Wing Commander (rtd) and Typhoon combat veteran Mike Sutton OBE gives his views on the use of air power in Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine.
What has most caught your attention regarding how airpower has been employed in the current Russia-Ukraine War?
It is clear that Russian air power has played a relatively limited role in Ukraine, but we can only speculate as to why. Most analysis seems to suggest that Putin wanted a quick strike using a relatively small number of land forces, and he wasn’t expecting the levels of military resistance that has been encountered. There are several potential explanations as to why his apparently well-equipped, modern air force has played less of a role than might be expected. It’s possible that they are less well versed in complex, integrated operations than the West believed, and potentially lacking in precision-guided weapons. It’s also possible that there are concerns about the surface to air missile threat, both from the Ukrainian forces, but also with their own systems and the risk of fratricide. It is also possible that Putin has simply attempted to hold something in reserve. The utility of Ukrainian UAVs has also been interesting. Common wisdom suggests that without defensive systems these drones would be immediately vulnerable to Russian SAMs, and yet they have achieved considerable success. This highlights the role that relatively ‘low risk’ and inexpensive systems can play in a modern conflict
What are your thoughts on a potential No Fly Zone over Ukraine?
The term No Fly Zone is just a soundbite, and it’s important to define what is meant by that concept. The sort of NFZ that commentators are currently advocating is not a ‘light touch’ policing style intervention. It is an air war: pitching western air forces directly against the Russian Air Force. Placing the West eyeball to eyeball against Russian Forces has three ramifications:
First, the West would look to the US to provide the bulk of combat aircraft to enforce a NFZ. It is unlikely that the US would risk its aircraft without first conducting a comprehensive destruction of the Russian air defences (surface to air missiles, radars and command centres). This would mean directly striking Russian forces. An added complexity to this is that many of these systems have very long ranges and can be launched from Russian soil. In order to protect Ukrainian airspace, policy makers would therefore have to decide whether to strike cross-border. It should also be remembered that NFZ need to be enforced: Western and Russian Air Forces would quickly be engaged in a shooting war.
Second, if the NFZ was established and the West had fighters flying over Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery, there would be almost immediate calls to employ that air power in the strike role as well. And, in some ways it would be strange to limit the use of combat aircraft to only attacking Russian aircraft, when it is the ground forces that are causing the most damage. In either case Putin would not make a distinction between the loss of his aircraft, tanks, SAMs or artillery – it will be seen as an attack on his forces by the West. This would leave Putin feeling very threatened and would pose a risk to his core strategic interest – security. In these circumstances the risk of escalation would be significant.
Third, and perhaps most importantly from a strategic perspective, a direct military intervention would play directly to Putin’s narrative. He has long maintained that the West poses a direct military threat to Russia, and this turn of events would legitimise that paranoia, enabling him to justify his own military action
How should the West respond?
This is really a political question, not a military one. In its simplest form, the West is currently trying to influence Putin, to enable a cessation of the fighting. A good strategy does much more than just react, trying to counter like-with-like. It attempts to coerce and make it untenable for the belligerent to continue with a course of action. This requires an understanding that actions might be perceived differently than they were intended, due to an alternative world view. What some assume as benign, could be interpreted by others as a threat. For example, we think of liberal democracy as enlightened, the leaders of Russia and China see it as a menace. Any military action needs to be considered in terms of not just the effect it will have, but how it will be perceived.
Most importantly the Western response needs to avoid conflict escalation. How this is achieved is a political calculation, but there are some military options available. Putin has shot his bolt, and most analysts consider that the Russian performance has been less coordinated and effective than anticipated, particularly in the face of stiff resistance. Although of little comfort to Ukraine, in some ways NATO can draw confidence about the strength and capabilities of its own military resources from this.
Putin’s military approach has been largely conventional, using tanks, artillery and fighters to bombard Ukrainian cities. This approach has been seen before with the indiscriminate Russian bombing of Aleppo, and previously in Grozny and Georgia. With its advance now slowed in the face of fierce resistance, Russia appears to be doubling down on its strategy of bombardment. Russia is unlikely to throw its hands up quickly or easily, and a frustrated Putin makes the situation potentially more volatile. This means that the response from the West has to be considered and insightful in order to manage the risk of escalation.
The West does not need to follow suit and try to counter like-with-like. An asymmetric response avoids direct confrontation, through the use of military aid and support, the provision of anti-armour weapons, surface-to-air missiles and UAVs provides the Ukrainians with the means to fight. This is an extension of the policy of support that has been provided to the Ukrainian army since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. International pressure for safe corridors or protected zones should be re-doubled, potentially with the offer of humanitarian airlift support – both to get people out, and resupplies of food and medicine in. The latter would need deconfliction and coordination with the Russians, which seems a very tall order given the current level of brutality and devastation they are invoking on Ukraine.
– Mike Sutton is the author of Typhoon
(Penguin Michael Joseph, £20) which is out now