A think tank warns that Russian airpower could regain the initiative in Ukrainian skies if Kyiv is not urgently supported with air defence systems and western fighter aircraft.
A misperception about Russia’s war in Ukraine is that the Russian Aerospace Forces have had a limited role thus far, according to a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
It observes that Russian airpower was initially able to suppress Ukrainian air defences in the days following the war’s start on 24 February, and that Ukrainian fighter aircraft took “serious casualties”.
The pictured changed after Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) capabilities found their footing, and Russian Sukhoi Su-25 and Su-34 attack aircraft are now wary of crossing the front lines to attack Ukrainian targets. Ukrainian MANPADS (man portable air defence systems) further complicate the air picture for Russian fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters.
Nonetheless, Russian fighters on combat air patrols near the front lines have proven highly effective at very long ranges, specifically the Su-35S equipped with R-77-1 air-to-air missiles, and the RAC MiG-31 interceptor with R-37 missiles. These force Ukrainian aircraft to operate at very low altitudes, reducing their effectiveness.
The report, authored by Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds, and Jack Watling, observes that Russian helicopters tend to approach fixed targets at altitudes below 200ft, before pitching up and firing unguided rockets on a ballistic trajectory. It notes that the Kamov Ka-52 has proven particularly vulnerable to Ukrainian forces.
“The Russian attack helicopter fleet was initially used to conduct aggressive hunter killer sorties behind Ukrainian frontlines, with penetration depths of up to 50km relatively common,” says the report.
“However, losses to MANPADS were heavy and so Russian tactics shifted during March, with penetrating sorties becoming less and less common; they were replaced by rocket ‘lofting’ attacks from a safe distance. Since April, Russian attack helicopters have been used extremely cautiously, with a heavy reliance on standoff rocket attacks rendering them little more than flying rocket artillery assets.”
In recent months Russia’s air war has gained traction with the arrival of cheap Shahed-136 loitering munitions from Iran, which Moscow uses in conjunction with cruise missiles to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. While Shahed-136s are frequently shot down, the large numbers deployed absorb valuable Ukrainian air defence resources.
“In the short term, Ukraine also needs large numbers of additional MANPADS and radar guided anti-aircraft guns, such as the [German-supplied] Gepard, to sustain and increase its ability to intercept the Shahed-136s and protect its remaining power infrastructure and repairs to damaged facilities,” says RUSI.
Further, Kyiv requires western fighter aircraft. RUSI specifically names the Saab Gripen C/D as well suited for operating in austere conditions.
“The West must avoid complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air defence capacity,” says RUSI.
“It is purely thanks to its failure to destroy Ukraine’s mobile SAM systems that Russia remains unable to effectively employ the potentially heavy and efficient aerial firepower of its fixed-wing bomber and multi-role fighter fleets to bombard Ukrainian strategic targets and frontline positions from medium altitude, as it did in Syria.”