Where is the Russian Air Force?

Two weeks inside the “special military operation”, and the Russian air force is barely visible in Ukrainian airspace. However, the Russians have a relatively large number of new aircraft. What happens?

The Russian Air Force has undergone a transformation in recent years. Many older aircraft went out and were replaced by brand new Mikoyan MiGs and Sukhois, with the latest models going back to 2019 and 2020.

The Russian army can count on an estimated 1,500 fighter jets, suitable for bombing, missile attacks and dog fights in the air. About 300 to 350 of these were seen on the border with Ukraine in the days, weeks and months before the Russian invasion.

The invasion began quite traditionally for contemporary warfare. Cruiser missiles and ballistic missiles struck ground targets, primarily military infrastructure and airfields. The goal? Aperture and paralyze the Ukrainian air force so that there could not be too much resistance in the air. The United States used the same strategy several times after the Cold War.

According to the story since 1938, this was to be followed by airstrikes, in which the Russian Sukhoi Su-34s Su-30s, with controlled and unmanned missiles, respectively, completely shut down the Ukrainian military infrastructure. Su-35s and Su-30s, multi-deployable aircraft, can then take out the other ground troops one by one. Strangely, but true, this step failed to materialize.

Russian Sukhoi Su-25s during military exercises in February (Isopix)

Two weeks after the invasion, it has serious consequences for Russia. The Ukrainian Air Force was suddenly offered the opportunity to fly again. The Ukrainian planes were regularly involved in the shooting down of Russian planes (the few that still ventured over Ukrainian soil) and helicopters that were regularly assisted by ground-to-air missiles, such as the Stingers.

The Russian convoys, which ran out of range of their own air defenses during their voyage to, among others, Kiev, were also victims of Ukrainian airstrikes. This is also one of the reasons why the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones are as successful as “tank killers”. Why Russia is not sending the air force, we guess. Still, there are some possible theories.

1. None indirect damages

In the early days of the invasion, Russia still acted somewhat cautiously: it was aimed only at military targets and was quite cautious with civilian targets and large-scale bombings. The Air Force would therefore not have been suitable as it (apart from guided projectiles) is quite difficult to fire accurately. With the artillery shelling of, among others, Kharkov, Mariupol and Kiev, this strategy and thus this argument disappeared like snow in the sun.

2. Little experience

The Russian pilot gets an average of 100 to 120 flight hours each year. Transport planes or helicopter pilots are known to spend more time, so the fighter pilot’s average is likely to be less than 100 hours.

By comparison, British Royal Air Force and United States Air Force pilots spend 180 to 240 hours in the air each year. This is supplemented with a lot of hours in flight simulator† The pilots even complain about a little experience, so it is definitely lacking on the Russian side. In addition, several aircraft, such as the Sukhoi Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35 and Mikoyan MiG-29, of which Russia has about 650 in total, are multi-deployable. It basically requires even more flying hours so pilots can train in all different disciplines.

Too little precision ammunition

Russia is struggling with a shortage of PGMs, so-called precision-guided ammunition† These are mainly used by the Su-34 and are steered towards their targets after firing. In Syria, the Russian Su-34s make frequent use of this, but even there they were regularly equipped with ordinary, unmanned ammunition and missiles.

In any case, the stock of platinum metals was already limited, but the war in Syria has still eaten up some of the reserves. As a result, most of the 300 Russian jets around Ukraine do not have the correct ammunition in stock. In addition, the pilots also have little experience with this ammunition, as there is not enough to perform ordinary target exercise.

4. Money

Fighter jets are expensive. The latest version of the Sukhoi Su-57, of which Russia owns three and has ordered a further 71, costs about $ 100 million per year. It goes without saying that Russia prefers not to shoot expensive jets. However, the massive deployment (and loss) of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, troops and elite paratroopers and special units is not much cheaper.

Due to the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Russia in recent months, the country must of course be somewhat cautious about losing fighter jets (read: capital), but sacrificing soldiers and tanks in return does not make much sense.

5. The real cause

The Russian Air Force simply lacks the planning capacity to conduct an operation of this scale. The pilots have too little experience, the air force as an institute has little experience of a large-scale operation, and the coordination between the various army units in Russia leaves much to be desired.

The Russian Air Force has been able to gain much experience in the war in Syria in recent years. There, however, the fighter pilots fought mainly in small groups, often with a maximum of four aircraft together. Definitely a combination of different types of aircraft, it was almost only seen at air shows and national parades.

Argument 2 (above) certainly plays a big role as well. NATO Air Force trains twice as many hours in the air and also has the best flight simulators. RAF and USAF pilots also train in flying under harsh conditions and shooting at targets on the ground and in the air. In doing so, they let the Russian Air Force, which mainly receives navigation training and occasional shooting training, smell a bit of shit.

Finally, the Russians in Ukraine are surprised. They expected a simple and fast blitzkrieg, whereby the air would be their immediately after the first steps on Ukrainian soil. Russia failed to do this because of the heroic Ukrainians who, backed by Western Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, surrendered to combat. The longer it hesitates and holds back the air force, the more Western aid arrives in Ukraine, making it harder every day to conquer airspace.


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