Military Aviation

Here’s why Moscow declared ‘Total Aerial Superiority’ in the Skies over Ukraine and why Russia does not use its Jets as Multi-Role Aircraft

There seems to be a giant misunderstanding in the social media not only over the issue of ‘Aerial Superiority’, but also in regards on how are the Russians using their combat aircraft.

There seems to be a giant misunderstanding in the social media not only over the issue of ‘Aerial Superiority,’ but also in regards on how are the Russians using their combat aircraft. Thus, let me explain two things.

1.) On Feb. 27, 2022 Moscow declared the ‘possession of total Aerial Superiority in the skies over Ukraine’.

What does this mean?

In the theories on aerial warfare there are five ‘grades’ for the level to which air power is exercising control of the skies:

  • aerial incapability
  • aerial denial
  • aerial parity
  • aerial superiority
  • aerial supremacy.

Each of these five grades has a counter-grade, which is diametrically opposite. Aerial Supremacy for one side means Aerial Incapability for the other; Aerial Superiority means Aerial Denial for the other, etc.

So far, I guess, everything is clear. However, what exactly does the ‘Aerial Superiority’ mean?

It means that the Russian Air-Space Force (VKS) is ‘largely/most of the time, though not yet totally/all the time’ free to run combat operations inside the Ukrainian airspace – and that without disruption from the Ukrainian Air Force (UkAF). It means that the UkAF has next to no- or minimal chance of disrupting VKS operations, or causing it losses.

HOWEVER, this does not mean anything like ‘all Ukrainian air defences are destroyed’. On the contrary: precisely the fact that these have not all been destroyed is a co-reason why Moscow declared Aerial Superiority, but no Aerial Supremacy, or (to quote the Pentagon from the times of invasion on Iraq, in 2003: ‘Total Aerial Supremacy’).

Mind: even once the Russians would conclude (or launch another set of fake news) that they are in possession of ‘Total Aerial Supremacy’, this would still not mean that ‘all the Ukrainian air defences are destroyed’. It would only mean the suppression of the Ukrainian air force and air defence force to the level where the VKS would enjoy the complete freedom of operations inside the Ukrainian airspace.

That would still be far away from ‘we’ve destroyed all their light SAMs, MANPADs, and anti-aircraft artillery, too’.

2.) Video-games of the last 20+ years have created a completely fake impression of Russian aircraft types like Su-30, Su-34, and Su-35. In the West, they are widely praised as ‘multi-role’, i.e. ‘can do everything’ aircraft.

Perhaps they can. But if so, then only in theory. Foremost, this is the Western point of view, entirely unrelated to how and why the GenStab in Moscow has ordered the Sukhoi to develop these aircraft, or how is the VKS using them.

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The reason the aircraft of the Su-27-family are as big was that originally (back in the 1970s), they were designed to operate over the battlefield in Germany – but from bases in Poland and Baltic states. And this because bases in East Germany were already crammed full with shorter-ranged types. Thus, they had to carry lots of fuel in order to reach the battlefield. That’s why they are big. Because they are big, they had to get powerful engines, which was as ‘fine’, because powerful engines made them ‘better dogfighters’, and this was important because they were expected to outmatch types like F-15 and F-16, and so on…

Now, in the 1990s, the Indians came to the idea to request the Russians to develop them a ‘multi-role variant’. They packed Western computers and other avionics into the big and powerful platform, resulting in the Su-30MKI. That – and all the subsequent and/or resulting variants – made the entire family ‘famous’ as ‘multi-role’ fighter-bombers. And that’s how the mass of export customers is using these jets until today.

However, in Russia, things are entirely different. In Russia, it’s the GenStab that is dictating everything. The GenStab had to take into consideration that Russia is huge, and thus VKS bases are very far from each other.

Big = more fuel = more range = better.

Moreover, along GenStab’s theories, the Su-30SM is an ‘interceptor’, and thus the VKS is using it as an interceptor, and training its crews almost exclusively for this task.

The Su-35 is meant as ‘cheaper/simpler/improved sub-variant’ of the Su-30, based on the single-seat Su-27. I.e. in the VKS, it is also an ‘interceptor’ no ‘multi-role’.

Actually, along GenStab’s theories, there is no ‘multi-role’ aircraft.

Correspondingly, and because the Su-34 is meant to replace Su-24s, it is a ‘light-‘ or ‘front bomber’. Therefore, VKS’ Su-34-crews are trained for that task, only. Sure, there was a period, some 6-7 years ago when, after complaints related to experiences in Syria, the VKS did train its Su-34-crews about to go to Syria on R-27s and R-77s. Even then, this was ‘for self-defence purposes only’.

This practice was long since abandoned: ‘no money and no time for all of that’. Ever since, there is only a minimal training in self-defence with R-73s.

Unsurprisingly, right now – and since Feb. 28 – VKS Su-34s are bombing Kharkiv (see attached screen-grabs), and then with ‘dumb’ bombs. Why that? FAB-500M-62 are cheap, and the VKS has next to no stocks of PGMs; cluster bomb units (CBUs) like RBK-500s and OFBA-500 CBUs are ‘good’ because the Su-34s are still lacking in precision, too.

(No doubt, occasionally, you’re going to see a photo of a VKS Su-34 equipped with, say, one or two R-77s. Don’t worry: it was either taken in Syria, years ago, or for show purposes only. ‘Nothing better but to impress those pesky Anglo-Saxons…’)

Check out Helion & Company website for books featuring interesting stories written by The Aviation Geek Club contributor Tom Cooper.

Photo credit: Vadim Savitsky via Wikipedia

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017.

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