The failure of the Russian air force to gain and exploit air superiority over Ukraine has been a surprise for most air power professionals. However, far from inspiring complacency, Russian failure should make Western air forces reflect honestly on how they would fare under similar circumstances.
There is a lack of granular data available on the air operations being undertaken by both sides during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially in open source. To inform their future capability plans, doctrine and tactics, air forces around the world will be analysing the conflict for years to come. However, now that the first phase of the war has ended with the Russian defeat and retreat from its northern axes of advance attempting to take Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, there is already at least one clear lesson on which the RAF and other NATO air forces must act.
SEAD/DEAD Capability is Essential
The immediate lesson is that Russia’s failure and Ukraine’s inability to conduct successful suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) operations has crippled the battlefield effectiveness of both air forces. This is vital to understand because at present no Western air force other than the US Air Force has any serious SEAD/DEAD capability – despite, in many cases, having access to aircraft and weapons designed expressly for the task.
Mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems are being used by both sides and have largely shaped the rest of the air war. The Russian air force has so far failed to demonstrate the capability to reliably find and destroy Ukraine’s SA-11 and SA-8 SAMs from the air. Instead, the majority of Ukraine’s 17 confirmed mobile SAM losses appear to have been caused by Russian ground forces in ambushes, artillery strikes and missile strikes – some of them guided by UAVs. The continued ability of Ukrainian SAM operators to conduct pop-up engagements makes flying over much of Ukraine at medium or high altitudes extremely hazardous for Russian fast jets and helicopters. Russian attempts to conduct sorties at low altitudes by day during the first week of March led to at least 10 fast jet losses. Since then, most of the roughly 200–300 Russian fast jet sorties per day seem to have been limited to either fighter patrols at very high altitudes and at significant stand-off ranges, or strike sorties at night and low altitude.
Russia’s high-altitude Su-35S and Su-30SM fighter patrols have been conducting regular anti-radiation missile (ARM) launches using Kh-31P missiles which attempt to home in on the radar of any Ukrainian SAM system, which illuminates to conduct an engagement. However, the need to stay out of effective range of short- and medium-range SAMs has meant that these launches have a very low probability of kill (Pk), and generally only serve to temporarily force Ukrainian SAM operators to turn off their radars for a short period while the ARMs are in the air. Equally, the widespread presence of mobile (and long-range S-300V4/S-400) Russian SAMs has forced the Ukrainian air force to operate almost exclusively at very low altitude since the first day of the conflict.
At low altitudes, where Russian and Ukrainian strike sorties are flown due to the lack of effective SEAD/DEAD options, both fast jets and helicopters are highly vulnerable to man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) such as Igla-S, Stinger and Starstreak. They are also vulnerable to being shot down by anti-aircraft cannons and small-arms fire, which remains a formidable threat to low flying aircraft wherever large mechanised forces are deployed. The majority of the 19 confirmed Russian and 11 Ukrainian fast jet losses have likely been caused by MANPADS and ground fire. However, this is not because those threats are more dangerous than radar-guided SAMs, but because the inability to conduct effective SEAD/DEAD against the latter has forced both sides’ fast jets down low into range of the former.
NATO is Dangerously Dependent on the US for SEAD/DEAD
The US Air Force has a unique set of exquisite long-range penetrating assets, including shadowy UAVs like the RQ-170 and the B-2 bomber, to conduct direct strikes and target stand-off strikes on key enemy air defence command-and-control (C2) nodes, long-range radar installations and high-threat SAMs at the outset of a conflict. However, these assets are both too expensive and too scarce to rely on for large-scale SEAD/DEAD against mobile medium- and short-range SAM systems. For these threats, the US Air Force and Navy have traditionally conducted SEAD/DEAD by generating major self-escorting strike packages which enemy air defenders cannot afford to let reach their targets and so must unmask to engage. This tactic relies on close tactical coordination between electronic attack aircraft to degrade enemy SAM radar performance, specialised ‘wild weasel’ fighters with both ARMs to suppress SAMs and direct-attack munitions to conduct immediate follow-on ‘hard-kill’ attacks, and air superiority fighters to provide offensive counter-air cover. Flying such complex operations safely and effectively under fire requires extremely well-trained pilots who can perform their own missions almost instinctively, and who have trained regularly as part of large, mixed tactical formations. It also requires aerial refuelling tankers to keep the strike package elements sufficiently fuelled while forming up and transiting to the area of operations, as well as to refuel those attempting to return to base having used more fuel than planned in afterburner-intensive offensive and defensive combat manoeuvres. Finally, it requires intensive ISTAR flights by both penetrating and stand-off aircraft, and a highly sophisticated targeting, planning and C2 framework staffed by well-trained intelligence professionals and experienced officers to accurately detect and map the main threat dispositions in an enemy air defence network prior to each mission, and conduct battle-damage assessment afterwards to effectively plan and brief the next one.
The Russian air force appears unable to do this, but, aside from the US, all other NATO air forces also lack this capacity at a sovereign or even pan-European level. They lack sufficient penetrating assets to conduct initial direct strikes and targeting for stand-off munitions – with only a slowly increasing but overcommitted F-35 fleet on which to draw. They lack sufficient suitable munitions stocks. The pilots in most air forces also lack experience of regularly operating as part of large, mixed and mutually supporting strike packages – outside the usually once-in-a-career opportunity to deploy on the US-hosted Exercise Red Flag. European air forces also lack the large stand-off ISTAR fleets traditionally used to map and understand enemy air defence networks, and the intelligence and C2 staff capacity to run complex large-scale operations without significant US personnel and enabler support. As a result, if the US was committed to a major war elsewhere or otherwise politically unwilling to shoulder the primary SEAD/DEAD responsibilities, NATO air forces would face similar problems establishing air superiority over territory contested by Russia or any other state opponent with mobile SAMs. This severely limits sovereign freedom of action, and is a key bottleneck to any attempt to reduce the Alliance’s military over-dependence on the US.
The RAF is in a better position than most European air forces to potentially try to fix some of these shortcomings as it has a combination of aircraft and weapons systems already in its inventory which could be developed into a highly effective specialised SEAD/DEAD force. The Typhoon force, for example, can launch Storm Shadow cruise missiles against long-range radar and SAM sites. F-35B sorties might allow these to target mobile long-range SAMs, like S-400 batteries, if the location data can be passed to the launching Typhoon and the missile in-flight. They are also more than a match for all operational Russian fighter aircraft on both a technical and pilot competency level, so can provide self-escort capabilities against any likely air threats. However, Storm Shadow itself is large and expensive, and as such cannot be fielded in sufficient numbers to be used for more than high-value targets. In spite of over 1,000 Russian cruise- and ballistic-missile launches, which have had significant success against Ukrainian radars and S-300 long-range SAM batteries, mobile Ukrainian SAMs remain active and so Russian air superiority remains elusive. Unlike the Russian air force, which has limited precision guided munition (PGM) stocks and pilot familiarity, the RAF uses advanced targeting pods and the precision guided Paveway IV bomb and Brimstone missile as its primary air-to-ground weapons. However, neither are well suited for SEAD/DEAD as they both require Typhoons to get well within the engagement zone of medium-range mobile SAMs like the Russian SA-17 to use. The RAF no longer uses the ALARM missile which used to equip the Tornado force for SEAD, and few other European nations have a modern ARM capability either. For the small UK F-35B fleet, getting close enough to modern layered SAM threats to use Paveway IV significantly increases risk and the time needed to get within launch parameters of a pop-up SAM if it briefly illuminates nearby.
A much more suitable weapon is the new SPEAR 3 missile which has a stand-off range of more than 130 km, a multi-mode seeker that allows it a significant degree of fire-and-forget capability against even moving vehicles once launched with accurate target data, and is designed to be carried on triple-launchers underwing by Typhoon or internally for F-35s. In conjunction with the F-35’s unrivalled situational awareness and stand-in electronic attack capabilities, SPEAR 3 and the putative SPEAR EW variant could give the UK a seriously credible self-contained SEAD/DEAD capability. On Typhoon it can provide a credible self-defence and strike-package SEAD escort capability. However, it is an expensive weapon for an expensive aircraft, and the current UK contract only covers limited initial production and flight testing. SPEAR 3 also cannot currently be used by the ammunition handling system on Queen Elizabeth-class carriers.
If the UK were to significantly uplift its planned purchases of SPEAR 3 and ideally SPEAR EW, and start to train its Typhoon and F-35 crews for SEAD/DEAD in highly contested environments, it would need significantly increased funding or significant cuts elsewhere in an already diminished force structure. However, it would also give the NATO alliance a rapid path to additional modern SEAD/DEAD capability, which is already a critical bottleneck with full US participation, or a critical weakness without it. It would give the UK a key unique selling point as a NATO framework nation and make the RAF indispensable to any future NATO operation. It would also enhance sovereign freedom of action. If there is one clear lesson to take away from the air war over Ukraine, it is that if an air force cannot credibly find, suppress, fix and kill mobile, modern SAMs operating as pop-up threats, it will not be able to gain air superiority over even moderately well-equipped state opponents. Any attempt to work around the SEAD/DEAD deficiency by staying at stand-off ranges or flying in at very low level to stay under the radar will likely meet the same combination of limited battlefield effectiveness and high losses as Russia has found in Ukraine so far.
Justin Bronk is Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at RUSI