Lessons of Air War in Ukraine

Lessons of Air War in Ukraine

Since the beginning of the invasion, Russians have kept repeating that they had destroyed the Ukrainian air force. In fact, they had claimed on the first day of invasion that UAF had been destroyed. In March 2022., Russian Ministry of Defense again claimed that all Ukrainian aircraft had been destroyed or disabled, and repeated the claim yet again in June. Yet Ukrainian Su-27s bombed Snake Island in May, and Ukrainian Su-27s have been spotted over Donbass in mid-August. During August, Ukrainian MiG-29s had been filmed firing HARM. Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have shot down two Su-25s over Zaporizhzia on August 29. Like Lazarus, Ukrainian air force has risen from the dead time and again, zombified aircraft taking off to haunt the Russians.

Or have they? Rather than Ukrainians using witchcraft to raise their pilots and aircraft from the dead, more likely is that the Ukrainian air force had never been destroyed in the first place. And this has some important lessons for the future.

Before continuing however, I have to note that official kill claims – as so ofteen seen through history – are complete bullshit. If official kill claims were correct, Russians will have destroyed the entire Ukrainian Air Force at least twice over, whereas Russian Air Force would be fielding museum MiG-15s instead of Su-35s. This is simply a product of confusion and fog of war. If fighter shoots a missile at a target and target disappears from the radar, logical assumption is that target had been destroyed – when the most likely outcome was that the target had broken radar contact by diving to the ground and notching the missile. Attacking pilot is then likely to conclude that target had been destroyed.

List of acronyms I had used in the text is located at the end.

Strategic Lessons – Air Denial

Modern air defenses are extremely difficult to eliminate. United States and NATO allies have historically had luck of operating against air defense systems that were largely immobile or even completely fixed, and also in largely open terrain (e.g. Iraq, Libya). When facing air defense systems in less permissive conditions and manned by competent crews, they have failed completely at destroying said air defenses. While West has long sought to establish command of the air, or air supremacy, modern surface-to-air missile systems have made this goal impossible to achieve. During the entirety of Vietnam War, United States have never managed to shut down the North Vietnamese SAM network. They have similarly failed in 1990s in Yugoslavia.

This lesson has been confirmed in Ukraine. Pre-war estimates claimed that Russia would establish the air superiority within the first 72 hours. Russia had advantage of the initiative, superior numbers, superior aircraft and superior weapons. By normal logic, they should have won easily. Instead, Russian forces have failed to control the skies, and have also failed to eliminate the Ukrainian Air Force. And reasons why hold significant lessons.

While Russians have not exactly glorified themselves with competence, it would be wrong to simply dismiss the lessons of war in Ukraine as a result of Russian ineptitude. Russians after all are not Arabs, and have shown capacity to learn. Prior to the invasion, Russia has deployed an extensive air and air defense force: hundreds of tactical aircraft as well as advanced air defense systems. Also included were strategic bombers launching cruise missiles as well as C2 (command and control) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) aircraft. Ukraine for its part had only a smal and aging fleet of fourth generation fighters and short- and medium- -range SAMs.

Initial Russian strikes were reasonably effective. Electronic warfare attacks, physical suppression through use of anti-radiation missiles, effective use of aerial decoys and long-range missile strikes utilizing cruise and ballistic missiles alike suppressed or damaged most of Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems at the start of the invasion. Ukrainian outnumbered and outgunned fighter squadrons were left to defend the country on their own, and took heavy losses until the air defenses could be brought back online. Russia’s technological and numerical advantage meant that they took essentially no losses in air-to-air combat. During those three days of grace, Russian strike craft flew hundreds of missions each day, up to 300 kilometers deep into the Ukrainian territory. These sorties were flown at medium altitude – right in the heart of the normal air defense envelope – and flown by day, with fighter patrols higher up. Strike sorties weren’t flown in “packages” of mutually supporting aircraft, but usually in singles and pairs, which was possible precisely because Ukrainian air defenses had been suppressed. Almost no strike missions were flown in groups of more than six aircraft.

Despite these clear advantages, Russia failed in establishing air superiority over Ukraine. It has failed in terms of battlefield information gathering and electronic warfare. Initial strikes on February 24 failed at koncking out the critical C2 nodes as these were not identified and strikes not concentrated against them. Russia’s non-kinetic attacks such as cyberattacks and electronic warfare had limited effectiveness and were poorly integrated with kinetic attacks. With the exception of the initial strikes, Russia also completely failed at suppressing the Ukrainian air defense, failing to destroy enough SAMs or aircraft on the ground. Fixed air defense positions have been destroyed, but mobile SAMs and MANPADS systems proved extremely resillient. While temporary suppression has been achieved, it was limited to first three days of the invasion as there had been no concentrated, prolonged SEAD effort. Russians also failed at properly processing and integrating intelligence, such as locating SAM’s and aircraft dispersal points, and had no plans to countering Ukrainian UAVs.

Ukrainian Buk SAM system

One major flaw in Russian aircraft performance was lack of higher quality technology – sensors and computers – which has impacted their ability to maintain battlefield awareness, gather intelligence, and perform in the electronic warfare and supression of enemy air defences. Situational awareness and datalink capability are inferior to NATO standard. This makes them more vulnerable to pop-up threats such as SAMs and MANPADS, as well as less able to carry out a successful strike. Even Russian dedicated reconnaissance aircraft (Su-24MR) are essentially Cold War technology.

Russians also lack dedicated SEAD squadrons to suppress SAMs. While Russian fighters do have jamming pods and anti-radiation missiles, there is no substitute for specialist training which SEAD crews receive. Pilots trained for multiple roles are simply not able to handle the mission, and Russian Air Force does not even have enough of these. Russia also lacks dedicated SEAD aircraft capable of geolocation and destruction of enemy air defenses. Neither are Russians flying SEAD missions systematically as a part of the coordinated effort to degrade Ukrainian air defenses. They lack the dedicated aircraft and targeting systems for the role, and munitions used for SEAD are limited to anti-radiation missiles. This has sharply limited Russian effectiveness against Ukrainian air defenses, and consequently the number of combat sorties Russian Air Force was able to fly in total.

Electronic warfare was also poorly integrated into SEAD efforts. This was especially important because the aforementioned lack of SEAD units meant that Russian Air Force was reliant on the electronic warfare capabilities to paralyze the enemy. While this is in fact how Soviet and later Russian air force was intended to operate, even Russian electronic warfare capability has shown itself lacking. But Russian Air Force failed to coordinate or even deconflict its electronic warfare capabilities, which meant that the aircraft ended up jamming each other during the first phase of the operation, though problems have since been fixed. But these flaws allowed Ukrainians time to adapt and disperse their air force and ground defences alike.

“Wild Weasels” patch. Letters at the bottom stand for “You Gotta Be Shitting Me”

None of this is actually surprising, nor is it a consequence of Russians being corrupt idiots. Fact is that United States – and, by association, their NATO allies – have had the opportunity to first establish their SEAD doctrine in the Vietnam War (“Wild Weasels”, a.k.a. YGBSM squadrons) in 1965., and then refine it afterwards through constant exposure to (predominantly Soviet) IADS, either through direct experience (Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq again, Libya and so on) or experiences of their allies (e.g. Israel during the Israeli-Arab wars). Soviet Union, and later Russia, has never had to actually face an integrated air defense system. Therefore, Russian Air Force had neither the need nor the opportunity to refine its SEAD doctrine beyond what had been established during the Second World War. It also lacked allies it could learn from through osmosis, as most if not all Soviet allies also played the defensive game, deploying IADS instead of attacking them. Soviet opponents – NATO and other Western countries – lacked dense air defense networks of their own, preferring to rely instead on air superiority fighters. Russian officers attempted to develop a SEAD doctrine following the Desert Storm, but the institutional inertia as well as the bureaucracy and the corruption inherited from the socialist system prevented this.

These failures are also not merely the result of Russian shortcomings. Modern mobile SAM systems had always proven difficult to destroy (DEAD) or even suppress (SEAD). During the air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, United States completely failed at eliminating Serbian mobile SAM systems. Despite 38 000 sorties and 10 500 strike missions, NATO achieved partial suppression of Serb air defences, but failed to destroy them outright. At least 90% of Serbian SA-6 systems survived the war. And during the Gulf War in 1991., Coalition forces have failed to kill a single SCUD. West too has failed at integrating cyber warfare on tactical level, keeping it entirely on the strategic level. All of this means that air denial is relatively easy to achieve.

Ukrainians have employed precisely this, despite the fact that many of their air defense systems date back to the Soviet era. Deploying mobile S-300, SA-11 and SA-8 SAM systems, Ukrainians have used “shoot and scoot” tactics, utilizing mobility and dispersion to maintain their air defenses as an active threat. This has led to an essentially “cat-and-mouse” game between the Russian aircraft and Ukrainian air defenses. Oryx has estimated that Russia had lost 66 combat aircraft, of which 11 Su-30 and 1 Su-35 – both equivalents to the US F-15. In exchange, Russia has knocked out only 24 out of 250 S-300 launchers in 11 weeks. This in fact supports American experiences against mobile SAMs. On Russian side, anti-radiation missiles have proven likely the most effective weapon against the SAM installations, but their effectiveness too has been limited, at least in terms of hard kills.

Kh-38 anti-radiation missile

Part of the reason is usage of long-range air control radars (as well as NATO AWACS) for tracking Russian aircraft. This means that Ukrainian SAM batteries only need to turn on their radars for the final engagement stage.

Ukraine is also receiving replacement S-300 SAM systems from former Warsaw Pact countries such as Slovakia. This support is in fact crucial because, despite everything noted above, other estimates do state that Ukraine has been losing several S-300 launchers every week. Cause of the losses are mostly artillery and Orlan-10 UAVs.

But Ukrainian strategy was more than just SAMs. Ukrainian air defences are layered, combining conventional air defense systems, electromagnetic jamming, drones and missiles. This, combined with dispersion and mobility, suggests that any future SEAD/DEAD campaign may be even more difficult than the Western analysts believe. In fact, conventional suppression may soon become impractical, necessitating usage of artillery for SEAD and thus limiting air forces to a role much akin to that in the First World War. While some breathing room can be gained through usage of “stealth” aircraft, this is of questionable long-term utility in face of rapidly developing sensors, and also faces some fundamental challenges discussed later.

Second lesson however was that conventional aircraft can in fact operate in nonpermissive environment – stealth fighters are not required to penetrate IADS, even if they may make the job much easier. Russian SA-21 / S-400 system has failed to deny Ukrainian Air Force the ability to operate – just as Ukrainian air defenses have failed to deny the same to Russian aircraft. Fighter aircraft are necessary to establish control over the air – air defences can only deny control to the enemy, but not establish it or prevent enemy from operating in their presence. As a result, airspace over Ukraine has remained highly contested. It should be noted however that MANPADS in particular have shown themselves to also be a major threat to their own side – they don’t have IFF interrogation capability, so if a soldier misidentifies an aircraft, there missile goes. (EDIT 29.1.: I was informed that at least US Stinger does have IFF capability).

Ukrainian soldiers with MANPADS from 3 countries. American Stinger to the left. Ukrainian Strela in the middle. Polish Piorun to the right. Source: Visegrad24

Nevertheless, due to their inability to conclusively destroy Ukrainian air defense, Russian aircraft have shifted from SEAD and CAS missions to traditional strikes against fixed installations and air superiority after the first week of combat. Perhaps the most important Russian asset in these strikes are long-range strategic bombers equipped with cruise missiles. These have consistently performed well in taking out strategic targets, and have in fact performed majority of Russian cruise missile strikes. Ukrainians meanwhile had decentralized their IADS into tactical groups, giving each group a zone to control.

This also means that the only way to reliably protect an installation is to make it mobile. Fixed installations have to be protected by heavy air defenses, but these cannot intercept all the drones and missiles. Unmanned vehicles, loitering munitions and cruise missiles may be used to destroy enemy air capability on the ground. Therefore, any fighter aircraft used in any sort of a serious conventional war must have the capability to operate from dispersed air fields, be it highways or dirt strips, and be easy to maintain. In short, fewer F-22s and F-35s, and more Gripens and MiG-21s.

And fighters have to be ready to react at moment’s notice, which again means that they have to be easy to maintain and easy to conceal. When not on standby for point or area defense, fighter jets are carrying out the combat air patrol. The pace of operations is grueling. Ukrainian MiG-29s sometimes fly two sorties per day, and usually one per day, and everything is done to get them into the air and into the fight as quickly as possible. Yet the fact that they are difficult to maintain rather limits MiG-29s capabilities in this area.

Greatest threat to Ukrainian aircraft are logistics. Their old Su-27s and MiG-29s require spare parts to fly. Surplus supplies provided by other Eastern European states are not unlimited, and once these dry up, Ukraine may not be able to keep its aircraft in the air. But if Ukraine is given the wrong gear, it may lose the aircraft anyway. Any aircraft incapable of operating from road bases may not be able to survive for long, as seen from the next section. And if Ukraine receives new Western aircraft, it may end up losing them all in a foolhardy attempt at establishing air superiority – something Russian Air Force had already failed to do. As already noted, Russian inability to decisively win the air war is not due to their own incompetence, but rather due to a fundamental shift from offense to defense – in some ways, modern warfare has more in common with the First World War than anything that came after it.

Ukrainian MiG-29

Overall, both Ukrainian and Russian air defences have worked precisely as advertised. Both sides ended up denying the other ability to effectively operate in air offensive operations. Ukrainian success in the air defense has forced the Russians to switch almost entirely to a strategic bombardment campaign aimed at destruction of Ukraine’s economy. Russian satellites are able to give them data for Ukrainian infrastructure – factories, grain silos, oil tanks – which can then be hit by air-deployed cruise missiles. This capability is something Ukraine has so far been unable to counter. How effective it will be is unclear. Strategic bombardment campaign has never won a war on its own. Wars have always been won on the ground – Japan may have capitulated after two atomic bombs, but fact often forgotten is that its navy has been completely obliterated by the US Navy, and the Red Army had eliminated Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea. German Blitz completely failed to bring United Kingdom to the negotiating table. And Allied strategic bombardment campaign served to make life of troops on the ground easier, but war was still won by ground offensive. In short, unless Russia can actually win the ground campaign, strategic bombardment campaign will not win the war for them.

Air denial was also a key to Ukrainian war effort. By denying Russia the air presence, Ukraine denied it the ability to ascertain Ukrainian troop dispositions as well as support its own troops during Ukrainian counteroffensives. Russian attempts to compensate for the lack of manned ISR presence by using satellites and drones were not effective. Russian satellites lack the resolution to detect groundside troop movements, while UAVs are highly vulnerable to air defenses. Air denial also forced Russian transport aircraft to take the longer route. Lastly, it has protected Ukrainian ground forces when transiting or maneuvering – which is precisely when they are the most vulnerable to air attack.

Strategic Lessons – Aircraft on the Ground

Looking at Wikipedia list of losses, I decided to count destroyed aircraft. Results are below.

Ukrainian (Wikipedia, 21.1.2023.):

AircraftLoss (combat)Loss (ground)Loss (other)

Russian (Wikipedia, 21.1.2023.):

AircraftLoss (combat)Loss (ground)Loss (other)

As it can be seen, ground attack missions are by far the most dangerous. Yet despite the Russian Air Force being on the offensive, its losses are much lower than Ukrainian losses – either in combat or on the ground.

It should also be kept in mind that Ukraine utilized road basing and dirt strips to preserve their aircraft while on the ground. Most groundside losses had in fact happened during opening days of the war before Ukrainians had had the time to disperse their aircraft to road bases and backup air fields – Ukraine had lost six of its 30 MiG-29s in a single attack, and almost no losses on the ground had happened after 27 February. It is entirely likely that Western air forces would have suffered far more extensive losses on the ground. In fact, Ukrainian usage of Russian aircraft was a major advantage precisely because of their ability to use rough fields and half-fallen-apart airstrips, and their STOL capability giving them ability to operate from highways as well.

Currently, Ukrainian aircraft and crews operate from ad-hoc secret bases established after the war has begun. These can be old dispersal air fields as well as aircraft shelters constructed near highways and other roads, with fighter jets taking off those same roads. This is the only way for them to survive the threat of Russian missile strikes that had been so devastating in the opening days of the war. And Ukraine was aware of this problem. Ukrainian Air Force had been training in operating from dispersed road bases since at least the 2014. Crimean War.

Ukrainian Su-27 that struck a road sign during road operations exercises

This dispersal training and ability has paid off. Despite pre-war predictions of swift Russian victory, Russians have failed to eliminate the Ukrainian Air Force and achieve air superiority over Ukraine. As already noted, it is not only ground-based air defenses that are keeping Ukraine in the air fight, but fighter aircraft as well. Ability to disperse their air power and operate fighter aircraft from basically anywhere has, more than anything else besides ground-based air defences, allowed the Ukrainian Air Force to stay in the fight and keep contesting control of the skies.

Had Ukrainian air force operated from fixed air bases like NATO tends to do, it would have quickly fallen victim to very effective cruise and ballistic missile strikes and rendered a non-factor in short order. This is something NATO countries have to consider in any potential confrontation with a major opponent – be it Russia, China or whoever. And road or dirt strip operations are far more complex question than just ability of aircraft to take off from a certain surface. It is a matter of doctrine, training, aircraft design and logistical footprint. While hardened aircraft shelters are another option, they lack the flexibility of road basing and may be targeted for destruction. A mix of both road basing and air base hardening is likely the best choice.

Strategic Lessons – Logistics

Russian pilots for comparison fly between 100 and 120 hours per year at best, and some estimates have it as low as 80 hours per year. This is important because 100 hours per year is minimum requirement for pilots to remain capable of flying aircraft in the first place, so few hours would not be sufficient to keep even pilots of single-role aircraft properly trained, let alone pilots that have to train for multiple different missions. If flight hours are reduced to below 100 hours per year, pilots cannot effectively perform complex interactions or work as a large unit. In order to maintain skills at high enough level, pilots – particularly those of multirole fighters – have to fly at least 360 hours per year, and preferably up to 540 hours per year. Western pilots are required to fly 180 to 240 flight hours per year, yet they consider it insufficient to maintain multirole combat readiness.

Even flight hours for bomber crews are considerably below the 150 hour minimum requirement. When the war began, Russians only had about a hundred combat-ready pilots, and even these were not up to Western standards – although one has to question how many Western pilots are up to Western standards. This may have been fixed if given time, but the Russian political leadership did not give its military enough time despite standoff with Ukraine having been ongoing since 2014.

Soviet aircraft in general also tend to be maintenance-heavy compared to Western designs. Further, Russian Air Force has had issues with lack of spares, avionics, weapons and sensor systems. At some points, it even had issues with delivering enough fuel for its own aircraft.

Yet while aircraft such as Rafale may be superior to their Russian counterparts, this means nothing if they cannot fly due to lack of maintenance, lack of spare parts, or if the coordination and cooperation is lacking. Even this is rarely achieved even by major Western powers. USAF pilots in 2020. flew some 130 hours on average, which fell to 120 hours in 2021. For fighter pilots specifically situation is even worse – they flew 104 hours in 2020. and 73 hours in 2021. In 2021., only 512 out of 875 pilots in German Luftwaffe were able to meet NATO minimum requirement of 180 hours per year. French Rafale pilots had an average of 162 hours flown in 2022., and this is expected to fall to 147 hours in 2023 due to delivery of Rafale jets to Croatia which are to begin in 2024 (why Croatia needs Rafales is a mystery). In Croatian Air Force, some pilots fly less than 30 hours per year. In short, many of the flaws that have hampered the Russian Air Force also exist in air forces of the NATO allies. Fact is also that with the exception of USAF, most and perhaps all NATO air forces are also too small to carry out their role. For comparison, Chinese pilots fly 150 hours per year.

Western air forces are also heavily reliant on precision munitions. Yet these can be expended quickly. Russia may be about to run out of precision munitions for its aircraft. Again, this is nothing unique to Russia – during its 2011. campaign in Libya, against an opponent far less difficult than Ukraine, NATO’s European members began to run low on some precision guided munitions very early into the campaign. It is thus clear that if one is expected to rely heavily on PGM employment, there is a need to build up extensive stocks of munitions during the peacetime, as wartime production simply may not meet the demand.

Limited supply of PGMs has exacerbated the already mentioned lack of training and lack of experience in using precision munitions. While Russia does have laser- and GLONASS- (GPS) -guided minitions, their use in Ukraine has been sporadic. Majority of weapons used by Russia were unguided weapons, such as “dumb” bombs. This has limited the effectiveness of Russian SEAD as air defense emplacements are difficult to hit with such unguided weapons, unless from extremely low altitude.

Necessity of Interservice Cooperation

Russian communication and interservice cooperation has been abysmal. Only the attached helicopter units have been able to successfully work with ground troops on a regular basis, and they too have many technical issues. This is actually a good argument for integrating air forces back into the armies.

Russia’s rather abysmal performance should be seen as a cautionary tale. This is especially true since NATO coutries have largely replaced artillery with air force and completely removed the territorial defense units, conscription and other means of providing for large wartime military. For the West, if one does not have an air force, he cannot have a joint force. This makes Western militaries as a whole, and air forces in particular, incapable of fighting a high-intensity attritional war that would be required against a modern opponent and which both Ukraine and Russia have been fighting since February. Western militaries, lacking in massed artillery, armor and mechanized infantry, depend on having air superiority. They are simply not able to fight properly in conditions where air superiority is negated, as seen currently for both sides in Ukraine.

Tactical Lessons – Ground Support

Above situation has had implications to ground support. Aircraft on both sides have employed one of two approaches: either operating at high altitudes, or flying extremely low. It is essentially a rule of hundreds: anything below 10 000 and above 100 feet is a kill zone. To provide close air support relatively safely, one needs to operate outside that band: that is, either above 10 000 or below 100 feet. Even up to 1 000 feet above the ground still provides a decent level of safety from radar-based surface-to-air missiles.

Aircraft flying low however are very vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery and MANPADS. Air defence troops can lay down ambushes utilizing their superior knowledge of the terrain. But because Russians are invading, they do not have that. As a result, Ukrainian aircraft have regularly flown fast and low on their missions. They did this without night vision or GPS, through terrain full of obstacles.

Despite the dangers, low-level operations have been frequent, and possibly even the norm for both sides. Even air combat frequently happened at low altitude, which may have helped to establish the legend of the “Ghost of Kyiv”. Interestingly however, the table seen previously may indicate that the small, cheap and simple L-39 is one of more survivable CAS platforms despite lacking basically all bells and whistles (such as guided munitions) of modern aircraft. It just comes in, drops some very dumb bombs on enemy heads, and leaves while providing firework of flares and chaff. Of course, without knowing number of sorties flown, this is just baseless speculation. According to Oryx however, Su-25 is the aircraft that had suffered the most casualties in the war.

Su-25 showing damage to an engine

Su-24 and Su-25 in general have suffered heavily, but helicopter casualties were far worse. This was to be expected, as everything from SAMs to small arms fire and harsh language is a threat to helicopters. Nevertheless, both ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters had proven successful at carrying out strike missions, with Ukrainian Mi-24 striking targets even inside Russia, such as fuel depots in the city of Belgorod. In order to maximize survivability, strike aircraft and attack helicopters adapted “pop-up” tactics, flying low on ingress before rapidly climbing to acquire the target and engage and then falling back to low altitude for egress. These tactics had placed premium on unguided munitions such as cannons and rockets, which can be rapidly fired off with no need for a guidance lock. Attacks are often done in a ballistic profile, which is to say, indirect fire. Aircraft or helicopter would point nose upwards before releasing rockets towards the target, followed by a rapid retreat to low altitude. But as the frontline has stabilized, offensive use of helicopters has grown much more rare, though it still happens. Now, helicopters are mostly used for rear-area transport and rapid redeployment.

When it comes to unmanned systems, they have proven highly effective during the first week, but Russians had adapted quickly – simply by allowing their air defense systems to catch up with the advance. On both sides, drones had proven of very limited use after the first week due to heavy jamming, at which Russians had proven particularly adept. Aside from jamming, UAVs have also proven highly vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft, with average life expectancy of an UAV being seven days. Large specialized UAVs are especially vulnerable to traditional air defenses.

Far more useful are cheap commercial “Amazon” drones. These lightweight, often handheld systems with high resolution cameras have proven incredibly useful as they allow real-time information about enemy tactical movements. They are cheap, yet their small size makes them far less vulnerable to radar SAMs and MANPADS than dedicated UCAVs are. A commercial drone dropping hand grenade is more useful than a military UCAV that had been transformed into a debris field. But their greatest impact was as a forward artillery control aircraft: in an environment where artillery rules the battlefield, information provided to artillery units can decide a battle. UAVs had been used to both spot the targets for artillery, and spot the enemy artillery for counterbattery fire. With UAV presence, artillery response time can be as low as three minutes. Still, they cannot replace traditional air power. Compared to manned aircraft, most UAVs being used in Ukraine are range- and payload- -limited, slow, and have limited endurance. As such, they are very limited in what they can do.

Ukrainian military forces Lieutenant Anton Galyashinskiy aka “Wider” holds a drone used for carrying explosives during a practice session on the outskirts of Kyiv, on July 14, 2022. (Ionut Iordachescu/AFP via Getty Images)

Unmanned vehicles are essentially either expendable missiles or missile baits, often being used to bait ground-based defences into turning on their radars and thus making them vulnerable to attacks by fighters carrying anti-radiation missiles. In other words, for drones to be useful, one needs to first establish air superiority. Even with airspace contested, attrition of drones has been so high that it has limited both their availability and their operational utility. Due to general issues with drone employment, and especially attrition due to combat losses, actual utility of all types of drones has been sharply limited. Traditional manned air power is thus absolutely crucial.

Russian Close Air Support had been deficient. Lack of real-time targeting information due to few or no forward air controllers embedded within the ground forces means that Russian aircraft are basically fighting blind. This problem is made even worse by the fact that Russian aircraft lack good targeting pods that could use FLIR to identify targets. Su-25 cannot mount pods at all, and while Su-24 and Su-30 can carry targeting pods, there are too few available. Only Su-34 is capable of doing this, but its inbuilt systems are lacking in performance and are compromised by humid weather and rain – which in Ukraine is frequent. Su-34 generally lacks an IR channel, making it incapable of providing air support in bad weather or during the night. In fact, most Russian ground attack planes never were intended to provide close air support capability, and instead were intended for use against fixed targets. They have little capability to search for mobile targets on the battlefield, and Russian response time is generally around a day. Instead, artillery is the support weapon of choice.

Russian Su-25 in low-level flight

Russian GPS equivalent (GLONASS) is not accurate enough to provide good targeting solutions. It has accuracy of three meters in peacetime (compared to 30 cm for GPS), and much lower when degraded by jamming. Russian missiles are also not very accurate, as only 40% of Russian missiles hit their targets, which has direct implications for SEAD. All of this forced Russian CAS aircraft to come in very low to identify and engage targets. While Ukrainians have done the same, they at least do have the option of engaging from further away – in certain conditions, at least. In fact, it seems that Russian aircraft are using commercial GPS for navigation instead of GLONASS.

Ukrainian air defenses – a combination of SAMs, MANPADS and AAA – did succeed in forcing Russian aircraft to higher altitudes. While Russians have continued to operate at low altitudes, this was limited to just a few crews trained in night flying. Daytime operations at low altitude are dangerous due to proliferation of MANPADS. Russians have thus largely lost the ability to mount penetrating sorties. That is to say, they have stopped flying sorties inside the Ukrainian territory and air defense network with the exception of low-altitude strikes against select targets. In those, the time aircraft can spend targeting is extremely limited, requiring snapshot attack before diving back into cover – which is a major problem as Ukrainian and Russian armies use basically same types of the equipment, and flying more than one pass is suicide. Russian aircraft also do not have the night low level attack training nor equipment required to carry it out, and in any case Ukrainian night vision equipment has limited the utility of such attacks. All of this has significantly limited the number of penetrating sorties that could be flown as well as Russian ability to hit targets smaller and more mobile than buildings. Bombardment has thus switched to attacks against cities, which are not very effective.

Shift to Donbass did allow them to start operating at higher altitudes. Russians generally do not cross over to Ukrainian side, but use ground attack aircraft, helicopters and standoff munitions to attack frontline targets from medium and low altitude.

Russian UAVs however had proved effective at SEAD and DEAD. They fly in groups of three. One will carry EW suite and fly above the range of MANPADS, above 5 000 to 6 000 meters, and bait the radar-based air defences to unmask themselves as they cannot know what payload it is carrying and if it is spotting for artillery. If the latter is true, then UAV has to be shot down. But when SAMs attempt to shoot it down, electronic warfare suite generally jams the missiles. At the same time the second UAV with ELINT payload starts geolocating the SAMs radar site. Once it does, the third UAV carrying optical payload will fix it and guide in either loitering munitions, artillery shells or guided missiles. All of this has successfully forced Ukrainian SAMs further back from the frontline, allowing Russian aircraft to move in closer. Many SAM systems had also been lost.

Tactical Lessons – Air Combat

Ukrainian air defenses have largely forced Russian fighter aircraft to operate in their own territory, where distance provides some protection from ground-to-air missile fire. Yet despite it, Russian fighters have remained effective thanks to the long range R-77 and R-37 missiles. These allowed them to engage in air combat while staying outside the range of Ukrainian air defenses. Against Ukrainian fighters, their main advantage in air combat is usage of fire-and-forget missiles. Ukrainian Su-27s and MiG-29s are old Soviet models which lack most of the capabilities of newer models or upgraded old aircraft. The main beyond-visual-range missile Ukrainian fighters use is semi-active radar targeting R-27ER, which requires the aircraft to keep the nose pointed at the enemy to keep him lit for the missile. This means they cannot turn away or turn off their radar unless they want to use infrared-seeker R-27ER which has half the range of its radar-based counterpart. As a result, BVR engagement requires them to fly straight into the enemy air-to-air missiles, as well as into the teeth of Russian ground-based air defences. By the time R-27ET has reached its target – hit or miss – the launching fighter will have closed from 60 miles to 45 miles, while flying straight and level the whole time. Active radar is equivalent to a flashlight in a dark room: you can see what you are illuminating, but everyone can see you. And since Ukrainian radar does not have track-while-scan capability, target receives clear warning of the radar lock. Combination of a semi-active radar guidance and lack of TWS means that Ukrainian fighter aircraft attacking a target is rendered essentially blind up until the missile has reached the target. Russian fighters have active, fire-and-forget missiles which allow them to turn off radar after launching the missile. Radars onboard Russian fighters have much greater range, and thus also ability to defeat noise jamming. Their TWS ability allows them to maneuver while keeping multiple enemies targeted and to launch radar-guided missiles without warning the target of the launch. Issue is so bad that many Ukrainian pilots are using R-27ER despite its much shorter range. The only downside to track-while-scan mode is that it relies on missile’s own radar for terminal guidance, and missile radar is much easier to jam.

R-27 missile

Usage of AWACS has also given the Russians a massive tactical advantage, as they know everything about Ukrainian fighters, and Ukrainian Air Force lacks missiles capable of shooting it down. All of this has forced the Ukrainians to fight defensively, under the cover of their own ground-based radars. But these have been utilized effectively – Ukraine has demonstrated how air denial can supplement air control. Air defences can act as a shelter for one’s own aircraft, as well as enabling defender to utilize aircraft only in “bursts” of action for key objectives. Another effect was that Ukrainian fighters had been forced to fly at very low altitudes. Ukrainian fighters often fly CAP (Combat Air Patrol) missions at altitudes of below 100 feet (30 meters). By doing this, they are able to both avoid Russian ground-based radars and also mask their presence from Russian airborne radar. All of this allowed the heavily outnumbered and comparatively outdated Ukrainian air force to hold its own until ground-based defences could be restored. But it also has its downsides.

Russians are using R-37M and R-37S missiles (from MiG-31 and Su-35) which have range of up to 400 kilometers against nonmaneuvering targets to engage Ukrainian aircraft from outside the effective SAM envelope. This is especially dangerous to low-flying Ukrainian aircraft – at least those times when Russians manage to target them – because of their very low energy level. Combination of low altitude and relatively low speed offers few options for evading a missile once it does gain a lock and also few options to retaliate. Missile fired from low range has to pass through much denser atmosphere and also to climb, which massively reduces range. But even if Ukrainian fighters chose to fight at an altitude, Russian Su-35s still have an energy advantage as they are able to fly higher and faster, and Russian radar is better which allows them to burn through all the interference more easily.

Effectiveness of missiles themselves is unknown. In one case of a BVR shootdown of an Ukrainian jet, two Ukrainian jets were engaging 12 Russian counterparts. Historically, beyond visual range combat has proven effective only in cases where one side had major numerical and technological advantage. Both of these factors are true here, which means that Ukraine has to rely on essentially guerilla tactics and electronic warfare. It is also unknown how many missiles it took to achieve a shootdown, but it should be noted that Ukrainians were pushing into the Russian jets, and description implies that multiple Russian jets took shots. This could mean anywhere between three (if only three Russian fighters launched a single missile each) and 96 (if Russian fighters expended their entire load) missiles launched (note that RVV-AE will have allowed Russians to carry up to 12 missiles per fighter or 144 missiles in total).

Major flaw of the Ukrainian old Su-27s and other old Soviet aircraft is that they were designed to receive information from the ground. Even with the radar turned on, the information available is limited – which is far different from Western fighters such as F-16. On the flip side, Su-27 can be in the air in five minutes – preflight checks on the F-15 take 20 minutes on their own. But Russian fighters have those same advantages while also having largely resolved old Soviet situational awareness issues. They also fly with wingtip pods which allow them to jam Ukrainian inter-fighter communications, thus reducing Ukrainian ability to coordinate, as well as Ukrainian radars.

Strategic Lessons – Causes of Losses


note: data from 21.1.2023.

Air Base Bombarded202
Shot Down by Air Defense1617
Lost in Combat295
Shot Down by Aircraft50
Other loss in Air Base48


  • On the first day of the attack – 24 February – Ukraine had lost 11 aircraft on the ground and 8 in combat
  • By 27 Feburary, Ukraine had lost 17 aircraft on the ground and 12 in combat.
  • Most of the aircraft noted as “lost in combat” were likely shot down by air defense.


Overall, the air war in Ukraine seems to point to future air war being a mixture of First and Second World War experience. Heavy SAM presence has largely restricted air activity to the frontline, which itself is largely static thanks to preponderance of guided munitions and other threats making large-scale maneuvers on the open extremely risky.


AAA – anti-aircraft artillery

AdlA – Armee de l’Air (Army of the Air, name of the French Air Force)

APU – auxilliary power unit

AWACS – airborne warning and control system

BVR – beyond visual range

C2 – command and control

C4ISR – command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance

CAP – combat air patrol

CAS – close air support

DEAD – destruction of enemy air defenses

ELINT – electronic intelligence

EW – electronic warfare

FLIR – forward looking infrared

HARM – high speed anti radiation missile

IADS – intergated air defense system

ISR – intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance

MANPADS – man-portable air defense system

NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organization

PGM – precision guided munition(s)

SAM – surface-to-air missile

SEAD – supression of enemy air defenses

STOL – short takeoff and landing

STOVL – short takeoff and vertical landing

TWS – track while scan, a radar mode which allows radar to provide missile guidance information while still scanning the aerospace for new targets

UAF – Ukrainian Air Force

UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

UCAV – Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle

YGBSM – You Gotta Be Shitting Me, unofficial motto of the “Wild Weasel” squadrons when told of their new mission as SAM baits

5 thoughts on “Lessons of Air War in Ukraine

    1. I’m not sure. Generally, for CAS to be effective, you need to force the enemy to move – and war in Ukraine appears to be fairly static, more akin to World War I than to anything else. In such conditions, literally anything is effective for ground support – F-16, B-52, C-130, hot air baloons (assuming they can survive…).


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