Military Aviation

The MiG-29s and Su-25s that EU could donate to Ukraine and Why the Russians have not achieved ‘Total Aerial Superiority’ in the Ukrainian skies

In the night prior to the Russian aggression, it dispersed its aircraft and helicopters on airfields in the west and south of the country. For the Russians, ‘finding them is anything else than easy.

The EU – repeat for emphasis: the EU – is intending to donate old MiG-29s and Su-25s of different NATO-air forces to Ukraine. Sounds logical: Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria etc. are still flying MiG-29s, for example. Ukrainians can fly such jets, even if their communications and IFF have been significantly modified over the time. Still, I consider this for useless political decision in style of, ‘we must do something’. It’s going to make Ukrainians happy, no doubt, but, jets in question are 40 years old and ‘bent’ from all the training over the years, and some of installed equipment (especially IFF and radios) is not going to be ‘compatible’ with the Ukrainians. On top of that, it’s near pointless, because of the massive Russian superiority, and hiding fighter jets is anything else than easy. Thus, I’m curious to see if and how anything of this kind might be realised.

‘Hiding fighter jets’ brings me to a question several have asked yesterday. That is: how does the Ukrainian Air Force operate? In the night prior to the Russian aggression, it dispersed its aircraft and helicopters on airfields in the west and south of the country. A few are at ‘official’ air bases, but the mass is at minor airfields. Even then, Ukrainians are keeping them 1000-4000 metres away from any runways, well-concealed. Thus, except for destroying many of old, ‘stored’ – actually: abandoned – jets left behind, the Russians hit less than a handful of Ukrainian combat aircraft and helicopters on the ground.

Hence Moscow has not achieved ‘total aerial superiority’ in the skies as they have instead claimed.

Actually for the Russians, ‘finding these jets is anything else than easy. Because Ukrainian S-300s are still operational, the Russians can’t freely move their handful of precious Tu-214R reconnaissance jets equipped with SLARs. They can’t bring them closely enough to find Ukrainian jets on the ground. Thus, they have to wait for Ukrainians to fly.

Now, MiG-29 and Su-25 were built for operations from ‘primitive’ facilities, can use even grass runways. That far, no problem. Where there is a massive problem is the command and control of such a ‘force’: what jet is where, which one to scramble in what case, and, hand on heart, one can’t just scramble a jet and send it ‘to attack whatever enemy it finds’, nowadays. Jets are moving very fast. What’s ‘here’ one moment, is ‘there’ the next, and thus easier to completely miss than to find. Moreover, the Russians are ‘hiding’ their aircraft with massive volumes of electronic warfare, and thus any Ukrainian jets that are airborne but do not have very specific targeting information, only serve as targets for the enemy. Especially, MiG-29 needs good support from the ground control to operate effectively: it needs ground control to tell the pilot where is the target and what it is doing. Unsurprisingly, Ukrainians have already lost a number of MiG-29s – to Russian interceptors, to surface-to-air missiles and other Russian weapons.

By now, Ukrainian Air Force can operate only in the west and the south, where the Russian air defence- and electronic warfare assets have not yet been deployed, are too far away, or are yet in the process of development. This is why we only see videos of Ukrainian Su-25s attacking advancing columns of the Russian Army, and then, primarily, in the south, where the battlefield is ‘still fluid’. When doing so, they are facing a full range of air defence means, from AKM assault rifles to S-400s (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘SS-21 Growler’). Unsurprisingly, they’re flying very low, to limit detection and exposure – and still suffering heavy losses: at least 3 Ukrainian Su-25s were shot down yesterday and this morning. Apparently, all their pilots were killed.

Why such losses? Fast- and low-flying jets operating in the skies ‘saturated’ by enemy aircraft and air defences are ‘perfect targets’ for own air defences, too – as there is no way for ground troops well-supplied with MANPADs to say which is Russian and which is Ukrainian, while Russian aircraft are better-protected by countermeasures. Unsurprisingly, at least one of three Ukrainian Su-25s lost yesterday and today was shot down by own troops.

Generally, when you see a video shown a jet over Ukraine these days, you can gauge the following: if flying low, it’s Ukrainian. Only Russian Su-25s are flying low: all others are operating at medium and high altitudes.

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

Photo credit: Chavdar Garchev (Чавдар Гърчев), Chris Lofting and Łukasz Golowanow 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.

View Comments

  • Many incorrect points in this analysis. When you say, "40 years old jets", well that is valid for most of the Tornadoes, F-15s, several European F-16As... I see what you mean: "not upgraded", still it's a silly comment.
    When you mention "On top of that, it’s near pointless, because of the massive Russian superiority", again you are incorrect. Think about North Vietnam with the only difference of having a (very slowly) moving frontline... and this point is again valid against your "one can’t just scramble a jet and send it ‘to attack whatever enemy it finds’, nowadays." Again wrong. Think of the zip and run tactics of MiG-21s vs F-4s and F-105 in air defense over North Vietnam. Russian air defense and interceptors are proving to be not that coordinated and deadly as you imply. Hunting for low flying helicopters is also an option. Not to mention the air to ground with unguided rockets. Overall, the Ukrainians do have an advantage. A single MiG-29 finds itself in a target rich environment where he does not really need to understand “who is whom”, since most probably everyone in the air is an enemy... (Vietnam air to air again and all the issues with using the AIM-7?). Consider that while the R-73 is a decent missile, the R-27 is roughly comparable to an 1970ies AIM-7. Of course, I think the Ukrainians using mostly of R-73s for air-to-air while using air to ground unguided rockets for ground attack. Both are perfectly designed to do what you deny possible "take off, find a target and attack". You should come out of a “guided munition” mentality in this war.
    When you say everything that flies low is Ukrainian again you make a mistake together with "Only Russian Su-25s are flying low:" again it's a mistake. I just saw some videos today about a very low flying Russian Su-34.
    Didn't you see that very low flying Ukrainian MiG-29s making a rocket attack? Even there was a Ukrainian Su-27 which was downed possibly by friendly fire, which was flying just above the apartment blocks in Kyiv?
    Overall in your article you completely miss the fact that both sides are missing a decent (NATO standard) command and control and it's mostly a single unit kind of war. By the way, that’s also valid on the ground.
    Did you see the Ukrainian TB2 hitting those Buk air defense systems? Did you see a Russian Mi-24P strafing a Ukrainian Buk?
    Overall, the use of Russian made jets without any battle plan has been proved already several times in the past. The factions in Libya since 2011, the Syrian air force, all the African wars, the newly delivered Su-25s in Iraq during the IS takeover in 2014.
    You should come out of a NATO mentality. This is turning out being a poor men's war... both sides.
    Surely "Take off and do something" is not the best way to preserve your force or to achieve success, but it is exactly how these jets are operating. In this scenario, delivering more MiG-29s or Su-25s sounds useful.

  • oh and don't forget this: a Bayractar TB2 flies at 2000-3000 meters over the ground, at a slow speed, on a very predictable flight path, right in the range of all the different ground to air vehicles... a perfect target one would say. And still all those Russian air defenses have serious issues even in just engaging it. Overall the Russians are showing very limited situational awareness, even their ground forces. So low flying Ukrainian jets make perfect sense.

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