Above Ukraine rages a battle unlike any in Western experience. We should pay attention to how it is being done.
The war in Ukraine grinds on into its third month. Events since then have shocked the world – Russia’s vast capacity to squander advantages and Ukraine’s ability to capitalise come as a surprise to many.
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However, with judicious application of hindsight and a closer analysis of the actual state of both militaries (now illuminated in the harsh light of high intensity and highly documented conflict) it is easier to discern how the current situation developed. However, there are significant questions that remain unanswered – for example, how is that Ukraine is still projecting power in the air, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them?
Russia, it has to be said, is not playing its cards well. The VKS (Russian Aerospace Forces) have proven almost entirely unprepared and unequipped for the task that was asked of them. The factors contributing to this likely include issues like poor training, inadequate equipment, flawed planning and intelligence failures all the way up and down the spectrum from the specific positions of targets to Ukraine’s will to resist.
To overcome air defences is anything but as easy as the West has at times made it look. In Iraq it took thousands of aircraft conducting operations so complex and finely timed that they stunned many of the ground commanders watching them unfold – unused as they were to the potential tempo air operations could reach. Russia, which rarely trains its pilots to operate in groups larger than two or four (and which had not apparently even assigned an overall commander for the invasion) has proven incapable of mirroring the Coalition planners’ masterwork. Whilst competent in operating as a part of their own nation’s air defences or conducting strikes against ill-equipped insurgents, their problems with offensively dismantling a well organised and capable Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) should probably come as no surprise in hindsight.
Now that Russia is fighting in a manner they are better equipped to deal with (massed artillery cued by drones) in the Donbas there are signs of the Ukrainian air defences local to that area suffering losses. This is worth noting – and serves as a lesson in how it isn’t just aircraft and air defences that take part in the air war – but it is a local and limited success at best. Scratching a narrow fingerhold in Ukrainian airspace is the most that this artillery-led effort can achieve, enough to ease the job of close air support (which faces other problems, like the myriad shoulder-launched missiles Ukraine possesses) and little more. Outside of this, Russia appears generally restricted to strikes on fixed targets with missiles, being either unable or unwilling to conduct systematic interdiction through Ukraine’s IADS. If unexpected in results, the state of affairs Russia is operating within, and the overall shape of its air campaign, are largely recognisable as those facing the ‘traditional’ air offensive.
Ukraine’s air force and air defences, however, are approaching this conflict in a manner alien to Western experience. This strategy appears similar in character to aspects of the naval ‘fleet in being’ concept, as well as the established hallmarks of guerrilla warfare. The lion’s share of air denial is left to air defence rather than aircraft, a reversal of the West’s Modus Operandi. Under this umbrella what aircraft there are can ply their trade behind friendly lines, or foray out on low intensity, high impact attacks. By rapidly dispersing their aircraft at the start of the war and flying infrequently (reportedly only five-ten sorties per day) Ukraine ensures its force persists, lowering its rate of attrition to Russian attack as far as is reasonably possible.
This low rate of manned sorties is supplemented by drone attacks – ranging from purpose-built strike aircraft like Bayrakter to octocopters carrying modified 30mm grenades. These, whilst individually unlikely to cause much damage, maintain pressure and steadily attrite assets. They also constitute a valuable reconnaissance and spotting asset, and alongside a steady stream of intelligence from Western sources (including specialised air and space assets Ukraine does not have native equivalents of) contribute to Ukraine’s fight for information superiority. This low-intensity trickle of painful stabs from the sky against Russian forces compels them to deploy and operate large numbers of their own air defence vehicles and systems, further straining already challenged logistics and maintenance and stressing crews – to say nothing of the morale impact it has on the units suffering attacks without any apparent recourse to retaliate. Now that the war has progressed for some time, it seems that Ukraine is also finding points into which they can insert their remaining manned air strength for maximum impact – chinks in the Russian armour which allows them to access and destroy high value targets such as the fuel storage yard at Belgorod, reportedly set ablaze by a pair of Ukrainian Mi-24s.
Using these tactics Ukraine has achieved several things: credible air denial, persistent pressure on Russian units, exploitation of the air for reconnaissance purposes and preservation of their precious stock of conventional aircraft until worthwhile opportunities to commit them for significant impact could be found and exploited. Drones operating in the air littoral, Western intelligence assistance and infrequent and unpredictable strikes from more valuable systems allows Ukraine to exploit what air power they do have to maximum effect, circumventing or neutralising Russia’s material advantages. Naturally, they also benefit massively from their apparent intelligence advantage and from the surprising Russian inability to operate a suitably watertight system of air defences themselves, but it is one thing to be given opportunities and another to find and exploit them as Ukraine is doing. In the fight with Russia’s largely conventional air force and air strategy, Ukraine has chosen to fight differently.
What is there to be learned from all this, then? First and foremost is that the dynamics of air power when operating in areas with disproportionately strong air defences compared to aircraft are distinct and offer their own raft of restrictions and opportunities compared to what the West is used to. As the worldwide arms race between aircraft and air defence continues, events in Ukraine may hint at the ways in which the former can continue to have an impact even when the latter’s strength is too great to be broken within acceptable timeframes.
Secondly is the restatement (hardly needed at this point) of the fact that drones are invaluable and must both be exploited and countered. The capacity to deploy offensive, defensive and supportive forms of airpower is proliferating and devolving down to the level of individual soldiers with comparatively minimal training. When accompanied by abundantly clear confirmations that the air situation can be influenced by events on the ground just as much as the other way around it seems plausible that the distinction between air and land power may be becoming blurred.
Thirdly, and finally, is the demonstration that with appropriate employment even smaller, weaker aerospace forces can prove extremely dangerous if used correctly – and that the ability to secure the skies and leverage them at leisure is a luxury hard-won. Russia is now experiencing, and Ukraine is adeptly demonstrating, what can happen when the nominally ‘superior’ air power cannot successfully degrade the capabilities of their opponent or leverage their own strengths. Airpower is crucial and allows the edge the West tends to enjoy to diminish risks it finding itself in Russia’s shoes – abundantly equipped with expensive systems that it cannot use without suffering ruinous losses, and incapable of countering its adversaries’ efforts to leverage their own strength.
One wonders, for example, what a current generation jet aircraft could do to stop a grenade-toting octocopter. Food for thought, at the very least.