The Somme in the Sky: Lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian Air War

RAF Over the Western Front

The skies over Ukraine resemble an aerial version of the World War I Battle of the Somme. In contrast to the first frenzied days over Kyiv, neither side is attempting to penetrate deep into the other’s airspace. Much like the machine guns in the French and German trenches, an array of surface-to-air missiles and defensive fighters would make such an attempt suicidal. This has resulted in an aerial no-man’s-land. Both sides trade stand-off strikes using expendable platforms and munitions, and both sides take pot-shots at each other along the front lines from extremely low altitudes, but neither side can marshal decisive combat power in the air. 

Yet, this doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. The stalemate in the air is maintained by continued aggressive action from both Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainian forces continue to push for Western airpower, and the Russia has fielded new fleets of Iranian drones. Air defense systems feature prominently in recent aid packages to Kyiv, while Russia leans on their deep stockpiles of long-range weapons. In short, the relative lack of motion demonstrates the importance placed on the air fight by both parties, as each new effort is quickly countered by the other.  

Imagine the consequences of either side achieving a breakthrough in the air. Critical Western aid to Kyiv is arriving via road and rail from Eastern Europe. If Russian aviation could interdict these convoys, the Ukrainian ground forces would be hard pressed to hold their lines, much less conduct offensives. And if Russia had air superiority, it could use its near-infinite supply of unguided weapons to ravage Ukrainian cities as Russian bombers did in Aleppo. Conversely, if Ukrainian attack aircraft could turn Russian supply lines into highways of death, Russian artillery and armored forces would collapse without fuel or ammunition. Because of these high stakes, the Ukrainian Air Force’s air and ground interceptors face fearful odds on a daily basis, despite being outnumbered ten-to-one and technologically outclassed. Neither side can win the air fight, but neither side can afford to lose it either. 



It is unwise to make categorical assertions about technologies or tactics based on incomplete information in an unfinished conflict, but one year of fighting suggests several key principles that might inform future Western concepts and investments. First, a stalemate is not an indicator of irrelevance but rather of great importance. Supporting Ukraine in the air remains a prerequisite for success on the ground. Second, the air campaign is not limited to the air domain — it should involve all domains. In order to win the next fight, U.S. and allied forces should not only invest in cross-domain datalinks and interoperability, but also in joint training to build habitual relationships across domain boundaries. Finally, offense is not necessarily the essence of airpower — the dynamics of defense can be crucial too. A strategy of air denial may be all that is needed, and inexpensive shorter-range platforms fielded en masse are a good means to that end.

A Stalemate Is an Indicator of Strategic Importance, Not Irrelevance

From the very outset, Ukraine aggressively pursued a wide range of means to deny Russia the use of their airspace. Reducing the offensive potential of Russian airpower was a necessary condition for the initial reversals around Kyiv, holding the line in the East, the Kharkiv breakthrough, and the Kherson offensive. Sustaining that stalemate is a costly endeavor that requires a great deal of bravery and sacrifice from the Ukrainian forces, and a great deal of effort and resources from the partners of the Ukrainian people. 

To return to the Battle of the Somme, no serious analysis of the World War I would conflate the static trench-lines with a lack of strategic importance. The difficulty in breaking through networks of defenses was perhaps the central feature of that war. The stalemate led to a tremendous amount of battlefield innovation, with the French and British producing tanks and the Germans developing Stormtrooper tactics, both of which figured prominently in World War II. Similarly, Ukraine has developed remarkably clever tactics and worked with international partners to field novel combinations of capabilities such as the High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile-shooting MiG-29. Russia reciprocated by digging deeper into their national stockpile of exquisite weapons and repurposing legacy inventory.


Part of the art of operational design is knowing where you must win, and where you must simply prevent your enemy from winning. In an era of aerial stalemate, the United States and its allies cannot assume the same extraordinary overmatch they enjoyed in recent wars. Therefore, the United States should learn to play Corbett’s hand as well as Mahan’s. This means learning to deny the use of the air when they cannot control it, while finding ways to take control for decisive windows. In future conflicts, allied air forces do not necessarily need to hold the air, they just need to ensure superiority at the right time and place to enable decisive action by the joint force.

The Air Campaign Is Not Just the Air Domain 

In the wake of their victory at Pearl Harbor, Japanese strategists found their force afflicted with a “victory disease.” Success in the early phases of the fight led to overconfidence, which in turn led to strategists fighting how they wanted to fight rather than how they needed to fight. Similarly, after decades of unquestioned allied air dominance, it is easy to take the air domain for granted. Indeed, in the U.S. military’s institutional memory, its power in the air domain was sufficient to unilaterally prevail in the air campaign and then quickly transition to advance other joint campaigns. But these are dangerous assumptions when dealing with an adversary’s air force that enjoys at least parity, if not overmatch. Allied air forces should double down on the air domain — as our respective joint forces are built upon the assumption of our success — but they should also weave other domains into the joint air campaign. 

The essence of a successful air campaign is its ability to transcend the limitations of the surface fight and strike deep into the heart of an adversary’s war-making power. However, doing so comes at a cost, and airmen must be frugal in their application of effects. Therefore, airmen envision the adversary as a system, identify key nodes, and apply effects against those nodes to incapacitate that system — whether fuel depots in World War II, bridges in Vietnam, or improvised explosive device networks in more recent conflicts. These effects can, and should, come from multiple domains. The Israeli Air Force offers an excellent example of this, launching anti-radar missiles from trucks based on targeting data from uncrewed aerial vehicles and battlefield airmen. 

Ukrainian forces are conducting a masterful air campaign by combining domains in these ways. They are identifying key adversary nodes such as supply depots and surface-to-air missile sites using air, space, and cyber means, and then using a mix of air and ground fires to neutralize these nodes. Without a systems-centric targeting strategy, the sheer volume of Russian artillery would have greatly worsened the odds for Ukrainian land forces. Similarly, a blend of aircraft and surface-to-air fires comprises the Ukrainian air campaign’s essential defensive counter-air mission. Even the maritime domain has played a role, as the volume of cruise missile fires would be much greater if Russia retained the ability to sortie their fleet off the Ukrainian coast. By taking an all-domain approach to the air campaign, Ukraine has offset its disadvantages in the air domain and achieved air denial — a major feat. 



The joint all-domain approach to airpower has strong historical precedents. During World War II’s North African campaign, the Royal Air Force was in a tough position against the technological and numerical strength of the Luftwaffe. In order to offset the enemy’s strength in the air, the progenitors of the Special Air Services conducted clandestine raids on enemy air bases around the Mediterranean. Whether an aircraft is destroyed in a dogfight or in a fire on the ground is of little importance, the fact remains that it is no longer a factor in the fight. When German ground radars were inflicting grievous losses on the Allied bomber force, a British commando raid seized and exfiltrated a Freya radar in the daring 1941 Bruneval Raid. Their success ultimately led to the creation of effective countermeasures in the form of chaff (or “window”), saving untold bomber crews’ lives. The same principles were at work six decades later when coalition Special Operations Forces provided targeting data to B-52 crews during the initial campaign against the Taliban.

The key lesson for U.S. and allied planners is to aggressively pursue interoperability, both on the technical front with Joint All-Domain Command and Control technologies, and on the tactical front through exercises. As U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Brown has said, U.S. forces must be “integrated by design” across both domains and alliances. Moreover, allied services should reinforce their strength in the air domain to prevail in the air campaign, thereby helping land and sea forces prevent the enemy from marshalling deep combat power.

Offense is Not Necessarily the Essence of Airpower

For most of American history, airpower was an away game, which helps explain Gen. “Hap” Arnold’s iconic quote that “offense is the essence of airpower.” However, America’s allies and partners cannot always make the same assumption, and as a result the United States is ill-served if its air services cannot effectively conduct defensive air campaigns as well. Ukraine has taken a largely defensive approach to their air campaign out of necessity. Had they tried to conduct mass strikes on airfields and central air defense network nodes, they would have sustained unacceptable losses. Instead, they used a “strategy of corrosion,” inducing friction and drag on any Russian attempt to command the air. By doing so, they prevented Russia from employing their brutal yet tragically effective Syrian strategy of carpet-bombing civilian infrastructure with unguided “dumb” bombs. The operational and humanitarian impact of these tactics would have been devastating. Russia continues to commit egregious violations of the laws of war with their stand-off weapons, but a cruise missile problem is still better than a gravity bomb problem. Ukraine’s defensive strategy must therefore be judged a success, especially considering the correlation of forces. 

Here too there are revealing historical precedents. In the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force exercised tremendous discipline in eroding its adversary and avoiding decisive engagements. With the help of the Chain Home radar system, the United Kingdom’s Spitfires and Hurricanes would climb to altitude and make a single diving pass on the invading German formations and then disengage. While the battle was a close-run thing, it led Germany to shift focus away from destroying the Royal Air Force in order to target civilian populations. This was a decisive mistake that allowed Britain to continue its strategy of corrosion. Repeating this tactic day after day, week after week, the Royal Air Force attrited the Luftwaffe to the point that it could no longer continue operations. 

The threats that Washington and its allies face in the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters are well suited to defensive campaigns. In the case of both Taiwan and the Baltics, small allied or partner nations face the risk of an invasion from a larger neighbor. If an attacker like China or Russia gained control of the airspace above one of these countries, that country could still seek to use, contest, or control the airspace below 10,000 feet to considerable effect. Small drones like the Ukrainian Aerorozvidka have proved immensely successful in both directing fires and dropping gravity munitions, which would be valuable in slowing or distracting an attacker. Furthermore, in this situation, integrated air defense systems, special operations forces, and traditional shoulder-fired missiles could also be used to create a fearsome low-level environment.

In conclusion, the air campaign has been an indispensable aspect of the Ukrainian success to date. Allied military planners and strategists should not draw the wrong lessons, especially by conflating a seeming lack of motion in the air with its lack of importance. The Ukrainian Air Force and air defense force’s ability to leverage all domains into an air campaign demonstrate the value of a stalemate. Waging an exemplary defensive air campaign provides many case studies, especially for allies and partners who find themselves in a position of aerial disadvantage. 



Col. Michael Stefanovic is a U.S. Air Force civil engineer and explosive ordnance disposal technician. A graduate of the Blue Horizons Innovation program, he led explosive ordnance disposal teams in Iraq and currently serves as head of the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group.   

Group Capt. Robert “Chuck” Norris is the Royal Air Force exchange officer to the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group. A helicopter pilot and instructor with 4,500 flying hours, he also has extensive command and staff experience in the U. K. Joint Headquarters, the U. K. Ministry of Defence and NATO headquarters

Col. Christophe Piubeni is the French Air and Space Force exchange officer to the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group. An A400M pilot and instructor with more than 4,000 flying hours and 100 combat missions, he has extensive operational and command experience, as well as staff experience in procurement and capability development. He is the Strategic Studies Group Artificial Intelligence lead and a graduate from the U.K. Joint Staff College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Institute. He also holds a masters of arts in war studies from King’s College.

Lt. Col. Dave Blair is the innovation lead for the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group. He is an evaluator pilot with more than 2,000 hours in the MQ-1/9 and AC-130. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Harvard Kennedy School, he holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown University, where he teaches as an adjunct professor on the politics of defense innovation. 

The authors are all members of the Trilateral Strategic Initiative, which was created a decade ago to strengthen operational effectiveness by encouraging continued collaboration and exchanges between the Royal Air Force, the U.S. Air Force, and the French Air and Space Force. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, or the U.S. Space Force. The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense of the linked website for the information, products, or services contained therein.

Image: Wikimedia Commons