At the start of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine it was widely expected the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) would commence a systematic demolition of Ukrainian air defence, command and control and critical military infrastructure. After all, this was the successful model applied twice by the US over Iraq in 1991 and 2003, refined over Bosnia in 1999 and Libya in 2011.
But this never happened. There was no VKS air campaign in the opening stages of the war. Ongoing Russian failures in ground combat have been exacerbated by a failure to establish robust access to the air at the theatre level. Strong Ukrainian resistance has pushed the Russian campaign back to a two-dimensional war of positions and attrition.
This theatre-level failure is not a tactical mistake, or one of planning. Rather, the VKS did not conduct a co-ordinated air campaign because it has no doctrine, plans or practice to draw upon. For historical and political reasons, the VKS is not part of a joint force: it is configured as an extension of Russian ground forces.
Air operations must be carefully sequenced with ground and/or naval actions. The success of American air power in the examples above allowed friendly surface forces to move and fight with greater freedom and security. A failure to secure control of the air makes minimising exhausting battles of attrition on the ground far more difficult. Russia has once again shown the world what not to do in military strategy by subordinating air power to the ground scheme of manoeuvre.
Russian Air Power in Context
Following the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) operated in accordance with Russian military doctrine and tactics. Conceptually the VKS is offensively an extension of Russian artillery, and defensively an extension of Russian air defence systems (such as surface to air missiles). It has no concept of theatre air operations.
Under the Soviet system the Air Forces (VVS) was separated into air defence forces (PVO), including interceptor aircraft; long range aviation (DA), with conventional and nuclear bombers; airborne forces (VDV), providing transport aviation; and frontal aviation (FVA) assigned to an Army Group, or Front. Frontal aviation provided close air support through fighter bombers, dedicated close air support aircraft and attack helicopters. This delineation was largely retained into the Russian Federation and after reorganisation of the VVS into the VKS in 2015, with the exception that PVO fighter aircraft were allocated to tactical air and air defence forces subordinated to regional military districts.
‘Deep strike’ missions are allocated to the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) and Long-Range Aviation aircraft with cruise missiles. In Ukraine these strikes were effective against known, fixed infrastructure such as early warning and battle management radars but were largely ineffective against mobile SAM systems such as the S-300 PMU-1 (NATO: SA-10b GRUMBLE). During the first 10-12 days of the conflict large numbers of Russian surface-to-surface missiles and air launched cruise missiles were targeted against Ukrainian military and command infrastructure. But the RVSN and DA quickly ran up against the ‘stand-off’ problem: unless you can find and fix targets dynamically – preferably in a few hours – targeting becomes indiscriminate.
The VKS was extremely limited in its allocation of precision-guided munitions and stand-off (greater than 40nm range) weapons due to external factors related to production and acquisition. As a result when the VKS operated forward of Russian lines, combat aircraft were often below the cloud base to visually acquire targets. They could then be engaged by Ukrainian infra-red guided surface to air missiles.
Some analysis of the performance of the VKS during the initial stages of the Russian invasion and ongoing fighting in the east of Ukraine has mostly claimed the VKS failed in its mission or was incompetent in execution. Understanding the structure and design of the VKS shows that it has largely achieved the mission it is configured to achieve: provide close air support to Russian ground forces, primarily as an extension of the artillery, along a narrow front.
Fortunately for the Ukrainians, this was not an effective use of air power to achieve campaign objectives.
Lessons for the Australian Defence Force
In summary, the VKS did not conduct a coordinated air campaign against the Ukraine because it lacks the doctrine, tactics, training or operational imperative to conduct such a campaign. It was conceived as – and remains – an air force subordinated to land power and unable to exploit the characteristics of air power.
The ADF should continue to emphasise the requirement for mastery of professional warfighting domains both in doctrine (theory) and training (practice). This includes recognising the most effective use of combat power is not always in concert with others.
If we want to maximise ground combat power and minimise losses, we need to get the air campaign right before we commit valuable people and resources to costly ground combat.