Eight lessons air forces are learning from the war in Ukraine

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Ten and a half months have passed since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The resulting war became the most intense and large-scale conflict of recent decades, and the one that subverted many expectations on both sides. 

Recently, there has been a multitude of reports and analyses, delving into various details of air campaigns waged by both Russia and Ukraine.  

Let’s try to extract and sum up the observations the analysts have put forward. Some of their insights have already had an effect on defense spending, training and weapons development across the world. Others are yet to be acted upon, or perhaps will be discarded due to the rapidly changing situation. 

So, what military aviation lessons can be learned from this war?  

1. Not all wars are fought by air power

Aviation is at the core of NATO military doctrine. Even before the start of the Cold War, the US and a lot of their allies tried to create quantitative and qualitative air power advantage and rely on it as the tip of the spear in their military campaigns. 

During the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was talk of the Russian army being primarily an artillery army. This feature was quick to reveal itself. When the frontlines stabilized, the then-advancing Russia started expending stupendous amounts of shells, effectively leveling entire cities before capturing them. Ukraine had no choice but to respond with its own massed, although more precise, artillery barrages. 

Large-scale air raids, like the ones conducted by the US during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, were nowhere to be seen. This once again reminds us that overwhelming air power is not the only way to wage war, and this must be taken into account. Some military analysts called for efforts to reverse NATO’s artillery “atrophy”, others criticized such an approach as inefficient. Whichever side we take, there is little denying that the Ukraine war increased the awareness of a non-aviation-centric view of warfare. 

2. Ground-based air defenses are important 

During the Cold War, unable to respond to NATO’s aviation advantage, the Soviet Union poured its resources into developing effective ground-based air defense (GBAD) systems. Decades later, some of those systems – such as the S-300 and the Buk – still form the backbone of both Russia’s and Ukraine’s air defenses. 

They have been highly effective, creating a sort of mutual air superiority denial: neither Russian nor Ukrainian aircraft have had any success in breaking though these defenses since GBAD networks became established in March 2022. 

The prominence of GBAD, and not only air power, has been reflected in both NATO’s efforts to supply Ukraine with these systems and its members’ calls for more anti-aircraft batteries on the alliance’s Eastern flank. 

However, doctrinal dependence on air power left NATO’s air defense systems stretched thin. Defense representatives from both the US and European countries admitted that their capabilities are limited. Numerous countries – including NATO and non-NATO ones – announced that they were increasing their spending on new GBAD systems, citing lessons from Ukraine as a direct influence.  

3. SEAD/DEAD capabilities should not be taken for granted 

Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) are two parts of NATO’s way of dealing with the enemy’s anti-aircraft weaponry. They are complex and dangerous operations that target GBAD systems with special weapons and tactics. 

Past wars, such as Operation Desert Storm, saw extensive SEAD/DEAD campaigns as a part of their opening act. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had nothing like this, suggesting that Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) have only limited capabilities to target advanced air defenses. Ukraine had limited success at this task too, despite being supplied with US-made anti-radar missiles

“The immediate lesson is that Russia’s failure and Ukraine’s inability to conduct successful suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) operations has crippled the battlefield effectiveness of both air forces. This is vital to understand because at present no Western air force other than the US Air Force has any serious SEAD/DEAD capability – despite, in many cases, having access to aircraft and weapons designed expressly for the task,” a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a prominent UK defense think-tank, states. 

The French Air Force was the first to react to this and initiated the development of a version of the Dassault Rafale dedicated to SEAD/DEAD. Similar developments are expected in the future. 

4. Large-scale aerial missions are difficult 

NATO aerial training and combat often involves hundreds of aircraft working in coordination, at the same time performing various missions that include reconnaissance, air superiority, ground attack, and much more – with the support of aerial refueling and airborne mission management. 

Russia did not conduct such missions in Ukraine, despite ostensibly having the capability. According to the abovementioned RUSI report, the main reason for that was Russia’s inability to organize massed air refueling operations that require tanker availability, rigorous training of pilots, and high levels of coordination. 

“The majority of their [Russian] fighter fleets do not have tanker support most of the time,” Justin Bronk, combat aviation analyst at RUSI, said in an interview to the Geopolitics Decanted podcast. “It really helps to explain that lack of capability to sequence together large, complex strike packages, in the way the West does air power when it tries to push into contested airspace.” 

Bronk elaborated on this argument in an earlier article, highlighting the importance of large-scale exercises, such as the Red Flag, in maintaining the ability to conduct large-scale missions. 

5. Combined arms warfare should not be taken for granted 

Combined arms warfighting is a strategy that emphasizes integrating all kinds of arms – such as infantry, armored units, artillery and air force – with each other and utilizing them so that weaknesses of any single arm are compensated by the strengths of the others. 

It is the preferred way of fighting for most modern armies, and at least on paper, Russia demonstrated excellence at it during large military exercises organized in past years. When it came to demonstrating combined arms in Ukraine, the performance of Russian military was decidedly underwhelming.  

“Instead of a single operational commander and clearinghouse headquarters, Russian forces have relied on a byzantine C2 [command and control] network that is unable to effectively combine arms at the joint force level or to synchronize operations, thus spurring sequential Russian operations that lack the synergistic benefits of combined arms,” a report by AUSA, a US-based military think-tank, says. 

Many similar reports highlighted faltering communications between land and air forces as one of the main reasons for this failure. From the early days, when Russian tactical aviation failed to provide close air support to the invading force, to the Russian Air Force’s inability to put up a fight during Ukrainian advances in the autumn, a lack of communication and coordination has been constantly on display. 

Some reports argued that lack of training is at the core of that problem, as neither Russian ground nor air units had sufficient practice in executing combined arms maneuvers. Others blamed lack of necessary communications equipment. And others said that procedural problems – such as inflexible and ineffective ways of selecting and prioritizing targets – are at fault. 

Whatever the case, the war showed that even armies who think they can effectively employ air power in combined arms operations may struggle when confronted with real world conditions. 

6. Precision weapons must be manufactured in adequate quantities 

Just like the last lesson, this one is not exclusive to air forces. A lack of munitions production capacity arguably has an even bigger impact on artillery, as both Russia and Ukraine reportedly expend unsustainable quantities of shells, firing a year’s production rate in a month. 

But this problem is equally acute for Russian and Ukrainian air forces.  

“The Russians have largely exhausted their supplies of precision-guided missiles and bombs. So as a result, they have turned to Iran and said ‘could we buy some of your drones?’ In my mind, this is the sign of Russia’s weakness right now,” Kurt Volker, a former US Ambassador to NATO and former US Special Representative for Ukraine explained in an interview to AeroTime. 

Since then, Russia has tried to initiate domestic manufacturing of cruise missiles largely thanks to procuring electronics on the black market, latest reports claim. The struggle highlights the idea that many reports have explored since the start of the war: that modern armies, geared towards small-scale expeditionary wars, often struggle to keep up with a large-scale conflict when it comes to munitions expenditure. 

7. Precision weapons must be cheaper 

The unsustainability of mass use of costly high-tech weapons, such as laser-guided missiles, has been highlighted for decades. Between Ukraine’s use of the latest air defense systems against low-tech Iranian drones and Russia’s expenditure of cruise missiles on tactical targets, the idea that precision weapons really ought to be cheaper becomes clear. 

The alternative to that is reverting to unguided weapons, or so-called ‘dumb bombs’, that also see wide use in Ukraine, and are much less effective, as well as resulting in immense collateral damage

Several initiatives to develop or produce cheaper precision weapons – and even deliver them to Ukraine – have been proposed. The Pentagon started evaluating production of the GLSDB, a ubiquitous GBU-39 bomb modified with a rocket motor. The UK included the development of a low-cost cruise missile into weapons production plans. The pitches of both cases cited the Ukraine war as a major influence.  

8. Drones have their place and time 

Heavy use of unmanned aerial vehicles has been a prominent feature of many armed conflicts in previous decades. The war in Ukraine ramped up this trend even further. From grainy footage of Bayraktar TB2 strikes to videos of DJI Mavics engaging in dogfights, drones have been in the spotlight since the start of the war. 

Investments into unmanned technologies skyrocketed: Baykar admitted struggling to keep up with the inflow of orders for the TB2, while production of loitering munitions increased dramatically. Some analysts even predict that military purchases are going to become the main driver in the commercial drone market.  

However, the fact that drones are important is a lesson that militaries learned decades ago. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine supplemented that lesson with another one: it is important to use drones wisely. 

According to Volker, Bayraktars were highly effective during the opening phase of the war, while GBAD networks were still not established – however, the effectiveness of these slow, low-cost machines has waned since then. Bronk agrees with that, and adds that Russia experienced the same struggle with their equally cheap Orlan drones that are only effective if the enemy’s air defenses are not well set up – otherwise the service life of any conventional drone becomes very short. 

It has long been understood that non-stealthy, non-autonomous drones have limited applicability on a battlefield where air defenses are active, and the war in Ukraine has illustrated that once again. Autonomy, attritability and other measures can mitigate that to some extent, analysts argue, but it should be noted that drones alone are not a magic technology that will change the way wars are fought. 

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