia. You know that’s coming. Or when they are able to raid across the border into marshalling yards and supply depots.

  8. I think that the VVS (and the rest of the Russian military, to a large extent) is probably a hollow force, mostly useful for show or use against 3rd world rabble.

    Many NATO countries are in the same boat, and the US is trying hard to join them. Look at the Luftwaffe and RAF – about 200 combat planes apiece, and (especially the Luftwaffe) far fewer really operational.

    Precision weapons are expensive, and only the US keeps really significant stocks of them. Back when Yugoslavia was time-traveling itself back to tribal lands, that;s a big reason so many air missions were US – Europe mostly had iron bombs, with a few modern weapons for high-priority strikes, that needed high clearance to load up.

    Guided weapons also require a fair bit of maintenance, which also costs money. Judging by all their other equipment, I bet Russian guided weapons require even more maintenance than Western ones.

    Russia has the GNP of… Texas, IIRC? If you;re going to have that many troops (airmen, etc.) on that little dough, something’s gotta give.

    I bet they spent a lot of cash in Syria, too. Probably sent a lot of their best guys and gear too, got them all tired and worn.

    -Kle.

Comments are closed.