While discussions about the merits and risks of implementing a “no-fly” zone above Ukraines are likely to be filling the halls at the Pentagon, senior DoD officials are reiterating that US forces will not fight in Ukraine.
Ukraine No-Fly Zone
Any move to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine would of course place the US and NATO on a direct collision course with Russia, a scenario which introduces the possibility of massive escalation into a US-NATO vs Russia great power world war. The risks involved with such a possibility are almost beyond imagination, given the scale, scope and global implications of such a conflict.
However, Russian attacks are killing children and innocent civilians with long-range air and missile strikes are now hitting apartment buildings, residential areas and Ukrainian government buildings, according to multiple media reports. Russian attacks appear to be about to escalate in potentially catastrophic ways and thousands of ordinary Ukrainian citizens are picking up weapons to fight invading Russians with remarkable tenacity.
Is the thought of actually pursuing a no-fly zone getting traction? There are a few interesting dynamics to consider, principally the seemingly significant advantage the US and NATO would likely have in the air. Assuming stealth aircraft could succeed in locating, destroying or eluding Russian air defenses, something which seems realistic, the circumstance in the air would seem to massively favor NATO.
The question may simply be one of numbers. Russian press reports consistently say that only about 12 5th-generation Su-57 stealth fighters have been built and that there are plans to add about 70 more in coming years. Even if the Su-57 were able to rival the F-35, and there is no real indication that it could, Russian 5th-gen aircraft would be operating at a massive deficit. The US alone operates hundreds of F-35s which, if joined by European counterparts, would seem to be capable of forming multiple expansive, multinational F-35 formations across a wide operational envelope to pursue air superiority.
Using long-range targeting sensors and precision-guided air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, F-35s might be able to see and destroy large numbers of Russian 4th generation fighter jets at safe standoff distances.
Should air supremacy be achieved, clearly advancing Russian ground forces would be extremely vulnerable and could potentially be disabled or completely eliminated from the air. Is there a US and global will to consider this option and take such an enormous risk? As long as Russia continues to murder children, it seems the possibility at least merits consideration.
Pentagon Says Ukrainian Air Space Still “Contested”
Alongside disturbing images of Russian missiles destroying apartment homes, killing civilians and government buildings in Ukraine and satellite images of a massive Russian convoy headed for Kyiv, there is a less visible, yet highly significant air war taking place in the sky. It is an air war which appears to be far more contested than some might have anticipated.
Senior Pentagon officials estimate that Russia is operating more than 75 aircraft over Ukraine, yet much is still unknown and Pentagon officials say the “airpace is actively contested every day."
“The airspace over Ukraine continues to be contested. The Russians do not have air superiority over the entire country but there are areas where they have more control than others, and the same goes for the Ukrainians,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
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The fact that the airspace is still contested seems somewhat surprising and does possibly speak to the confidence and resolve of Ukrainian pilots and fighter jets. Global Firepower's 2022 military assessments reveal a massive discrepancy between Russian and Ukrainian air power, listing Russia as operating 772 fighter jets compared with Ukraine at 69 fighter jets.
Why haven’t the Russian’s achieved air superiority? Russia is known to operate a large number of capable 4th-generation aircraft and Russian news reports say 12 5th-generation Su-57 stealth fighter jets have been built. Could Russia be using them?
One would think that Russia would seek to exploit its numerical advantage in the air, yet perhaps the smaller Ukrainian fighter jet force is outperforming Russian attackers, or perhaps Ukrainian air defenses are proving more effective than Russia may have anticipated.
A senior Pentagon official confirmed that Ukrainian air defenses were in fact working well, telling reporters that “Ukrainian air and missile defense systems remain viable, and intact, and engaged,”
The senior Pentagon official said the Russian have “lost some” fighter jets and that the Ukrainians have as well. The official said few specifics were available regarding the ongoing air war, and when asked by a reporter why the Russian convoy has not been attacked from the air, the official said the Russians may be protecting the convoy with air assets. The convoy certainly is a visible target as hundreds of vehicles are congested next to one another in rapid succession, offering aircraft a clear opportunity to strike.
“I can't tell you with certainty why this convoy hasn't been attacked. We have to assume that the Russians are aware that it is a very long convoy with a lot of vehicles and that they are going to be interested in trying to protect that as best they can, but I can't speak to the specifics of, you know, whether they have aircraft flying over it and what they're doing. But we have to assume that they have an interest in trying to protect it,” the official said.
Russia is likely to be protecting its convoy with its mobile, ultra modern SA-21 S-400 Surface to Air Missiles which first emerged in 2007. As mobile weapons, these SAMS give advancing Russian forces the ability to track and destroy enemy aircraft. Ukraine’s air defenses, by contrast, are listed by Global Firepower as being Soviet-era, 1980s built SA-15 Gauntlet systems. Russian air defenses are reported to be among the best in the world with digital networking, faster computer processing and multi-frequency tracking systems. Ukraine is also reported to be in possession of some Russian-built air defenses which appear to be working effectively.
Air power could clearly seem to be quite decisive in any kind of urban warfare scenario as clusters of fighters behind buildings or otherwise obscured from ground targeting systems might be more visible from the air. Also, precision guided bombs could be employed to pinpoint specific high-value target areas. However, Russia would likely need some measure of air superiority in order to exact this kind of impact upon Ukrainian cities, and the Pentagon says they simply do not have it. Are the Russians holding back air power? Or perhaps they are rattled by the tenacity and resolve of Ukrainian air warriors?
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.