Why has the Russian Air Force failed to effectively support ground forces? 

In the early stages of Russia’s invasion, many analysts anticipated that the Russian air force and Army aviation would destroy the Ukrainian armed forces. The military of Ukraine would be totally exposed because Russian jets may randomly choose targets to attack. Why has the Russian Air Force been unable to effectively support ground forces? 

Despite possessing the second-largest and one of the most technologically advanced air forces in the world, Russia has yet to achieve air superiority over significant portions of Ukraine more than six months after the conflict began. According to the Kyiv post Russian armed forces lost about 210 helicopters and 239 aircraft in ongoing battle with Ukraine so far.

One key reason is the lack of a more concerted and effective effort to suppress and/or destroy Ukrainian medium- and long-range, high-altitude-capable mobile SAM systems (S-300PS/V1 & Buk-M1) operating closer to the frontline.

As a result, operating at medium and high altitudes has remained highly dangerous for Russian fixed-wing aircraft, even for more modern types (Su-35S, Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-25SM3), that are equipped with more advanced self-protection suites.

While their self-protection suites are reportedly quite capable (Su-34s operating over Ukraine are also known to employ group protection (escort) jammer pods, such as the L175VU-series or L175VSh-1 pod seen here), Russian aircraft still appear to lack towed decoys.

Moreover, there is no indication that Su-35Ss, Su-30SMs, Su-34s & Su-25SM3s carry anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) for self protection when flying strike/attack sorties. Su-35Ss, Su-30SMs (and to a lesser extent, Su-34s) carry them only when flying patrol and/or escort missions. Su-35Ss, Su-30SMs (and, to a lesser extent, Su-34s) carry Anti radiation missile only when flying patrol, escort and/or SEAD missions.

Seen here are two Su-35Ss equipped with a Kh-31P-series ARM each. They are tasked with flying combined SEAD/air-to-air patrol and escort missions.

Given all of the above, Russian fixed-wing aircraft have been flying many sorties at low and very low levels in order to attempt and delay/avoid detection and engagement by medium- & long-range Ukrainian radar-guided SAM systems.

For example, Su-25-series ground attack aircraft reportedly typically operate at very low levels of 50m or less. This reduces both the situational awareness of Su-25 pilots and the room for pilot error.

It also places the Su-25s at risk of being engaged by UKrainian MANPADSs, air defense artillery (ADA) – for example, the Gepard, – and short-range SAM systems located closer to the frontline.
This has had a negative impact on the effectiveness of Su-25 operations. For example, when employing unguided rockets, they typically “lob” them in order to increase their range (thereby possibly avoiding having the Su-25 enter the engagement zone of Ukrainian air defenses).

This tactic has come at the expense of precision & accuracy. Furthermore, in order to minimize time spent in Ukrainian airspace, Russian Su-25s typically lob all of their rockets in 1-2 salvos and return to base.

lobbying” of rockets is clearly visible in the upper right image of this post:

Russian attack helicopters have also typically been employing unguided rockets in this manner. For example, a pair of Ka-52s can clearly be seen lobbing their unguided rockets in this reportedly very recent video from Izyum (Kharkiv Oblast):

Even if Ukrainian high-altitude-capable SAM systems weren’t an issue, the Russian Air Force would still have trouble effectively supporting ground forces in the face of a large number of short-range, low- to medium-altitude Ukrainian air defenses.

This is due to a combination of factors, including generally poor air-ground integration & relatively limited target acquisition & targeting capabilities of Russian combat aircraft. Precision-strike remains a key area of weakness.

One key weakness in this regard are the limitations of EO targeting systems installed in Russian combat aircraft (and the lack of such systems on some older platforms). Among other things, this means that Russian combat aircraft must operate at lower altitudes and closer to the target area if tasked with finding and identifying targets on the battlefield, which is likely – or, depending on the platform, guaranteed – to place them within the lethal envelopes of short-range air defenses.

Given the seemingly heavy presence of Ukrainian air defenses in Kharkiv Oblast (and likely also concerns about friendly-fire), Russian fixed-wing aircraft have reportedly not been hunting for targets on their own at all in recent days there.

Instead, they have been relying on Russian ground forces to provide target coordinates. Much has therefore depended not only on the ability of Russian aircrews (which rely predominantly on unguided weapons) to accurately hit their targets but also on the ability of Russian ground forces to find targets and pass accurate target coordinates in a timely manner (among other things).

Historically, Russian air-ground integration has been quite poor due to both training and equipment limitations. In the case of the latter his has included, inter alia, both the limited information exchange capabilities of older Russian fixed- & rotary-wing combat aircraft (Su-25, Su-25SM & Mi-24P) and that of the kit used by Russian forward air controllers (though Russia has been introducing much better kit).

An import point I want to add is that the lack of a more concerted and effective Russian SEAD/DEAD effort has had a detrimental impact not only on the quality of air support provided but also the quantity. Russian Air Force commanders have seemingly been reluctant to commit a very large number of aviation assets at any given point in time, likely for fear of suffering even heavier losses.

Source: Guy Plopsky

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