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The Russia-Ukraine war has been underway for many months now, yet somehow Ukrainians have still managed to prevent an overwhelmingly larger Russian Air Force from achieving air superiority.
Russia Ukraine Fighter Jets
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? What kinds of additional air defenses have they been receiving? Whatever specific air defenses they have, it seems clear that they are indeed working, because a large force of Russian fighter jets “still” have not achieved air superiority. One factor which may still be informing operations is that the Russians have been described by the Pentagon as “risk averse,” meaning they are less inclined to fly into areas where Ukrainian air defenses can target them.
The Russians have air defenses as well, something which is a potential reason why Ukraine does not yet have air superiority either. Overall, 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.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.
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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 number 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 be hit and held at great risk by effective Ukrainian air defenses.
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.
The passage of time since the war began has not favored Russia’s larger force of fighter jets and they are “still” unable to secure the air.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.