Saturday 16 March 2024

Aspects of Russia's War on Ukraine: Part 2 - the air war

Having considered developments on the land, we now turn to the air.  Many months ago there was a period of serious debate around whether Russia was going to go down the tactical nuclear route.  I never thought it remotely likely, but offered two hypothetical scenarios where it might be more plausible: if Ukraine threatened (in believable terms) to be about to retake Crimea; and/or if Russia committed its airforce - it was very noticeably absent from the battle at that time - and it was shot out of the skies.  The first of those is somewhat obvious, but what was the reasoning on the latter?

Answer:  unlike any of its ground assets, Russia cannot replace its airforce.  So it's been largely withheld, although as Ukraine's limited and now dwindling AA assets have slowly been depleted, Putin has gradually been hazarding more of his aircraft. 

A-50:  looks smart - but not many left

Until a few weeks ago, that was: and then two A-50s were shot out of the sky (by whom, exactly, remains unclear: the Russians are curiously anxious to claim it was friendly fire).   These critical planes are used for directing air assets into forward positions - and Putin doesn't have very many of them left (fingers of one hand now).  The Chinese are highly unlikely to offer them any substitutes, and I'm not at all sure India will sell them any either.  And skilled crews are even harder to come by - essentially irreplaceable in the short term.  Nobody bales out of one of those.  So the Russian airforce once more takes a step backwards - and just when they were perfecting the use of their new glide bombs.  

So - another period of relative impasse in the air: and I don't think this has been a 'pre-election' issue for Putin: he genuinely never wants to see his irreplaceable airforce seriously degraded.  This deprives Russia of one of the standard doctrinal components of what it needs to be doing to execute on its newly-revived 'Soviet' operational method (see earlier post), namely, the vital air contribution required towards the 'firepower' imperative.  My assessment that Putin dare not hazard his airforce stands - particularly in light of the crazy comments he lets his outriders make about taking on NATO in the foreseeable future.

For completeness, we should remember that Ukraine was similarly hobbled during its ill-fated 2023 offensive.  Supposedly planned initially on NATO lines, it was always missing the air component - which for NATO doctrine is even more critical than for Soviet.  'Ill-conceived' might be a better description.

What might break this current impasse?  A couple of things can be envisaged in terms of purely military considerations (i.e. putting aside some political stroke):

(1) Putin might decide to throw in the airforce anyway - if not right now, then perhaps in the expected Russian summer offensive.  Will Ukraine have received the currently-on-ice new package of US military aid by then?  If not, the Russian airforce might be expected to get away with fewer casualties than it would have at any time since Feb 24. 

(2) The Russians might come up with a novel work-around for the lack of A-50s.  The rapid and creative way technology is being adapted in this conflict by both sides, who knows?  I say 'adapted' because Russia has serious problems getting new Western electronic components for anything really advanced, albeit sanctions aren't remotely watertight.  

(3) The long-discussed F-16s might arrive in fair numbers on the other side.  If Ukranian pilots have been trained on the air-to-air mission, that really would keep the Russian aircraft at a distance.  But maybe they've been trained for close air support ... I just don't know.  The F-16 is versatile, but only in terms of how it's been fitted out and crewed: not every F-16 squadron can effectively taken on any role. 

Otherwise, this strange conflict will continue on its hybrid course for many more months to come.

In Part 3 we'll look at Germany's lamentable performance in all this.



dearieme said...

"Germany's lamentable performance": that's one consolation, anyway.

M. Micron seems potty on the subject but is that words only, not action?

Jeremy Poynton said...

"M. Micron seems potty on the subject but is that words only, not action?"

Believing yourself to be the reincarnation of Napoleon a recurring problem for French presidents (Sarkozy, passim...". De Gaulle, of course, a fine exception to that delusion

Diogenes said...

Does Putin's constant threat of nuclear war / nuclear strikes simply underline how weak they are?

Is it simply a plea for them to be left alone with their current "winnings"?

dearieme said...

"Putin's constant threat of nuclear war / nuclear strikes": maybe it's his way of saying "Don't you dare give Ukraine missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead."

jim said...

Keep knocking off Russian assets looks a plan.

Unsurprising the Russians did not adopt the UK's Nimrod approach for the A-50, you can't compute your way out of building a rotordome. You might get close a long way after it no longer matters but only if you like playing leapfrog.

Anonymous said...

Russia has threatened to go nuclear on its red lines, many times.

If NATO supplied munitions to Ukraine, nuclear war.
If the Swedish and Finnish nations join nato, nuclear war.
If Himars are sent to Ukraine, nuclear war
If Russian territory is attacked, nuclear war
If western tanks are sent to Ukraine, nuclear war
If F16s are sent to Ukraine, nuclear war.

He will have to settle for a forever war in Ukraine. The new Afghanistan,Iraq,Vietnam. Find a way to extricate his armies from his folly.
Iraq will aid him.
China will aid him, providing there is NO Nuclear Use. As per their agreement.

Luckily he will have at least six to sixty more years in office to figure out how.

Wildgoose said...

Reminding aggressors that you possess a nuclear arsenal isn't "threatening" nuclear war, it is warning about the threat of nuclear war.

Or, in other words, "F*ck Around and Find Out".

Which the West is doing.

The very clear Red Line from the very start has been nuclear munitions that can rapidly reach Moscow. Whether that is Kennedy installing nuclear missiles in Turkey, (the "Cuban" missile crisis), or neo-Nazi infested Ukraine right now.

Anonymous said...

IIRC can't both those German missiles and F16s carry nuclear weapons? Are we going to hope no one in RusHQ is paranoid that morning?

My feeling is that if push comes to shove China is all in on Russia's side, obviously they want to keep their powder dry, but they will NOT want Russia to lose at all at all, because they'll be next.

Given the respective physical sizes of the UK and Russia, we really are pushing our luck here. Ten 750KT warheads, as carried by a single Sarmat, might not put much of a dent in Mother Russia but sure would ruin England.

The NHS apparently have stocks of iodine pills, but getting them to people will be the issue...

I live about 20 miles from a target.

"A 750 kiloton nuclear warhead detonated by an intercontinental ballistic missile would have a blast radius of 4.6 kilometers at ground level.2 A 1,000 kiloton nuclear blast could produce third-degree burns up to 5 miles away, second-degree burns up to 6 miles away, and first-degree burns up to 7 miles away, according to AsapScience. People up to 53 miles away could also experience temporary blindness. "

Anonymous said...

Maybe our leaders are foolish enough to go nuke because they know damn well they won't be queuing at the recruiting stations to get dumped on in Odessa.

Or maybe they'll go nuke because we're expendable, as both parties have demonstrated over the last 40 years. Just as long as the oligarchs survive...

Anonymous said...

Maybe our leaders are foolish enough to go nuke because they know damn well they won't be queuing at the recruiting stations to get dumped on in Odessa.

Or maybe they'll go nuke because we're expendable, as both parties have demonstrated over the last 40 years. Just as long as the oligarchs survive...

you're talking about Russia, right?
The World Leader in Oligarchs.

Matt said...

@ ND

So, who did shoot down the A-50s if it wasn't the Ukrainians? If it was a NATO member that's getting on for involving us in the war!

Anonymous said...

@ND - congrats on the Putin percentage, 88% by the looks of it, 1% out... Really thought Putin might have dialled it back a bit.

Suspect another landslide might have been a misstep for him.


Anonymous said...

@Matt - Russia likes to claim friendly fire when it suits, e.g. an A-50. Not so much when their air defences land on their citizenry though.


Nick Drew said...

Matt - as CH says. One of them was shot down over the Sea of Azov, the other over actual Russian territory, east of the Sea of Azov!

The Russians don't want their pilots to think Ukr AA has that range & capability (whether or not it does): they would rather their pilots thought it was FF - which is at least a problem they can fix (in theory ...)

Anonymous said...

Anon 9.36 - I don't think there's that much difference between a Russian oligarch and a "British" one - do you?

I might make an exception for Jim Ratcliffe, who actually thinks the UK ought to make stuff.

AFAIK the Russian oligarchs don't fund both parties, then start whining about "skill shortages" i.e. "I can't get the staff on the wages I pay". And they get their way!

I think Philip Green is a fine example of an oligarch - a (former) government adviser who took care to pay as little UK tax as possible on his billions.

Online gambling is a destructive, life-ruining activity, but at least that Stoke woman pays her whack.