How Dispersed Operations Saved Ukrainian Air Force

How Dispersed Operations Saved Ukrainian Air Force

Much has been made of Russian Air Force destroying or damaging runways and air strips in the opening days of the invasion of Ukraine, but this was a massive mistake by the clueless Western analysts and journalists.

Fact is, this was a mistake. Majority of Ukrainian combat aircraft were MiG-29, Su-27 and Su-25 aircraft. All these aircraft were designed to operate from improvised field air bases, be it road bases or open field bases. Much like Sweden with JAS-35/37/39, Soviet aircraft designers assumed that in any conflict, the enemy will target the air bases and other air force infrastructure as a priority – which was, in fact, part of the NATO doctrine. As a result, they designed the aircraft to use improvised bases.

While Gripen and F-18 can use road basing, MiG-29 goes a step further. Not only are the airframe and landing gear strenghtened, but air intakes can be closed off by mud guards, with air taken in through intakes / girders / louvers atop the LERX structure. As a result, MiG-29 can use rough fields or just open grass plains as impromptu runways, as there is no risk of any foreign object damage (term for when objects are ingested into the engine, damaging fan blades and potentially causing the entire engine to shake itself apart).

Of course, rough field capability is not a panacea. Aircraft still require weapons, fuel, spare parts, maintenance, and other forms of logistical support. But all of this can be – to an extent – done in the field. And it is enough to prevent the aircraft from being destroyed on the ground. While runways – or roads – may be damaged, that damage is relatively easily repaired.

And Western air forces had for a long time known that USSR (later Russia) is likely to target air bases with missile strikes to destroy as many aircraft as possible on the ground. Main counter against this is a combination of a robust Early Warning system as well as rotating aircraft between the bases. While damaged air base can be repaired quickly, damaged aircraft cannot – which is why road and/or rough field capability is so important, as it allows for easy decentralization of combat air power. This is precisely what Ukraine had done, operating and basing its aircraft in pairs instead of entire squadrons, and moving them about so as to make pairs’ bases incredibly difficult to pinpoint.

While all aircraft can do this, some are better at it. F-15 can achieve turnaround time of 3 hours in rough conditions, whereas for Gripen this time is under an hour. Russian aircraft, while they are very robust, are also maintenance-intensive, making Ukrainian achievment even more impressive.

In the end, what mattered is the result: upon receiving warning of the impending invasion, Ukrainians were able to remove almost all aircraft to safer locations. Ever since then, and based on the intelligence, Ukraine had been moving moving their aircraft from one base to another on a regular interval including using smaller airfields.

Of course, we use that during our training: low-altitude flights, using alternative airfields, etc.” Above all, the training since 2014 has emphasized flexible tactics and keeping aircraft on the move, reducing the chance of the enemy catching them on the ground as part of their air interdiction efforts.

While hopping frequently from one airfield to another is now a regular part of air force operations, Juice said that, so far, these distributed operations have been limited to runways and airstrips rather than highways. Although the air force has practiced operations from roads in the past, there are currently sufficient alternative airbases to remove this particular requirement.

Drive: Ukrainian MiG-29 Pilot’s Front-Line Account Of The Air War Against Russia

Further, Russian ballistic missiles have not lived up to their accuracy claims, as seen from the images below.

Even if they had, merely destroying runways and other infrastructure would not have allowed Russia to close down Ukrainian air force operations. The only way to do so is to destroy aircraft themselves, and that can only be done with direct air strikes: cruise and ballistic missiles are simply not precise enough. Issue here is not Russian incompetence or maintenance: when United States launched 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat Air Base in Syria, 58 of those reached targets. No more than nine older aircraft were destroyed, and air base was in operation after 24 hours.

As a result of this, Ukrainian pilots were able to choose the time and place of engagement, which is a massive advantage.

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