Video Above: Ukraine No Fly Zone
Russia’s inability to achieve air superiority still appears somewhat mysterious and unexplainable to a certain extent, given the large number of advanced fighter jets the country operates.
Russia & Ukraine Air Superiority
A quick look at available airpower reveals that Russia operates more than 700 fighter jets as opposed to Ukraine’s reported force of roughly 64 fighters, according to Global Firepower’s formal 2022 force assessment.
There may be several variables contributing to this, perhaps the largest one simply being the intensity of Ukrainian resolve and the population’s will to fight. This now widely observed reality was succinctly explained on CNN by former Acting Director of the CIA John Edward McLaughlin who told the broadcast “It is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
Perhaps the kind of sheer determination unique to those defending their homeland can, to a large degree, explain Ukraine’s unanticipated warfare success on the ground and in the air. Other key factors likely pertain to their effective use of hit-and-run ground war tactics such as ambushes on convoys with anti-armor weapons and well-executed efforts to shut down key intersections, bridges and more narrowly configured passageways.
Ukraine’s success in the air is harder to explain, although the Pentagon has said their assessment is that Russia has only been using a small number of its available force.
Nonetheless, Russia operates upgraded 4th-generation Su-35 aircraft as well as Su-30s and Su-35s. Both the Su-34s and Su-35s are cited as “fighter aircraft” emerging as recently as 2014. The Su-34 is listed as a “fighter-bomber” with long-range strike capacity and the Su-35 is reported to be a multi-role heavy combat fighter. There may be some question as to just how many of these more modern 4th-generation fighters are operational, as Russia’s arsenal of older fighter jets is likely to be larger.
However, on a purely numerical basis, their amount of fighter jets would seem to massively overwhelm Ukrainian planes in the air.
Russian aircraft may be losing dogfights in the air to highly motivated Ukrainian pilots or simply hit and held at great risk by effective Ukrainian air defenses.
“I think the resolve of Ukraine has surprised virtually everyone but especially Vladimir Putin, and their air defenses are working which once again reiterates the importance of being able to resupply them as time goes on.
Neither side has air superiority, and so it is contested airspace. But one of the ways to enhance the probability that Ukraine can survive the assault of Putin’s military is by ensuring that they have sufficient forces to sustain their both their air defenses from the ground as well as their Air force from the air,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told The National Interest in an interview.
Ukraine, by contrast, is reported to operate mostly 1970s and 1980s-era Soviet-built fighter jets such as the Su-24, listed as having emerged as far back as 1974. An older airframe, however, does not necessarily translate into a fighter jet with little capability. The US has, for example, massively upgraded its 1980s-era F-15 and F/A-18 fighters with new avionics, targeting technologies, sensors and weapons.
Through various service-life extension programs, older US airframes have in many cases been maintained and upgraded. Ukraine, however, may not have had occasion to greatly upgrade its fighter jets, yet they have somehow been able to restrain and even shut-down Russia’s attempt to achieve air superiority. One key possibility may be that, of course without mentioning specifics, the Pentagon says Ukraine is receiving modern air-defenses from NATO.
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All of the signs appear to point to a reality which likely continues to surprise many military observers and possibly even surprise many at the Pentagon, and that is that Russia’s military campaign is failing.
“I will tell you right up front, the war is not going the way Putin expected. With the exception of some of the initial long range airstrikes, almost everything about the initial salvos of the Russian invasion failed. Ukrainian air defenses were not disabled. Ukrainian airfields were not put out of action. Ukrainian defenders were able to hold their ground. Ukrainian reserves and civilians rapidly mobilized,”Deptula said.
Russian Surface-to-Air Missile Systems
The Russians have enough long-range, road-mobile Surface-to-Air Missile systems to cover almost the entire country of Ukraine, a scenario which raises significant unanswered questions as to why Russia has not been able to achieve air superiority.
“Almost all of Ukraine can be covered by at least one and usually more than one surface-to-air missile system. That presents a conundrum for any Air Force that would be wanting to get pilots up in the air to conduct missions,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters March 9, according to a DoD transcript.
Russian S-400 air defenses, in service since 2007, have been continuously modernized with digital networking, high-speed computing and multi-frequency radar capability. This has generated an atmosphere such that state-owned Russian media reports have in recent years consistently said their air defenses could detect and destroy even stealth aircraft.
This claim, regularly repeated in the Russian media, is seriously questioned by many who are familiar with advanced stealth technologies now being built.
Detecting that an aircraft of some kind may simply “be there” in the skies above is a lot different than actually being able to target and destroy it. Nonetheless, Ukraine is not known to operate any stealth fighters or 5th-generation air assets, and Kirby was clear that the existence of overlapping Russian air defenses may well be influencing Ukraine’s willingness to fly pilots above them.
However, despite this reality, the airspace above Ukraine is reportedly still contested.
Ukraine operates only 69 fighter jets and Russia has 772 fighter aircraft, an imbalance of sizable proportions, according to Global Firepower. At the same time, some might look at this numerical imbalance and wonder just how many of Russia’s 772 fighter aircraft are functional, high-tech, 4th-generation Su-35s, modern fighter jets which emerged only in 2014.
Ukraine operates air defenses as well, and they are weapons the Pentagon says continue to be effective against Russian air power.
The Ukrainians operate a collection of Cold War era Soviet-built SAM systems, the most recent of which is the SA-15 Gauntlet from 1986. How much have these decades old systems been maintained and upgraded?
That may be somewhat of an unknown, yet the Pentagon repeatedly says their air defenses are effective. Does this mean the Ukrainians are getting advanced air defense systems from NATO countries? The Pentagon says they are further exploring this possibility, however the Pentagon is clear not to elaborate on certain specifics for security reasons.
Kirby said the US is “working with other allies and partner nations around the world who may have additional air defense capabilities and systems at their disposal who might be willing to provide them to Ukraine.”
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.