The result is a Russian military designed to win land wars while avoiding a rout from the air

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Back at the start of March, Samo Burja wrote about observers puzzled to see Russian troops advancing into Ukraine without attaining air supremacy:

On the first morning of the attack, Russia disabled many Ukrainian airfields with a barrage of missiles. Since this was evidently insufficient to stop the Ukrainian air force from fighting back or launching air-to-ground attacks on the Russian army, Russia has, at best, achieved only air superiority over Ukraine: it can operate advantageously in Ukrainian skies, but it lacks the total dominance at which effective interference is no longer expected.

From the U.S. perspective, Russia’s decision to pursue a ground invasion when the skies remain contested seems foolhardy. The American military strongly favors establishing air supremacy before committing ground troops to battle. In the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States led a coalition force to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, an air campaign that lasted 42 consecutive days and nights preceded the first major ground assault. Over 100,000 sorties flew, using stealth bombers and laser-guided munitions to incapacitate the Iraqi military from above. When coalition forces invaded Iraq again in 2003, they did not first wait for an extensive air campaign—not because of a fundamental change in doctrine, but because the U.S. and its allies had continuously maintained air supremacy over Iraq for the previous 12 years. At the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. and allied militaries declared and enforced no-fly zones over most of Iraq, periodically striking Iraqi aircraft and air-defense systems, among other targets.

Since World War II, the United States has used airpower to great success. But airpower has another benefit beyond the strictly military advantage of being able both to see and strike any target in a theater of war: it is politically feasible. Air campaigns can inflict tremendous casualties on an enemy while sustaining few losses of their own. This prevents the bad public relations and loss of morale that afflicted the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in later years, while bypassing the onerous bureaucratic and logistical capacity needed to field an effective army. It’s unlikely that the U.S. ever would have launched conventional ground invasions of Yugoslavia in 1999 or Libya in 2011, but overwhelming airpower proved sufficient to achieve U.S. goals in both cases.

This extremely successful track record, however, has eclipsed the reality that orientation around airpower is not the only potent military strategy for a major power. Russia’s military is instead built around ground-based heavy artillery. Much of the Russian force now invading Ukraine consists of “Battalion Tactical Groups” (BTGs). These formations of less than 1,000 men operate as much artillery as a U.S. armored brigade—a formation of about 4,500 troops—as well as air-defense, anti-tank, and multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries. Russia’s Soviet-era artillery has been modernized and much of it is brand new. In addition to large quantities of self-propelled artillery, many of Russia’s active artillery systems substantially outgun and outrange their Western equivalents, partially thanks to a domestic defense industry that specializes in this niche. Unlike many European countries, Russia still employs cluster munitions that can saturate an area of 40,000 square meters with explosives. In Western doctrine, tanks are typically supported by artillery fire when seizing contested ground. Russian doctrine is the other way around: tanks are used to seize favorable positions for artillery, which then finishes off an enemy force. Surprisingly, the Russian military currently does not even operate any armed drones but uses a 2,000-strong fleet of reconnaissance drones to help locate artillery targets.

This artillery-centric army would be nevertheless highly vulnerable to air strikes in the absence of air defenses, a weakness of which Russian military theorists have been aware since the last years of the Soviet Union, and which modern Russia has taken pains to address. In the 1980s, Soviet marshal Nikolai Ogarkov proposed—among many other reforms—the creation of a unified aerospace service with combined responsibility for both airpower and air defense. The Soviet military proved too rigid for reform before the USSR’s collapse in 1991, but Putin’s Russia inaugurated the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015. This followed a major period of military reform from 2007 to 2012 under Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a civilian and career tax official who relentlessly purged Russia’s bloated defense bureaucracy and worked to modernize equipment, tactics, and administration. Today, Russia operates some of the world’s densest and most sophisticated air-defense systems. The infamous S-400, which has been purchased by China, India, and Turkey, is one example, but progress has also been made in linking up older air defenses to modern target-acquisition systems. Every BTG also operates its own short-range air-defense systems.

The result is a Russian military designed to win land wars while avoiding a rout from the air. Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine without air supremacy simply because its army was designed to operate without it. Moreover, Putin’s authoritarian Russia is far more politically willing to absorb casualties than Western democracies.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Lack of air supremacy does not mean lack of air defense. Russian troops have the most extensive, integrated, layered air defenses of any military. By comparison, US Army and Marine air defenses are a joke.

  2. Bomag says:

    So, if we set out to push Russia out of Ukraine, how would it play out? Would our drones; cruise missiles; and attack aircraft overwhelm Russian artillery and infantry? Or do they have the chops to counter our air attack?

  3. Adept says:


    Turns out that Russian air defenses don’t work all that well. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war was basically a contest between Turkish and Israeli drones on the one hand, and Russian air defenses on the other. On the Azerbaijani side, the now-famous Bayraktar had a prominent role, as did the IAI Harop loitering munition. On the Armenian side, quite a lot of “integrated and layered” Russian air defenses, including the S-300 and 9K33 Osas.

    The result: A humiliating and swift defeat for the Armenians. Small drones made a mockery of the S-300.

    Seems to me that the “invulnerable Russian air defense” meme is puffery, a dramatic exaggeration that salesmen trying to export arms from Russia have carefully devised.

  4. Bob Sykes,

    If you are right about Russian air defense, why does the Iron Dome in Israel get all the credit? I wonder about that.

  5. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Bomag: “So, if we set out to push Russia out of Ukraine, how would it play out?”

    Who is the “we” in that sentence?

    If the US/NATO decides to get actively involved in the Ukraine, a logical response from the Russian side would be to sink ships and shoot down planes transporting arms & units from the US. They would also logically decide to bomb ports and airports in Europe, and blow up bridges, roads, & railroads in Germany & Poland to prevent the movement of US/NATO forces.

    And the US & UK would respond to that with a nuclear barrage, to which Russia would respond in kind — with interest! Game over — for you, for me, for everybody.

    It is time “we” stopped being stupid about getting involved in a civil war where “our side” has been trying to genocide (as Biden* would say) Russian-speaking Ukrainians for eight long violent years.

  6. Bomag says:

    “Who is the “we” in that sentence?”

    “We” = Military Industrial Complex.

    “…blow up bridges, roads, & railroads in Germany & Poland to prevent the movement of US/NATO forces.”

    I was told we would be talking tactics; not logistics.

    Heard an account of Delta et al. going head to head with the Wagner group in Syria. A stalemate for a couple hours until our air power showed up; then lights out.

  7. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Bomag: “I was told we would be talking tactics; not logistics.”

    Get real! Destroying an enemy’s forces before they reach the battlefield is an obvious tactic.

    During the American phase of the long-running wars in Vietnam, the US would watch as Russian ships unloaded missiles which would be used to shoot down US planes — and did nothing. Don’t assume that Russia would be as foolish.

    You are talking about war, not about some silly video game. The opponent you are trying to kill is at liberty to strike back and kill you dead. Your opponent is not going to be limited by your rules.

    Simple guideline to keep in mind as you play with tactics: any direct attack by the US/NATO on Russia is likely to escalate to global thermonuclear war. Game Over!

  8. Bomag says:

    I was joking off the adage: “amateurs thing tactics; professionals thing logistics.”

    I was just wondering if Ukraine spooled up American style air power against Russia’s air defenses, how it would play out. I’ve heard Russia’s air defense is overrated.

    And, yes, logistics-logistics-logistics. American style air defense requires lots of guys and stuff in the back.

  9. Gavin Longmuir says:

    There are those who say that air power is over-rated. The US had overwhelming air superiority in Vietnam — and we all know how that worked out. And total air superiority in Afghanistan too. See a pattern there?

    If we go back to World War II, the Allies had air superiority and used it to run bombing campaigns that went on for several years — including attacks on civilians such as the firebombing of Dresden that would have been labelled “war crimes” if the Allies had lost the war. Yet air power did not end the war in Europe — it took the Red Army seizing Berlin.

    If we look at more modern invasions — US/NATO had to bomb the almost defenseless sovereign nation of Serbia for 78 days to get them to Cry Uncle, including morally-questionable acts like bombing power stations and water supplies … something that Russia has so far declined to do in the Ukraine.

    Bottom line — a US air assault on Russian forces in the Ukraine would be a war, not a video game. It would certainly not be an overnight game-changer, and it would inevitably escalate to all-out thermonuclear war affecting your immediate neighborhood.

    Ask yourself — the Ruling Clique in the Ukraine have been fighting a civil war against their own citizens in the east of the country for the last 8 years, murdering thousands of civilians — Is that the kind of foreign Ruling Clique you are prepared to die for?

  10. VXXC says:

    Earlier there were some posts from Luttwak.

    If you follow his Twitter you’ll see he’s alarmed that Ukraine is escalating, that World War chances are increasing and he’s calling for negotiations and plebiscites.

    Its actually funny, he’s realizing this isn’t a weekend at Gaza.

    The Russians have set their terms and we simply refuse to allow Zelensky to negotiate. Our creature utterly of course.

    Luttwak was all on fire for this until he realized that the people driving the narrative are setting policy here and they’re crazy. Luttwak was all Romantic and Molotov cocktails and arm the Resistance blah blah.
    Now it dawns on him the Russians are not the Pals.


  11. VXXC says:

    Armenian air defense is not Russian air defense, its leftovers from USSR air defense. Yes I looked into it at the time and after.

    Should we be so fortunate as to fight a conventional war only with Russia we’re in for a shock, or rather the rest of you are.

    The US Army is well aware of its shortcomings and has been warning about them for years. Short list no EW, greatly depleted air defense, fallen way behind on drones, no counter drone, very inferior in artillery, not used to a contested air environment, Command posts that are used to occupation duty and give off radio and visual signatures of a small town or large village- can go on.

    The Russian army is technically and tactically superior at land warfare is the bottom line.

  12. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “something that Russia has so far declined to do in the Ukraine.”

    To their detriment.

  13. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    “It’s unlikely that the U.S. ever would have launched conventional ground invasions of Yugoslavia in 1999 or Libya in 2011, but overwhelming airpower proved sufficient to achieve U.S. goals in both cases.… Libya… U.S.…goals…achieved”

    Tell me you’re a stooge without telling me you’re a stooge, Samo, lol.

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