Airpower should have been one of Russia’s greatest advantages over Ukraine. With almost 4,000 combat aircraft and extensive experience bombing targets in Syria, Georgia, and Chechnya, Russia’s air force was expected to play a vital role in the invasion, allowing the Russian army to plunge deep into Ukraine, seize Kyiv, and destroy the Ukrainian military. But more than two months into the war, Vladimir Putin’s air force is still fighting for control of the skies.
The Russian air force’s failure is perhaps the most important, but least discussed, story of the military conflict so far. Ukrainian forces showed surprising strength in the air war, and adapted as the fighting progressed. But either side of this war could still gain air supremacy—and fundamentally change the course of the conflict.
Airpower is potentially decisive in any war, but difficult to wield effectively. Air forces are dependent on an array of technologies that require highly trained personnel who can quickly set up what amounts to an airborne military ecosystem: airborne radar stations to provide command and control, fighters to protect and police the skies, refueling aircraft to keep everyone full of gas, electronic-warfare planes to keep enemy defenses suppressed, and a range of intelligence-gatherers and attack aircraft to locate and destroy enemy forces. These sorts of combined operations involve hundreds of aircraft and thousands of people in a tightly choreographed dance that takes a lifetime to master. But when managed correctly, these overlapping operations allow a military to dominate the skies, making life much easier for the ground or naval forces below.
Unfortunately for the Russians, the recent modernization of the Russian air force, although intended to enable it to conduct modern combined operations, was mostly for show. The Russians wasted money and effort on corruption and inefficiency. Though much was made of the flashy new equipment, such as the much-hyped SU-34 strike aircraft, the Russian air force continues to suffer from flawed logistics operations and the lack of regular, realistic training. Above all, the autocratic Russian kleptocracy does not trust low-ranking and middle-ranking officers, and so cannot allow the imaginative, flexible decision making that NATO air forces rely upon.
All this meant that when the invasion started, the Russian air force was incapable of running a well-thought-out, complex campaign. Instead of working to control the skies, Russia’s air force has mostly provided air support to ground troops or bombed Ukrainian cities. In this it has followed the traditional tactics of a continental power that privileges land forces. Focusing on ground troops can work if you have almost endless numbers of soldiers and are prepared to lose them. But so wedded is Russia to its history of successes on the ground that it fails to understand the importance of airpower.
“Russia has never fully appreciated the use of airpower beyond support to ground forces,” David A. Deptula, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, told us. “As a result, Russia, in all its wars, has never conceived of or run a strategic air campaign.”
Russian aircraft are instead left flying their straightforward missions, many of which use single aircraft without the mutual support from combined air operations that would be expected in an advanced NATO air force. The pilots are given a target; fly in quickly to attack it, in many cases relying on unguided munitions to try to hit their target; and then fly out and try to not get shot down. They are not allowed to act flexibly within their commanders’ intent to achieve a mission. They have task orders and they execute them, come what may. Even Russia’s vaunted intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities seem surprisingly weak. Rarely do Russian forces seem capable of identifying possible Ukrainian targets and deploying air assets to attack them swiftly enough to make a difference.
Of course, the most important reason for the failure of Russian airpower, and the evident caution of Russian pilots, has been Ukrainian opposition. Unlike their enemy, the Ukrainians have developed a coherent concept of air operations, one that has allowed them to block what looked like an easy path to Russian air dominance.
The Ukrainians have integrated a range of air and anti-air capabilities to stymie the much larger Russian air force. Starting with cheap, handheld, portable surface-to-air missiles, the Ukrainians have been able to restrict Russian airpower to a few eastern and southern areas, greatly limiting Russian freedom of maneuver. The addition of much more potent, and longer-range, S-300 missile systems from Slovakia makes the Russians even more vulnerable. The threat of the S-300s forces individual Russian aircraft, which generally lack refueling, electronic-warfare, and command-and-control support, to fly low to the ground to screen themselves from attack. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to the handheld surface-to-air missiles. Ukraine cannot target every Russian aircraft, but it has cleverly used what it has to ensure that Russian pilots worry they might be targeted anywhere, forcing them to behave more defensively and reducing their effectiveness.
Ukraine’s ability to contest its airspace has not only provided protection to its own forces but also allowed it to occasionally go on the offensive. Early in the war, the Ukrainians were able to use Turkish-made Bayraktar drones to attack some high-value targets. The Ukrainians have also used drones to identify and destroy Russian ground-to-air missiles, making Russian ground forces more vulnerable to attack from above.
The Ukrainians have also shown a far greater ability than the Russians to use their limited airpower resources creatively. The sinking of the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, which stunned the world, seems to have come about through a clever double punch. Ukrainian officials have claimed that they used an unmanned aerial vehicle to distract the Moskva’s anti-air capabilities, then launched their homegrown Neptune anti-ship missiles before the confused Russian crew could react.
This inventive use of airpower reveals that the Ukrainians might even have a more sophisticated understanding of air operations than even many NATO countries, which take their dominance of the air for granted. What the Ukrainians have done—contesting the skies against a richer, more powerful enemy on the cheap—is extremely difficult. The West has much to learn from Ukraine’s successes, Deptula told us. “We have become so dominant in the air that we have never had to think through how we would use airpower if we were the inferior force,” he said. “Ukraine is posing us some very interesting questions that we should seriously consider, if only to understand how a clever opponent would take us on.”
The coming weeks will reveal whether the Russians have the capability to learn from their mistakes and take better advantage of their still-massive numerical superiority in aircraft. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, will soon see their offensive air capabilities grow. Their newest drones may be enabling better long-range artillery targeting. On April 30, Ukrainian artillery fire seemed to come close to hitting General Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of the general staff, while he was visiting the front. The Ukrainians are receiving even more advanced systems, including new Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones, which have the capability of lingering over enemy positions for some time before being used to destroy vehicles.
As long as the airspace over the field of battle remains contested, the Ukrainians will be able to improve and expand their use of airpower. They may not win the war outright. But they’ve already revolutionized how the next ones will be fought.