Military Aviation

Know Your Enemy: why the Russian Air-Space Force is not meant to fight the way Western Air Forces do and Why it rules the Ukrainian skies – above the frontline

Stop trying to understand and explain the Russian Air-Space Force by Western – especially US – way of thinking.

Some know me as ‘confrontational’ and ‘undiplomatic’. Thus, a sort of ‘warning’, up front: this is definitely going to (re)inforce such an impression.

I grew up at the times the motto ‘know your enemy’ was in high esteem in numerous armed forces, no matter where. At the time when, for example, the discipline of researching the Soviet Armed Forces was taken very seriously, and people involved knew what were they talking about: so much so, they could literally ‘read the minds’ of decision-makers in Moscow and few other places.

Now, my point of view was that a World War III is unlikely to ever happen, because there was enough rationale in the East and the West, and thus nobody would risk the ‘ultimate option’. So, ‘why waste time’ studying, for example, the Soviets? Still, I was fascinated by ‘know your enemy’ kind of works, and thus ‘spent’ much of my professional career studying what some consider ‘obscure’ or ‘small’ air forces; and others for ‘enemy’ – especially so in the Middle East and Africa. It’s only more recently – say: 7-8 years – that I’ve ‘added’ the modern-day Russian armed forces to what’s interesting for me, and then primarily because of the Russian military intervention in Syria.

What surprised me when ‘returning’ to something I ceased studying around the time people like Benjamin Lamberth, Bill Sweetman and few others have ceased publishing their books (‘back in the 1990s or so’) was that it seems that over the last 30 years, the skill of ‘know your enemy’ has been misdeclared into ‘support for jihadism’, while understanding of the Russian armed forces appears to have degenerated into oblivion. This became obvious not only ‘already’ during the first two years of the Russian military intervention in Syria (2015-2017), but even more so since the Russian (re)invasion of Ukraine, on 24 February 2022. Ever since, most of notable think-tanks and their experts seem to be falling over each other in an entirely new Olympic discipline: how to mis-understand and mis-explain the Russian Armed Forces, and the Russian Air-Space Force in particular.

What is particularly astonishing in this regard: back in 2016, the Foreign Military Studies Office of the US Army, published the book ‘The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernisation of the Russian Ground Forces’, by Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles.

The book is available as a free download (as PDF) for years already. I.e. everybody can have it. Just go to this link. Download, read, and inform yourself.

Sure, Grau and Bartles concentrated on the ground forces. But, they explained so much and so well about the structure, thinking, practices, doctrine, strategy and tactics of the entire Russian armed forces that I simply can’t believe anybody is still coming to the idea to write anything about the ‘Russian military’ – without, first, reading their book and, second, keeping it in mind all the time.

And still: this is the case – and so we get to hear how the Russian Air-Space Force (VKS) is a ‘non-appearance’ in this war, how it ‘can’t own the skies’ over Ukraine, indeed, that it is ‘incapable of running complex operations.’

Those who follow me since longer than 3-4 days should know better: should know that the VKS is no ‘USAF East’. As explained earlier, the VKS is simply never meant to fight the way Western air forces do.

As nicely explained by Grau and Bartles, and confirmed in reality only some 17-18 zillion of times, in Russia, there is only one authority that’s thinking what are future wars going to look like, and – therefore – how should it organise, equip, and train the Russian armed forces. This authority is the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Short: GenStab. Because of its task, the GenStab is also the sole military procurement authority in Russia: it is responsible for the purchase of everything, from screws, via fighter jets, to intercontinental ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads.

To keep it compressed, the GenStab considers the VKS for something like ‘extended range artillery’: a branch meant to cover tasks from provision of close air support, to interdiction strikes up to around 100, perhaps 150km behind the frontline. For this reason, the VKS has a purely supportive role, through and through: it is meant to – and equipped to – establish air superiority only over the frontlines, and then support ground or naval forces. Strikes deep into the enemy-controlled territory are a business of missile forces, and forces equipped with cruise missiles. Search and destroy enemy air defences (SEAD)? Yes, but along the frontline only. Therefore, and even if operating such ‘powerful, super-turbo-Wunderwaffen’ like Su-27SM, Su-30SM, Su-34 and Su-35s, the VKS is simply not equipped to ‘go places’, ‘rule the skies’, ‘dominate’ etc. into the depth of the enemy territory. Not away from the frontline.

When somebody not knowing about this now tries to monitor the VKS operations in Ukraine from the Western standpoint, plenty of things are incomprehensible and wrong conclusions simply unavoidable. What the Russians are doing there is contrary to the very essence of the Western – and especially: US – thinking, where the air power is dominating: much to disgust of its own ground forces, it is frequently fighting ‘its own war’. It first seeks to establish air superiority over the enemy, destroy its air power and the capability to defend itself from air power, and only then supports own ground troops or naval forces.

If the VKS then does not behave that way, ‘logical conclusion’ is ‘it failed’ and ‘can’t’.

Actually, the VKS is doing its job very well. It rules the skies – above the frontline. As the sustained losses of the Ukrainian Air Force have shown: whenever Ukrainian Su-25s try to hit the Russian ground forces, they are shot down. Whether by VKS interceptors, or by ground-based air defences. Presence of ‘heavy’ Ukrainian air defences near the frontline is minimal. In turn, the VKS is all the time flying – ‘BUT’ over the battlefield. Between seven and eight of its aircraft are airborne over the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol areas all the time during the daylight, every single day ever since 24 February. As predicted, the sky there is really ‘black’ of all the VKS aircraft. This is a co-reason why are they suffering losses to the Ukrainian ground-based air defences, too: they are present so much and so often, that the Ukrainians can recognise patterns in operational behaviour of Russian pilots and ‘ambush’ them.

(The other co-reason is that the Ukrainians have got so many MANPADs from the West, they’re firing them by dozens, every day. There are several videos showing them firing 6-8 missiles at one target: we only get such scenes much too rarely to see, and even less so would the Ukrainians brag how often they miss.)

Contrary to the claims of the Ukrainian politicians, the VKS pilots also do not refuse to fly: they go as far as to do things Western pilots would rarely do. Like such a dumb idea to descend below the cloud cover in order to acquire a target and bomb it – only to get shot down by 5-6 MANPADs fired in return.

All of this means that conclusions like ‘VKS is not flying’, ‘VKS can’t run complex operations’ etc. are all wrong. By all the (meanwhile: ‘proven’) military incompetence of Putin, Shoygu, Gerasimov, even the officers of the GenStab, not to talk about numerous of Russian generals in the field, the VKS is fulfilling precisely the duty for which it was equipped and trained – all along the doctrine developed by the GenStab.

This are the ‘Reasons No. 1-100’ of why we’re never going to see VKS’ Su-34s roaming the skies of Ukraine all the way to the Romanian border, using R-77s to shot down Ukrainian Su-27s, while deploying PGMs to precisely destroy MiG-29s or Su-25s on the ground, and yet other PGMs to knock-out Ukrainian air defences – free along the motto: like in a video-game…

Talking about VKS and PGMs: Colonel Andrew J Bachevich (US Army, ret.) – one of less than a handful of sober, balanced, and serious military historians left in the USA – has explained it in his TV-appearances already years ago. When invading Ukraine, in 2014, Russia lost the control and contact to about 120 major arms-manufacturing enterprises – including about 50 manufacturing the host of PGMs in the VKS service. Ever since, the GenStab did try to re-establish some of production at home, but this was largely spoiled – both because of the endemic corruption of the Putin-regime, and because of resulting sanctions, which cut off Russia from approach to the necessary know-how and high-tech.

‘What a surprise’ then, that Russia can’t run large-scale production of PGMs, that the few that are available are either from stocks manufactured back in the 1980s and early 1990s or astronomically expensive and thus not affordable for the GenStab; or that the VKS never got enough money to buy new PGMs, and thus has next to none to deploy in combat operations. Indeed, that it has to send its Sukhois with a price tag of US$40-50 million apiece into low-altitude strikes armed with ‘dumb’ bombs.

Bottom line: stop trying to understand and explain the VKS by Western – especially US – way of thinking. If you want to understand and explain it, you need to see it entirely from the Russian point of view, and also to consider plenty of factors that are anything else than ‘directly related to air power’. I simply can’t but repeat myself: keep the big picture in mind.

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 and Russian Ministry of Defence

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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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  • This article’s argument is that Europeans, and especially the Americans, don’t understand the RuAF’s roles and missions and it’s unfair to compare it to NATO or the USAF.

    That’s a valid point, and one that can be forgotten when analyzing what is going on in a war. People tend to be biased, and see what they’re familiar with.

    Aware of my biases as an American veteran I’m still perplexed by many things the Russian military is doing in Ukraine. Putting aside the issues the Russian Army has, the RuAF should be doing more to support the struggling Russian ground forces. But from what the Ukrainians and media have reported there is not a lot of CAS or interdiction.

    Not only is there little aerial support along the entire front line, but also where it matters most: at the main axis of attacks towards Kiev, or from the Crimea.

    I don’t see many reports of UA units engaging Russian Army units and being hit hard by supporting RuAF aircraft, anywhere. We obviously can’t see the entire battle space, but one of the largest air forces on earth should be making its presence felt beyond just the area bombing of cities. Even more so with the Russian Army flailing about as it is.

    While the manpad threat is serious, other Ukrainian SAMs like the medium-range Buk are still functioning, along with half the UAF’s fighter jets. The RuAF is unable to use the airspace over Ukraine to their full advantage, whether it is over their front lines or over the rest of the country.

    This is why in Iraq or Libya the focus early on was to destroy as much of the aircraft and air defenses as possible: not just to exploit the skies for their side’s benefit, but crucially to deny any benefits to the other.

    I’m sure the RuAF’s definition of air superiority over Russian ground elements doesn’t allow TB2 drones overhead gathering intel and hitting fuel tankers or command posts.

    Air superiority, even localized, would have allowed the airborne forces that tried to take the airport the first night of the war to last longer than they did.

    But it is in the eighteenth out of twenty one paragraph article that the author conclusively proves the RuAF isn’t adhering to their own doctrine: widespread corruption and a lack of PGMs for their aircraft. So even by Russian metrics their Air Force is falling way short.

    Corruption has hobbled all of the Russian military. For the RuAF it has meant reduced annual flight hours for aircrew, and I believe much less realistic training. Good training uses up fuel, munitions, and airframe hours. It risks the loss of planes and sometimes pilots.

    Corruption forces Russian pilots to risk their lives flying into manpad envelopes to drop unguided bombs when accuracy matters. Corruption keeps the Russian public from knowing that their sons’ lives flying over Ukraine are being used so scandalously.

    It’s easier to say current training levels are adequate rather than work up to a better standard. The USAF and USN fell into this pitfall between Korea and Vietnam when doctrine was changed to say missiles would eliminate dogfights in the future. Missions over North Vietnam proved otherwise.

    On a side note SEAD is something that by definition covers a significant geographic area. If you want the airspace cleared over a small town or an army’s narrow forward line, then you will have to suppress air defenses over a corresponding larger area to ensure local air superiority.

    If PGMs are as scarce as the author believes, and I agree they are, then Russia wasted their money on the new Su-34s. Most of the Su-34’s missions will require precision air-to-ground munitions of some sort.

    Interdiction is a mission the RuAF has put decades into. The Su-24 was made specifically for low level interdiction during the Cold War and the fullback is eventually to replace it. Ballistic and cruise missiles can be used, but it’s expensive and less responsive.

    If more fullbacks were equipped with ARMs like the Kh-31 they could have greatly reduced Ukrainian air defenses by now, and then in the weeks that followed operated above the manpad threat with laser or GLONASS guided munitions to support ground elements.

    The older Soviet-era Su-25s can act as a bomb truck just as well as the new Su-34s and only one pilot is put at risk instead of two. And as I was reminded this week in a news article a frogfoot is better able to take a missile hit and get home than a fullback.

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