Why the Ukrainian Skies are still Contested- An Assessment
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
The posers that demand an answer:-

This work attempts an answer to the following posers in the context of the on-going air war between Russia and Ukraine:-

  1. How the forces measured up on both sides?
  2. How come till date, a mighty Air Force of a country like Russia is unable to achieve favourable air situation leave aside air superiority in the Ukrainian skies?
  3. What are takeaways from this situation?
Air War - a Cause-effect Duel

Air war is very peculiar. In fact, it is a cause-effect duel, wherein, the attacker ‘in cause’ prosecutes the air threat on the defender with his air, ground and sea power while the latter, ‘in effect’ attempts to negate and counter the air threat with his air defence power deployed on land sea and air. In essence, it is the air threat that derives the Air Defence[1].
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PART 1: How the Forces Measured up on Both Sides

An attempt is now made to weigh up the protagonists.

Russian Air Power[2]
The proud pegging order

Following points are stated:-

A reliable open source comparative combat strength assessment platform called, globalfirepower.com assesses Russia’s cumulative military strength to be 2/142[3] (second out of 142 countries assessed). The factors considered for this assessment are not only the air, land and naval forces, but also, manpower, logistics and geographical strengths etc.

Combat Air Assets ‘at a glance’.

The above index counts out a huge 4173 Russian aircrafts of all types which are further sub classified into various other types. For the sake of this analysis, the following four of these types are considered[4]:-

1. Fighter Aircrafts -772.

These are the type of aircrafts that can carry out multiple roles such as air-to-air combat, aerial bombing, reconnaissance, electronic warfare (EW) attack, SEAD (suppression of enemy air defence) operations ( explained later).

The main aircrafts in this category include the following (list not comprehensive)

- Mig 29 of 1982 vintage. Air superiority fighter; implying it is capable of seizing the control of enemy’s air space.

- Mig 25 of 2019 vintage. Multi-role fighter; implying it is capable of all the roles stated at Para 1 above.

- SU 27 of 1985 vintage. 4rth generation super- manoeuverable fighter; implying it possesses such mobility and agility that is beyond the capability of mere aerodynamic controls of aircraft. This is a great virtue in air-to-air combat and strike missions. (further details of super manoeuverability not explained).

- SU30 - 1996 vintage. Super-manoeuverable multirole fighter.

- SU 35- 2014 vintage. Super-manoeuverable multirole fighter.

- SU 57. Dec 2020 vintage. Fifth generation fighter with cutting edge stealth avionics and weapon loads.

2. Attack Aircrafts- 739

These aircrafts are specifically suited for undertaking strike missions in close air support to the ground forces. Some of these include the following:-

- SU25SM of 2020 vintage. Upgraded version of SU 25 with better avionics, engines and weapon loads.

- SU 24. 1970-1993 vintage. Supersonic all-weather close air support fighter.

- SU 34. 2014 vintage. Super manoeuverable fighter, bomber and strike aircraft.

3. Strategic Bombers

Capable of delivering huge weapon loads over long ranges. These include:-

- Mig 31 K. Vintage 1975. Upgraded in nineties. Weapon load 52000 kgs. Modified to deliver hypersonic missiles (Speed > 5 Mach.

- TU 22M. Old vintage (1967-93). Long range bomber.

- TU 95 and TU 160. Very old vintage turboprop bombers,

4. Attack helicopters (AHs). 544

Deadly machines capable of flying ultra-low (nap-of-the-earth) thus have the ability of avoiding radar detection; great tank-killers. These include:-

- MI 24, called the Flying tank armed with Gatling guns, auto-cannons, rockets, air-to-air, and air-to-surface missiles (AAMs and ASMs).

- MI 35 - large helicopter gunships.

- MI 28 – Optimised for anti-armour role.

- KA 50, 52 - Heavily armed scout helicopters capable of operating ahead of the main force.

Munitions: The Teeth of the Combat Air Power[5]

[6]

The ‘teeth’ of the combat air power are the munitions constituting warheads. While attempting a comprehensive list of air munitions is beyond the scope of this work, an ‘at-a-glance’ list will probably run like this:-

1. Precision Guided Munitions (PGM)

By PGMs are implied those munitions that have the capability to be guided to their assigned targets precisely and accurately with minimal co-lateral damage. Such munitions may be laser-guided, TV guided, Infra-red (IR) guided, satellite guided or guided through on-board radars/active and passive target seekers etc. These may also be externally designated to their intended targets through target-designation pods. Russia has the following major PGMs:-

- Precision laser guided bombs - KAB 1500, KAB 500, KAB 250.

- Laser guided artillery shells – Krasnopol 152 mm laser-guided shells.

Precision Guided missiles and rockets (large list, details are not attempted).

2. Other Air Munitions.

A large list of other munitions is briefly summarized

- Air-to-air missiles (AAMs)- R series -R 23,27,33,37,40,60,73.77
- Air-to-surface missiles (ASMs)Kh series. Kh 22, 23, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 38, 58, 59,80, 90.
- Hypersonic land attack missiles –Kh 57M2 kinzhal, 3M22 Zircon.
- Anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) Kh series. Kh 15, 25,28,31,58 and R 27
- Unguided general purpose bombs and rockets.
f. Cluster bombs.
f. auto cannons on aircrafts and AHs ( 12.7 mm, 23mm. 30 mm etc.)

3. Ground Based Air Defence Weapon System (GBADWS)

While the air power is prosecuting the air threat, GBADWS of the attacker provide the shield by countering a similar air threat delivered by the adversary in response.
Russia is one of the world’s strongest air power as regards the GBADWS. In fact, air defence professionals over the world consider Russia as a master in ground based air defence.

Their weaponry include a complete continuum of towed air defence guns (ZU 12.7 mm, 23mm, 30mm and more), self-propelled (SP) guns and guns and missile systems (Schilka, Tunguska etc.) and a full spectrum capability of Surface-to-Air-Missiles (SAMs) covering a range and altitude bracket from a few km to hundreds of km ( Igla, Strela, OSA-AK, SAM6, Pechora, Pantsir, Buk 2m etc.).

4. Anti- ballistic Missiles (ABM)

Russia has a strong ABM power. The famous S series of weapon include S 200, 300, 400 and 500 and A Series – A 135,235 etc.

5. Ballistic Missiles (BMs)

Russia has deployed the 9k720 Iskander BM and Kinzhal BM.

6. Cruise Missiles (CMs)

While Russia has a large array of cruise missiles (BrahMos, Kalibr, Kh series anti-ship cruise missiles, and S series submarine-launched cruise missiles), reports indicate large scale use of Kalibr CMs in Ukraine.
Quantitatively some 300 plus of the aircrafts mentioned above were amassed on the Ukrainian border by Russia (Their subdivision into East, South and North of Ukraine is not covered).

A Glimpse of Ukrainian Air and Ground Power[7]

[8]

Air Power

Ukraine ranked 22/142 in the globalfirepower.com index. It has some 225 combat aircrafts. In a similar distribution of fighters, attack aircrafts and attack helicopters the pictures looks like this:-

1. Fighter aircrafts (69)

- Mig 29 air superiority fighter.
- SU 27 super-maneuverable fighter.

2. Attack aircrafts (29)

- SU25 and SU 25SM armed with auto cannons, AAMs, guided bombs and rockets.
- SU 24 supersonic all-weather attack aircraft with AAM (R60, 73), ASMs ( Kh23M, KH 59M) anti-ship missiles ( P-800 Oniks), ARMs (Kh 28, 25Mp, Kh 38, 58).

3. Reconnaissance Aircrafts

a. SU 24 MR maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
b. AN 30 for reconnaissance and aerial cartography.

4 Attack Helicopters (34)

MI 24 equipped with 12.7 mm Gatling gun and 30 mm auto cannon besides AAMs and ASMs.

The Ukrainian Drone power

One of the master weapons held with Ukraine was the Turkish TB2 Drone. Following points are stated as to this drone[9]:-

  1. It is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone (altitude ceiling 27000 ft, endurance 27 hrs).
  2. It carries multiple armaments as stated below:-

- L-UMTAS- Radio-controlled, anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). It is a PGM with IR and laser guidance.
- Laser guided HE (MAM-C) and thermo baric (MAM-L) munitions.
c. Cirit laser-guided PGM.
d. Laser-guided rockets.

GBADWS

The GBADWS of Ukraine are similar to those of Russia’s in terms of towed and self-propelled guns and a range of SAMs staring from Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS – Igla 1M, Strela 2M etc.) to the Medium range SAMs ( SAM 6 Kvadrat and Buk 2M etc.).
In addition, it has S series (S300) long range air defence and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems. It was a ghastly site to see S 300 system’s radar burning away on strike by the Russian SEAD operations (covered later).

Western Air Defence Weapons

As a result of huge arms aid pouring into Ukraine from the US, as well as, the European countries there are reports of following air defence weapons coming in:-

  1. There are reports of the following weapons already in Ukriane[10] :-
    - 17000 Javelin anti-tank missiles (Range - 2.5 km)[11]
    - Thousands on MANPAD FIM 92 stinger missiles (range 8 km) [12]

  2. Slovakia has promised to transfer an S 300 system to Ukraine on the assurance by US that it will be replaced by a Patriot air defence system of US (much inferior!) [13]
  3. There are similar reports of S 300 systems ex Bulgaria and Greece that might find their way to Ukraine[14].

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PART 2: THE ACTION

With a fair sense of the battle line up on both sides, the stage is now set to unfold the air and air defence war. The same is attempted.

The Pre-emptive Strike

Typical of any air war, the Russians unrolled the prosecution of the air threat per se on the night/early morning of 23/24 Feb. Following points are stated about this strike:-

  1. The operations opened up with a large number of strikes by the Russian fighters (MiG 29, 35, Su 27, SU 25SM and Su 30s)
  2. This was complemented by multiple launches of Kalibr cruise missiles and Iskander ballistic missiles.
  3. Later in the day the fire was joined by salvos by Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers or MBRLs (Grad,/Smerch/Uragan).
  4. The streaming videos in the day also showed some artillery fire.
The Aim of Pre-emptive Strike

A typical pre-emptive strike is attempted with the following major purposes:-

  1. To kill maximum of enemy’s air assets (aircrafts, helicopters, air traffic control assets, infrastructure etc.) while still on ground - Counter air operations
  2. To kill and destroy adversary’s air defence assets in a function known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defence or SEAD. In SEAD the targets are specific:-

The first of these are the eyes and ears of the adversary. These constitute the Early Warning Radars (EWRs) which look far and deep to detect the incoming threat, Tactical Control Radars or TCRs (these in addition to EWRs, also have the capability to designate the targets to the weapons), Missile Guidance Radars and Fire control Radars (that control the fire of the missiles and guns respectively).

In addition to just the sensors, the bigger cake is to destroy the adversary’s air defence battle management and control system which goes by the name of Air Defence Control and Reporting System or ADCRS.

ADCRS is the lifeline of Air is the lifeline of the Air Defence battle. It cumulates the inputs from multiple sensors and creates an Air Situation Picture (ASP). It thereafter filters the ASP into friend and foe (own/enemy aircrafts) and produces a Recognized Air Situation Picture (RASP).

It prioritises the RASP on the basis of immediacy and comparative lethality (which threat is closest and most lethal)?

It selects the most optimal weapon(s) to take on the threat and designates the target to them in near real time.

It ensures successive punishment of the threat in seamlessly shifting the fire from weapon-to-weapon until the threat is destroyed or the mission is called off.

The ADCRS is executed by a hierarchy of air defence C&R nodes spanned out from the apex (national level) right down to weapon platforms seamlessly connected through a network of computers, communication and data transmission systems

If an attacker is able to destroy the ADCRS of the defender he will succeed in making the Air Defence systems of the defender blind and hence toothless.

ADCRS is the umbilical chord that connects the sensors (radars) to the shooters (weapons). If this chord is cut/disabled – air defence weapons fire sub-optimally and in an ad hoc manner.

The Result of the Pre-emptive
The following crunch points are stated:-
  1. While the Russian pre-emptive strike caused substantial damage in cumulative terms, much of the air assets of Ukraine remained intact.
  2. More importantly the Ukrainian ADCRs could not be destroyed to the level as to make Air Defence weapons impotent.
  3. Many experts have stated that right from 2014-15 when the Donbas region was on fire, Ukraine took steps to strengthen its national level battle management and control, as well as, ADCRS.
  4. The result can be seen –Ukrainian Fighters are still operating three weeks into the conflict and counting.
  5. Some experts have made following two claims:-
  6. - Russian air force suffers from the lack of PGMs due to which their largely general purpose unguided bombs and rockets are causing many a civilian casualties and collateral damage.
    - Russian pilots lack flying hours (<100 per year as compared to 180-240 per year + simulator training of their US and western counterparts).

  7. The truth or otherwise for both the above assertions cannot be confirmed or negated due to the lack of precise open source data. The claims are currently in the ‘opinion domain’. Much of the collaterals could also be a ‘smart editing’/ cut-paste job and more.
A Word on Air Space Control (AS) and Use of GBADWS

That Russia is a mighty air and air defence power is beyond debate. That said, the live streaming videos of war over the weeks did show this mighty power lacking in some aspects of ASC, as well as, sub-optimality in the deployment of GBADWS. (This statement is made with due caution, after discounting the content driven by the information warfare).

An attempt is made to enumerate the above statements.

Air Space Control

The point at issue in the ASC is briefly stated:-

  1. One ‘common and finite’ air space in the battle zone is to be exploited by multiple users in the same time and apace (aircrafts, attack helicopters, air defence guns and missiles, land attack missiles, artillery, unmanned aerial systems ( UAS) and more).
  2. The function of the ASC is to optimize the use of airspace by multiple users maximizing the two mutually-contradicting requirements of ‘maximum freedom’ and ‘minimum restrictions’. Multiple tools are employed - height separation, time separation, no-fly zones, no-fire lanes, minute-to-minute control to let one or the other asset use the air space with temporary restrictions on the other(s) by auto-de-conflicting the movement of competitors wanting to use air space in the same time and space.

While all this and more must have happened, much of the live videos (minus information war) didn’t show up the ASC being played in a big way.

On GBADWS

Russia is a formidable air defence power as stated earlier. Its multiple GBADWS cover the entire range and altitude bracket. Something which did not seem to go well with them was related to their war- time deployment. Following is stated:-

  1. It was appalling to see some deadly GBADWS like Buk 2M lined up in the convoy and their sensors taking a hit from such ‘non-things’ as drones.
  2. Long-winding convoys of mechanized forces were seen going well outside the range of long range GBADWS. These were not seen to be leap-frogging (progressively lifting up in parts from their deployed locations) and moving forward so as to keep their fire arm well ahead of the head of the columns.
  3. It was therefore not surprising to see the convoys taking big hits (even after discounting much of it as information warfare, the residual picture was disturbing).
  4. Another thing that could be seen in the war zone videos was an unequal duel. In that, on one side there was a visible drone play (Bayrakter and more) the anti-drone specific weaponry (Electro Optical or EO based surveillance devices coupled with RF jammers, laser killers and more) was not seen in adequate numbers on the Russian side.
MANPADS : The Big killers

It was a ghastly sight to see a powerful MI 24 go down to a stinger MANPAD. Following points are stated:-

  1. As stated earlier, Ukraine received a large quantity of Stinger MANPADS from the US and western countries.
  2. These were proliferated across the battlefield in ones and twos.
  3. With a semblance of Ukrainian ADCRS still alive, the MANPADS proved to be deadly killers in taking potshots crippling the deadly air threat.

That is the nuisance value of pot-shot killers called MANPADS if not dealt with properly.

Some Reflections

Here are some reflections:-

  1. Air attack and air defence, as sword and shield, are tied in such a cause- effect duel where the success of one must be built on the failure of another.
  2. Incredible but true is the fact, that the key requirement for achieving a favourable air situation for the attacker depends to a large extent on the success of his SEAD operation in blinding the defender’s air defence .
  3. That said, air defences will remain alive so long as ADCRS; their umbilical chord is alive.
  4. Without an effective ADCRS, even the best of air defence weapons will perform sub-optimally; much like a blind-folded boxer in a ring.
  5. Irrespective of the size and the might of an air power, if the air defence of the adversary, howsoever small continues to survive for any reason whatsoever, the skies will remain contested.
  6. GBADWS may be deadly, these will prove to be sitting ducks if the following conditions are obtaining:-
  7. a. Weak or non-existent ADCRS.
    b. Incorrect deployment.
    c. Lack of anti-drone weaponry.

  8. In order to realize the full potential of the air and air defence power of the attacker, the fundamental requirement is an effective and a seamless ASC cutting across Service boundaries. More and more joint arms exercises are a must to practically hone the ASC nuances and remove the nagging glitches.
  9. If not done adequately, the cardinal sin of blue-over-blue will always hang as a sword of Damocles! It will stymie free-play of air power; it will strangle the full fold out of air defence power in a dynamic and a fast-evolving battle space.
  10. MANPADS spread loose in the battlefield can be a great nuisance to an attacker. These are huge killers in the spirit how an ant can kill an elephant.
  11. Too much is being made of kill power of drones. The fact remains that given strong anti-drone weaponry the little monsters can be dealt with adequately.
  12. If the hypersonic weapons enter the battlefield as has happened 19 March the defender must gear up or perish. The demands are sky-high:-
    - Capability to detect the hypersonic threat instantly.

- Capability to soft kill the threat instantly.

This is a huge vertical by itself and will demand a separate article.

All these fundamentals like ADCRS, ASC and more are real issues in our scenarios as well. The imperatives as explained above apply to us as well. The current status of these as well as the gaps (classified) is known to stakeholders. These cannot be stated here.

That some real takeaways from the ongoing air and air defence war as stated above, will not be missed by powers that be in our scenario . That is the hope of the author.

Endnotes

[1] “ Changing contours of the air threat…,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 07 Mar 2022.
[2] “Russian Air Force,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 08 Mar 2022.
[3] “2022 Russia military strength,” at www.globalfirepower.com. Accessed on 10 Mar 2022.
[4] “Russian air force”,at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 10 Mar 2022.
[5]ibid
[6] “Chinese and Russian air-launched weapons : a test for western air dominance,” at www.iiss.org. Accessed on 11 Mar 2022.
[7] “Ukraine air force,” at www.en.m. Wikipedia.org. Accessed on 12 Mar 2022.
[8] “How big is the Ukraine’s Air Force and what weapons do they have to fight Russia, “ at www.independent.co.uk. Accessed on 14 Mar 2022.
[9] “Why drones turned the tide for Azerbaijan,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 15 Mar 2022.
[10] Javelin anti-tank missiles, symbol of Ukraine’s resistance,” at www.m.economic times.com. Accessed on 17 Mar 2022.
[11] “Javelin anti tank missiles…” at www.economictimes.indiatimes.com. Accessed on 18 Mar 2022.
[12] “Stinger, Javelin missiles for Ukraine…, “ at www.theweek.in. Accessed on 18 Mar 2022.
[13] “Slovakia agrees to send key air defence system to Ukraine,” at www.cnn.vom. Accessed on 19 Mar 2022.
[14] Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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