In the last ten year, the Russian Air Force (VKS), has purchased 350 combat aircraft. The question that should be on everyone’s minds in the second week in the Ukraine War is: What have we got for our money?
The Russian Air Force is almost AWOL from Russia’s largest battles since 1945, according to all accounts.
Justin Bronk, a military researcher, noted Friday that the Russian Air Force had yet to begin large-scale operations.
He said, “The continuing absence of major aircraft operations now raises serious capability issues.”
It is also safe to assume that it isn’t the Ukraine Air Force that is preventing the VKS from establishing air supremacy over Ukraine.
In 1991, Ukraine received hundreds of Soviet Union frontline jets. However, the country’s kleptocratic government was unable to keep what it had. The Ukraine Air Force had 225 aircraft, none of which were fully modernized or maintained when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th.
As Vlad Putin’s “short war” prepares for its third week of heavy operation, it is not sensible to keep the Russian Air Force in reserve.
Bronk claims that “the continuing pattern of activity” (or should it be inactivity) is the reason. Bronk argues that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan and brief complex air operations at scale.
Bronk notes that Russian Air Force pilots receive less training than Western pilots.
Bronk concludes, “VKS was capable of performing complex air operations, it should not have been difficult for them to achieve air superiority over Ukraine.”
Bronk’s logic is valid, but it doesn’t make sense. This is because, even though the VKS has only had experience flying two- to four-ship missions, it’s still not clear why they don’t fly a lot more missions to support troops — possibly as many as 10,000 — and getting killed on the ground.
Part of what’s missing is likely fear of losses to Ukraine antiaircraft missiles–weather-fixed, mobile, or man-portable air defenses (MANPADS).
The battlespace became too uncomfortable for bombers and fighters, which is why the U.S. Air Force and more recently the Navy went so big in stealth. Soviet, later Russian, and Chinese air defenses were becoming denser and more deadly. It would be easier to track and detect a jet than it was to hit.
This is stealth: It’s a combination of technology and tactics that makes stealthy planes harder to shoot down.
In 1981, the United States introduced its first combat-capable stealth aircraft, the F-117. The Nighthawk, despite its fighter designation, was actually a light strike aircraft with no air-to-air capabilities. The B-2 Spirit was then followed by the F-22 Raptor fighter air superiority fighter and the F-35 Lightning II multi-role fighter. The development of the B-21 Raider heavy-bomber is progressing well.
The U.S. has already deployed four stealth platforms, with a fifth in the works. Russia however has four stealth fighters. VKS has only received four Su-57 stealth planes (how stealthy these jets are is up for debate), with the first arriving last year. It is not known if any of the four are yet combat-ready.
Because of the proliferation of anti-aircraft missiles on the battlefield, the U.S. placed a wise bet on stealth.
VKS flew very few missions over Ukraine. They did so mostly at night to reduce losses to MANPADS. To minimize the risk to Russia’s fleet of expensive non-stealthy aircraft, Russia launched a few precision strikes.
What good is an air force that cannot be deployed in modern battlespaces?
Stealth is the cost of modern air warfare. But it’s not something Russia can afford.