By Alex Daniel
While the war in Ukraine has raged on, we in the outside world have heard little about the combat itself, instead, news has focused on the wider political situation we can see and the one thing we can measure – the numbers of refugees forced from Ukrainian soil.
What little we have heard of combat has mostly been limited to ground warfare, like soldiers captured or killed or a column of Russian troops and equipment on the road to Kyiv. All of this has left the Russian Air force conspicuous by its absence.
Some evidence of the war in the air can be found in the Oryx blog – which uses open-source data to track things like equipment losses on both sides. As of March 16, Oryx had recorded the loss of 13 planes on the Russian side, 8 unmanned aerial vehicles and 32 helicopters. These numbers could be higher since Oryx only accepts losses with photographic proof.
But for a country with an air force whose strength is reported to be in excess of 3,800 planes, trailing only that of the United States, they have not put in a major show of force against Ukraine’s 318 military aircraft.
In fact, Ukraine is still claiming dominance of its skies is thanks to its own pilots. Most of Ukraine’s military aircraft are still operating and Ukraine’s Air Force is flying approximately five to ten missions a day from a pool of about 50 planes. Folk heroes have even started to rise from these ranks of pilots including the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’, a fighter ace that some sources are claiming has already shot down forty-nine Russian aircraft in this war.
While tales of pilots with supernatural skill might bolster morale, there is a far more earth-based possibility for Ukraine’s tactical advantage in the air, literally. Since many modern anti-aircraft systems, like those in Ukraine’s possession, rely on radar – Russian jets may be flying close to the ground in order to avoid detection by those systems as radar doesn’t work over the horizon line. However, this low flying can put them right in the firing line of shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft systems such as stinger missiles that are being supplied to Ukraine by America and allies within the EU. In essence, Russian pilots are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
However, the tide may be about to turn against Ukraine.
In recent days Russia has stepped up its campaign of Airstrikes, targeting Ukrainian Airbases and according to some sources, civilian targets as well. Now Russian aircraft are flying around 200 missions a day although most of their planes stay inside Russian airspace. Unfortunately for them, their increase in attacks on airports might already be too late as Ukraine has now scattered its jets across the country, decentralising the concentrations of its air power to prevent a majority of their jets from being destroyed in a small number of strikes.
Expert Michael Kofman from the Centre for Naval Analysis recently told the New Yorker that he believes Russia didn’t initially deploy the majority of its Air Force due to an intelligence failure, believing they wouldn’t need it as Ukraine would fall to Russian ground forces quickly.
Now the Ukrainian people have dispelled that notion and may have just woken a sleeping dragon in the shape of Russia’s air might.
The majority of Ukraine’s Air Force is made up of former soviet jets – MIG-29s – left over from the cold war alongside some newer SU-27s, many of these are stationed protecting the capital of Kyiv. Ukraine also has to deal with a lack of trained pilots and if the war in the air ramps up, the loss of aircraft to conflict might become a far smaller problem compared to the death of far harder to replace pilots.
Russia on the other hand, while not only outnumbering Ukraine’s forces, also claims to have the far more modern SU-30, SU-35 and SU-57 fighter jets more than 60 of them being delivered by the end of 2021 according to an announcement by the deputy commander of Russia’s Air Force last summer.
There was a brief hope to counter that technological edge when Poland offered to allow the use of twenty-eight of its own MIG-29s by the Ukrainian Air Force. The same as the majority of Ukraine’s own jets, it’s an older aircraft but it would have bolstered the number of planes Ukraine could put into the air.
Unfortunately, the plan put forward by Poland involved moving the jets through Ramstein – an American airbase in Germany. The idea was to give the MIGs to the United States at Ramstein, who would then transfer them to the Ukrainian military and they would fly them home.
However, the fact that the base also houses NATO’s Allied Air Command headquarters seems to have been a sticking point for US authorities, the risk being that passing through the airbase would look too much like NATO getting involved and drawing the organisation further into the conflict.
This reticence to get directly involved by NATO is a likely reason why the Ukrainian request for a No Fly Zone over the country has been denied. If NATO agrees to create the zone they have to enforce it, which is likely to lead to direct combat with the Russian Air Force if and when they attempt to breach it. That would put them right into the war which is something NATO has not been willing to let happen yet, perhaps due to the looming spectre of the Kremlin’s nuclear weapons and the possibility of escalating the conflict into a nuclear war.
The plan to transfer the MIGs hasn’t been flat out refused, however, the Americans have said that Poland can transfer them to Ukraine unilaterally but not through the NATO facility.
With the conflict now entering its third week, the Ukrainian Air Force is still alone against the leviathan of its Russian counterpart but it seems that with the ground war bogged down and airstrikes on the rise, the Russians might be about to strike in the air.