Foreign Policy Essay
How Ukraine Fought Against Russia’s Air War
Editor’s Note: One of the many surprises of the Russia-Ukraine war has been the failure of Russia’s air force to dominate the skies. Jaganath Sankaran of the LBJ School at the University of Texas, Austin, examines this failure, detailing the problems (and often unrecognized successes) of Russian air power and how the United States might learn from Moscow’s problems.
In the prelude to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many experts expected a fully mobilized Russian Aerospace Forces to quickly establish complete air superiority over Ukraine. A March 2022 New York Times report noted that “one of the biggest surprises of the war in Ukraine is Russia’s failure to defeat the Ukrainian Air Force. Military analysts had expected Russian forces to quickly destroy or paralyze Ukraine’s air defenses and military aircraft, yet neither has happened.”
American observers noted that the Russian Aerospace Forces was “literally … cratering empty fields.” An anonymous Defense Intelligence Agency source claimed that “under half of all Russian missiles hitting their aimpoint … we’re holding Russian missile success at just below 40 percent”—a damning assessment of the Russian technological capabilities. After a few days of the war, it became clear that the Russian Aerospace Forces had failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine and had been forced into a defensive posture by Ukrainian air defense units and fighter pilots. Russian failures were driven by an inability to quickly integrate intelligence with targeting processes, conduct unbiased battle damage assessments (BDAs) to inform war plans, and deconflict air space control between the Russian Aerospace Forces and Russian Army’s ground-based air defenses.
Yet these genuine failures obscure many successes, and the Russian air campaign has demonstrated strength alongside significant flaws. For instance, several months before the air war began, the Russian Aerospace Forces employed its Su-24MR Fencer-E reconnaissance aircraft and the Il-20 Coot electronic intelligence aircraft to generate a location map of Ukrainian air defenses. These technical intelligence platforms were supplemented by Ukrainian human intelligence sources cultivated by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. As the war began, Russian Su-34 bombers, Su-30SM fighters, and Su-35S fighters reportedly flew around 140 sorties in the first few days and struck targets deep inside Ukraine. At the same time, electronic warfare operations suppressed Ukrainian air defense assets. More than 100 fixed air-defense radar sites, surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, and munition storage sites were struck with an effort to remove such facilities “along the routes intended to be used” by advancing Russian forces, according to an analysis by RUSI. In addition, the air campaign was supplemented by large, coordinated missile salvos. Within the first couple months of the conflict, Russia had fired more missiles against Ukraine than any country had employed in a war since World War II.
Over time, the Russian Aerospace Forces has apparently been able to establish localized air superiority. As the war shifted east to the Donbas region, the Russian Aerospace Forces gained air dominance and forced Ukrainian air defense assets away from the frontline. Similarly, despite heroic resistance from Ukrainian air defense forces, Russia has been able to deliver punishing strikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. The Russians, MIT’s Barry Posen writes, “have launched a cunningly effective bombing campaign against Ukraine’s electricity generation, transmission, and distribution system … [imposing] direct and indirect military costs.” These bombing campaigns have forced steep opportunity costs on the Ukrainians—for instance, Ukrainian air defense assets defending cities cannot be used to defend battlefronts. Furthermore, damaged infrastructure and the loss of electricity has affected Ukraine’s ability to operate its transportation network, communication systems, and other military equipment.
However, despite these real successes, Russia’s air power has proved underwhelming, largely because the Russians underestimated Ukraine’s anticipation of its air power and preparations to counter it. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, during a visit to Washington in November 2021, pressed for the United States to transfer air defense weapons. Ukrainian defense officials reportedly argued to their American counterparts, “We have to prepare now. Point No. 1 is air defense.”
Ukraine has undertaken a concerted effort to develop tactics to disperse its air defense capabilities and operate them in shoot-and-scoot mode since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. By 2022, Ukrainian forces had trained extensively to disperse aircraft and air defense units out of major airfields. Ukrainian troops started vacating several critical air defense assets and ammunition stockpiles likely to be targeted by Russia a week before the invasion, and ramped up their efforts in the 72 hours preceding the Russian Aerospace Forces’ initial salvo of missiles, successfully saving them from attack.
As the war unfolded, Ukrainians demonstrated the ability to operate their air defense SAM batteries as pop-up units rather than fully formed batteries with several support vehicles; this smaller, less detectable footprint posed severe challenges for Russian targeting. Ukraine’s ability to keep these systems in play reinforced Russia’s problems. The presence of SAMs forced the Russian fighters to fly low to avoid detection, but at low altitudes, the Russian fighter aircraft began to suffer significant attrition from man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Ukraine, in anticipation of Russia’s air campaign, had diligently acquired a variety of MANPADS from the United States and other European partners and distributed them to Ukrainian forces in large numbers. The Ukrainian Air Force had also adapted. It had trained its pilots to fly their fighters low and exploit terrain to avoid radar detection, and aircraft maintenance crew had practiced servicing their fighters amid hostilities when access to regular maintenance facilities was denied. These two factors enabled Ukrainian fighters to augment the resistance generated by Ukraine’s air defense units.
Russian organizational weaknesses further compounded its failure. Russian intelligence could not keep pace with Ukrainian air defense units’ dispersion tactics and instead delivered accurate strikes that impacted just 3 to 10 meters from the intended aiming point on locations long since vacated by Ukrainian forces. Additionally, Russian BDA processes seem to have suffered from a deeply held confirmation bias that assumed any action ordered and carried out must have succeeded. Such bias facilitated the Ukrainian reconstitution of mildly damaged assets.
Russia’s performance and Ukrainian tactics hold an important lesson for U.S. decision-makers about the exertion and utility of air power. The Russia-Ukraine war has shown that gaining air superiority requires the ability to continuously monitor and integrate information on the disposition of adversary forces promptly, smartly match weaponry to targets to ensure a high kill probability, and conduct unbiased BDAs to inform retargeting priorities. While the U.S. Air Force has demonstrated the capacity to do these tasks, it may be challenging to perform them in the future against a technologically advanced and determined adversary. The crucial lesson suggested by the limited available data suggests that if a determined and clever opponent decides to deny a superior force control of the airspace, it can do so. Despite its technological inferiority, Ukraine has demonstrated that even an air force with precision strike capabilities can be denied air superiority. These lessons demand that the U.S. Air Force rethink its strategic goals and tactical approaches as it grapples with facing near-peer adversaries in the future and may need to operate without complete air dominance.