In the run up to the Russian invasion in February airpower analysts, including this author, were gloomy about Ukraine’s ability to defend its airspace.
Even the more optimistic assessments assumed that Russia would mount a significant air campaign to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force on its airbases, coupled with large-scale strikes with stand-off cruise and ballistic missiles to blind Ukrainian long range early warning and surface-to-air missile (SAM) system radars. This would have forced Ukraine to move its mobile surface to air missiles away from the frontlines and to try and inflict a steady drumbeat of losses on Russian aircraft penetrating too far. Meanwhile, the defence of Ukrainian frontline units would be mostly left to man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) to at least make Russian low-level attack runs a dangerous prospect.
When the invasion was launched on 24 February, a barrage of cruise and ballistic missiles struck Ukrainian airbases, munitions dumps, long range SAM positions and radar stations. However, the expected Russian air superiority campaign failed to materialise. Instead, Russian formations of one or two aircraft at a time conducted strikes against targets in and around Ukrainian cities close to the borders including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, and Mariupol. Follow up strikes were seldom mounted against targets that were lightly damaged or missed, and Ukrainian mobile SAMs began to inflict losses on both fast jets and helicopters. More significantly, the Russian Air Force (VKS) appeared not to have made plans for a large-scale campaign to suppress and destroy enemy air defences, and also proved unable to coordinate large complex formations that might otherwise have been expected to allow its diverse and modern fast jet fleets to support one another’s strengths and cover weaknesses.
Russia’s inability to plan and conduct large, complex aerial strike packages is one of the country’s most significant unforeseen weaknesses during this war, and one that largely explains its inability to establish air superiority over Ukraine.