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Why the famed Russian Air Force failed in Ukraine and the vital lessons IAF can draw from it

Defeat of Russian air power in Ukraine raises hard questions for IAF. In the 1st of a 3-part series, ThePrint investigates lessons from Ukraine war for IAF’s equipment & doctrines.

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New Delhi: Elegantly dressed in a three-piece suit, complete with a cravat and gold pocket-watch, railway magnate and banker Jan Bloch was lecturing military experts at London’s Royal United Services Institution on the future of war. “The theatrical spectacles called manoeuvres,” Bloch argued, “are in no way related to real warfare.” Technologies like the machine gun, he warned, would increase “slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push”.

The generals ignored the amateur theorist’s 1901 talk on the impacts of combat technology. Future conflicts in Europe, the Spanish strategist Manuel Fernández Silvestre insisted on the eve of the Great War of 1914-1918, would be settled in “one day’s hard fighting”.

Eight months into the war in Ukraine, Russia’s military failure is forcing strategists across the world to ask the most searching questions since Hiram Maxim’s machine-gun ended the age of horse-powered militaries.

In the first part of this series on the military lessons New Delhi should be learning from the war, ThePrint investigates what it means for the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Also readAll about Shahed-136, Iran’s ‘kamikaze’ drone that Russia is using to strike Ukraine

Why Russian air power lost 

For two generations, strategic thinking in New Delhi has worked around the belief that the Indian Air Force would be able to hold its own in future wars. Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia has written that the IAF is tasked not just with taking on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, but also providing close-air support to “ward off numerically much stronger Chinese ground forces”. The Basic Doctrine of the Indian Air Force, released in 2012, prioritises ”control of the air, so that the enemy air force’s ability to interfere with its own surface force action is blunted”.

The Russian Air Force — renamed the Vozdushno-kosmicheskiye sily (VKS), or Air and Space Forces, in 2015 — was meant to spearhead Russia’s Ukraine campaign. Its failure poses hard questions for the IAF, not only because it operates an overwhelmingly made-in-Russia fleet, but because of fundamental issues to do with the changing nature of air warfare.

Looking at the numbers in February — when Russia launched massive strikes to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force, or the Povitryani Syly Ukrayiny (PSU), on ground, and obliterate its air-defences as well as command centres — victory seemed inevitable. Compared to the 772 fighter jets operated by the VKS, the PSU had 69.

The difference in the number of attack helicopters operated by the two countries was 544 and 34 and dedicated ground-attack aircraft, 739 and 29. The two sides, moreover, operated similar equipment.

Eleven hundred missiles — including Kh-101 cruise missiles deployed from Tu-95 ‘Bear’ and Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ bombers, the heaviest in the VKS fleet — hit Ukraine in just the first 10 days of the war. The number of cruise and short-range ballistic missiles fired at Ukraine more than tripled by August, to 3,650 — eight times the size of India’s entire arsenal, according to an expert estimate.

The missile and precision-munition attacks hit an estimated 90 per cent of their targets, but did nothing to degrade either Ukrainian air defences or command centres. Targeted runways came back into operation inside hours. Kyiv held out against the Russian army, and the fighting in eastern Donbas — in eastern Ukraine — degenerated into a rocket-and-artillery slogging match, which would not have been unfamiliar to soldiers

The reasons things didn’t go according to the VKS plan are becoming clear. For one, Ukraine’s Russian-manufactured-and-supplied long range S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, medium range SA-11 Gadfly (Buk-M1) and short range SA-8 Gecko systems proved a significant deterrent to VKS air missions.

The Russia-Ukraine war has shown that aerial warfare has changed from close kinetic action to beyond-visual-range, where sensors, advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars and long-range missiles come into play, besides electronic warfare capabilities that can jam enemy radars and spoof incoming missiles.

Guy Plopsky, a military aviation expert who focuses on Russian military, noted that 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.

He underlined that there is a large capability gap in C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), Electronic Warfare, target acquisition and targeting, stealth, precision-guided weapons and other relevant areas between the VKS and leading Western air forces.

When Russia launched its missile blitzkrieg, it was following Western air forces doctrine, a path first laid out by Italian General Giulio Douhet, U.S. Army Air Corps’ Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, and the Royal Air Force’s Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard.

Maximilian K. Bremer, director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command of the US Air Force, and Kelly A. Grieco, a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, noted that these founding fathers of airpower theory championed winning and maintaining “command of the air”, or, in today’s doctrine, “air supremacy”.

Douhet suggested “to have command of the air means to be in a position to prevent the enemy from flying while retaining the ability to fly oneself.”

But the Russia-Ukraine war has raised questions against this western doctrine of air control or air supremacy, which is also followed by the IAF.

“The question is whether air dominance is necessary or air denial. If we take a futuristic war with China, both India and China will see a very contested space and neither country would be able to establish full air control of the other,” Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), Director General of the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, told ThePrint, explaining that air denial could now be the main focus of warfare.

Bremer noted that it would be foolish to think that the air domain and air power is less relevant to future wars, or that Russian ineptitude renders lessons about air power’s role unhelpful.

He argued that far from irrelevant, control of the air domain was the battle’s center of gravity.

By adopting an air denial strategy — that is, maintaining an air defense in being to keep Russia’s manned aircraft at bay and under threat — Kyiv thwarted Russia’s ability to not only ascertain the disposition of Ukrainian forces but also to respond rapidly to events once it became obvious where the counterattacks were taking place. Quite simply, air denial — not the traditional concept of air superiority — was a prerequisite for Ukraine’s battlefield success, he analyses.

Sources in the Indian defence establishment said that future wars will not only be won by the side which fires first at the enemy, but also by one who spotted the enemy first.

And this is where the Russian air force, more oriented as a defensive force rather than one able to carry out large scale offensive operations, found its challenge.

The S-300 air defence system, even if two generations behind the current S-500, is a formidable deterrent for the Russian fighters.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

To make things work, the VKS began to rapidly deplete its limited stockpile of precision-guided munitions, which Russian factories had ceased to produce in 2014 due to Western sanctions. The high-precision 9M729 cruise missile is guided by information flowing through a half-dozen socket attachment points, which let data flow through its heat-shield. Those socket-attachment points are manufactured by United States companies

Likewise, the 9M949 rocket used a fibre-optic gyroscope manufactured in the US. The Russian TOR-M2 air-defense system utilises an oscillator designed in the United Kingdom — which is no longer available.

The VKS responded to the subsequent shortage of precision-guided munitions with low-level ground-attack missions — only to find itself confronted with a lethal hail of United States-supplied FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, and the British-manufactured Starstreak, besides the Soviet manufactured Igla systems.

The Indian defence establishment sources pointed out that the war has exposed that Russian fighters lack the ability of modern electronic warfare and also the capability to fight beyond the visual range, forcing them to come within the bubble of the Ukrainian air defence systems.

Countries like the US and China have specialised multiple electronic warfare aircraft that will fly with their combat jets to jam and spoof enemy radars and air defence systems.

Estimates of VKS losses run up to 175 destroyed and 68 captured aircraft — including several of the state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-34 heavy fighters, each costing an estimated $35 million.

But if the Ukrainians have air defence systems, so do the Russians and more lethal ones at that.

What helped the Ukrainians were the anti-radiation missiles, fitted to their MiG-29 jets by United States military technicians, which enabled them to blind Russian air-defences.

It gave the Ukrainians air force a potent counter-punch as the missile homes in on radiation transmissions at 3,200 kilometres per hour — either obliterating Russian radars or forcing them to shut down to avoid detection, as Thomas Harding reported in the The National last month.

The sources quoted above said that the early setbacks and the failure of the original Russian thinking that Kiev will drop arms soon, led to a weakened morale within the Russian military, which was now more focused on avoiding casualties.

Another issue with the Russians, the sources said, was the overt dependence on attack helicopters.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

“The Russians did not learn from their Afghanistan experience where they lost over 300 helicopters due to stingers. The same thing happened in Ukraine where they were shot down easily by shoulder-fired missiles. Their doctrines should have changed,” the source said, adding that while helicopters are useful, they cannot fly within the bubble of a stinger.

In Ukraine, Russian attack helicopters have suffered severe losses, for little gain. The United States Army, as it considers replacements for its OH-58 Kiowas and UH-60 Blackhawks helicopters, is exploring platforms that fly fast at below radar-detection level, instead of high and slow like the current set of helicopters.

Also readA first since World War II – what Putin’s order declaring partial military mobilisation entails

The revolution in air power technology

Long before the Ukraine war, realising the limitations of Russian technology, India had moved to fit its Russian-made Su-30 fleet with Israeli electronics-warfare suites. Following the air battle after the Balakot strike, where its Su-30 MKIs were outmatched by Pakistani F16s with long-range AAMRAM missiles, India also sought to retrofit Israeli-made Derby missiles to the aircraft. And the IAF has long been seeking more Western-made aircraft, like the state-of-the-art Rafale.

Fundamental issues, though, have been raised in the course of the air war that go far beyond the shopping the IAF needs to do. For generations, air-power was available only to nation-states with either large technological-industrial infrastructure or deep pockets.

In Ukraine, as experts Maximilian Bremer and Kelly Grieco put it, the war has lifted the curtain on a world where air power has been democratised — and called into question the whole idea that traditional air forces can win air superiority.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

The unlikely war-winning weapon in the Ukraine war was built around technology that can be bought off the shelf. The Ukrainian armed forces now are reported to be operating over 6,000 small drones, mainly derived from commercial-use variants. Ranging from staging precision strikes on Russian armour, to providing long-range artillery exact coordinates, the drones have played havoc with the famed Russian military strategy.

Even though drones like the much-celebrated Turkey-made Bayraktar TB2 are more vulnerable to traditional air-defences than propaganda videos suggest, expert Aaron Stein has noted, that is besides the point. The TB2 is cheap, at well under $5 million each, and easy to replenish, since it uses components also manufactured for commercial aerospace applications.

Future air wars, expert Peter Wilson speculated, might see robotic systems occupying an even larger role, especially in hazardous ground-support missions, or to hover over targets unseen. “Loitering munitions are cheap and very deadly,” said former Indian Air Marshal Anil Chopra.

“Larger drones,” Chopra added, “leave a lot of radar signature which is helpful to the enemy to track them down, but small ones are almost undetectable.”

India has pumped funding into drone development, with home-grown firms like NewSpace and ideaForge working on everything from drone-swarms, autonomous wingmen and surveillance. But Indian military procurement systems are slow, experts have warned, and acquisitions are often left behind by technological change.

There isn’t a well-developed domestic aerospace ecosystem in India either, nor the kind of deep public-private partnership model which grew Turkey’s defence sales from $1 billion in 2002, to $11 billion last year.

Tough challenges in tight times

Even as it grapples with these larger challenges, the IAF also confronts some hard short-term realities. For one, India’s munitions stockpiles are nowhere near those needed for the kind of grinding conflict seen in Ukraine. Late in 2019, former Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat had told ThePrint that he had built up reserves for an intense 10-day war with Pakistan, and was preparing stockpiles for a 30-day conflict with China.

There is no similar data available for the IAF — but given the enormous costs involved, and the slow growth in budgets, it is improbable the resources can be found to match China, especially in a long-drawn conflict.

According to some, India has already taken some steps in the wrong direction. Earlier this month, the IAF raised its first squadron of the indigenously-made Light Combat Helicopter. The Army also has plans to induct several more attack choppers.

“The Ukraine experience helicopters will provide easy targets for shoulder-fired missiles on the Line of Actual Control (between India and China),” one senior defence officer pointed out.

Air Marshal Diptendu Choudhary (Retd), former Commandant of the National Defence College, argued the core problem was that Russia failed to reform its thinking to engage with a changing military landscape. “The transformation of the VKS was limited to organisational restructuring and superficial changes.,” he pointed out. “There have been no independent doctrinal changes.”

Bremer’s message to the US Air Force (USAF) is something that the IAF should also ponder on. He is of the opinion that the USAF, instead of insisting on expensive and exquisite capabilities — such as next-generation fighter jets and stealth bombers to conduct deep strikes and pulsed operations — ought to move more rapidly toward unmanned and autonomous systems and swarming tactics with thousands of small and cheap drones.

“Otherwise, the Air Force runs the serious risk of repeating Russia’s mistakes by holding tight to a force structure centered predominately on manned aircraft, creating a situation where the force is too costly to risk and too small to sustain losses during a prolonged war of attrition,” he said.

So are commercial dual-use technologies, like those powering drones and precision satellite imagery, going to prove just as able as exquisite — and fantastically expensive — cutting-edge military equipment? Will new anti-aircraft weapons render conventional combat aircraft irrelevant? Could advances in robotics make manned air forces a thing of the past?

We don’t know for sure — but this much is clear: War is cruel to unimaginative thinking.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Myth of a palace coup: Did Putin aide warn against Ukraine escalation? Are oligarchs dissenting?


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