Why Air Superiority Has Been Such a Challenge in Ukraine


The largest “mystery” of the Russia-Ukraine war could easily be seen as the continued inability for either military to achieve air superiority in the now year-long conflict. Any simple look at the numbers shows Russia operates with a massive advantage in terms of pure numbers of fighter jets when compared with Ukraine, yet the Russian military has as of yet not succeeded in achieving air superiority. Why?

Certainly, many of the exact reasons may be difficult to specify, as much of Russia’s apparent lack of success clearly relates to the sheer tenacity, will and fighting intensity of Ukrainians defending their homeland.

At the same time, the discrepancy in numbers is staggering. Global Firepower’s 2022 military assessments list Ukraine as operating 69 fighter aircraft, compared with Russia’s 773, a disparity one might think would lead to immediate air superiority.

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s ability to withstand and even succeed against larger numbers of invading Russian forces would arguably not be possible if Russia did in fact have air superiority.

Russian difficulties in contested airspace

One factor, as described by Senior Pentagon officials briefing reports on the conflict is that Russia has appeared to be “risk-averse” meaning its pilots are showing a reluctance to operate in high threat areas where Ukrainians have air defenses. Perhaps Ukraine’s air-defences are extremely effective or at least quite threatening such that larger formations of Russian aircraft have been hesitant to attack. One possible explanation for this is that Russia has been destroying Ukrainian targets and civilian neighborhoods with long-range, ground fired rockets able to travel 200 to 300 miles in some cases. This is something the Ukrainians previously had trouble stopping due to an inability to target them from the air.

However, the arrival of HIMARS and GMLRS long-range ground rockets have enabled the Ukrainians to attack Russian missile and rocket launch areas… Source www.19fortyfive.com

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