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The Russian Airpower Dilemma
The ‘fog of information war’ challenges any meaningful analysis at this stage. The western narrative with connivance of the corporate sector has virtually silenced the ‘other’ narrative. It is clear that everything can and will be weaponised not just information. Age-old norms and conventions have been thrown out of the door by western powers. However, one can tentatively take note of certain issues that are still emerging.
Has the timing been a little late in terms of thaw setting in across the Ukrainian countryside making cross-country movement of logistics support impossible? That would explain the long-lines of convoys and inevitable jams across the few roads that lead to primary Russian objectives. The Putin-Xi meeting before the offensive may hold the answers of a delay, if any. According to US media, it was where a decision to delay beyond the Winter Olympics was taken.
It is too simplistic to think the Russians planned only a few days of campaign, and have got intractably stuck due to unexpected resistance and failure of their war machine. Their campaigns in Chechnya, Syria, and even earlier Afghanistan would have made them consider different scenarios. The Russian Generals would have considered initial moves going awry e.g. capture of Hostomel Airfield, where the ground forces could not link up and the airborne forces got into a worst case scenario. It does not mean that such operations are redundant, only that careful planning and alternatives must be at hand to avoid “A Bridge too Far.” For example, combined operations to secure the two nuclear reactors and the many bio-labs have been quite successful. These could serve important purposes later in calibrating control as well as the information war.
Undoubtedly, the Russian playbook was different to the US favoured complete attrition and decimation of defences by airpower and long-range ground weapons. In Ukraine, the template, for a start, was unique for the Russians. The proximity to the Russian border and even closer affiliation of people across, primarily dictated a humane approach initially for a week. Even on 12th March, as per Ukraine allegations, only 1600 civilians had died. For such widespread and violent operations this is remarkable in terms of concern for civilian exposure. Had the best-case scenario worked out, namely the collapse of Zelensky’s Govt, there would have been no need to employ heavier offensive airpower.
So, what happened and who surprised whom? One scenario could be that since 2008 when NATO’s expansion plan was out in the open targeting the Baltic countries and Ukraine, the Russians had been monitoring closely as the pincer hold manifested. 2014’s colour revolution in Ukraine set them on countermeasures such as actions in Crimea and Donbas. US (CIA) involvement in support of Ukrainian counter action in Donbas meant it would be bleeding wound. It has been widely assessed that in the June 2022 NATO Meet, a recognition to Zelensky’s demand was on the cards. That would have been too late for Putin.
US intelligence inputs of an impending invasion and public presidential statements hint that not only had the US prepared the Ukrainian tactics of resistance and trapping Russian armoured columns, they were ready and wanted it to happen. And therefore, neither the Russians nor the US with Zelensky were caught by surprise, though the same may not be true for the Europeans. It is not surprising that from the first day itself Ukrainian efforts to stall and cause maximum attrition to Russian columns and helicopters bore fruit. However, it in no way affected the Russian resolve, only a quick adaptation and change in tactics.
The first Russian aim in case of protracted operations was to conserve airpower and some more lethal elements in case the escalation ladder was climbed with NATO. It meant protection of key air superiority elements and their electronic emissions. This would effectively deter NATO in enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. There isn't enough airpower in Europe to enforce it that would put NATO at war with Russia that had already stirred the nuclear option debate in Europe. If NATO is drawn into combat and attacks anywhere on mainland Russia (not any occupied/protectorate) then Russia may go nuclear. This is because a conventional war would be a rout for Russia and land columns and sea forces would face decimation against technologically superior NATO forces.
A second issue flagged at the correct time is influx of arms and fighters by NATO into Ukraine. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister has informed Washington that weapons supply convoys into Ukraine are 'legitimate targets' for the Russian military. And the air strike in Liviv on 12th March that reportedly killed 300 foreign fighters getting in was a sign of things to come. Russian airpower retains full capability to strike deep targets in Western Ukraine at will.
While a Russian assumption may have been a quick fall in Ukrainian will to prolong the fight, they have now quickly adapted to graduated application of lethal fires as is evident by air and missile strikes at multiple points and cities. As of now they are still calibrated using real-time intelligence to target military forces or support areas. Urban combat in Chechnya and Syria has given them enough experience to manoeuvre around or encircle them after launching initial forays.
Russia has rightly focussed on certain key areas. The ports around Black Sea not only make Crimea secure and sustainable, in a long-drawn insurgency they will not allow outside support. Donbas has been targeted to make the newly declared republics secure from incessant Ukrainian artillery bother. In fact, combined operations in Donbas have encircled a large component of Ukrainian forces that may become useful POWs or be decimated.
In all these areas, helicopter support has been critical. While there were Ukrainian reports of many helicopters shot down, it now seems that these were exaggerated and are quit within limits of attrition of forces in direct combat. In fact, the lethal Ka-52, with a modern electronic suite, has performed remarkably. Only three of them had to force land due to multiple hits. Many heliborne operations have taken place by night when visual manpads cannot acquire them as targets.
A big lesson for the Russians is logistics support not catching up with agile small units moving faster ahead. It is certain that large parts of the Russian military have yet to enter this war, with many of the capabilities still unused. Russian military is an artillery army first, and it has used a fraction of its available firepower in this war thus far. Analysts are perplexed that they are not really fighting the way they train and organise for a major conventional war. The reason is quite simple that the template and objectives are grossly different. There are hundreds of aviation assets like combat helicopters and ground attack aircraft positioned all around including in Belarus.
In the US narrative, the lack of airpower employment is due to lack of Russian military integration of airpower and missiles to suppress air defence sites or the use of airpower to advance ground troops in Ukraine. But they are fully aware that Russia is preserving integrated advanced systems like Su-35, Su-57, S-400, S-500 and other advanced weapons for potential war with NATO. Russia most likely does not want to risk its airpower on strikes in Western Ukraine, where air defences seem largely intact and have probably improved since the first day of the war, and to use standoff weapons, it would need a fixed point to attack. But in case of taking over entire Ukraine they would move S-400s and S-500s to Ukraine border with Su35 to counter NATO Airpower in Poland and other NATO neighbours.
While key airfields and early warning radars around Ukraine were on the target list for the opening waves of strikes in the first few nights of the war, the Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS, did not seem to have been heavily involved and there was little evidence of any offensive activity. The Russian military initially used cruise/ballistic missiles to destroy/suppress Ukrainian air defence and target air bases. However, they have not been flying Combat Air Patrols (CAPs), or offensive counter air, and only appeared to have used Su-34 bomber to conduct strikes towards end of the first week around which time there was major adaptation. With Russian advances being held up by stubborn Ukrainian resistance, there are indications that the air war is now entering a new phase of bombardment with a high potential for civilian casualties. Now Russia may turn to a more robust destruction of enemy air defences campaign in order to break Ukraine’s ability to continue contesting its airspace.
As brought out earlier, dispersal and concealment of air defence assets especially mobile ones was a gameplan for a long time. Along with US intelligence support, these were quite effective in dissuading close air support at some critical times. Even Russian air defence systems were at the mercy of lowly Ukrainian TB2 armed drones, but these successes have been fewer than Ukrainian claims. Even the famed Turkish Bayraktar drones have not fared very well. There are clear indications through downed drones that Russia is ramping up drone operations. Russian military is well experienced from the earlier operations in Donbas of a concept of operations where UAVs scout the area, report adversary movements and positions, and provide coordinates for artillery, MLRS and airborne assets. Besides ISR drones like Orlan-10 and Eleron-3, it is possible that Russia will now employ combat capable UAVs such as Orion/Forpost-R UCAV, KUB loitering munitions UAV and the Lancet loitering drone.
The lone A-50 Mainstay AEW&C aircraft based in Belarus has been augmented by another. This would provide better surveillance of Ukraine airspace to deal with remaining Ukrainian Air Force resistance in the skies, or relaying targeting coordinates to ground-based surface-to-air missile systems. An Il-22PP standoff jamming aircraft and an Il-20M electronic intelligence platform have also arrived in Area of Responsibility (AOR).
Western analysts question the numbers of night-qualified pilots available, the size of the stockpiles of the relevant munitions, and the reliability of those weapons themselves. The claim is that VKS is not likely to achieve levels of accuracy of a Western air arm, given the shortage of targeting pods on its tactical fighters. One reason espoused is the lack of multi-role fighters to attack ground and the aerial targets with equal proficiency. There is also the issue of lesser laser-targeted air-to-ground weapons, while focussing on onboard TV targeting modes. In addition to shortage of targeting pods/stand-off Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), there seems to be a lack of Forward Air Controllers (FACs) on the ground to direct airstrikes by Russian tactical jets. This, combined with the continued threat at high altitudes, and the need to visually pick out targets at low altitude, appears to have pushed fighters down into the Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) envelope.
Many lessons will emerge as the dust settles. The information war at a peak now would continue by the arms industry in the west to drive home their advantages. Already Germany has declared that it would be replacing its Tornadoes with F-35s. It will be soon time for the arms industry to make hay just like they did after the Gulf War. The effectiveness of western sanctions, China and India’s position and Russian counter-measures would be the real determinants of this campaign.
Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Rajesh Isser, AVSM, VM (G)
22 March 2022