The Pentagon says the airspace above Ukraine in the Russia Ukraine war is still contested several months into the war, likely leading many to wonder why? A simple look at global firepower will show the Russians operate more than 770 fighter jets, compared to Ukraine 69 or so. That's a glaring, massive deficit.
So why aren't the Russians able to achieve air superiority? A number of key variables to look at, with one is simply the effectiveness of Ukrainian air defenses.
“We know the air defenses are having an impact because of the kinds of flight profiles they are flying. Most of their sorties never leave Russian airspace,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Video Above: With a Seemingly Massive Fighter Jet Advantage, Russia Can't Achieve Air Superiority over Ukraine
Ukraine reportedly operates SA-15 Gauntlet Soviet-era air defense systems as well as Russian built S-300s. The Pentagon says these air defenses are being used in a very tactically adept and effective way. Modern air defenses these days have digital processors, better networking, longer range, they can connect with other systems across a wider envelope of defensive area. They also can detect a wider sphere of frequencies, making them more effective.
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This might be part of the story because Russia pretty much operates a fourth generation fleet, which is Su-30s Su-35 and MIGs. However sophisticated these aircraft are, they may still be vulnerable to air defenses in part because they lack stealth.
One of the things that springs to mind is Russia's fleet of Su-57s, their fifth generation stealth fighter jets intended to rival the F-35. Are they being used? Well, according to TASS, Russia’s news agency, only a handful of them exist and there is a current contract to acquire as many as 70 in coming years.
The US Air Force already operates roughly 300 F 35s, so there's already a discrepancy there. In terms of just Ukraine, Russia’s inability to operate highlights the prospect that perhaps some measure of stealth is needed against modern air defenses.
Simply put, fourth generation aircraft are too easy to detect and take out. With something like an Su-57, depending on how stealthy it is, surveillance radar may be able to detect that something is there, but may lack the technical capacity to execute what's called engagement radar or targeting to actually develop a track and take out that aircraft. That's the advantage of something like an F-35 or an F-22. An enemy air defense system, however sophisticated, might be able to detect that something is there.
However, being able to target an aircraft takes a much more narrow, much more narrowly configured radar beam and an ability to sustain the track on a moving target. That is much more difficult, especially in the case of stealth aircraft. Simply put, the lack of stealth appears to be quite possibly a major reason why Russia cannot dominate the sky despite this disparity in numbers,
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.