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Russia’s air force has taken a beating, but its jets could still turn the tables in Ukraine, experts say

Russian Su-35 fighter jet wreckA wrecked Russian Su-35 fighter jet in the Kharkiv region in April 2022.

Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout via REUTERS

  • Russia’s air force has had a limited role in Ukraine, despite numerical and technological advantages.
  • Russia has held its air force back largely because of Ukraine’s effective air-defense network.
  • If that air-defense network falters, Russian jets could still make an impact, experts say.

One of the mysteries of the Ukraine war has been the ineffectiveness of Russia’s air force. Despite superior numbers and technology, Russian pilots have been surprisingly timid in pressing their attacks.

One reason for that is the effectiveness of Ukrainian ground-based air defenses, but the recent leak of secret US intelligence assessments has confirmed what some have suspected for a while: Ukraine is running out of anti-aircraft weapons.

Which raises the question: If Ukrainian air defenses fade, will the Russian Air Force — known as the VKS — finally become a decisive factor in the war?

“As a force, the VKS is still intact,” Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corporation think tank, warned during an April episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast. “Yes, they’ve lost squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, but all in all that’s a single-digit percentage of the total force. It’s still a force in being.”

Russian Su-25 jet hit by missile over UkraineA Russian Su-25 at its base after being struck by an air-defense missile over Ukraine in March 2022.

Russian Ministry of Defense

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, experts predicted that airpower would be a major Russian advantage. Ukraine’s small but resourceful air force put up spirited resistance that mitigated Russia’s numerical and technological superiority, however.

More importantly, Russian pilots encountered an effective Ukrainian integrated air-defense network composed of a patchwork of systems. It combined early-warning radars, manned interceptors, and Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, such as the long-range S-300 and the short-range, man-portable Igla. These were quickly supplemented by Western weapons such as the man-portable US Stinger, British Starstreak, and, more recently, German Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

Given a choice, most air forces would perform deep strikes behind enemy lines rather than dangerous close-air-support missions, for which heavily armored ground-attack aircraft such as Russia’s Su-25 or the US’s A-10 are best suited. But as Russia’s ground invasion faltered in the early days of the war, the VKS was tasked with providing close air support to help the army.

“Then you saw them getting chewed up in various Stinger envelopes, various SAM envelopes,” Massicot said. “Ever since that, the VKS has been essentially used very conservatively.”

Ukrainian Osa-AKM surface-to-air missileUkrainian Osa-AKM SAMs in the Kherson region in January 2022.

Press Service of the Joint Forces Operation/Handout via REUTERS

The VKS is still trying to destroy Ukraine’s air-defense system, but it doesn’t “have options that are particularly good against those tactical SAMs that Ukraine is still fielding,” Justin Bronk, an airpower expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said on the same podcast.

While Russia has fired plenty of KH-31P and older KH-58 anti-radiation missiles that are supposed to home in on Ukrainian air-defense radars, Ukrainian SAM operators have proven adept at avoiding them, Bronk said. “They don’t have a very good kill ratio,” which means that rather than using aircraft to knock out Ukrainian air defenses, the VKS must rely on other systems.

“They can do a little bit of suppression of enemy air defenses, but not really the destruction bit,” which is mostly being done by Orlan-10 surveillance drones that guide artillery, by Lancet 3 kamikaze drones, or by ballistic missiles, Bronk said.

If Ukrainian SAM coverage at medium altitude does ebb, Bronk expects Russian aircraft to become much more active, but they may still struggle to provide close air support.

Russia has lost about 70 to 80 fixed-wing aircraft, according to Oryx, which does an open-source tally of both sides’ losses. But those losses have not been distributed equally. Some 30 Su-25s have been lost to due to enemy fire or accidents, plus another 19 Su-34 strike aircraft, Oryx estimates.

Russia Su-34 crash wreck in Chernihiv UkraineA Russian Su-34 downed in Chernihiv in April 2022.

Nicola Marfisi/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Russia has about 105 Su-34s and about 180 Su-25s of various models, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. That is a fair number of Su-25s, but only about 80 have been modernized, Bronk said.

While the Russian fighter fleet is mostly intact, “the attrition rates on their ground-attack fleets are actually quite significant,” Bronk said, adding that despite that attrition, Russia has more ground-attack aircraft in storage and that fleet is “still a significant threat in being.”

Ironically, while Russian airpower was designed to fight NATO, Russian leaders have been able to redeploy forces from elsewhere because they actually “don’t fear NATO,” despite claims by Moscow and “useful idiots in the West” that the invasion was a response to moves by the alliance, Bronk added.

“They’re not worried about escalation on their on their flank with NATO at this point, because if they were, they wouldn’t have drawn down the forces the way they have,” Bronk said. “So the air force, I think, would definitely be committed much more heavily if they had a chance.”

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider