As the days go by and the reports of war accumulate after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia of Vladimir Putin On February 24, observers and analysts on Defense issues are assailed with more force every day by a question. What about the Russian air force?
We only have very partial and biased information on the ongoing military operations, something especially applicable to the aeronautical issue. Therefore, the estimates are, at this point, very preliminary.
Despite this, it is possible to draw some conclusions from the photos and videos made public and from the war reports of both sides.
It is estimated that there are about three hundred and fifty Russian tactical fighter planes stationed at combat remote bases on the Ukrainian front. This is not counting the dozens of medium and heavy bombers at Moscow’s disposal and which seem to have also been scarcely used in this conflict, mainly to launch long-range cruise missiles during the first hours of the invasion.
At first, Moscow believed that the massive participation of tactical aviation in the invasion was not going to be necessary. The initial estimation of the Russian high command was that the Zelensky regime would fall in a few hours or days, and that the majority of the Ukrainian people would accept the return of the Russians, surely after the flight of the country’s president.
“Russian initial estimates failed miserably. Ukraine fought, and is fighting, fiercely and effectively to defend its country”
This thesis makes sense if the main military operations carried out during the first hours of the invasion are observed.
Among them stands out the helicopter assault on the Gostomel airfield owned by the famous Ukrainian aviation company Antonov, and which is located about ten kilometers from kyiv, in the same suburbs of the capital. Its capture would have allowed Russia to have an advanced bridgehead, a few kilometers from the center of kyiv, and with an operational runway to receive supplies, new troops and material by air.
But the initial Russian estimates failed miserably. Ukraine fought, and fights, fiercely and effectively to defend the country from it. Its president, far from fleeing, is at the forefront of the resistance, demonstrating his leadership skills.
The Russians also expected a rapid advance of their armored columns after the fall of kyiv in the first hours of the invasion. And for this reason, surely, they did not consider the massive use of combat aviation a priority, beyond specific air support missions that, on the other hand, were also carried out by combat helicopter units with their Mi-28 and Ka-52.
But this thesis, although plausible, does not explain by itself why after the first 48 or 72 hours of fighting, Russian aviation is still so absent from the theaters of operations. Because there is no single explanation for what happens.
Some factors that, surely, have had an important specific weight in the matter are now classics for scholars of Russian military power. They are inherited even from the Soviet era.
“The most demanding training exercises in the world are the Red Flag in Las Vegas, in which pilots are subjected to stress and an operational requirement very similar to the most demanding of wars”
First of all, Russian pilots do not train (unlike their Western colleagues) to carry out complex air missions involving dozens of aircraft in a single mission and in high enemy threat environments. Many new readers will remember the movie top gunin which US Navy pilots are trained in extreme circumstances.
The most demanding training exercises in the world are the Red Flag in Las Vegas, organized by the US Air Force, and in which pilots are subjected to stress and operational demands very similar to those of the most demanding of wars. In this way, it is intended that when they have to face this war they are prepared to act from the first minute.
It has been studied and documented that a fighter pilot’s chance of survivability is drastically increased when he clears the first ten actual combat missions. Allied pilots, including the Spanish, regularly attend Red Flag exercises to gain this experience that will be vital to their survival and combat effectiveness.
In contrast, Russian pilots, who rarely exceed 100 effective flight hours per year (half that of the average Western pilot), tend to carry out much simpler exercises, with formations of two or four planes throughout. sumo and against less tactically complex targets.
As if that were not enough, and delving into the scarcity of flight hours, Russian pilots also do not have the advanced Western simulators that allow them to train tactically complex and high-threat scenarios.
Definitely, Russian aviation is not ready to carry out large complex air operations.
Another determining factor is the absence of ammunition and advanced missiles to destroy all types of targets. Russian industry has put considerable effort into the design of these devices. But, although the amount they may have in their arsenals is unknown, what has been seen in combat in Syria and now in Ukraine seems to indicate that Russia does not have many units and they want to keep them as a strategic reserve.
The use of unguided, free-fall munitions, in an environment with the bad weather that we see in the Ukrainian skies means that, in order to see and identify targets, and increase the accuracy of bombing, pilots are forced to fly low, thus falling within the usage envelope of lethal short-range SAMs. Short-range SAM whose arsenals, precisely, the West has been responsible for resupplying in recent times.
“Although as of the second week there has been an increase in Russian air operations, this participation is still far from what would be imaginable”
A fourth very relevant factor would be the traditional mistrust of the Russian aviation commanders in their colleagues from the anti-aircraft missile units, especially those framed in land units. There is a long history of lack of coordination, lack of joint training and cases of friendly fire that justify this fear and that makes military commanders less willing to fly in these conditions.
The joint performance of the Russian Armed Forces during this war is being very poor and hundreds of failures of all kinds have been seen, giving the impression that the hard lessons of the wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria have been unlearned, seriously affecting the prestige of the Russian military and military industry.
Although from the second week of the conflict there has been an increase in Russian air operations carried out by fixed-wing aircraft, this participation is still far from what would be imaginable given the magnitude of the ongoing military campaign.
It is foreseeable that, from now on, attempts will be made to impose corrective measures for this disaster and that we will see a greater use of Russian combat aviation. But the aforementioned elements do not make it easy for the Russian command at all, since they are not factors that are easy or quick to solve.
*** Rodrigo Rodríguez Costa is a Security and Defense analyst.