Russian Air Power: Vanished Or Overstated To Begin With? – Analysis


By Pavel Luzin*

Since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on February 24, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) have not been able to demonstrate success, despite the huge modernization and rearmament efforts of the previous 12 years. The main causes here are not the mistakes of a single individual, but rather the structural problems and challenges that the VKS has faced for years.

Russian General Sergey Surovikin, the recently appointed commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine and the commander-in-chief of the VKS, announced that, during the 236 days of war, from February 24 to October 17, the VKS conducted more than 34,000 combat flights and used more than 7,000 guided munitions (TASS, October 18). Compared to the Syrian campaign, Russia was able to increase intensity of its air power in responding to the much more intensive nature of the current war: in Syria, in 447 days, from September 30, 2015, to December 19, 2016, the VKS conducted more than 30,000 combat flights (RIA Novosti, December 20, 2016). Therefore, despite the fact that the number of combat flights differed from day to day, the average daily number of combat flights increased from 67 in 2015–2016 to 144 in 2022.

However, Russia has not been able to achieve the intensity and efficiency of air power that have been demonstrated in the past by the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, which has been Moscow’s goal for decades. For example, the international coalition during the operation in Iraq conducted 20,733 combat flights and used 19,948 guided munitions in the brief period between March 19 and April 18, 2003 (, July 2003). Briefly speaking, the average daily indicators of VKS activity in Ukraine compared with that of the US and its allies in Iraq two decades ago are five times less regarding combat flights and 21 times less regarding guided munitions. Thus giving insight into why Russia’s air power was not enough to defeat Ukraine at the very beginning of its most recent aggression.

For the several decades following the Soviet period, Russia’s air power has been developed in two primary directions. On the one hand, its theoretical development presumed permanent preparations for a conventional clash with the superior US and NATO air forces or at least with the regular and well-trained armed forces (Voennaya Mysl, 2018; Voennaya Mysl, 2019; Voennaya Mysl, 2021). On the other hand, air power in practice was related mostly with combat operations against non-regular forces that had neither formal air forces nor advanced air defense capabilities.

During operations, the VKS’s main responsibilities were covering ground forces and providing fire support (Voennaya Mysl, 2009; Voennaya Mysl, 2018). The only exception was in Georgia in August 2008 when Russia won the war in five days and lost six aircraft, three of which were shot down by friendly fire (, August 2009). Despite the fact that the Georgian Air Force’s air defense capabilities were quite small, they effectively challenged Russia’s air power for the first time. However, the rearmament program and the Syrian campaign brought Moscow’s self-confidence back in this arena.

Throughout 2009–2021, the VKS received 587 new combat aircrafts of different types, including 134 Su-34 fighter bombers, 140 Su-30M2 and Su-30SM fighters, 103 Su-35S fighters and about 300 combat Ka-52, Mi-28 and Mi-35 helicopters (Radioelektronnye tekhnologii, January 2020; Izvestia, December 2, 2020; Vedomosti, August 11, 2021;, January 28;, September 7). However, the renewed combat aviation numbers did not provide for actual improved quality in the ability to wage war itself.

To begin with, the basic educational level of Russian military students, including future pilots, is significantly lower as compared with students from the civil universities (, 2022). Moreover, it takes at least five years after graduation for a military pilot to receive the minimal sufficient level of qualification needed to fly in the VKS. That means military pilots do not become combat ready until the ages of 27 or 28. However, from the ages of 32 to 35, almost 80 percent of Russian fighter pilots retire due to health issues (, March 9, 2018). Consequently, most lieutenants and captains among VKS pilots are incapable of conducting efficient combat missions, and the deficit of qualified and well-trained pilots among mid-level and senior officers persists.

Furthermore, VKS pilots have logged 80–100 flight hours annually for the past several years (, November 20, 2019January 1, 2020August 8, 2020). Thus, typical majors or lieutenant-colonels who are fighter-jet pilots may log about 900 flight hours during their military service (, May 23, 2021). Hence, pilots’ qualifications may be enough on paper, but in reality, they are not ready for the true conditions of modern warfare.

Finally, besides the lack of intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities (see EDM, May 24), the deficit of guided munitions (see EDM, June 16) and the high level of related technical incidents (Voennaya Mysl, 2018), the VKS faces a lack of command systems and even a unified command culture. The differing and hardly integrated command systems (Voennaya Mysl, 2019) together with the toxic relations between the top brass and military servicemen—whom, for instance, the leadership has tried to pay as compensation for the technical incidents—have made improving the VKS’s combat efficiency nearly impossible (, August 17, 2019; Novaya gazeta, December 1, 2021).

As a result, the terror tactics being actively used by the VKS against the civilian population in Ukraine are not only the opearational decisions of Russia’s military leadership but also the inevitable sequence of the VKS’s actual capabilities, which have been lost within the organizational, educational and industrial weaknesses of the Russian authoritarian system.

*About the author: Dr. Pavel Luzin is a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is also a regular contributor at The Jamestown Foundation, Riddle and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a specialist in international relations and an expert on the Russian Armed Forces. Much of his research and writings focus on Russian foreign policy and defense, space policy and non-proliferation studies.

Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 156

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