The missing Russian air campaign over the Ukraine

At the start of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine it was widely expected the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) would commence a systematic demolition of Ukrainian air defence, command and control, and critical military infrastructure. After all, this was the successful model applied twice by the USAF over Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and refined over Bosnia in 1999 and Libya in 2011.

But this never happened. There was no VKS air campaign in the opening stages of the war, and ongoing Russian failures in ground combat have been exacerbated by a failure to establish control of the air at the theatre level. Strong Ukrainian resistance has pushed the Russian campaign back to a two-dimensional war of positions and attrition.

This theatre-level failure is not a tactical mistake, nor one of planning. Rather, the VKS did not conduct a co-ordinated air campaign prior to the ground invasion of Ukraine because it had no doctrine, plans, or practice to draw upon. For historical and political reasons, the VKS is configured as an extension of Russian ground forces.

Independent air operations must be carefully sequenced with ground and/or naval operations to ensure a campaign does not rapidly degenerate into a war of attrition or exhaustion. Russia has once again shown the world what not to do in military strategy by subordinating air power to the tactical ground scheme of manoeuvre.

Context
Following the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February the VKS operated in accordance with Russian military doctrine and tactics. The VKS is not organised to conduct independent air operations, similar to NATO or the US Air Force, rather it is an adjunct to Russian ground forces. Conceptually the VKS is offensively an extension of Russian artillery, and defensively an extension of Russian air defence systems (such as surface to air missiles).[i]

Under the Soviet system, the Air Forces (VVS) were separated into air defence forces (PVO) including interceptor aircraft; long range aviation (DA) with conventional and nuclear bombers; airborne forces (VDV) providing transport aviation; and frontal aviation (FVA) assigned to an Army Group, or Front. Frontal aviation provided close air support through fighter bombers, dedicated close air support aircraft and attack helicopters.[ii] This delineation was largely retained into the Russian Federation and, after reorganisation of the VVS into the VKS in 2015, with the exception that PVO fighter aircraft were allocated to tactical air and air defence forces subordinated to regional military districts.

‘Deep strike’ missions are allocated to the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) and Long-Range Aviation aircraft with cruise missiles.[iii] These strikes were effective against known, fixed infrastructure such as early warning and battle management radars, but were largely ineffective against mobile Ukrainian SAM systems such as the S-300 PMU-1 (SA-10b GRUMBLE).

This was the case during the first 10-12 days of the conflict, with large numbers of surface-to-surface missiles and air-launched cruise missiles targeted against Ukrainian military and command infrastructure. But the RVSN and DA quickly ran up against the ‘stand-off’ problem: unless you can find and fix targets dynamically – preferably in a few hours – targeting becomes indiscriminate.

Technical limitations
The VKS was extremely limited in its allocation of precision-guided munitions and stand-off (greater than 40nm range) weapons due to external factors related to production and acquisition. As a result, when the VKS operated forward of Russian lines, combat aircraft were often below the cloud base to visually acquire targets. They could then be engaged by UAF MANPADS (IR-guided surface to air missiles).

A Russian Su-25 reportedly downed by a Ukrainian MANPAD. (Twitter/@200_zoka)

Some analysis of the performance of the VKS during the initial stages of the Russian invasion and ongoing fighting in the east of Ukraine has claimed it failed in its mission or was incompetent in its execution.[iv] Understanding the structure and design of the VKS shows that it has largely achieved the mission it is configured to achieve: provide close air support to Russian ground forces, primarily as an extension of the artillery. The total losses of VKS close air support aircraft to UAF ground fire (including MANPADS) are similar to US losses during the first five weeks of Operation DESERT STORM.

In summary, the VKS did not conduct a co-ordinated air campaign against the Ukraine because it did not have the doctrine, tactics, training, or operational imperative to conduct such a campaign. It was conceived as – and remains – an air force that is subordinated to land power and unable to maximise the characteristics of air power.

The Australian Defence Force should continue to emphasise the requirement for mastery of professional warfighting domains both in doctrine (theory) and training (practice). Air Force training activities such as the Air Warfare Instructor Course must be aligned with broad Defence missions, but should not be subordinated to procedural joint warfighting requirements.

If we want to avoid conflict degenerating to a strategy of attrition or exhaustion, we need to get the air campaign right before we commit valuable people and resources to winning the war on the ground.


[i] Scott Boston and Dara Massicot, The Russian Way of Warfare, RAND Corporation, 2017, DOI:
[ii] Lester Grau and Charles Bartles, The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2016.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] See, for example, Thomas Newdick, ‘After An Abysmal Start, Here Is How Russia’s Application Of Airpower In Ukraine Could Evolve’, The Drive, 10 Mar 2022, < accessed 21 Jul 22.  There are many similar examples.

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