Aircraft

Warning Russian air force could become 'major factor' in Ukraine war

A new report has warned that Ukraine is in danger of running out of the weapons it needs to combat Russian air attacks.

In a new report, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the London-based defence and security think tank, has warned Western nations to maintain and step up their supply of air defences to Ukraine and "avoid complacency".

So far, both Russia and Ukraine have been unable to gain full control of Ukraine's skies during the war – this is in most part due to the pilots' risk of getting shot down by each other's air defence systems.

Watch: Ukraine "will achieve their military objectives" so long as the West continues to provide the support necessary, former Nato Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, told the Sitrep podcast.

RUSI's report, however, has noted that "Russian target sets have changed during the war", and they have had to resort to a "long-range strike campaign".

Their report has highlighted how the most recent campaign against Ukrainian power and water infrastructure blends Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munition strikes with larger missiles.

It also noted Russia's inability to destroy Ukraine's mobile surface-to-air missile systems as the reason why Russia remains unable to effectively employ the potentially heavy and efficient aerial firepower of its fixed-wing bomber and multirole fighter fleets.

"The West must avoid complacency"

According to the RUSI report," the West must avoid complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air-defence capacity".

The report states that "it is purely thanks to its failure to destroy Ukraine's mobile SAM systems that Russia remains unable to effectively employ the potentially heavy and efficient aerial firepower of its fixed-wing bomber and multi-role fighter fleets to bombard Ukrainian strategic targets and frontline positions from medium altitude, as it did in Syria".

Airpower and military technology expert, Justin Bronk, who is also the report's lead author, told Forces News that "Russian air power is largely neutralised in a strike perspective... it's a threat in being, rather than a major threat day to day".

"They are limited to very low-altitude attacks essentially, beyond the frontlines which are then at great risk from MANPADS (man-portable air defence system)... and even anti-aircraft fire," he said.

Russian Fighter Force DATE UNKNOWN CREDIT Telegram savelifeua
Russian fighters are able to launch radar-homing air-to-air missiles at Ukrainian fighters from a significant distance away (Picture: Telegram).

Mr Bronk however did highlight the success of the Russian Fighter Force.

"It's been very effective at the moment. So what they've done is divided Ukraine, the contact areas in Ukraine into eight different sectors and they have a pair of fighters on combat air patrol in each one during daylight hours.

"The Russian air force is flying about 140 to 160 sorties a day. They are being highly, highly effective at inflicting losses on Ukrainian ground attack sorties."

Due to the "powerful radars" the Russian aircraft maintain along with the long-range missiles, "they are able to threaten and regularly shoot down Ukrainian ground attack sorties from far, far outside the range of any Ukrainian retaliation".

Watch: What is the NASAMS weapon system?

Mr Bronk told Forces News that "if the Ukrainians aren't supplied with additional ammuniation for their medium range SAMs and ultimately replacement systems to start phasing in Western resuppliable equivalents, things like NASAMS, then ultimately the VKS, the Russian air force, could start to become a major factor on the battlefield in a way that it just hasn't up to this point in the war". 

He added: "If those SAMs are no longer able to fire, those sorties will come back in again and we could see a lot more heavy firepower from the air on Ukrainian army positions but also on cities, on towns, on infrastructure near the frontlines."

In the short term, "Ukraine urgently requires more MANPADS and anti-aircraft guns to sustainably destroy Shahed-136s", the RUSI report states.

It also calls for the Ukrainian air force to be supplied with Western fighter jets, but explains how any type supplied will have to be suitable for Ukrainian dispersed basing tactics and low-level combat sorties against capable Russian fighters.