Ukraine: Air War Heats Up

Ukraine has enjoyed air superiority for more than 400 days. Time may be running out.

For most of the past year, one of the central mysteries of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been the question of why the Kremlin’s much-vaunted air force didn’t show up to the fight.

Russia’s fifth-generation Sukhoi fighter jets were even absent from the Kremlin’s last Victory Day parade commemorating the end of World War II, and U.S. defense officials believed that the war had ground down the defense industrial base churning out fighters and bombers. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace even said that Ukrainian troops found downed Russian fighter jets with handheld GPS devices duct-taped into the cockpit.

But as Ukraine prepares to mount a counteroffensive, with hopes of taking at least another Kharkiv-like bite out of Russian-occupied territory and at most setting up long-range artillery farther to the east in Zaporizhzhia to reach the Kremlin’s military installations in Crimea, Western and Ukrainian officials are again beginning to worry that Kyiv’s tenuous air parity might not hold. And that’s not because Russia’s producing Top Gun-level dogfighting talents in the middle of Moscow’s largest shooting war in decades. Instead, Ukrainian officials believe Russia is tucking its fighters and bombers into a defensive shell by only flying over Russian-controlled areas in the Donbas region or flying 100 to 200 miles from Ukraine’s borders, sometimes as far away as the Caspian Sea, to take potshots into populated areas.

“Russia has superiority over our air forces, but they are limited only to the territories that they occupy, that’s all,” said one Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “For now, they’re trying to avoid any possibility of intruding in our airspace.”

Russia’s Aerospace Forces—known by the acronym VKS, which refers to the Russian-language initials—outnumber Ukraine’s and are capable of outmatching Ukraine’s jets based on superior radar and missile technology, according to a recent report published by the CNA think tank. Yet despite the destruction of a significant number of Ukraine’s Soviet-era surface-to-air missile defenses and an inability to resupply the rest of them from closed-off Russian arsenals, Russian air power has not played a major role in tilting the tide of the war, since the Kremlin’s pilots aren’t trained to execute large-scale operations with different kinds of aircraft.

Russian aircraft, ranged by Stinger missiles and mobile Ukrainian air defense systems, have never been a reliable source of close air support for advancing Russian troops since the Kremlin’s invasion began more than a year ago.

“[T]he threat that the VKS can pose to Ukraine in the ongoing war is almost entirely dependent on whether Ukraine can sustain its [ground-based air defense] coverage near the frontlines,” wrote Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for air power and military technology at the London-based think tank RUSI. “[O]ne area where the VKS can be assessed as having been reasonably successful is in its use of fighters [combat air patrols] to provide an enduring threat and deterrent against Ukrainian sorties close to the front lines.”

Driving the fears of a changing tide in the air war are classified assessments, which have now leaked from Discord servers into the public domain, that Ukraine could run out of air defense ammunition as soon as this month. Kyiv can’t resupply Soviet-era S-300 missile systems that rely on Russian air defense projectiles, and the U.S.-produced Patriot air defense systems and the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, the same batteries that defend Washington, D.C., from aerial attack, arriving now on the ground in Ukraine will only be a partial solution.

The United States can only produce about 300 Patriot missiles per year, far less than the pace of Russian airstrikes, which have picked up again as the Kremlin has upped the production of smart guidance kits used to provide precision guidance for otherwise “dumb” unguided bombs to strike at cities, Ukrainian officials believe. Though Lockheed Martin is trying to nearly double production to 500 missiles per year, the West can no longer scrounge the couch cushions of their arsenals for S-300 missiles that are now entirely behind Russian lines.

“The demand here has caught the West in arrears. We’re doing our best to give them the support that we can, but there comes a point where there’s no blood left in the turnip,” said John Venable, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a 25-year U.S. Air Force veteran. “There’s going to come to a breaking point on one side or another, and it’s likely going to be the Ukrainian side that suffers.”

Not everyone believes the end is nigh, though. Bronk, the RUSI expert, assessed in his April paper that the Russian air force is “unlikely” to be able to significantly improve its performance if Ukraine can keep up the current levels of surface-to-air missile defenses across the country.