Why has Russia failed to gain air superiority over Ukraine?

With one of the largest air forces in the world, many are questioning why Russia has not yet achieved control of the skies above Ukraine. Alan Warnes details the situation as we know it

It is rather clear that Russia’s intelligence got their calculations wrong. When the Russian tanks rolled across the borders in the early hours of February 24, did they think they would be greeted by thousands of people cheering them and throwing flowers at them? It certainly seems so, because they are fighting this conflict like they thought it would be a walk over. 

Right now, the Russians don’t have air superiority – that as we know, should be one of the first objectives of any attackers – as we saw in Yugoslavia during NATO’s Operation Allied Force in 1999 as well as Iraq (1991 and 2003), Afghanistan (2002) and Libya (2010). 

Bases are bombed, runways smashed to ensure fighters or bombers cannot pose a threat, and if anything does get into the air before then, it is shot down. Then the troops go in with their tanks, supported by close air support (CAS) aircraft and helicopters, and the fighters fly combat air patrols (CAPs) overhead to ensure there are no air threats. 

None of this has happened.  

The runways don’t seem to have been bombed, probably because the Russian Aerospace Force (RuASF) thought it would only be a matter of hours before the Ukraine Air Force (UkrAF) would give up their aircraft and air bases. It’s been a shocking performance by the Russian Aerospace Force and I’m sure heads will roll at some point. While the UkrAF fought hard, shooting down RuASF fighters and helicopters, although, they have lost aircraft and some very brave pilots. 

Meanwhile NATO is reinforcing its eastern flanks with many fighters are being deployed to bases in neighbouring countries. The USAF movements have been very fluid, with F-15C Eagles, F-15E Strike Eagles and F-35 Lightnings providing a show of force before returning to their respective bases either at RAF Lakenheath or Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. Other air forces are deploying fighters to the eastern borders before returning to base, like the Royal Netherlands Air Force (F-16AMs – Volkel and F-35As - Leeuwarden] and [RAF Typhoons - RAF Coningsby]). 

USAF F-35A from 34th FS receives fuel from a USAF KC-10A over Poland on 24 February. USAF

All the fighters are armed, should Russian aircraft enter NATO controlled air space. As you would expect, there are many tankers flying up and down the air corridors, refuelling them – like French Air Force KC-135s, NATO/MMU A330MRTT multi-role tanker transports, USAF KC-10A Extenders, USAF KC-135R Stratotankers and RAF Voyager KC2s.   

Another fascinating facet of the war is the part that NATO is playing from outside the Ukraine borders. Namely intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft or spyplanes as they would once be called, like USAF/RAF RC-135W Rivet Joints out of RAF Mildenhall and RAF Waddington respectively), USAF E-8C JSTARS (out of Ramstein, Germany), civilian Challenger 650 ARTEMIS (from Constanta International Airport, Romania) EU/NATO RQ-4D Global Hawks from Sigonella, Sicily), Swedish Air Force Korpen (Gulfstream IVSP) from Linkoping-Malmen, Sweden, NATO E-3s, while US Army RC-12X Guardrails are also known to be flying along the Ukraine border from Siauliai, Lithuania.

Eurofighter Typhoon
Armed RAF Typhoon parked at RAF Akrotiri (Cyprus) after arriving to help reinforce NATO's eastern flank on February 14. MOD Crown Copyright

These assets are data-linking live intelligence to their respective commands in NATO, Sweden, US and UK intelligence. While non are apparently sending the information live to Ukraine HQ, it’s possible that the intelligence is being shared. 

One of the more unusual ISR aircraft is the ARTEMIS (Aerial Reconnaissance and Targeting Exploitation Multi-Mission Intelligence System) Challenger 650 which is being flown by the US Army out of Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania. The biz-jet was upgraded by Leidos to a special mission aircraft configuration, in 2019 into a technology demonstrator, as a possible replacement for the RC-12 Guardrail fleet which is also being used out of Lithuania. It has been involved in various demonstrations by the US Army, and routed through Prestwick in September last year heading west, after spending time in Constanta, but has obviously returned since then. There are thought to be up to four operators in the rear of the aircraft analysing incoming data from its radars and sensors.  Leidos claims the aircraft can fly 4,000 nautical miles and loiter for ten hours ‘while carrying a robust mission equipment package or carrying up to 16 passengers.’ 

The US Army's ARTEMIS Challenger 650 is present in the region. Flickr Commons/Jonathan Payne

Meanwhile, eastern European countries who have all suffered at the hands of the Russians and communism, are offering substantial support to the Ukrainian people, with the populations all collecting clothes and making other donations to send to the border. Their governments have been collecting all the ex-Russian equipment they still have in store, which will be useful to the Ukrainian military, and sending it by train or lorry to the border. There is speculation that Poland has sent 100 R-73 (AA-11 Archer) air-to-air missiles, but this has not yet been confirmed.     

The outpouring of condemnation by the world will have shocked Vladimir Putin and his henchmen, but his state of mind is now being called into question. He ratcheted up tensions between the east and west on February 27, by ordering his nuclear forces to go on high alert. 

Obviously unhappy with his military’s progress and being baited by the west, this was a way to remind NATO of the dark consequences he had threatened on the first day of his war, just as he was sending his troops in. Proof enough that the Russian Air Force did still not have air superiority came on March 1, when the Su-27 Flanker which had diverted to Bacau with ten live air to air missiles on the opening day, returned to Ukraine.