Nov 10, 2022
The air war over Ukraine could have gone either way in the first few weeks of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the country starting in late February. The Russian air force had deployed three times as many fighters and attack planes as the Ukrainian air force had in its entire inventory. Ukraine’s air defenses were disorganized and, in the case of certain key long-range radars, sitting out in the open where the Russians easily could target them.
The Russians had a firepower advantage. The Ukrainians had the same advantages every defender possesses over an invader: motivation, simpler logistics, familiar terrain. Either side might’ve prevailed—the Russians by dominating the air, the Ukrainians by preventing the Russians from dominating the air.
We know how it turned out. The Russian air campaign fizzled. Ukrainian air defenses stiffened. By month nine of the wider war, the Ukrainians were counterattacking, the Russians were retreating and the Russian air force was losing more planes and helicopters than the Ukrainian air force was. A lot more.
To understand how Russia’s aerial advantage evaporated, Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling from the Royal United Services Institute in London interviewed key Ukrainian officials. The result is the definitive study of the Ukraine air war’s first phase.
The Russian air force in the first few weeks of the war actually came close to disrupting Ukrainian air defenses. Ukrainian fighter pilots held the line until radar and missile crews on the ground could reorganize. The increasing panic of Russian ground troops, overextended in a doomed attempt to capture Kyiv, compelled Russian pilots to switch from attacking Ukrainian air defenses to supporting the ground forces.
That’s when Ukraine’s most important air defenses—its Buk mobile missiles—forced Russian air crews into a deadly, low-altitude trap. One that badly bloodied Russia’s best flying regiments and set the conditions for the aerial impasse that has come to define the war.
When Russian forces barreled into Ukraine on the night of Feb. 24, Ukraine’s air defenses barely were ready. The Ukrainian army and air force’s long-range S-300 missile batteries largely depended on hundreds of fixed radar installations, the locations of which the Russian air force’s Sukhoi Su-24MR reconnaissance jets had sussed out.
Russian air force Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bombers, operating alone at 12,000 feet, bombed a hundred Ukrainian radars in the initial weeks of the war, depriving the S-300 crews of the early warning they needed to engage Russian planes. “The physical destruction, along with the electronic disruption and suppression of [surface-to-air missile] systems in the north and northeast, left the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters of the Ukrainian air force with the task of providing air defense over most of the country for the first few days of the war,” Bronk, Reynolds and Watling wrote.
Deadly dogfights ended in losses for both sides. The Russians had more planes to lose, but the Ukrainians only needed to avoid getting totally wiped out, while also buying time for Ukrainian crews on the ground to repair and relocate the long-range radars and get the S-300s operational again. “In the first week of March, Ukrainian SAMs began to inflict significant losses on Russian attack sorties,” the RUSI analysts wrote. At the same time, the Russian brigades rolling toward Kyiv were getting bogged down by poor leadership, incompetent logistics and of course a determined Ukrainian defense.
The Russian air force “switched from attacks on Ukrainian air-defense capabilities to attempts to support the ground forces directly,” Bronk, Reynolds and Watling explained.
The problem for the Russian crews was altitude. Flying high was out of the question owing to all those Ukrainian S-300s. Flying at medium altitude was problematic, too, as Ukrainian Buk crews spread out across the battlefield, switching on their radars just long enough to lob missiles at Russian planes before the crews rolled their launchers into some treeline to hide.
The Buk isn’t a new system. The first models entered service with Soviet forces back in 1980. Ukraine’s hundred or so Buks are Soviet leftovers. But the Buk is a self-contained, reliable system. And the Ukrainians have improved them—and equipped their crews with tablets running digital maps showing the locations of Russian forces.
The Buks shot down so many Russian planes that Russian pilots “were forced to abandon flying at medium or high altitudes when penetrating Ukrainian air space,” according to the RUSI study. They dove low—directly into a trap.
That trap was the thousands of man-portable air-defense systems that Ukraine had received from its foreign allies. A Stinger MANPADS might range just five miles or so. But the sheer density of Stingers and other MANPADS along the front made low flying only slightly less deadly for Russian pilots than medium or high flying.
There was nowhere for the Russians to go to escape Ukrainian missiles. “The results were predictable, with at least eight assorted [Sukhoi] Su-25, Su-30 and Su-34 jets being shot down by MANPADS in a week,” Bronk, Reynolds and Watling wrote.
The sky over Ukraine was hardening. And as spring turned to summer and Russian losses mounted and the Ukrainians prepared for their twin counteroffensives in the east and south, the Russian air force all but stopped striking military targets deep inside Ukraine. The Ukrainians didn’t achieve air superiority, but then neither did the Russians. And that has prevented Russia from exploiting its air-power advantage.
That could change. “Ukraine has so far managed to hold its own in the air domain, largely using its own equipment,” the RUSI analysts wrote. “However, there is a real danger that this success leads to Western complacency about the threat that the [Russian air force] can still pose to Ukrainian forces, infrastructure and cities if given an opening. Ukraine now needs rapid deliveries of SAM launchers and missile ammunition, anti-aircraft guns and ideally Western fighter aircraft to prevent a sustained strike campaign that could, if unopposed, thwart the dominant battlefield momentum that Ukrainian troops have fought so hard to win.”