When the war in Ukraine began, there were estimates that Russia would establish air superiority within a matter of days. But 9 months into the war, the skies over Ukraine are still contested. Why have Russia struggled to utilise their air power effectively? And how has the war in the air changed as a result?

In this video, we look at how Ukraine's air defences have created a denial of air space, and the history of surface to air missile systems, which has led to a lot of the SAMS in the war in Ukraine dating back to the Soviet era. As the skies have become more dangerous due to advanced SAM technology, we’ve seen the development of new systems to resist air dominance, such as new surveillance and combat drones. 

Visit our War in Ukraine page to watch more videos from our Ukraine series.

Where is Russia's air force?

When the war in Ukraine began, there were estimates that Russia would establish air superiority within a matter of days. But 9 months into the war, the skies over Ukraine are still contested.

Russia’s air force should have been one of their biggest strengths. So why have they struggled to utilise their air power effectively? And how has the war in the air changed as a result?

The air war the Russian air war really wasn't what many would have anticipated. Especially if you look at previous examples of Ukraine, Syria and even Chechnya. Many point to the fact that it really didn't destroy that many Ukrainian aircraft on the ground and that it didn't crater too many runways, that it didn't hit, you know, regular things like bridges and so on, that we would have expected, in fact, that it was a very inefficient use of air power. The other issue is that it really shows something of a poverty within Russian air power itself in that what we ordinarily understand as kind of combined arms is something where you have a lot of technology bombing a few aircraft to really maximize some kind of effect. What we see in the case of the Russians, is that though they do have some fantastic aircraft, there's a feeling that actually that there's not all of this kind of infrastructure and people behind it. And that includes logistics.

The vast geographical size of Ukraine provides another stumbling block for strikes. And this is made more difficult by what appears to be years of corruption damaging that Air Force.

What we see in particular is a great deal of mismanagement, kleptocracy, you know, favoured projects over some kind of strategic effect. There's even a deeper problem for the Russians other than just equipment or just say manpower. And then we can see this this problem impacting all across the Russian military, from ground forces to air forces, that the level of corruption in Russia itself has had an impact on its ability to have a tactical or even strategic effect without support from the air.

Russia's ground forces have been largely unable to mount effective combined arms operations, which has led to heavy losses. But the key reason for Russia's inability to effectively use its air force has been its failure to take out Ukraine's mobile surface to air missile systems. They have been unable to suppress enemy air defences.

Early on, Ukraine prioritized reinforcing their ground-based air defences with repeated requests for allies for more air defence systems. And a lot of the systems that we've seen on both sides in the war date back to the Soviet era.

Since the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was prolific in the development and production of ground-based surface to air missiles. Guided surface to air missiles were under development when the Second World War ended, but saw rapid development in the fifties and sixties, particularly in the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The SA-2 guideline, or S-75 Divina was introduced in 1958 and became the first surface to air guided missile system used in combat and the most widely deployed surface to air missile in the world. Used effectively in the Vietnam War, this was one of the first times in which guided anti-aircraft missiles seriously challenged advanced supersonic jet aircraft. By the 1960s, the development and deployment of surface to air missiles began to entirely change the nature of air wars and air forces. New aircraft were developed ones that could fly lower and evade the missiles, radar performance and mobility of surface to air missiles continue to increase. The S-300 missile systems offered ranges of around 150 kilometers, along with good mobility.

The most significant that we saw earlier were these S-300s and in some cases, I believe S-400. That means that attack aircraft that that would be launched from Russia and in order for them to avoid the systems, they have to actually fly very low to the ground. And we've seen many instances on social media of these aircraft just, you know, a thousand or so feet above the ground streaming along the Ukrainian countryside. And the problem is, of course, as soon as they start doing that, they become really targets for other systems.

As surface to air missile technology advanced, the mobility and manoeuvrability of these missiles was increasingly seen as a priority, making them harder to hit. The Soviet Union's 9K33 OSA was the first system to include such track and missiles all on a single mobile platform. Another gamechanger increasingly influential in the last three decades, are man-portable air defence systems or MANPADS. The 9K32 Strela-2 was the first Soviet man-portable surface to air missile, entering service in 1968. The Strela-2 was an infrared guided missile with a seeker in the nose. The weapon was produced in large quantities and distributed worldwide. This Strela-2 in IWM’s collection was captured by British forces during Operation Desert Storm and is missing its gripstock.

In the early days of using, say, shoulder mounted missiles, something like bazookas or RPGs, they were used largely with an idea that you kind of shoot and hope that you hit a target. In the 1980s, we start to see a sophistication in the guidance systems that are actually working off of, say, heat signatures around movement signatures and things like this. The guidance systems, and in particular the ability for these MANPADS to have quite sophisticated guided algorithmic decision making to be able to identify pattern and detail. Some MANPADS have over, say, 4000 sensors, that they're looking at in relation to what an adversary is trying to target.

Despite international concerns about the risk of MANPADS being sold on the black market, these weapons have proliferated in recent wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Ukraine. Models such as the US-made Stinger missile have proved fundamental in Ukraine's air defences against low level aircraft. The successful air denial system that Ukrainians have put in place have left the Russians struggling to operate in that environment. Russian forces have had to resort to different tactics. They've had to change the way they use their airspace.

As the skies have become more dangerous due to advanced surface to air missile technology, we've seen the development of new systems to resist air dominance. Countries like Iran, Israel and Turkey have invested heavily in developing new surveillance and combat drones.

Drones are proliferating really quickly across the international system. We can see that because obviously in the case of Afghanistan in particular, but also used in the so-called war on terror. The interesting thing about them also is that they can be made extremely cheap.

From early in the war, we saw Ukraine not only effectively using the Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 drone to destroy expensive Russian military assets, but even strapping bombs to commercial drones. And in the past few months, we've seen Russian drone strikes causing vast amounts of damage across Ukraine.

Those unmanned vehicles, for instance, as we've seen like the Shaheed “suicide bombing” drones, for instance, is an example of how the Russians have had to operate as the airspace has been denied to them. And so what you do is you flood the airspace almost like a denial of service attack, as we see on the Internet, as you attack a server, for instance, by having so many pings against it, it essentially shuts down the server. And what we see in the case of Russia is that it's doing the same thing. It's trying to flood the air defence systems.

Recent drone strikes against Ukrainian cities have been successful at hitting core infrastructure, particularly energy plants, making life for civilians in these cities extremely difficult. The relatively low cost of these drones is one of the main reasons for Russia to deploy them, and in such numbers. Each drone reportedly costs around $20,000. And so losing an expensive advance guided missile to these drones is not an ideal strategy for Ukraine. Time will now tell if Russia's resources are sufficient to continue this campaign or if another strategy will again form.

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