Vulnerability of Modern Air Forces – Case of Ukraine

Vulnerability of Modern Air Forces – Case of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has shown many things, but one of major ones was vulnerability of modern Western-style air forces to destruction on the ground. Operations of modern fighters require long concrete air strips, and hangars full of equipment. This means that they are largely confined to operating from dedicated air bases. One issue with that is that air bases are big, immobile, and generally speaking, perfect missile magnets.

This vulnerability had been on open display as six MiG-29 fighters got destroyed in a single air strike. The attack had happened within 48 hours of the beginning of Russian invasion, with missile used being apparently Russian Navy 3M14 Kalibr. This is a land attack cruise missile with 450 kg warhead and range of 1500 – 2500 km. Russia had used missile in October 2015 to support Assad, with missile displaying ability to hit targets 1800 km away. Missile can be deployed from ships as small as 500-ton Buyan-M class corvettes. Russia also deploys a submarine-launched variant, dubbed 3M-14K.

Ukrainian aircraft and air defece sites had been a priority target since beginning of the campaign. Ukraine fieldedonly 30 MiG-29 fighters, which means that a single strike on 27th February destroyed or at least heavily damaged a fifth of Ukrainian MiG-29 fleet. Earlier, on 24th February, Russian attack on the military airfield in Ozerne destroyed a Su-27 and a refueling vehicle. Only a single Su-27 had been lost in the air, when Su-27 piloted by Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko was shot down Kyiv. Two Su-25s had also been shot down in Kherson region on 27th February, and an An-26 transport had been shot down on 24th February with five out of 14 crewmembers having been killed.

Ukraine does have some 30 Su-27 fighter aircraft, although at least one had been shot down (likely by friendly fire), another fleeing to Romania and potentially more losses, the fleet is dwindling as well. Su-27 fleet is also likely to be far more vulnerable to attrition during the course of the conflict, or simply running out of resources required to operate. Su-27 is a much larger aircraft than MiG-29, requiring more fuel and longer runways, which makes it far more vulnerable to the kind of attacks that had so devastated Ukrainian MiG-29 fleet.

But Ukrainian MiG-29A’s date back to 1982., and field effectively obsolete sensors, armaments and avionics. Its air defences had also been equally obsolete and easily destroyed, making concealment the only option for the survival of its air force.

On Russian side, the only aircraft lost not to an accident was Su-30SM, destroyed on the ground in Millerevo by a Tochka missile salvo. Ukrainian military claimed another Su-30SM destroyed in the same attack.

UPDATE: Satellite images of Chuluv air field, showing damage to runways, fuel storage and other infrastructure:

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