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Success denied: Finding ground truth in the air war over Ukraine

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Ukraine’s recent two-front counteroffensive has dealt a heavy blow to the Russian military. Contrary to Western military orthodoxy, air superiority was not a prerequisite for battlefield success. Ukrainian forces advanced rapidly despite the absence of aerial cover and fire support from high-end fighter jets and bombers—two mainstays of the American way of war. Some observers may conclude – all too hastily – that the air domain and airpower is less relevant to future wars, or that Russian ineptitude renders lessons about airpower’s role unhelpful.

This is a dangerous misreading of events.

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 to 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.

For months, Kyiv telegraphed its plans to launch a counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region. But Ukrainian forces had a surprise in store for the Russians: they not only counterattacked in the south, as expected, but they also pushed north in the Kharkiv region. This second – surprise – counteroffensive caught the Russians off guard: they had redeployed many units in anticipation of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson and left their defenses in the northeast too thin. As Russian forces fled, Ukraine liberated more territory in a few days than the adversary had captured over the last five months.

How did Ukraine manage to catch the Russians unawares? Ukraine’s strategy of air denial enabled its counteroffensive in two key ways:

First, it facilitated Ukraine’s use of military deception to pin down Russian forces in the south. Without air superiority, Russia could not freely operate its manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft over the battlefield, which limited its ability to track Ukrainian movements. The alternatives, employing unmanned aircraft (drones) and space-based assets in ISR roles, were not effective. Though less costly than manned aircraft, ISR drones’ high attrition from both being shot down and electronic jamming meant they were needed in mass. Russia, however lacked sufficient numbers of ISR drones, particularly the Orlan-10 which took heavy losses early in the war, and have become problematic to replace due to Western sanctions.

Russia’s only other “eyes in the sky” are its space-based capabilities. But Russian satellites lacked the coverage and resolution required to detect a coming counteroffensive. Pavel Luzin, a Russian military expert, admits as much, explaining: “Our two optical reconnaissance satellites yield such [low] resolution [images] they can only map flight missions [for launching] missiles.” These satellites, he added, “pass the same point only once every 16 days. There’s no possibility to quickly receive data.” Far from limiting Ukraine’s military effectiveness, a strategy of air denial made operational deception possible by effectively blinding the Russians.

Second, Ukraine’s air denial strategy prevented Russia from responding rapidly to halt the Ukrainian advance even once it recognized a second counterattack was underway in the Kharkiv region. The comparative advantage of airpower is the ability of aircraft and other airborne systems to bypass terrain that would otherwise impede the movements of ground forces for the rapid maneuver of firepower over significant distances. This combination of lethality and responsiveness makes airpower particularly effective against mechanized ground forces operating offensively. Whereas a defender in position is harder to detect from the air, an attacker on the move generates noise, heat, and electronic signals that makes it easier to find and attack. Ukrainian tanks and military vehicles rumbling down highways and across open fields in broad daylight should have made easy work for the Russian air force. But Ukraine’s air denial strategy made Russian pilots wary of flying into Ukrainian airspace at all, much less loitering and hunting for targets on their own.

Instead, Russian warplanes reportedly only attack targets with known coordinates, as called in by Russian ground forces. But Russia’s shortage of reliable tactical reconnaissance drones means many of its ground units cannot see what is over the next hill, further degrading reconnaissance-strike capabilities. In sum, Ukraine’s air denial strategy in combination with insufficient quantities of attritable Russian drones were critical enablers of Ukraine’s counteroffensive success.

Airpower’s contribution to victory was perhaps more subtle and indirect but no less vital than the role it played in recent U.S.-waged wars. To be sure, Ukraine’s strategy of air denial resulted more from military necessity than deliberate stratagem, given the relatively small size of the Ukrainian air force. But the key point is that Ukraine’s success stemmed from more than merely capitalizing on Russian failure.

Russia’s suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) campaign failed, but Ukraine’s employment of vertical depth, layering the effects of air defenses, electromagnetic jamming, drones, and missiles in increasing degrees of strength together with the advantages of dispersion and mobility suggest the defender now has the advantage. Put simply, the widespread diffusion of advanced technologies indicates the SEAD mission is harder than many Western air forces and defense analysts fully appreciate. It may be possible to suppress the adversary’s air defenses for a while or in a small area, but not to the point of making the airspace operationally useful as in the past. To maintain combat credibility, modern air forces – built around smaller numbers of expensive and exquisite systems operated by highly skilled crews – need to avoid attrition risk. But procuring large numbers of these high-end systems is a losing game against cheaper and more sustainable networked air denial technologies. Today, and for the foreseeable future, it is exceedingly difficult, nigh impossible, to deny a strategy of air denial.

Two significant policy implications follow from this recognition. First, Ukraine ought to avoid an attempt to gain air superiority outright against Russia. The United States has sent Ukraine high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs), fitted for MiG -29 fighters, to allow the Ukrainian air force to hunt Russian air defense radars in Ukraine. In addition, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl has said the transfer of fourth-generation Western fighter jets to Ukraine is not “inconceivable.” These capabilities raise the prospect of Ukraine shifting operational objectives from air denial to the achievement of air superiority outright. Such a change misses the real lesson of the air war – the success of Ukraine’s air denial strategy stems not from Russian shortcomings but a more fundamental and systemic shift from offense to defense dominance. Any attempt by Ukraine to achieve air superiority would thus likely fail for the same reasons that Russia’s did.

Second, the United States Air Force ought to pay attention. Instead of insisting on expensive and exquisite capabilities – such as next-generation fighter jets and stealth bombers to conduct deep strikes and pulsed operations – it 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.

Future attempts to overcome defense dominance are likely to falter, because air denial favors defense. Ukraine’s recent battlefield success is no exception to this rule. Russia is on strategic offense, and the Ukrainian counteroffensive is precisely that – a response to Russian aggression.

Critically, air denial enabled Ukraine to survive and regroup. Ukraine traded time for space to grind down the Russian offensive, weakening Russia’s attacking forces and rendering them vulnerable to counterattack. As Clausewitz wrote, “the defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up a well-directed blows.”

Similarly, a strategy of air denial aligns well with U.S. strategic objectives. The United States is on the strategic defensive in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and it seeks to preserve the territorial status quo. If the Air Force moves away from the few and exquisite high-end fighters and bombers it continues to favor, and invests instead in low-end, attritable capabilities, it will make it next to impossible for future adversaries to succeed on offense. But if it clings to an offense-first, air superiority mission, it may share the fate of Russia’s air force: surprised, unprepared, and largely sidelined from the fight.

U.S. Air Force Col. Maximillian K. Bremer is the director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. The opinions in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Air Force.

Kelly A. Grieco is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center and an adjunct associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

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