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Why is Russian air force missing in action?

By Group Captain MURLI MENON (retd)
March 12, 2022 11:28 IST
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Only 75 aircraft were deployed to support the invasion, observes Group Captain Murli Menon (retd).

IMAGE: A Ka-52 reconnaissance and attack helicopter seen during flight testing conducted by the Russian air force in the southern military district in Russia's Rostov region. Photograph: Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

The ongoing, albeit perplexing, military campaign by Russia into Ukraine, has been marked by an apparent risk-averse behaviour by Vladimir Putin's air arm.

Before the invasion materialised on February 24, US intelligence had predicted a 'shock and awe' air assault a la Gulf War I.

Russia was expected to mobilise its vast air power assets quickly to achieve air dominance over Ukraine in a short time frame.

But what is evident so far in the David versus Goliath exchange shows the Russians coming up far short in the air, allowing the Ukrainians to have the ability to undertake defensive counter air and ground attack missions.

A conventional air campaign, especially in an unmatched one as we see here between the adversaries, starts with extensive aerial bombardment and attacks of enemy air defences to neutralise them completely.

Only then can the superior element achieve complete air superiority so as to facilitate the ensuing ground offensive without worry of enemy air threat.

What is being seen so far, as per media reports, is quite a different story.

Air dominance platforms such as AWACS and electronic combat assets have not been reportedly seen in action in any dramatic fashion.

Of course, we cannot assume totally that the Russians have failed all together in the air, what with information warfare ruling the roost, especially in favour of the Ukrainians.

The social media story about the 'Ghost of Kyiv', a heroic Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot, notching up as many as six aerial kills in the opening rounds of the war and another renowned display Ukrainian pilot Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko (moniker Grey Wolf) falling prey to a Russian S-300 missile, have romanticised the Ukraine saga.

The complete picture, as in any such war, will only emerge much after the last round is fired.

Regardless, the first week has indeed confounded the cognoscenti of aerial warfare.

Moscow appears to be far more delicate in its air power orchestration, giving the impression that the Russians are hesitant to expose their aircraft and pilots.

Ukraine's air force appears to have its air defences still functional and some aircraft still flying.

Vastly outnumbered by the Russians, a cake walk was expected by analysts, making a case for 'Russia's missing air force'! Russia is clearly still operating in contested air space.

Ukrainian shoulder fired missiles carried by its troops are able to threaten Russian pilots attempting to carry out ground support missions.

Opening rounds of a war normally show enormous air activity for reasons explained earlier, because with each passing day the cost of war shoots up and so do the operational risks.

As of now, the USA has turned down the Ukrainian request for a No Fly Zone over Ukraine, for fear of having to directly enter into conflict with the Russians. So too, other NATO nations like the UK, Germany and Canada.

Some experts believe that there is a lack of ground troop coordination, with some troops overstretching their own air defence cover.

That makes them vulnerable to attacks from Ukrainian forces and newly acquired Turkish drones such as the Bayraktar TB 2 and British Javelin anti-tank missiles.

All the more intriguing that the Russians did not strive to achieve air dominance at the start of military operations.

The Russians are clearly discovering that coordinating multi-domain air operations is easier said than done and they are not as good as they thought they were.

And this after the battle experience gained against adversaries in Syria where they fought on behalf of Bashar al Assad, demonstrating some ability to synchronise ground manoeuvres with air and drone attacks.

Thus, whilst the Russians have been underperforming, the Ukrainians have been well above par so far.

This lack of airspace dominance by Russia provides a window of opportunity for the US to undertake covert CIA hard kill drone operations to relieve the pressure on Ukraine.

All in all, the Ukrainians are mythologising their fighting prowess. Smart psy-ops on their part included using the video game Digital Combat Simulator to show graphically the shooting down of a Russian plane by a Ukrainian one.

Ahead of the Russian invasion, it was estimated by all and sundry that Russia would have prepared hundreds out of the thousands of air assets it possesses.

But it appears as though only 75 aircraft were deployed by Russia to support the invasion.

Both sides have taken losses. The air space over Kyiv is contested every day. There are also reports that availability of key assets such as AWACS leaves a lot to be desired.

Meanwhile, there are indications that the 70 fighter aircraft of Russian origin promised by the European Union to Ukraine may not materialise as the countries involved such as Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia are known to be playing truant, possibly under pressure from Vladimir Putin.

Russian S-400 missiles being activated corroborates continuing Ukrainian air activity.

Any modern nation needs a credible military to back its global aspirations, more especially a country like India that seeks to sit at the high table of international game play.

For eons now, the strategic community has sought to have a defence budget of at least 3% of the nation's GDP rather than 2.6% as we have now, lest our aspirations ring hollow overall.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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Group Captain MURLI MENON (retd)