Nearly four months into the war, the Ukrainians continue to challenge the Russians for control of airspace, despite the latter’s technological superiority. Former fighter pilot Jean-Christophe Noël, associate researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and editor-in-chief of the Vortex review devoted to “air power”, looks back on the battle in the sky and delivers its first analyses.
L’Express: Why didn’t the Russians manage to control the Ukrainian sky?
Jean-Christophe Noel: First of all, it should be remembered that we do not have all the information and that interpretations are always subject to caution. Nevertheless, it now seems certain that the first phase of the war corresponded to a very rapid special operation to bring down the Ukrainian regime. Aviation did not occupy the most important place. The Russians then only applied page 1 of the “perfect air campaign manual” by sending a few hundred cruise missiles to airports to partially destroy the Ukrainian air force. And they more or less stood there.
Then it didn’t go well for the ground troops, with strong enemy resistance. The Russian air force was then called in urgently to support them. But under disastrous conditions: the weather conditions were unfavorable and the cooperation processes between land and air forces proved to be failing.
However, in Syria, they had the opportunity to practice this type of coordination…
The intervention of the Russian air force in 2015 largely contributed to reversing the situation in favor of Bashar el-Assad’s regime. But it was a fairly limited operation, with elite troops on the ground. The Russians had a problem scaling up in Ukraine. They were badly structured to reproduce the same type of action with the same effectiveness and faced above all a better armed adversary. However, they succeeded in driving the Ukrainian air force out of their area of interest. But they cannot fly freely and unconstrained over Ukrainian territory, where they can be exposed to surface-to-air batteries. In fact, the Russians did not have the means to completely suppress enemy anti-aircraft defenses and radars, as the American Air Force, for example, knows very well how to do.
Their air force is not as developed as those of the West. Putin invested a lot of money to modernize his forces, which were in poor shape in the 1990s, in particular the VKS (acronym for the Russian Air and Space Force). But this modernization was incomplete. Without even mentioning the endemic corruption in the country and the armies, the sums spent were insufficient, for example, to ensure quality training for Russian crews. Many of them fly 100 hours a year, compared to 180 hours for the French, or even 240 for some Anglo-Saxon pilots. However, we are talking about very complicated weapon systems, which you have to know how to handle, for which ranges must be repeated to be mastered. Every hour of training counts.
The Russians do not have the same technological level on their armaments either, because of Western sanctions. More than 20 years ago, around 30% of the aerial munitions fired by the Western coalition during the air campaign over Kosovo were precision munitions. However, during the first three years of their intervention in Syria, the percentage of munitions of this type fired by the Russians was less than 5%. More broadly, the Russians tend to consider aviation above all as a support weapon for ground troops, while for air strategists it is a weapon that is especially effective in deep strikes, on key points. of the opponent.
For its part, how does the Ukrainian Air Force still manage to fly planes?
They now mostly fly in areas where the Russians don’t go looking for them. The missions on the front to support their troops are counted, because the Russians have patrols ready to intercept too daring planes. The Ukrainians also have many airfields. They moved their planes a lot at the beginning of the war so that they were not always parked in the same place. Their goal is to keep their aerial potential alive, so as to maintain a nuisance capacity. The Russians cannot afford to launch too many missiles at very long range to destroy these planes on the ground because their stocks seem to be exhausted. Rather, these missiles are used for strikes against the Ukrainian logistics system in order to have maximum impact on the battlefield.
Are Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapons that effective?
Yes, they are of three types. First there are the “manpads”, portable systems such as the American Stinger missile launchers, the French Mistral or the Igla dating from the Soviet era. They allow the Ukrainians to shoot down Russian aircraft at low altitude. We saw them a lot during the first phase of the war, in March. Then, for the medium altitude, they have Soviet Osa and Buk batteries (respectively called SA-8 and SA-11, by NATO). These are not the most modern weapons, but sometimes it was enough to annoy the Russians. Finally, to defend large cities or areas of interest, there are also S-300 systems, again of Soviet origin. Ukraine managed to keep them up to date by importing the necessary elements sometimes from Russia, thanks to corruption before the war, and probably from some Eastern European countries.
The war had two phases with, since April, the choice of the Russians to conquer the Donbass using artillery. How do they now use the air weapon?
Aviation plays an important role in the Donbass. We seem to have gone from 250 outings per day in March-April to 400 at the end of May, mainly to participate in the bludgeoning of the front with the artillery. These are usually not precision strikes, but saturation bombardments. The pilots arrive at very low altitude, fire – short videos show SU-25s sending 152 mm rockets – before quickly clearing so as not to be hit by Ukrainian fire. And there are still regular deep strikes that I was referring to, but very limited in number.
How important are drones in this war?
Their use allowed the Ukrainians to partially compensate for their lack of air power. The Turkish Bayraktar TB2s thus played an important role in the first phase by attacking the long Russian convoys. Now they would be found near Kherson instead. The strong electromagnetic jamming practiced by the Russians on the Donbass front, which limits data exchanges, may explain this transfer.
There are also suicide drones Switchblade, whose warhead can cause damage at the tactical level. Smaller drones, sometimes civilian, are also used, notably by a dedicated elite unit, Aerorozvidka. These drones will often recognize a target. The collected coordinates are instantly transferred to a digital app that works much like Uber. The means of fire capable of destroying the target are informed of the appearance of the objective and can act. The Russians also use drones a lot. In Syria, 25,000 Russian drone sorties were recorded from 2015 to 2018. But their technology once again seems to be lagging behind the most advanced standards and the information takes longer to be transmitted.
What first lessons for Western armies do you draw from the use of air power in a high-intensity war like this?
Western air forces have often favored quality in recent decades, agreeing to reduce the number of their planes in line, but benefiting from the best. It has paid off as they have ruled the skies in every operation they have participated in recently. But with the return of high-intensity warfare, we see that quality is needed, of course, but also quantity. This was already one of the great lessons of the Second World War: you need stocks. The P-51 Mustang, the propeller plane piloted by Maverick (played by Tom Cruise) in the latest Top Gun drove the Luftwaffe out of western skies because it was one of the best fighters in service in 1944, but also because there were so many of them in flight. Otherwise, in a more technical register, we see that the missions of suppression of the enemy’s anti-aircraft defenses are essential. You need the means to accomplish them, otherwise carrying out an air campaign can become very complicated.
Interview by Clément Daniez