To the surprise of many, the Russians have ignored one of the most important rules of war: As an attacking party, make sure you are master of the air. As soon as that air superiority is achieved in the first days, the ground war can start undisturbed and the own army can be protected and supported from the air.
But none of that in Ukraine. Scattered throughout the country, Ukrainian fighter pilots stand every day waiting in the cockpit of their MiG-29 or Sukhoi-27 to take off at any time. Usually in the evening or at night, because then the pilots are less afraid of being discovered or shot down. Many hangars where Ukrainians store their warplanes are still intact. As well as the airports’ runways.
Hidden from the outside world, an odd battle against a much stronger opponent has been going on for four weeks now. Including air battles, with sometimes success. Ukraine claims to have shot down a total of about 100 Russian planes, an unusually large number that have not been confirmed by independent sources.
“I got into situations where I was approaching a Russian plane at a distance close enough to aim and shoot,” Andriy, 25, said in the statement Tuesday. New York Times† He is one of two fighter pilots who this week received permission from the Ukrainian Air Force to open up on Kiev air operations.
Andriy: ‘I could already see the plane, but I waited until my rocket had it in the binoculars. At the same time, I was told from the ground up that a missile had already been fired at me. ‘ With all sorts of maneuvers, he managed to repel the Russian attack. “I still feel a huge adrenaline rush in my body because every flight is a battle,” said the fighter pilot.
It is unclear how many warplanes Ukraine has left behind as the war enters its fifth week. U.S. military officials estimate that Kiev still has 56 aircraft, of the more than 100 MiG-29s and Sukhois of various types that the air force had before the war.
As expected, the Ukrainian air bases came under Russian shelling already on the first day of the war. At least eleven military airfields were bombed with, among other things, Kalibr cruise missiles, as well as fifty other targets. These included radars and air defense missiles. But the Ukrainian air force and air defense system were not shut down at all.
Ukrainians still carry out about five to ten missions every day, Pentagon officials said. That is a small number, but enough to scare the Russians. Fearing being shot down, including by the air force SAM’s mobile missile systems, Russian bombers fire their precision weapons from Russia to destroy targets hundreds of miles away.
It is also striking that Russia, which has one of the world’s largest air forces, is not making an extra effort to paralyze the Ukrainian air force. The air bases have not been massively targeted by a hail of Iskander missiles, which can cause great destruction.
As a result, the Russian Air Force has to operate cautiously in Ukrainian airspace. Until this week, only about 200 flights were made daily, a small number for an invasion involving about 190,000 military personnel. In recent days, the Russians have increased the number of missions.
“Russia has made a major strategic mistake by not conducting an intensive air campaign against airports, air defense assets and command centers,” said former fighter pilot Frans Osinga, a professor of war studies at Leiden University. ‘There were only a limited number of attacks and rocket fires. Mobile air defense systems were hardly affected. As long as the runways remain more or less intact and there is fuel, ammunition and maintenance capacity, an airport can continue to operate. ‘
Leading U.S. Air Force strategist David Deptula believes the Russians have acted clumsily and therefore have no air superiority now. “This is probably due to a combination of lack of planning, preparation and training on the part of the Russian Air Force and the perseverance, commitment and efficiency of the Ukrainian Air Force,” said Deptula, who started the air war against Iraq in 1991. and Afghanistan. planned for 2001.
Take off from highways
Deptula believes the West should support Kiev by sending additional MiG-29s to continue the fight against the Russians. “The Russians are afraid of our air defense,” another fighter pilot told CNN on Monday. “They can not fly quietly here.”
Juice, the pilot’s name given to him by American colleagues, was on standby at the time of the interview. “As soon as I get information from my colleagues in the radar units, I take off and intercept the danger. But we need more fighters to regain air superiority and fight effectively. ‘
Osinga says the good preparation of the Ukrainian air force for the Russian invasion has also helped keep them operational. “Airplanes were scattered across several airports,” he says. He also praises the ingenuity of the Ukrainians.
Osinga: ‘Highways are used as runways. The mobile SAM systems are also smartly implemented. They occasionally turn on their radar, which can be dangerous because you give up your position. Then missiles are fired at the Russian planes. Then the radar is immediately turned off again and they move. ‘