One of the world’s best air forces has been reluctant to send its jets to fight in Ukraine.
In mid-2015, the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad was close to losing control over the country. Opposition rebels armed with sophisticated weaponry, including anti-aircraft stinger missiles, had taken the major city of Idlib. It seemed Assad’s days were numbered, but then Russia entered the fray.
Within a short period of six months, Russian Su-24 jets had relentlessly bombarded rebel positions in more than 9,000 sorties. The intense air campaign halted sustained rebel gains made since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
But in the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) have almost been missing in the initial stages of the military action, which started on February 24. This has left many analysts and officials questioning if there’s something wrong with one of the world’s most powerful air powers.
“Russia has used (cruise) missiles over the first few days of the conflict. But it has refrained from deploying jet fighters and bombers to strike targets in Ukraine,” says Dr Mauro Gilli, a senior researcher at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Zurich).
“Ukrainian air defences have not been completely neutralised. Ukraine still has degrees of capacity to detect, acquire and engage Russian aircraft in the air,” he tells TRT World.
Russia started its campaign by hitting the Ukrainian air defence network, including early warning radars and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). That’s expected in a modern conflict.
Yet, the VKS has not deployed its formidable jets, which number in the hundreds and are equipped with cutting edge avionics, as many experts thought it would. The strategy has left Russian ground troops vulnerable to counterattacks as they advance on Kharkiv and other cities.
Ukrainian defence forces claim to have inflicted massive damage on the advancing Russian columns.
For days, videos and pictures have circulated on social media showing empty armoured vehicles and tanks allegedly abandoned by Russian troops as they retreated in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance.
The visuals indicate the lack of VKS air support. The US Department of Defense made a similar remark, saying that the Ukrainian airspace remains contested.
"They're (VKS) not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots," a senior US defence official told Reuters.
In an assessment of the VKS operation, RUSI think-tank analyst Justin Bronk pointed out that technical reasons, ranging from lack of precision-guided missiles to untrained pilots, could have slowed the Russian air offence.
Bronk’s article “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force” published on February 28 has been widely circulated on Twitter.
Two experts — Keir Giles of the Conflict Studies Research Centre and Dr Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky — referred TRT World to that article when asked for comments.
Bronk argues that Russian pilots might not have sufficient experience or the flying hours to fly modern jets in a risky environment.
Lack of coordination between the VKS and ground troops in managing the use of Russian SAMs, something that makes friendly fire more likely, and a lack of precision missiles could be two other reasons, he writes.
“I think all his explanations are plausible and there is no reason why there shouldn't be multiple of those at the same time,” Giles tells TRT World.
A Serbian replay
For months now, the United States and its allies have shipped arms to Ukraine that also include air defence capabilities, says Gilli of ETH-Zurich.
Footage coming out of the conflict zone and being shared on Youtube and Twitter shows that Russian helicopters and jets are flying fast at low altitudes, in what appears to be a manoeuvre to avoid detection by radars, he says.
According to Gilli, it's possible that Ukrainian forces may have some capability to detect Russian jets from far away, which allows them to deploy MANPADs (Man-portable air defence systems) right when and where they are needed.
Smart use of even a less sophisticated air defence system can be deadly, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces found out in the 1999 air war against Serbia.
The Serb forces managed to shoot down a US Air Force F117 Nighthawk stealth jet by cleverly scattering surface-to-air missiles and switching off their radars. The SAM radars were only turned on at the very last moment to take NATO jets by surprise.
“Air defence poses a serious threat for the aircraft: when detected, a pilot will be forced to adopt an evasive maneuver and possibly drop the bomb way sooner if he doesn’t have a precision missile,” says Gilli.
But as Russia presses on with its offensive and the war drags on, it can scramble its jets to take a bigger part in the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plea that NATO enforce a no-fly zone has not received any serious consideration as it could draw the US and its allies into a direct confrontation with Russia.
“I do think that to the extent Ukrainian resistance continues, and especially if Ukraine acquires aircraft from NATO, we'll see much more aggressive use of the VKS,” said Farley.