Analysis of Russian airpower deployment in Ukraine by Guy Plopsky
Russia’s savage aggression against Ukraine has revealed much about the state of Russia’s combat air capabilities. We asked Guy Plopsky to take a deeper look.
Which Russian Aerospace Forces combat aircraft have been used in this campaign, which have been most active, and what have they been doing?
There may be a lot we don’t know simply because it doesn’t get reported and/or captured on film, but available information suggests that the Russian Aerospace Forces’ (VKS) army aviation has been quite active. Attack helicopters being employed include Mi-35Ms, Mi-28Ns, Ka-52s, and one or more variants of the older Mi-24. The Ka-52 in particular seems to be among the most active Russian combat aircraft types in this war so far. Ka-52s appear to be flying close air support (CAS), air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, and armed escort sorties. They appear to typically operate in flights of 2-4 aircraft.
As for VKS operational-tactical aviation, Su-25s (including Su-25SM and Su-25SM3 versions) in particular seem to be among the most active. They appear to typically operate in flights of two, flying CAS, air interdiction and likely also armed reconnaissance sorties. Some of the other aircraft types known to be taking part in the campaign include the Su-35S and Su-34. Su-35Ss are being employed for suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions. They are likely flying other counterair missions too (for example, fighter sweeps), and possibly also air interdiction and/or other missions. Missions performed by the Su-34 during the war likely include air interdiction and possibly also offensive counterair (SEAD/attack of counter-air targets on the ground) and/or other missions (for example, attack of critical infrastructure assets). Tragically, hospitals and other healthcare facilities have been included in this ‘critical infrastructure’ targeting. The Russians are also known to target other civilian targets. It is not clear which specific VKS assets were used to target various civilian targets.
As for VKS long-range aviation, to the best of my knowledge, there are no videos documenting the use of bombers in the campaign; however, Tu-95MS and/or Tu-160 bombers have no doubt been employed to launch cruise missiles, likely against both military targets (for example, counterair targets on the ground) and critical infrastructure assets.
The VKS is also employing Inokhodets medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) and Forpost-R tactical armed unmanned aerial systems (UASs). These systems, too, seem to be more active than they were earlier in the war. They appear to be used for air interdiction and armed reconnaissance.
Does Russia use smart munitions to the same extent as the US/NATO?
In short, no. Not even close. According to figures published in the Vozdushno-Kosmicehskaya Oborona (Aerospace Defense) journal, only 3% of the total munitions employed by Russian aircraft during the First Chechen War were guided. The figures for the Second Chechen War and the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War are even lower – a meager 1.5% and 0.5%, respectively. For comparison, nearly 70% of the total weapons employed by NATO/Coalition air and naval platforms during Operation Deliberate Force (1995)/Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) were guided, and, in 2011, NATO struck targets in Libya exclusively with precision-guided weapons. The figure for Russian operations in Syria is not known; however, when air strikes commenced in late September 2015, the vast majority of munitions employed were unguided. To this day, guided weapons continue to account for a tiny portion of the total munitions employed by the VKS and the Russian Navy in Syria since September 2015. This may explain the Russian Defense Ministry’s continued reluctance to publish an official figure. No such official figure is available for Russian operations against Ukraine either. The total number of missiles launched by the VKS, Russian Navy and Ground Forces against Ukraine surpasses that of other Russian military operations; however, VKS operational-tactical and army aviation appear to be employing predominantly unguided munitions.
Generally speaking, how do the Russian aerospace forces’ precision-strike capabilities compare to those of the US/NATO?
On the whole, despite extensive modernization efforts, the gap in precision-strike capabilities between the VKS and leading Western air forces remains very large. In particular, the VKS’ ability to prosecute fixed hard and buried targets, mobile targets and moving targets is far more limited, especially in a contested environment and/or during night and adverse weather conditions. There are numerous interrelated factors as to why there remains a very large gap in precision-strike capabilities. They include, inter alia:
Inferior target acquisition, targeting and information exchange capabilities of Russian combat aircraft:
The VKS still operates a large number of Soviet-era platforms, many of which received various upgrades (including installation of more modern navigation, targeting and other equipment, and, in most cases, integration of additional precision-guided weapons); however, the large majority of these upgraded platforms still lack modern data link and sensor systems, and can only employ a limited variety of guided weapons (some can only use older types of guided weapons). Both non-upgraded and some of the upgraded platforms also lack glass cockpits. Put together, these and other factors translate into markedly inferior situational awareness, high aircrew workload and limited/very limited precision targeting capabilities. Apart from these platforms, the VKS also operates some more extensively modernized older platforms and a large number of newer platforms equipped with more modern avionics and mission systems; however, their precision-strike capabilities, too, are more limited than those of modern US/NATO fixed and rotary-wing combat aircraft. Notably, their built-in sensor systems are less capable than many advanced Western built-in systems and targeting pods, and they lack the sensor fusion capabilities of modern Western platforms.
Very few stealth platforms:
The VKS has thus far taken delivery of a very small number of production version Su-57 fighters and has yet to equip a single operational squadron with the type. As for the PAK DA bomber programme, Russia has yet to roll out a prototype and it remains to be seen whether the VKS will even begin to take delivery of production version aircraft by the end of the decade. The VKS’ stealth aircraft fleet will remain both quantitatively and, in many respects, qualitatively markedly inferior to that of the US/NATO in the foreseeable decades.
Absence of certain types of precision-guided weapons:
There are several types of precision-guided weapons that are neither in service with the VKS nor known to be in development for it. These include precision-guided missiles and bombs that are “network-enabled” and/or equipped with tri-mode seekers for enhanced tactical flexibility. Another example are heavy penetrator bombs for defeating hard and buried targets (the heaviest precision-guided “bunker buster” bombs available to the VKS are 1,500 kg-class weapons).
Very few modern combat support platforms:
At present, the VKS operates a relatively small fleet of manned combat support platforms such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft for supporting precision-strike and other missions. This fleet comprises both older platforms, some of which have undergone modernization (for example, A-50 AEW&C aircraft that were upgraded to the A-50U standard), and newer platforms. The latter in particular are available in very limited numbers; for example, the VKS’ fleet of Il-22PP EW aircraft and Tu-214R ISR aircraft is tiny. Furthermore, the VKS has no high-altitude ISR platform.
Very few unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs):
There are two types of UCAVs currently available to the VKS. Both are relatively basic designs (part of the Inokhodets and Forpost-R armed UASs), and both are available in small numbers. Heavier/more advanced UCAVs are still not ready. Notably, prototypes of the S-70 stealth UCAV are currently undergoing testing and it remains to be seen whether the VKS will begin taking delivery of production version aircraft before the late 2020s.
The above list of factors is by no means exhaustive.
It must be emphasized that the VKS’ capabilities will greatly expand over the next decade as it continues to field modern manned and unmanned combat and combat support assets and precision-guided weapons. Notably, by the early 2030s, the large majority of the VKS’ force of fixed and rotary-wing combat aircraft will have at least a limited night and adverse weather precision-strike capability. That said, large capability gaps in C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), EW, target acquisition and targeting, stealth, precision-guided weapons and other relevant areas will remain between the VKS and leading Western air forces.
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You mentioned inferior targeting acquisition and targeting capabilities – can you give a few brief examples?
Sure. To illustrate this point, consider several very brief examples pertaining to the five most prevalent tactical fixed-wing aircraft types in service with the VKS that possess a precision-strike capability: the Su-24M, Su-25SM, Su-30SM, Su-34 and Su-35S.
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The Su-30SM and Su-35S are equipped with the OLS-30 and OLS-35 optical-locator station, respectively. Located to starboard of the aircraft centerline ahead of the cockpit, these built-in systems are in many respects significantly inferior to advanced western targeting pods. Take for instance the OLS-35; due to its position and its comparatively small field of regard, the system provides only limited lower hemisphere coverage. This significantly constrains the Su-35S’ tactical flexibility when employing it for surface (ground and sea) target acquisition and laser designation, among other purposes. The same is true for the Su-30SM when employing its OLS-30 for surface target acquisition (as for laser designation, there is conflicting information on whether the OLS-30 includes a laser designator or not, meaning the Su-30SM may not have the ability to independently employ laser-guided missiles).
The Su-34 – primarily an air-to-surface platform – is equipped with the ventral LTPS “Platan” laser/TV targeting system whose retractable housing can be seen located between the inlets, just aft of the forward landing gear bay. Platan provides greater – though still limited – lower hemisphere coverage. Additional information about the system is very scarce, but Platan is likely equipped with a low-light-level television (LLLTV) device; it is not believed to have a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, A standard feature on advanced western targeting pods, FLIR sensors offer superior night and adverse weather capability. Platan’s functionality is inferior to that of advanced targeting pods due to other reasons too, including, for example, lower sensor resolution and the absence of a laser-lead guidance capability (the latter greatly facilitates effective engagement of moving targets using laser-guided weapons that lack the ability to compute the lead required to strike a target that is on the move).
Besides their respective aforementioned systems, the Su-30SM, Su-34 and Su-35S are, among other things, also equipped with relatively modern passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar systems. While the synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) mapping, ground moving target indication and tracking (GMTI/GMTT), and other air-to-surface capabilities of these radar systems are presumably somewhat – if not considerably – superior to those of their respective export-oriented variants, they are markedly inferior in many respects to those of advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar systems installed in many western fighter aircraft.
The Su-24M is an older platform, equipped with the dated PNS-24M targeting/navigation system (which includes a radar system and the ventral LTPS “Kaira-24” laser/TV targeting system, among other things) and an archaic stores management system. The only guided weapons that the Su-24M can employ are older laser and TV-guided weapons and anti-radiation missiles. Practically speaking, laser and TV-guided weapons are only suitable for clear/limited adverse weather conditions. Moreover, the TV-guided bombs and missiles that the Su-24M can employ lack a night capability. So too does its Kaira-24 system, meaning that the Su-24M is unable to independently engage targets at night with laser-guided weapons. This is a huge limitation, especially given that the Su-24M is unable to employ satellite-aided bombs and missiles, which are day/night and adverse weather capable weapons (the Su-30SM, by the way, may not be able to use them either). As for unguided bombs, the Su-24M can employ them during night and adverse weather conditions. Notably, the integration of the SVP-24 specialized computing subsystem on many Su-24Ms has enabled them to employ unguided bombs with greater precision than before; however, given that unguided bombs are inherently less precise, the Su-24M’s inability to use modern, night and adverse weather capable precision-guided weapons – especially stand-off weapons – remains a huge limitation.
As for the Su-25SM, it is equipped with a Klen-PS laser rangefinder/designator system, but lacks both a radar and an electro-optical (EO) targeting system, and the only guided weapons it is able to employ are several types of dated laser-guided missiles. Put together, this means that, practically speaking, the Su-25SM lacks a night and/or adverse weather organic precision-strike capability, and possesses only a limited daytime organic precision-strike capability against stationary targets. Needless to say, this is a major disadvantage for a CAS/ground attack platform. For comparison, though not equipped with a radar either, the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) A-10C can carry an advanced targeting pod and can employ a wide range of modern precision-guided weapons. It is a far more versatile platform, possessing a day/night and adverse weather organic precision-strike capability (including against moving targets in limited adverse weather conditions).
To be fair, unlike the baseline Su-25, the Su-25SM is equipped with the satellite-aided PrNK-25SM targeting/navigation system that enables employment of unguided bombs against stationary targets during day/night and adverse weather conditions without visual acquisition of the targets by the pilot. However, because it involves the use of unguided bombs, this bombing method is inherently less precise. Furthermore, it requires the Su-25SM to rely on non-organic assets to provide accurate target coordinates prior to and/or during a mission.
How useful are medium and heavy bombers for this campaign?
VKS bomber/strike aircraft are typically catagorized as follows:
Strategic bombers (Tu-95MS and Tu-160), long-range bombers (Tu-22M3) and operational-tactical bombers (Su-24M, Su-34).
In the conventional strike role, the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 (including the Tu-160M1 version) can strike stationary ground targets with known coordinates in day/night and adverse weather conditions using Kh-555 and Kh-101 long-range air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). The latter is a more capable weapon that can currently be employed by some Tu-95MSs and some (if not all) Tu-160s. Technically speaking, Tu-95MSs are not bombers; they are purely strategic missiles carriers because they cannot employ bombs of any kind (not even unguided bombs). As for Tu-160s, they are not known to currently carry any weapons other than ALCMs either. Given that Ukraine fields air defense systems, the ability to launch ALCMs from well outside the range of air defenses makes the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 useful. Aside from that, however, the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 are of no other use in such a campaign given that they are non-stealthy platforms, lack modern data-link, radar, EO targeting and self-protection systems, and are (seemingly) unable to employ other weapons. Moreover, it’s not clear whether the Kh-555 and/or Kh-101 have a hardened target defeat capability. If not, this further limits the utility of the Tu-95MS and Tu-160.
As for the Tu-22M3, There is no indication of its employment in the campaign to date. The Tu-22M3’s conventional armament is known to currently include only anti-ship variant(s) of the Kh-22 air-to-surface missile and various unguided bombs. In other words, the Tu-22M3 has no conventional stand-off strike capability against ground targets. Moreover, like the Tu-95MS and Tu-160, it is both non-stealthy and lacks modern systems. Given the threat posed by Ukrainian air defenses, the apparent absence of Tu-22M3s in this war so far comes as no surprise.
Like the Tu-22M3, there is no indication that Russia is using the Su-24M in the campaign so far (though it is known to be employing the Su-24MR reconnaissance variant). This, too, is not surprising given that the VKS operates a relatively large fleet of Su-34s, which are superior to the Su-24M and are meant to eventually replace it. As I noted earlier, the Su-34 is being used in the campaign, and, despite its limitations (some of which are mentioned above), it is nevertheless a capable combat aircraft that can be employed for many air-to-surface tasks, making it among the most useful platforms in this war.
How many Russian aircraft have been lost?
To date, Russia has lost well over 40 manned aircraft. This number includes at least 11 fixed-wing aircraft that were shot down: 6 Su-25s (including two or more SMs and one or more SM3s) and 4 Su-34s belonging to the VKS, and one Russian Navy Su-30SM. Another VKS Su-25 was damaged by a man-portable air defense system (MANPADS), but managed to make it back to base. VKS rotary-wing losses have been particularly heavy. At least 3 transport and 11 attack helicopters were shot down. The latter include 7 Mi-24 and Mi-35Ms, 3 Ka-52s and one Mi-28N. At least two more Ka-52s are known to have carried out a forced landing in Ukrainian territory after being hit and were subsequently abandoned by their crews. At least another 15 Russian helicopters were destroyed on the ground by Ukrainian attacks on Kershon Air Base. The Russians have also lost a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the heaviest of these being a UAV that is part of the Forpost tactical UAS.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in the application of Russian air power?
The biggest surprise was the apparent limited use of tactical fixed-wing aircraft early on in the campaign (first 5 days or following the opening wave of attacks). As I noted in an earlier interview with The Aviationist, “[o]ne explanation is that the Russians probably overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated the Ukrainians. They may have believed that their ground forces would be able to seize key objectives swiftly, and that the extensive use of operational-tactical aviation would therefore not be necessary. This is supported by the fact that the opening phase of missile-aviation and artillery attacks that preceded the ground offensive was quite short. Many analysts expected it to be much longer and more intense.” The Russians may have also limited the number of tactical fixed-wing aircraft sorties in the first days of the campaign due to fears of suffering excessive losses. Another possible contributing factor or explanation for the apparent limited activity of tactical fixed-wing aircraft in late February is that the Russians were simply unprepared to conduct sorties in larger numbers.
How is Ukraine different from the Syria campaign?
Firstly, the scope of the Ukraine campaign is different. It involves a larger and more diverse target set and likely a higher average daily sortie rate. Secondly, the terrain in Ukraine is different and generally more challenging for target location and identification, especially for Russian tactical fixed-wing aircraft (this is less of an issue for Russian UAVs and more modern attack helicopters). Weather conditions may also prove to be generally less favorable than in Syria. Lastly, unlike the Syria campaign, the Ukraine campaign involves an attack on a state with combat aircraft and an integrated air defense system (IADS).
Which recent wars will have influenced how Russian airpower is applied, and what are the specifics of these changes?
A good question – this is a very large topic and there are many specifics about the use of Russian air power in Ukraine that are not known, so I will make several quick points:
Russian air operations in Ukraine appear to have drawn on some lessons from the Russo-Georgian war. Notably, whereas Russian Tu-22Ms and Su-24Ms were employed to attack Georgian targets in 2008, there is – as mentioned earlier – no indication of them being employed against Ukraine to date. During the war with Georgia, a single Tu-22M3 and Su-24M were shot down by Georgian air defenses. The Russians likely therefore view these two dated aircraft types as too risky to employ at this stage of the war in Ukraine, especially given the various other, more modern capabilities presently available to the Russian military that render the Tu-22M3 and Su-24M redundant in many respects. That said, the VKS is interestingly employing a number of other dated aircraft types in this war. Most notably, the baseline Su-25 and the Mi-24P. In both cases, the VKS has much more capable alternatives available (which are also being employed in the campaign). Given the huge difference in combat potential between a Su-25 and a Su-25SM3 or a Mi-24P and a Mi-35M/Mi-28N/Ka-52, it’s not entirely clear why these dated platforms are being employed in a contested environment.
Another important Russian lesson from the Russo-Georgian war and from other foreign military operations is the importance of UASs. During the 2008 war, the Russian military made very limited use of Pchela-1T UAVs and was grossly disappointed with its performance, especially when compared to the UASs available to Georgia. Since then, the Russian military has been fielding various UAS, though its capabilities in this field are still limited, with more advanced/heavier systems still not ready. The two most advanced Russian UASs known to currently be employed in Ukraine are the aforementioned Inokhodets and Forpost-R (both of these armed UASs have also seen use in Syria). While these systems are leaps ahead of what the Russian military had available in 2008, they are in many respects inferior to the Bayraktar TB2 MALE UCAV operated by Ukraine.
As for other aspects of the campaign, the initial missile-aviation strikes against Ukraine appear to have been a Russian attempt at executing something akin to the opening phases of US-led military operations against Iraq and Serbia. In reality, however, Russia’s opening phase was very different. The Pentagon estimates that the Russian military launched only about 100 missiles of various types during the opening attack. Even though the actual number is likely higher, this is a relatively small number given the scale of Russia’s military operation and the large number of potential aimpoints (I discuss Russia’s use of missiles in greater detail here). Furthermore, it seems that the Russians did not effectively exploit the mixed success of their initial and subsequent missile strikes by following them up with large numbers of fixed-wing aircraft strike sorties using shorter range/direct attack weapons. They were also seemingly slow to re-attack when necessary. In short, Russia’s opening phases were conducted rather poorly, yielding very mixed results.
Russia’s campaign in Ukraine appears to highlight major deficiencies in the Russian military’s offensive and defensive counterair capabilities. Russian offensive counterair efforts failed to neutralize the Ukrainian Air Force on the ground. Moreover, Russian fighters and ground-based air defenses were unable to prevent attacks by Ukrainian manned and unmanned aircraft on Russian ground forces. Ukraine’s TB2 UCAVs, in particular, are proving a challenge. As for the VKS’ SEAD capabilities, despite Russia’s own experience in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and despite studying US and allied SEAD efforts during various military operations, the VKS’ SEAD capabilities remain lackluster (equipment and especially training). As I mentioned elsewhere, VKS “exercises appear to exhibit little in the way of complex scenarios involving SEAD packages supporting strike packages.” Given that Ukraine fields highly mobile air defense systems, the lack of a robust SEAD capability has proven to be a major issue.
As a final general remark, it’s important to keep in mind that while this war has highlighted many deficiencies in the Russian military’s capabilities, there are some capabilities that are not being employed to the fullest. Also, the Russian military is likely drawing many lessons from this war. Which of these lessons will be applied and how remains to be seen.
Guy Plopsky is the author of a number of articles on air power and Russian military affairs. He holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University Taiwan.