Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
- The Russian air force’s lackluster performance in Ukraine has been scrutinized throughout the war.
- Despite its failings over Ukraine, Russia’s air force still has advanced jets and missiles.
- Russian pilots have modified their operations in order to make the most of those advantages.
The Russian air force’s lack of success over Ukraine — and the surprising resilience of Ukrainian airpower — has often obscured a grim fact: Ukraine’s air force faces a foe with superior aircraft and missiles.
Given Russia’s advantages in numbers and hardware, Ukraine could still lose the air war without Western help, no matter how successful Ukrainian pilots have been, according to a Royal United Services Institute report on the first five months of the war.
While the Russian air force has limited its operations over Ukrainian-controlled territory, in part because of its losses, some Russian fighters can destroy Ukrainian planes with long-range air-to-air missiles while remaining out of range of Ukrainian aircraft.
“Ukrainian pilots confirm that Russia’s Su-30SM and Su-35S completely outclass Ukrainian Air Force fighter aircraft on a technical level,” the report said, noting that the long-range “look-down, shoot-down” capabilities of their N011M Bars and N035 Irbis-E radars enable them to detect low-flying Ukrainian aircraft despite ground clutter.
Ukrainian warplanes over Donetsk Oblast in July.
Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Under the right circumstances, a Russian fighter flying fast and as high as 40,000 feet could pick off a Ukrainian fighter going low to avoid detection.
In addition, Russian fighters are armed with R-77-1 air-to-air missiles — “fire and forget” weapons that can home in on targets independently thanks to their active radar seekers. Ukrainian fighters must make do with R-27 missiles with semi-active radars that require the launch aircraft to illuminate the target continuously so the missile can detect it.
Because the R-27’s target has to be illuminated for the missile to home in on it, radar warning detectors on Russian aircraft can tell they’ve been lit up, enabling Russian pilots to activate their jammers and decoys or take evasive action. The radar on Russia’s R-77-1 missiles doesn’t go active until a few seconds before it hits, reducing Ukrainian pilots’ response time.
“Throughout the war, Russian fighters have frequently been able to achieve a radar lock and launch R-77-1 missiles at Ukrainian fighters” more than 62 miles away, the RUSI report says. “Even though such shots have a low probability of kill, they force Ukrainian pilots to go defensive or risk being hit while still far outside their own effective range, and a few such long-range shots have found their mark.”
Flying low to avoid detecting adds to the risks Ukrainian pilots face, as it increases their vulnerability to ground fire or to crashing into the ground.
A Russian weapons crew with an R-27 missile during training in June 2018.
Yevgeny Polovodov/Russian Ministry of Defense/Mil.ru
Despite cultivating a pre-war image of an innovative, high-tech force, Russian airpower has proven remarkably ineffective for a variety of reasons, including a lack of precision-guided weapons, organizational problems, and insufficient pilot training. But that doesn’t mean that the Russian air force is stupid.
For example, Russia has mounted standing patrols of high-altitude fighters. “These patrols have proven highly effective against Ukrainian attack aircraft and fighters, with the Mig-31BM and R-37M long-range air-to-air missile being especially problematic,” the RUSI said.
High-altitude combat air patrols “with Su-35S and more recently with Mig-31BM interceptors are continuing to shoot down significant numbers of Ukrainian ground attack aircraft near the frontlines from distances that render them all but immune to return fire,” the report said.
The R-37 has a range of up to 200 miles, and Russia’s air force, known as the VKS, was firing “up to six R-37Ms per day during October,” the report said. “The extremely high speed of the weapon, coupled with very long effective range and a seeker designed for engaging low-altitude targets, makes it particularly difficult to evade.”
Fortunately for Ukraine, Russia lacks sufficient aerial tankers to maintain frequent patrols. But if Ukrainian warplanes can’t fly for fear of being picked off, this puts the burden on Ukrainian air defenses, including long- and short-range anti-aircraft missiles and anti-aircraft guns.
An airman places an R-73 air-to-air missile on a MiG-31BM before a training flight in October 2018.
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images
Despite initial fears that they would be smashed by Russian missiles and jets, Ukrainian air defenses have had a major impact. Since April, Russian pilots “have been extremely reluctant to aggressively fight their way into Ukrainian airspace due to the losses taken during early attempts,” the report said.
The threat posed by Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles and man-portable air-defense weapons, such as Stinger missiles, “has shaped the behavior and constrained the effectiveness of Russian pilots significantly,” according to the report.
RUSI recommends that Ukraine get Western fighters, singling out the Swedish-built Gripen as the best candidate, based on its rugged, easy-to-maintain design and its ability to operate from impromptu airstrips. It also urges the West to send air-defense weapons.
Above all, the report says, no one should overestimate Ukraine’s success against Russia’s air force: “There is a real danger that this success leads to Western complacency about the threat that the VKS can still pose to Ukrainian forces, infrastructure and cities if given an opening.”
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.