The inexplicably constrained role of the Vozdushno-kosmicheskiye sily (VKS) or the Russian Aerospace Force till now has left all followers of the conflict confused. Given the disparity in the inventorysize and quality of assets, between the small Povitryani Syly Ukrayiny (PSU) or Ukrainian Air Force and the larger VKS, air power was expected to play a more dominant role. All available inputs indicate that the Russians have not leveraged their Air Force for reason or reasons which are not clear. The war which began with over 300 stand-off ballistic and cruise missile strikes by the VKS, akin to the contemporary operational precepts of Western military powers, had caused significant attrition of Ukraine’s early warning air defence radars and the S 300P long range surface to air missile systems.
By Air Marshal Diptendu Choudhury
The initial attacks which also targeted airfield infrastructure, led Western military analysts to logically assume that the VKS would destroy the PSU, and establish air superiority over Ukraine. The large number of the Russian fourth generation plus fighters of the VKS not being offensively employed in strength, the losses of attack helicopters, airborne assault transport aircraft and fighters to Ukrainian air defence, and the losses to Russian mechanised forces and infantry operating without adequate air support against PSU attacks, are seemingly incomprehensible.
Analysts have ascribed a variety of reasons which range from inadequacy of precision guided munitions’ inventory, inability to manage the contested airspace between Russian Air Force and the SAM (Surface to Air Missile) systems of the Russian Army, poor training standards of the Russian pilots due to inadequate flying hours, their inability to undertake large scale offensive missions, poor Amy-Air Force coordination, to the reluctance on part of the VKS leadership to engage in operations which would lay bare their capability gaps. All these are viable reasons but then do not explain why the VKS would move over 300 modern combat aircraft close to the battle zone in the first place. Was it a mere projection of power or failed coercive deterrence? While the West is not unexpectedly swift to run down the capabilities of the Russian war machine, one must bear in mind three aspects – Russian war fighting precepts which have definitely drawn lessons from Western military interventions, are still significantly different from the Western concepts of operation; Ukraine’s military is still essentially modelled and trained on the Russian military, so there may be much more to the current graduated operational strategy than is evident; And the historically proven willingness and ability of the Russian military to stomach and absorb losses, and fight under extreme conditions of hardship.
Some larger political and military factors also need consideration in examining the Russian airpower employment strategy. Increase in collateral damage to civilian populace and infrastructure will be counterproductive to the stated Russian military offensive goal, which is ostensibly directed at the Ukrainian military and not the people. There is after all a large pro-Russian population that lives in Ukraine. Given the immense pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian international perception, it would not help the Russian cause by unleashing full-fledged offensive air power which results in an unacceptably high civilian loss of lives. For all its moral indignation at the current effects of the war on Ukraine’s civilian population, the West will do well to remember that the Persian Gulf war caused as many as 100,000 civilian deaths, displaced five million people and over $200 billion in property damage over a six-week period, by conservative estimates. The interim ceasefire declaration, giving an opportunity to the civilians to vacate the war zone could well be strategic masterstroke. It will not only serve to showcase the Russian restraint to avoid civilian collateral to the Ukrainian population and the world, it also sets the stage for a full-scale assault thereafter. The situation gets further complicated when the defending forces start preventing the civilian evacuation to increase the collateral dilemma. This possibly also explains why Russia is holding back as it amasses forces outside the cities, because its traditional military strategy has always been about overwhelming multi-domain application of lethal force. Once the ceasefire timeline ends it can unleash a full-scale aerial and ground offensive, as from the Russian standpoint, all targets should be free of innocent civilians and those remaining are presumed hostiles. Collateral will no longer be a concern.
Another important aspect is that total destruction of Ukrainian airfields and air assets would be a strategic mistake, as by doing so Russia will have denied itself the opportunity to deploy VKS air power in the captured airfields, placing them geographically in the heart of neo-NATO member nations, which were erstwhile Soviet states. This could be why it has not targeted the airfields and operating surfaces with greater persistence. Deployment of Russian assets on these bases will undoubtedly have an enormous effect on the security concerns of these nations and rest of Europe. President Putin’s orders to his military to place nuclear forces on high combat alert and a ‘special regime of combat duty’, seems to be a well-considered escalation containment and post-capture strategy, aimed at underscoring the Europe and NATO’s military weakness, and discouraging the active involvement of the USA. This declaration, a first post the Cold War, has left little room for a direct US military intervention, and limited its actions to economic sanctions and sympathetic rhetoric. The extensive sanctions which number well over five thousand are unlikely to alter the Russian will in the way the mercantile European mindset thinks it will. Russia has long been accustomed to sanctions and economic hardships, which it places well below Natsional’naya gordost – its national pride. Contrarily, it is worth considering the economic implications of a spill over full scale war or even the imminence of one, amongst nations who have not fought one on European soil since 1945.
The might of Russian air power may well be waiting for the big push which will in all possibility follow shortly. Not having established air superiority and without the control of air, Russian aircraft losses of helicopters and fighters have been primarily at low levels due to man portable SAMs and low altitude combat. So, what is holding back the Russian Air Force? Its performance in the first and second wars in Chechnya and the short Georgia campaign led to a review of its inventory and operational training. It was way back in 2015 Russia reorganised its air power as it established the VKS as an independent branch of its military, with the merging of the Air Force, Aerospace and Missile Defence Force and Space Force. It also did away with PVO Strany, its independent Air Defence force.
Unlike the past, ideology took a back seat as it drew on the lessons from Western concepts employed in the Gulf War, and combat tested its revamped Air Force offensively in Syria, albeit at a tactical level. But what is contextually different from Syria is that, it is fighting over a highly contested adversarial airspace against a motivated and capable air force. Unless it forward deploys its own air defence radars and establishes C2 networks, it will not be able to dominate the Ukrainian airspace. On the other hand, given that Ukraine is being provided by space-based imagery and intelligence by the US, forward deployment of VKS assets at this stage would certainly invite counter air targeting. It must be remembered that the VKS has greater combat capacity and can afford to absorb losses unlike the PSU.
The frantic appeals for combat aircraft by the Ukrainian leadership not only underscores this, it also importantly brings to the fore their clear understanding, that unless the Ukrainian skies continue to remain contested, the defence of the ground stands little chance. From the Russian perspective, keeping its high value air assets out of the high attrition combat phase has the advantage of preserving them for the main offensive which appears imminent from all indications. Committing them into combat after the Ukrainian air force has been significantly reduced in its combat capability and situational awareness, and ensure adequate numbers are available to enable coercive deterrence against NATO in the end game, would justify the current Russian strategy.
While the poor coordination between the Russian offensive forces and air power has been highlighted by many, it must be considered that the war from Russian perspective was possibly expected to be long drawn, contrary to the overwhelming Western narrative that it miscalculated a quick victory. Given Ukraine’s fiercely independent historical outlook and its immense strategic importance, the Russians certainly would not have expected the war to be a walkover. Russia knows its history and will have expected a conflict of attrition characterised by fierce street by street and house by house battles, reminiscent of the Great War. How do you employ air power offensively when merge of forces will inevitably take place in contested urban spaces, without extensive fratricide and losses to friendly fire? The answer lies in unleashing a blitzkrieg air offensive on the adversary before forces merge in combat. With the clear signs of stepping up of the military action, a surge in the air offensive is a very high and logical possibility, which only time will tell.
The refusal to establish a no-fly zone as it would push NATO Air Forces into direct combat with the Russian AF and would certainly escalate the conflict for having crossed President Putin’s red line, leaves the PSU on its own. Poland and Slovakia having disclaimed the US proposal of supplying MiG 29 fighters to Ukraine in lieu of equivalent F-16 replacements, underscores the fears of the neighbouring nations in doing anything directly to support the war and incur Russia’s ire. Poland’s subsequent and sudden turn around, declaring its willingness to hand over its jets free of charge may have been a double take on being seen unwilling to support a US proposal. But it seems that the US itself has misgivings about its earlier proposal, calling it untenable.
While US and NATO air forces continue to support in providing ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) and tactical inputs, it is clear that the US is reluctant to take any direct action which might force the Russian hand against NATO, and leave it with no manoeuvring space to stay out of an escalatory situation. In any case supply of fighters which have different avionics and incompatible with the older Ukrainian models, has its own challenges. Unlike surface weapons like the anti-tank and man portable SAMs, western aerial weapons cannot be integrated onto Ukrainian platforms and their aircrew trained, under the intense and continuous combat conditions. In any case it is too little too late. Talk of setting up of an international air squadron to assist the Ukrainians, is at best a romantic notion given the challenges of platform availability and operational integration with the PSU, let alone the political and legal implications.
There have been significant claims and counter-claims of combat aircraft downing by both sides, and will continue to increase in numbers as the war rages on. This is nothing new in wars and the actual number of losses cannot be substantiated without independent verifications which presently it is highly unlikely. The final truth will lie somewhere in between the claims by each side. But the effect of air power victories on morale of surface forces is historically established, and the mythologizing of the unconfirmed PSU and air aces like the ‘Ghost of Kiev’, highlights this. Interesting parallels lie in the initial larger-than-life image and claimed achievements attributed to the Pakistani AF by the West in the1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars. These did not bear close scrutiny post war when compared to IAF’s understated achievements, and ultimately failed to alter the outcome of the wars. Air power unless employed with fore planning, operational freedom and in sync with a synergised military strategy, can win battles but not the war.
As the war picks up momentum, the ‘Battle of Britain moment’ of the Ukrainian Air force will inevitably be impacted with losses of aircraft and trained aircrew, shortage of aviation fuel, spares, aerial weapons and combat fatigue. This is possibly another factor which the VKS may have carefully considered, as the longer they wait, the doughty and brave air warriors of the PSU would have played out their hand. Whatever be the outcome of the war, there are serious lessons for the surface dominant mindsets in India’s military establishment and its employment concepts of helicopter and airborne forces, considering that future conflicts will be in highly contested battle spaces against adversaries with strong Air Forces.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.