Many might wonder what the mystery may be behind Russia’s inability to achieve air superiority over Ukraine, given the sheer size and reported sophistication of their Air Force.
Global Firepower reports a massive discrepancy in air power between Russia and Ukraine; Ukraine is reported to operate 69 fighter aircraft, compared with Russia’s 772. Russia is known to operate a sizeable fleet of 4th-generation fighter jets and of course is already producing its 5th-Gen Su-57 stealth fighter. However, the Pentagon still reports that the airspace above Ukraine is “contested.”
“It's still very contested airspace,” a senior Pentagon official reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Initially, there are several known and widely discussed reasons for this, to include the tenacity with which the Ukrainians are resisting Russian attacks and, perhaps most notably, the success of Ukrainian air defenses. This may be one key reason why senior Pentagon officials say Russian airplanes simply “don’t spend much time in Ukrainian airspace.”
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“They don't spend much time in Ukrainian airspace. They get as close as they need to get to, to drop, and now that they're dropping more dumb bombs, they've got to get much closer. And then they deliver their payload and they go back. And they go back home into Russia,” the official said.
For quite some time, the Pentagon has said that Russia continues to be “risk averse” with its pilots over Ukrainian airspace, suggesting that indeed Ukrainian air defenses are having a rather decisive impact.
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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? In addition to this, Ukrainians have for quite some time been working with various Western allies to obtain Russian S-300 advanced air defenses. Do they have other cutting edge air defenses as well? Some of this might not be known, yet one thing the Pentagon does emphasize is that the Ukrainians are employing very successful tactics.
“The Ukrainians continue to be very nimble in how they use both short and long-range air defense. And they have proven very effective at moving those assets around to help protect them,” the official said.
At the same time, there is a somewhat less obvious, yet potentially significant variable associated with this which might not be sufficiently recognized. Simply put .. the absence of stealth.
Multiple Russian newspapers explain that the Russian military now operates a small number of stealth 5th-generation Su-57 fighter jets. Existing plans include an effort to add as many as 70 in coming years. It is not known if the Russians are in fact using some of their small number of Su-57s. However, regardless of the relative sophistication of the Su-57 in terms of its stealth attributes an ability to rival the US F-35, there simply are not enough of them to pose a substantial threat to NATO. Not only that, they do not appear to be operational against Ukraine, unless they are proving ineffective.
What this suggests is that, moving into the future, stealth will be necessary to combat advanced air defense systems. Perhaps 4th Generation Russian planes simply cannot elude modern Ukrainian air defenses? It would appear that way. Therefore, while Russia’s inability to secure airspace over Ukraine may still be somewhat of a mystery, it would seem self-evident that they are suffering from a lack of available stealth technology and simply cannot compete or survive.
“The airspace is still contested, and the Ukrainians have been effective in managing their own air defense capabilities in the Donbas and in the south. The Russians are still very capable of launching strikes, and a lot of them they're launching from inside their own territory,” the defense official said.
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.