Soon the Russian Air Force will receive more than 60 new aircraft, according to a spokesman last summer. Among them are Su-30, Su-35 and Su-57 fighters, as well as Su-34 bombers. Everything has been “combat-tested” in Syria, he assured demands readers of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official newspaper of the Russian Defense Ministry.
For decades, Russia has invested billions of dollars in military aircraft. Over the course of the past decade, it’s been steadily increasing its defense budget. Between 2009-2020, the Russian Air Force received about 440 new aircraft and even thousands of drones. At the beginning of the war, military analysts and officials expected that Russia would quickly dominate Ukraine with air power without much effort.
Russia’s air campaign in Ukraine is evolving to a focus on low-level, under-the-radar missions. However, this does not rule out the possibility that Russia could stage further airstrikes in the future.
When hostilities began, Russia unleashed a flurry of ballistic and cruise missiles on Ukrainian air bases in an attempt to destroy aircraft and air defense systems, disable radars and anti-aircraft missiles. Their attempts failed. Ukraine skillfully dispersed its air defense systems, making it difficult for anyone to detect them. U.S. Department of Defense officials say Ukraine’s air and missile defense system is “still effective and operational,” a claim that can be backed up by cross-checking open source information.
A recent example of this is Kharkiv, a city located 30 kilometers from the border with Russia. Russian troops failed to take the town in their first attempt and have blocked it ever since, bombarding it with air strikes and other weapons. However, Ukraine isn’t defenseless.
Footage from CCTV shows two dots of light in the sky, believed to be anti-aircraft missiles by experts. Experts believe the first missile missed its target and went off its fuse. The second is a direct hit as more than one aircraft falls to the voices of Ukrainians below.
A medium-range anti-aircraft missile system such as the Buk is able to stand, making it capable of firing a missile and hiding again. As these types of systems use radar to detect targets and radar cannot see anything above the curvature of the earth, one countermeasure for pilots is to fly low. It seems that this was exactly what the Russian troops were doing.
While there is nothing nefarious about selling these missile systems, it leaves all involved parties in the dark about the true intentions of their use.
The other reason that Russian pilots could be forced to intentionally approach the ground is they have outdated missiles. They used “dumb” unguided bombs during their war with Georgia in 2008, but now they have satellite-guidance weapons that are much more accurate. However, they still use older models.
Images show signs of a Su-34 aircraft’s recent crash, indicating that it was armed with unguided bombs. This is significant because Russian Su-34 regiments are the most experienced and regular users of precision-guided munitions in the Air Force when available. Images released by Russian state media show all types of small arms and munitions that had been abandoned on the runway there; other footage from Chernihiv and Kharkiv reveals dense small arms fire and a house hit by a homemade explosive device.
According to one theory, Russia’s stockpile of precision-guided munitions is running out. Tim Robinson of the British Royal Aeronautical Society argues that pilots can fly low by risking being shot down or bombed from high or medium altitudes but with less accuracy.
With much of the Russian military unharmed, Russia is still able to push its agenda because it only lost a significant number of aircraft. Analysis based on social media images concluded that Russia has 11 aircraft, 11 helicopters, and two drones as a result of the Ukraine conflict. The Ukrainian government has stated that they destroyed 39 planes, while it is not confirmed whether they were successful in doing so, but Western governments have claimed that this was typically the case during major wars. Comparing the US’s involvement with Syria to Russia’s in #Ukraine, US forces lost about 40 aircraft during the five-week air war with Iraq in 1991.
Russia’s inability to suppress Ukraine’s air defense system is becoming a major handicap, says King’s College London Professor Rob Lee. This will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the “key mistakes” of this war, he believes. This inability means that Russian jets cannot freely patrol the skies to protect themselves from Ukrainians, and ground attack aircraft cannot provide adequate air support to ground troops. Ground surveillance and early warning aircraft must be kept away from the battlefield, which reduces the flow of information.
Some experts speculate that there’s a lesson for NATO here. The Russians struggled with air superiority during the initial invasion because of the secrecy surrounding the decision to go to war, and they didn’t have enough time to plan it out. Now experts believe that the lack of experience on Russia’s side could also be contributing to their problems. As of now, this aggressive move is suggesting inexperience or incompetence rather than a united front against NATO forces.