The Value of Airpower and the War in Ukraine

Ukraine Airpower
Ukraine Air Force Sukhoi Su-27P taking off. Photo by Johnathan Webb

By John Christianson

The Value of Airpower for Modern Militaries

The Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world and united western democracies in a way Vladimir Putin has always aimed to undermine.  The war has now become a clarion call for the defense of democracy from external threats that has united many differing political viewpoints and proven that democracies will stand united when threatened.  The concerted effort to support the nascent democracy of Ukraine has not only made the country more democratic, it has given rise to significant thought on how to support fledgling democracies against autocracy.

In this rush to provide assistance there are certainly many lessons to be learned across the spectrum of government and diplomacy, some of which may not be discerned for quite some time.  One that can be definitively remarked upon now, however, is that the war has shown the value of airpower to modern militaries.  More specifically, it has shown the negative consequences of what can happen when airpower is not used effectively.

Russia’s Failure to Plan

When Russia kicked off its invasion into Ukraine, it did so with significant deployed air assets that were superior in number and quality to the older Ukrainian forces.  What Russia did not have, however, was a  coherent air campaign plan the lack of which negated many of the advantages their forces had.  While this surprised many due to their investments in advanced technologies, it was perhaps not out of character for a Russian air force that is rarely used outside of a direct ground support role.  At the outset of the invasion, Russia focused solely on providing support for ground troops in what it expected to be a short war and failed in its attempt to suppress Ukrainian air defenses.  It seemed to have no sense of where Ukrainian high value targets were or how to use its air assets strategically.

While there were some late attempts to adapt, the failure to disable Ukrainian air defense systems has denied Russia’s ability to conduct strategic strikes deep in Ukrainian airspace with their aircraft.  This has forced them to instead rely on a dwindling supply of missiles.  They still maintain an air-to-air advantage over older Ukrainian fighters, yet lately have shown an unwillingness or inability to use them.  The Russian air force played little to no part in the effort to counter Ukrainian offensives.  Additionally, intelligence suggests that Russia is limiting flights of its most advanced fighter plane, the Su-57, to avoid any reputational damage that might occur should one be shot down.  For now at least, Russia has conceded its attempt to gain control of the skies.

Fighting to a Draw

Conversely, Ukraine has long realized that they did not have the superior air force and adopted aggressive defense tactics to counter the threat.  They have fought in ways the Russians did not expect, keeping their forces mobile and constantly harassing the Russian air force, while maintaining their ability to fight.  Ukraine has further adopted innovative technological solutions in the fight against Russia, such as fitting United States made High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), which are made to destroy enemy radars, on Ukrainian Russian Made fighter jets.  While this overall strategy of air denial has given the Ukrainian air force significantly more success than anyone expected, it has not led to air superiority for the Ukrainians either.

The inability of either side to gain air superiority in Ukraine is perhaps one of the most important military lessons that can be derived from the conflict so far.  Had Russia had a coherent plan to use its air force to strike strategic and high value targets from the outset, it might have gotten the short war it wanted.  On the other hand, if Ukraine was able to gain even temporary air superiority imagine the havoc they could have wreaked on the 40 mile long Russian convoy stalled outside of Kyiv for weeks early in the war.

As it stands, with the battle for the air domain still at a draw, the war has turned into a prolonged artillery battle on the ground, lengthening the war and increasing both civilian and military casualties.  As western democracies continue to provide assistance to Ukraine going forward, they would do well to remember that the effect the fight in the air, or lack thereof, can have on the one on the ground.

About the Author

John Christianson is a Military Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an active-duty Air Force officer. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or of the United States Air Force.    

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