Putin’s Superior Air Force Is Failing Him in Ukraine

Russian jets flying in formation

When the war in Ukraine began, many experts predicted Russia’s reportedly mighty air force would play a key role in securing a quick victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not only did that prediction not come to fruition, but Russia’s air force has not been much of a factor in the war at all.

Russia possesses one of the largest air forces in the world with 1,511 combat aircraft to Ukraine’s 98, according to Flight Global’s 2022 World Air Force directory. In March, The Economist wrote of how Russia has spent billions of dollars in the past decade on warplanes that were said to be “as advanced as anything the rest of Europe has to offer.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also feared the threat of Russia’s attack from above and made multiple (unsuccessful) pleas early in the invasion for Western forces to establish a no-fly zone above his country.

Yet, Russia has not managed to establish air superiority over Ukraine and continues to lose aircraft as the result of Ukraine’s anti-aircraft weapons, which includes technologically advanced equipment provided by NATO countries. Sean Spoonts, editor-in-chief of the military news outlet SOFREPtold Newsweek there are a number of reasons why he feels Putin’s air campaign has been ineffective.

One major problem for Russia is the “sheer size” of Ukraine, which makes it an uneasy place to target from the air, Spoonts said. He said another issue is Russia’s air fleet has only about a 70 percent success rate of getting planes up in the air. (By contrast, Spoonts said the US forces have a flying percentage rate in the 90s.)

Spoonts said Russia’s military has also grappled with “higher maintenance costs” and “higher supply costs,” resulting in the inability to replace destroyed or damaged aircraft and equipment.

Russian jets flying in formation
A military expert from SOFREP said a number of reasons explain why Russia’s air force has not lived up to expectations in Ukraine. Above, Russian aircraft fly in formation over central Moscow during the Victory Day military parade on May 9, 2021.
Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Russia had gone through a large portion of its stockpile of cruise and ballistic missiles and was increasingly relying on dropping “dumb” unguided bombs. During a background briefing, a senior official from the Defense Department said sanctions have made it difficult for Russia to replenish its arsenal, with components used for guided missiles being an important piece of equipment that’s been limited.

Spoonts added Ukrainian forces have also been surprisingly successfully in defeating Russia air attacks. He said Ukraine has both high- and low-altitude anti-aircraft capability, which “has denied the Russian air force the ability to operate freely.”

“So, Zelensky doesn’t really need a no-fly zone,” Spoonts said. “The Russians aren’t able to even maintain local air superiority over their own forces, because you see Ukrainian drones flying over Russian forces and dropping bombs.”

Spoonts said SOFREP had found that while Russia has its own GPS satellite system to navigate aircraft, it hasn’t been using the equipment. He said that’s led the SOFREP’s team to think either the system is broken or its signal has been jammed by another country. The Russians have instead been relying on Garmin GPS systems, he said.

Discussing the immense size of Putin’s air force, Spoonts said Russia hasn’t utilized all its planes.

“It’s inexplicable to us [SOFREP] why they’re not using their aircraft more,” he said. He added that it’s believed that a lack of parts, the low success rate of getting planes in the air and the limits of mainly dropping dumb bombs has restricted Russia from using more of its air fleet.

Newsweek reached out to Russia’s Defense Ministry for comment.

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