It’s still a force in being

Saturday, May 20th, 2023

One of the “mysteries” of the Ukraine war has been the ineffectiveness of Russia’s air force:

Despite superior numbers and technology, Russian pilots have been surprisingly timid in pressing their attacks.

One reason for that is the effectiveness of Ukrainian ground-based air defenses, but the recent leak of secret US intelligence assessments has confirmed what some have suspected for a while: Ukraine is running out of anti-aircraft weapons.

Which raises the question: If Ukrainian air defenses fade, will the Russian Air Force — known as the VKS — finally become a decisive factor in the war?

“As a force, the VKS is still intact,” Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corporation think tank, warned during an April episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast. “Yes, they’ve lost squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, but all in all that’s a single-digit percentage of the total force. It’s still a force in being.”


More importantly, Russian pilots encountered an effective Ukrainian integrated air-defense network composed of a patchwork of systems. It combined early-warning radars, manned interceptors, and Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, such as the long-range S-300 and the short-range, man-portable Igla. These were quickly supplemented by Western weapons such as the man-portable US Stinger, British Starstreak, and, more recently, German Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

Given a choice, most air forces would perform deep strikes behind enemy lines rather than dangerous close-air-support missions, for which heavily armored ground-attack aircraft such as Russia’s Su-25 or the US’s A-10 are best suited. But as Russia’s ground invasion faltered in the early days of the war, the VKS was tasked with providing close air support to help the army.

“Then you saw them getting chewed up in various Stinger envelopes, various SAM envelopes,” Massicot said. “Ever since that, the VKS has been essentially used very conservatively.”


If Ukrainian SAM coverage at medium altitude does ebb, Bronk expects Russian aircraft to become much more active, but they may still struggle to provide close air support.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    You go to war with the forces you have, as the man said. If those forces include missiles which can destroy Zelensky’s military far behind the front lines — and even outwit the so-expensive US Patriot defense — why put the lives of pilots at risk?

    There have been analyses suggesting that the related issue for the German Nazis in WWII was they were running out of trained pilots. It takes a lot longer to train a pilot than to build an airplane. Maybe Zelensky could fill us in on those details?

  2. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    In reality, destruction of medium range air defense platforms via artillery and loitering munitions has created an engagement gap where heavyweight glider bombs are being air dropped at high altitudes 50-70 kilometers away, outside the ranges of both existing SHORAD and theater defense systems far from the front lines. This has been one of the significant factors behind the rapid attrition of ukrop sacrificial lambs in multiple sectors. They simply don’t have a good answer for it.

    Glider bombs are of course a very cost effective solution, as the plane effectively functions as a reuseable boost stage, furnishing potential energy the glider translates into greater distance, and kerosene is a lot cheaper than rocket mass to boot. Additionally, a 5,000+ pound explosive charge is exactly what the doctor orders when clearing out enemy troops positions in built up urban blocs, which are normally very difficult to deal with otherwise (every rubbled building is a new bunker or fighting position).

  3. TRX says:

    Also note that unlike WWII, modern glide bombs can be remote piloted aircraft uplinked to ground controllers far away, backed up by inertial or GPS systems if something happens to the uplink.

    With careful design and a bit of armor they’d be mostly safe from gunfire, and I’m guessing the price would be similar to an anti-aircraft missile, so dominance would go to whoever could saturate the airspace, even if the AA missiles were 100% effective.

  4. Mike-SMO says:

    Russia lives in a special reality. Russia must keep a reserve of capability to threaten NATO as well as the capability to keep China “friendly”. Russia has a Dragon at its back. China and Russia have gone nose to nose not too long ago, China has ancient claims on Siberia, and more recently has an interest in the fuel, minerals, and food stuffs from eastern Russia. Russian action in the Ukraine can not be allowed to reduce the intimidation available for China and the European NATO. Russia and China are both amoral and Putin knows that China would be helpful until it wasn’t.

    An air war over the Ukraine might be too expensive to risk. There would be no way to throw “mobics” into an air war. The fate of Moskva, should make Putin worry about the resources spent on training, maintenance and up grades for the Russian air forces. The Russians have some “spiffy” systems but can’t even provide sox for their grunts. Significant losses to their air force might activate the Chinese Dragon.

  5. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “Russia must keep a reserve of capability to threaten NATO”

    Let’s not kid ourselves — any open US/NATO attack on Russia would escalate to global nuclear war in a very short period of time. Same with any US/NATO attack on China — or even with any (unlikely) Chinese attack on Russia. No nuclear-armed country will accept defeat at the hands of foreign aggressors, making nuclear response inevitable.

    Our Betters in the DC Swamp do not seem to realize just how close to catastrophe they are pushing us. Although if the Russians responded to US aggression by thoroughly nuking only the District of Columbia, they would earn the undying gratitude of a large part of the US citizenry.

  6. Mike-SMO says:

    The “other guy” always has a different “rationality”.

    MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. A nuclear launch would be suicidal for Russia.

    The U S has been very careful of what weapons and information it has provided to the Ukraine. Russia has never been threatened. Russia has lost wars and survived. The Russians know what they could be facing from the “air shows” in Syria. The “leadership” in Russia has been stealing anything that is not nailed down in order to have a lavish future. There is no future after a nuclear exchange. The US/NATO has been careful not to threaten “Rodina” (Mother Russia). The recent “drone” attacks in the Moscow area target the Oligarch class. LThe peasants may be steeped in “propaganda”, but I think that the military has a better view of the game. I doubt that the military is willing to die for Putin’s ego.

    It is a dangerous game. We didn’t start it. The arguments that Putin has made about NATO in the Ukraine hold equally well about NATO along Russian borders in Poland, Finland and the Baltic states. I read this as Putin playing Tsar. He has openly talked of the new empire that extends to the Vistula River in Poland. That would mean an invasion of a NATO country. I doubt that such a scheme would be worth dieing for.

    It is obviously a dangerous game. What did you think NATO was all about? If Russia/Soviets rolled West, and the US/UK/NATO resisted, we’d be at the same decision point. We are forcing Russia to chose either destruction (MAD) or withdrawal. I doubt that China would be so kind. Once nuclear weapons are in play, the question was always, “Let me do what I want, or we die together”. The game has always then been, to avoid putting an opponent in a condition where death is preferrable to submission. Is the re-establishment of the Russian Empire in Eastern Europe worth destruction? I sincerely doubt that physical control of the Ukraine is that important to Russia. I don’t think that Russian is suicidal about it.

  7. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Mike-SMO: “It is obviously a dangerous game.”

    On that, we are in total agreement. Our difference lies in who we think has been the initiator of this critical situation.

    There is the BBC/CNN/PBS propaganda that “Putin” is the sole source of the problem — a would-be new Ghengis Khan.

    There is the more supportable view that the evil lies in the US/NATO Political Class who responded to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact by expanding NATO to the borders of a Russia that wanted to join the West — despite promises not to do such a threatening act.

  8. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    USG beat Russia to the punch by occupying Ukraine first. State Department delivers another one of its Greatest Hits with the 2014 operation — the groundwork of course always being insinuated into place long before, and after.

    When Putin started his Special Military Operation on that day in February, 2022, he didn’t invade Ukraine, he invaded America.

  9. VXXC says:


    Learn to read a map: where is Ukraine? Where is Russia? Where is America?

    You getting paid for this?

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