Amateur Hour Part II: Failing the Air Campaign
An air campaign is the controlled conduct of a series of interrelated air operations to achieve specified objectives. The conduct of effective air campaigns is the hallmark of all successful air forces. Effective air campaign planning is founded upon the professional mastery of air force personnel which includes an understanding of the interface between military and other national security operations.
– The Air Campaign: The Application of Air Power, Sanu Kainikara and Bob Richardson, Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Development Centre
The ongoing war with Ukraine continues to cause some head scratching among Western observers with respect to the Russian use of airpower. From the beginning of the invasion, the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-kosmicheskiye sily or VKS) have astounded airpower advocates by their manifest failures, including an inability to gain air superiority, limited use of precision weapons, and poor targeting selection. Blinded by the technological potential of Russia’s newest combat aircraft, Western military analysts fell deeply into the “capabilities-based analysis” trap, deceived by the ease of comparing equipment, divorced from cultural preferences, training, and the human element. In reality, however, what we’re seeing is exactly what we should have expected from the Russian air force. The Russian military does not use airpower the way the United States and NATO do because they’ve never had to, and they’ve never suffered from an adversary who did. Russia cannot plan an air campaign because it has never seen one from either side — offensive or defensive — and Russian airpower has always been used for flying artillery and not as a strategic tool. What we are seeing from Russian airpower in Ukraine is the logical outcome of the way the Russian military fights, not a failed mirror-image of the way the United States and its allies employ airpower.
World War II and Beyond
It isn’t that the Russian military doesn’t use airpower: It’s simply that they have never conducted a campaign with airpower used as a strategic tool. Instead, they support a ground campaign with airpower employed tactically in support of ground forces.
In 1937, Russia had the largest air force in the world, but it was one without a coherent doctrine that was further crippled by Stalinist purges. The Soviet Air Force (Voenno-Vozdushniye Sily or VVS) was of little interest to Stalin in the run-up to World War II, as he did not foresee Hitler’s intentions towards the Soviet Union and anticipated little need for strategic airpower. By 1939, Russian airpower capabilities were declining, not advancing, and by 1940, many of Russia’s prewar airpower advocates were dead or in jail, caught up in purges that eliminated 75 percent of the Soviet Air Force leadership, including most of the aviators who had participated in the Spanish Civil War. Russian airpower in the Winter War in 1939 was ineffective against an air force that was well trained, if not superbly equipped, with only two squadrons of the obsolescent Dutch Fokker D.XXI. In three-and-a-half months, the Finnish aviators downed 300 aircraft and racked up a five-to-one kill ratio, with 10 aviators making ace. (When I was on a military exchange with the 21st Fighter Squadron in Tampere, Finland, I was reminded that Finland has the highest per-capita collection of fighter aces in the world). Finnish gunners did as well, downing another 300 Soviet aircraft.
Figure 1: A rare color photo of a Finnish Fokker D.XXI at Nurmoila airfield in 1943. The Finnish swastika predates the Nazi use of the symbol and is unrelated to Nazi Germany.
Source: Niilo Helander, Finnish Armed Forces photograph, Wartime Photograph Archive, Juhani Sipilä Collection.
The Soviet planners took little notice of their experience, and in 1941, Germany attacked an unready and incompetent Russian air arm, downing over 200 aircraft in aerial combat and destroying almost 900 on the ground on the first day. Within a week, the Russian air force was combat-ineffective. This was completely in line with the prevailing German airpower philosophy, which had gaining air superiority as its first task. Still, the German military themselves were not executing an air campaign. The Luftwaffe’s twin-engine bombers could not reach Russia’s industries east of Moscow, and the few four-engine bombers were too little to have an effect, particularly without escort. Then, air superiority was not an opening move to an air campaign by the Luftwaffe, but it instead allowed the Luftwaffe to be entirely focused on the tactical fight, expecting a short war of ten weeks where strategic attacks that destroyed infrastructure were counterproductive to Nazi war goals.
While it’s true that the Luftwaffe provided support for the rapidly moving advance, it was German ground mobility that shattered the Red Army, not the Luftwaffe. It’s not clear that the Russian military suffered strategically from the loss of its limited airpower. Yes, the massive loss ratio at the onset of the operation shattered the Russian air force, but it’s not likely that it had the equipment, trained personnel, or doctrine to be more than an annoyance to the Wehrmacht divisions raging across eastern Europe, even were it functional.
Lucky for Germany. According to the U.S. Air Force’s Historical Studies No. 153, “[i]t was impossible for the Luftwaffe to perform simultaneously its two assigned missions, the achievement of air superiority and support of the ground forces,” and the main effort switched to the latter mission three days into the war.
The German forces would lose air superiority after the Battle of Kursk, not because the Russian side gained it through force of arms, but because the German military was by then on a losing battle of attrition and could not keep up with the Allied powers in terms of training or aircraft production. But if the Russia was no longer bedeviled by German control of the air, it did not conduct a strategic air campaign against Germany but instead did the exact same thing the the German military had done — used aircraft as flying artillery to support ground forces. It’s no surprise really, as Russia intentionally mirror-imaged its German opponents.
Airpower was simply not independently decisive on the eastern front, although it was an effective supporting arm for whichever side could put it into play. As imperfect as the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces were in designing air campaigns of their own, there simply was no German or Russian equivalent. German air superiority, which was not an end in itself, did not prevent Russia from turning back the German advance into Russia. And when the Russian forces gained air superiority, they did not conduct an air campaign against Germany but instead returned to their preferred application of airpower as flying artillery. The chief benefit of air superiority for Russia was to reduce its losses of airmen, who had been treated as expendable assets exactly like their Red Army brethren.
Figure 2: A crewman prepares to hand-crank the starter of Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s Junkers Ju 87 G1 Stuka dive bomber with 37mm anti-tank guns under the wings.
Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv.
More recently, air superiority was not an issue in Afghanistan, and it was irrelevant in Chechnya (1994 and 1999), Georgia (2008), and Ukraine (2014-2015). In Syria (2015- ), Russia had it and used it, but airpower still played a supporting role to ground forces — and mostly Syrian and not Russian ground forces at that. There was no Russian air campaign against the Islamic State designed to dismantle the Islamic State as a system, unlike the American effort alongside. Instead, Russia used Syria as a testing ground, delivering aerial artillery at the behest of their in-country command elements. This was completely in line with the Russian preference for delivering fires via massed artillery, and this preference extends into the aerospace forces, where tactical aircraft are often employed as “flying artillery.” Precision-enabled close air support, as practiced by the United States, NATO, and Australia, is simply not an element of the Russian combat paradigm either.
In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that the Russian forces did not plan an air campaign, instead falling into the same “short war” mentality that bedeviled the German military leaders in 1941 and NATO force planners in 1999 prior to Operation Allied Force during the Kosovo War. If a major power with an airpower tradition like the United States can fall prey to “short war syndrome,” then it should come as no surprise if the Russian military felt that an air campaign was unnecessary. There does not appear to be a Russian equivalent to Col. Warden’s The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat, which has served as the foundational document for modern air campaign planning for the United States since Operation Desert Storm. Similarly, they have not developed the follow-on tools, processes, or techniques which are routinely used by the United States and NATO for air campaign planning. In short, the Russian military may have passed over an air campaign plan because it had no air campaign planners — or if it did, then those individuals don’t appear to have been involved in the preparation of the war plan for Ukraine.
The initial strikes against Ukraine on Feb. 24 looked like textbook counter-air operations: target fixed radars, impede command and control, and suppress airfields. Fixed radars were definitely caught, as were S-300P (SA-10A) elements that had long since lost their mobility due to a lack of spares. There is no question that Ukraine lost comprehensive low-altitude coverage of its airspace, and S-300s from Belarus successfully engaged at least one Ukrainian fighter over Kyiv, demonstrating a Russian ability to contest airspace control at higher altitudes from outside Ukraine.
Russian tactical aviation entered play with sunrise: The Ukrainian military claimed to have downed seven Russian aircraft before nightfall on that first day. The Ukrainian forces were not without aircraft losses themselves, losing aircraft to both surface and air threats. Ukrainian airmen adapted very early to the use of low altitude, where simple earth curvature provided sanctuary from long-range missiles in Belarus and Russia. Interviews with Ukrainian aviators revealed that the MiG-29 pilots tend to fly fast and low, taking advantage of the low-altitude regime to enable look-up shots while capitalizing on the inherent difficulty of engaging a fast-moving aircraft in a high clutter (radar and infrared) environment. This was not a sudden adaptation of necessary tactics. The Ukrainian pilots trained for low-altitude operations where the Russian pilots did not.
Absent a campaign plan, however, the Russian forces still made basic mistakes. While the initial Russian plans might have been superficially correct, they failed to follow through. Airfields are notoriously difficult to suppress, and the Russian military did not commit the weight of metal necessary to do so. Cratering runways must be comprehensive and precise: Runways are easy to repair and the least vulnerable to damage of all airfield components, while the Soviet-era MiG-29 Fulcrum in Ukrainian service was designed to operate from damaged, gravel-strewn airfields. The loss of fixed-site radars is expected by professional air defense forces, which always have some plan for remaining in the fight. Most critically, Russian forces did not follow up with an effort intended to use the confusion in the opening round of a fight to make sure that any air defense that had been put down stayed down — they appear to simply have discounted the possibility of Ukrainian resilience. They did not put a major weight of effort into counter-air sweeps with fixed-wing aircraft to clear the skies of Ukrainian fighters. Another critical failure was the missed opportunity to bag the TB-2 drone control stations while they were in garrison. Those systems scattered after the opening round and are unlikely to be vulnerable again.
Also noteworthy was the assumption that an air assault could be carried through without air supremacy. How the Russian military leadership expected to reinforce the air assault on Hostomel airfield is open to question and may have rested on the expectation that Ukraine would fold early. In any event, at least Russia realized that committing the airborne corps to an airdrop without air superiority was suicidal, although this realization came too late for the desant in the air assault.
Beneath the Surface
The flaws in the Russian tactical airpower enterprise are not limited to doctrine or planning limits. Russia also lacks depth in its fighter force. Though it has advanced aircraft, the Russian air force might well have been designed as a living advertisement for export sales rather than as a credible air arm. True, Russia does possess a world-class mix of strategic bombers and cruise missiles, but its tactical aviation fleet lacks the realistic training and precision capabilities of its NATO opponents. It may also lack staying power: Total sortie counts with some 300 tactical aircraft appear to have run from 200 to 300 sorties per day in theater, far less than comparable with U.S. or NATO air operations. Five days into the invasion, Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute wrote on the surprising inability of the Russian forces to gain air superiority, citing a number of possibilities, including low aircrew experience, a lack of precision munitions and targeting sensors, risk aversion, and lack of confidence in their ability to manage a joint engagement zone as possible inhibitors. Each of those factors is credible and well-documented: Russian aviators receive a fraction of the flying hours of most of their NATO counterparts, some 100-120 hours per year according to Russian public figures. Running a joint engagement zone is so difficult that neither the United States or NATO attempt it, instead relying on procedural and geographic deconfliction measures to separate a missile engagement zone from a fighter engagement zone. Even transiting a missile engagement zone with friendly aircraft can be chancy: The Patriot missile system has never downed a hostile air-breathing target, only friendly ones. And while Russia has invested in precision munitions, they have largely been concentrated in cruise and ballistic missiles rather than air-delivered precision munitions: Russian fixed-wing aircraft can deliver precision weapons, but not all of them are so equipped, and unguided ordnance remains the weapon of choice to Russian tactical aviation. It is also possible that risk aversion plays a role, as the number of advanced fighter-bombers in Russian service remains relatively low.
Another explanation offers itself — unrealistically high expectations by analysts who focus entirely too much on equipment and not enough on the human element, combined with a tendency to mirror-image. Mere possession of airborne sensors and GPS-aided weapons does not a precision capability grant: Precision targeting of aerial munitions requires an entire enterprise to back it up, from the mind-numbing work of collecting and cataloging a target library to the actual expertise needed to task the correct aircraft with appropriate munitions and then giving the aircrew sufficient data to detect, identify, and engage the target. But really those are tactical considerations. Also missing is the obvious link between a campaign plan and what the United States calls the master air attack plan. Wasting precision munitions hitting civilian targets like hospitals, shopping malls, and theaters is merely precision munitions being used in an old-fashioned, Douhet-style terror bombing campaign — a style of aerial warfare that has never worked.
At this writing, neither side has air superiority, but Russian fixed-wing aviation has learned to avoid Ukrainian-defended airspace at any altitude. At low altitude, shoulder-launched missiles remain a lethal threat, which is playing out mostly against helicopters and the Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft, on both sides. At higher altitudes, radar surface to air missile systems still prove effective. The Kh-31 Krypton anti-radiation missile — similar to the American AGM-78 Standard used in Vietnam — is simply too slow and is typically launched from too far away to interrupt an engagement sequence, which is characterized by tight emissions control. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian forces have suffered some radar attrition that they attribute to this missile and are thus limiting the amount of time that their radars remain on air. Ukrainian radar batteries are also successfully defending against cruise missiles, with Ukrainian claims for successful engagements exceeding 50 percent. While unverifiable, the fact that numerous videos show cruise missiles being employed singly instead of in dense salvos make the claim credible. The Soviet-era S-300s in Ukrainian service were designed to perform this mission, even against low altitude targets.
It’s likely that the Russian forces have made incremental improvements in their air defense posture, and the likelihood of TB2 drones catching powerless air defense systems on the ground is gone with the cold weather, although winter is coming again. But the opportunities for airpower employment normally accruing on the side with the initiative have been squandered, and Russia will not get them back. Russian airpower has largely returned to the three areas where the Russian military is most comfortable: flying artillery support, artillery spotting, and the haphazard employment of long-range weapons against civilian targets against a population that is long since past terror.
Russia failed by Western standards of airpower employment, but it’s not at all clear that Western standards apply. The Russian use of airpower is not an aberration by Russian standards, and it’s not entirely clear that what Western analysts regard as an abject failure is viewed that same way inside Russia, at least among all of the other, more compelling failures highlighted by the invasion of Ukraine. It is not reasonable to judge Russian air activities as a failure by Western standards because Russia is not using Western metrics to judge success (a cautionary note also for China). Russian forces have never exhibited the same view of airpower as the other Allied powers in World War II, and thus their use of airpower is largely what we should have expected — if we were looking at Russia and not in a mirror.
Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha retired from the Air Force as a colonel. He was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, he has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Image: Ukraine Weapons Tracker