What Is Air Superiority and Why Doesn’t Russia Control the Sky Over Ukraine?

Since the days of the Second World War, achieving air superiority has been an early priority for the belligerents.

4 min read

In Volodymyr Zelenskyy's passionate address to the United States Congress, the Ukrainian president asked for a no-fly zone along with additional fighter jets and anti-aircraft weapons.

It's been more than three weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and military experts are confounded by the lack of air power that is being employed by the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS).

While Russian troops and tanks on the ground outnumber the Ukrainian ones, an early strategy in the war for the VKS should have been to focus on and destroy the Ukrainian Air Force, and achieve what is known as air superiority.

This has not been the case, and we try to understand why. What is air superiority? Why is it important? Why hasn't Russia achieved it yet?


What Is Air Superiority?

In a war, the belligerent that holds complete control of the skies, is said to have air superiority.

Additionally, the US Department of Defense and NATO define air supremacy (different from air superiority) as something that a belligerent has achieved when "the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference".

Therefore, with air superiority, air operations can be conducted "without prohibitive interference by the opposing force", while during air supremacy, the opposing air force is "incapable of effective interference", as per NATO definitions.

Experts agree that in most military conflicts since the days of the Second World War, achieving air superiority has been an early priority for warring states.

To achieve this, the belligerent has to totally annihilate the enemy's air force.

This can be achieved with either its own air force or its land-based air defence systems (anti-aircraft systems that include surface-to-air missiles).

So, when Zelenskyy asks the US and NATO allies to impose and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, he is essentially asking them to deny Russia the slightest chance of controlling the skies.

Why Is It Important? 

The most important outcome of air superiority is that it provides freedom and safety to ground troops.

This is something that Robert Pape, a security affairs scholar who specialises in air power, focuses on in his essay, 'The True Worth of Air Power'.

He argues that a belligerent's superior air force along with the infantry can prove to provide a decisive advantage over the adversary.

While writing about the importance of improved aerial bombing accuracy, Pape writes that "attacking the enemy simultaneously by air and on the ground puts the enemy army in a quandary".

There are two reasons for this quandary.

If the enemy's ground troops are concentrated in large numbers, they can be wiped out in no time by aerial attacks.

But it's also a problem if they don't concentrate in large numbers, because the infantry can then "defeat them in detail, mopping them up with few losses".

Therefore, combining air power with ground troops is considered to be a winning strategy in today's day and age.

With respect to US missions, this strategy has indeed resulted in victories in wars like the First Gulf War, the Bosnian War, and the Kosovo War.

Achieving air superiority has defensive considerations as well. The belligerent that has achieved it does not have to worry about its own ground troops being attacked from the skies.

Ground forces can then be relied upon to take control of enemy territory.


Where Is Russia Lacking? 

As the war against Ukraine enters its fourth week, Russia has still not achieved air superiority, forget air supremacy.

During the first few days of the war, it was widely anticipated that Russia would use its superior air power to crush Ukraine's air force, and then send in ground troops to control major cities like Kyiv.

Billions of dollars have been used to improve Russia's air power and manufacture warplanes over the last 10 years, including the Su-30, Su-35, and Su-57 fighter jets, along with the Su-34 bombers, which are, as reported by The Economist, "as advanced as anything the rest of Europe has to offer".

So, what's the problem? Experts have different takes.

The most widely accepted theory is this – Putin thought that he wouldn't need the VKS to win the war in Ukraine.

The Russian president may have underestimated the Ukrainian resistance, leading him to believe that his ground troops would capture Kyiv, and the war would be over in a week without requiring air superiority.

This would also reduce the risk of Russia losing its aircrafts and pilots. "They're not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots," a senior US defence official had said one week into the war, as quoted by Reuters.

Another commonly cited theory is that the VKS possesses air-delivered precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in limited quantities. Attacks consisting of PGMs are conducted via air.

Analysts say that Russian interference in the Syrian Civil War in support of President Bashar al-Assad led to extensive combat operations that may have depleted the VKS's stockpile of PGMs (which was already small in the first place).

It means that the VKS is left with a sufficient quantity of unguided bombs (dumb bombs) and rockets for attacks, which may or may not be deployed in the coming days. Such a deployment increases the risk of civilian casualties.

A final theory being put forward, but not as strongly, is regarding the relatively low number of flying hours that Russian pilots receive per year in comparison to their rivals.

According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defence think tank, VKS pilots get an average of of 100–120 flying hours per year.

It is important to note that the pilots of the British and American air forces admit that they do not achieve full combat readiness even with an average of 180–240 flying hours per year, according to RUSI's findings.

Therefore, even if billions have been poured into a modernisation programme for the VKS, its pilots would still be struggling to efficiently and effectively apply the theoretical capabilities that they acquired during training, in the intense war environment that is present in Ukraine at the moment.

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