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Video Above: Assistant Sec. of Army Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Talks Hypersonic Weapons

By Kris Osborn - President, Center for Military Modernization

Russia’s inability to achieve air supremacy in the skies above Ukraine continues to emerge as somewhat of an alarming, difficult to explain ongoing phenomenon. In addition to the obvious and well known numerical discrepancy between Russia’s more than 700 fighter jets and Ukraines roughly 64 fighters. Why can’t Russia achieve air superiority? It has been what could be called a lingering mystery to a certain extent.

In recent months, there have been a number of key variables discussed by Senior Pentagon leaders such as the sheer intensity of Ukrainian fighters, the effectiveness of Ukrainian air defenses and a Russian military decision to be “risk-averse.” All of these factors, however, do not seem to fully account for why Russia is still unable to achieve air supremacy six months into the war, despite having hundreds more fighter jets than Ukraine.

This circumstance, however surprising, may now be inspiring Ukrainians and the West to think that perhaps achieving “air superiority” over Russian Air Forces is not beyond the question. By contrast, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl has repeatedly said sending Western fighter jets to Ukraine is not “inconceivable,” something which officials say is still under consideration. The prospect of sending Western 4th-generation fighter aircraft seems very much alive, yet Pentagon officials describe this is a longer-term effort.

“Our current priority as it relates to aircraft is making sure that Ukrainians can use the aircraft they currently have to generate effects in the current conflict,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.

In the near term, Ukrainian Soviet-era, Russian-built Mig-29 fighters are being armed with cutting edge Western weaponry such as the High-Speed-Anti-Radiation (HARM) missile specifically configured to fire from Russian jets.

“We had adapted those missiles to be able to fire off MIG-29. So, they of course, were not designed to fly off Russian equipment -- they were designed to fly off our aircraft and the Ukrainians in recent weeks have been using the HARM missiles to great effect to take out Russian radar systems,” Kahl explained.

An increased ability to track and destroy Russian air defenses is yet another circumstance pointing to the possibility that Ukraine and its Western allies are not “ruling out” the prospect of achieving air superiority, despite the overwhelming numerical deficit. One key element of this is the ongoing effectiveness of Ukrainian air defenses, some of which are US provided National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems (NASAMS).

Sending Western aircraft remains “on the table,” as described by Kahl.

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“As it relates to future aircrafts, fourth generation aircraft, for example, even if we were to provide those now, they wouldn't arrive for years, so we've been focused on as it relates to their fighter aircraft on what they need for the to support the current efforts to hold in the East and perhaps going on a counter offensive,” he said.

The Pentagon’s recent military support to Ukraine also incorporates an interesting focus on both drones and counter-drone weapons, in what appears to be a strengthened effort to prevail in the air and enable additional surveillance and targeting.

This certainly makes tactical sense given that US and NATO-provided precision rockets are increasingly able to destroy critical Russian targets such as supply lines, communications nodes and even missile launch sites. In order for ground-fired precision-rockets to pinpoint Russian targets, they of course need specific targeting details from satellites, reconnaissance units or drones. Accordingly, an increase in drones would appear to generate a clear increase in an ability to target and destroy Russian targets previously not within reach of Ukrainian weapons.

In support of this, the Pentagon is sending more hand-launched Puma drones and support equipment for the catapult-supported ScanEagle drone.

The ScanEagle drone is already in service with the Navy and Marine Corps and is more recently being integrated across the US Coast Guard as well. It brings a rare ability to catapult from the deck of a surface ship or ground location and perform vital forward-operating reconnaissance missions, and it adds a significant sphere of new variables to the Coast Guard’s strategic and tactical approach.

Ukrainian forces have benefitted from Western and NATO surveillance for quite some time, yet an increased ability for fighters to use smaller, hand-launched drones more “organic” to the units they support introduces key tactical nuances. Close-in handheld drones such as the Puma can help Ukrainian fighters look on the other side of a building or hill and help pinpoint specific targets for air and ground attack. This is particularly true in the case of artillery, as the Ukrainians have numerous 155mm artillery weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

This circumstance, as described by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, is precisely why the Pentagon is sending 15 new ScanEagle systems as well. Using a built-in ability to launch from a catapult, ScanEagle drones can introduce a medium-sized ISR capability without needing a runway, something which enables Ukrainian forces to launch drones from more austere locations where the terrain may prove inhospitable to the use of any runway.

The current air support effort also involves the addition of “Vampire” counter-drone weapons built to track and knock out or “destroy” drones from the ground.

“The Vampire system itself is a counter UAS system. It is a kinetic system, it uses small missiles, essentially, to shoot UAVs out of the sky,” Kahl said. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization