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Why is the Ukrainian air defense so effective against poorly trained Russian pilots?

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a disastrous mistake, partly because of his inability to establish air superiority over the battlefield. Ukrainian air defenses have inflicted heavy losses on Russian planes and helicopters since the start of the war. How did the Russian air force fail so badly against Ukraine? Read this amazing new story to learn the reasons behind this stunning outcome! ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

By InfoPublished 9 months ago 20 min read
Biggest Problem ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

How Russia's Air Force in Ukraine: A Detailed Analysis ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

How Russia’s Air Force Failed in Ukraine: A Detailed Analysis

The war between Russia and Ukraine has been raging for more than a year, and one of the most surprising aspects of the conflict has been the poor performance of the Russian air force, also known as the VKS (which stands for Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily, the “Air and Space Branches”). Despite having a numerical and technological advantage over the Ukrainian air force, the VKS has failed to establish air superiority over the country and has suffered heavy losses in both aircraft and pilots. In this blog post, we will examine the reasons behind this failure, and how it affects the overall outcome of the war.

The Role of Air Power in Modern Warfare ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

The Role of Air Power in Modern Warfare

Modern warfare is composed of multiple elements, each of which must run efficiently if the entire combat force is to operate as a cohesive unit. First, you need well-trained troops who have the right equipment and are supplied and led by equally well-trained officers. Next, you need good support elements, from tanks and armored fighting vehicles, to air defense missiles like Javelins (to keep enemy air force and helicopters away from your troops), and larger surface-to-air systems like the Russian S-300 and 400 or the superior US Patriot system, to extend that anti-air reach even further. You also need good reconnaissance, so you know where your opponent is, what strength they have, and what their intentions are.

These days, a good cadre of drones and drone operators are essential for such recon duty. You also need a strong and well-coordinated artillery arm in order to weaken heavily fortified areas, to break up any attacking formations, and for counter battery fire against enemy artillery units. But possibly the most important arm of any modern combined force is its air force. This is the most flexible part of any combined armed force: they can interdict travel, attack supplies and artillery concentrations, launch long-range missiles or smart bombs, take out enemy radar systems with HARM missiles, perform time-sensitive recon missions, and most importantly, strike at targets of opportunity that your artillery can’t get a bearing on.

The lack of a viable Russian air force dominance over Ukraine has been one of the primary reasons for the failure of Putin’s ill-advised and badly mismanaged invasion. Since the opening weeks of the war, Russian fixed-wing and rotary aircraft have been shot down in surprising numbers. That’s forced them to stay away from the front lines; the VKS most often must launch whatever rockets or glide bombs they use from the safety of Russian or Belarusian air space. They’ve been unable to provide much in the way of close air support, not since the opening weeks of the war, and haven’t been able to prevent either Ukraine’s use of drones or their long-range missiles like the very effective Storm Shadow.

That lack of an air presence has been a real shock to those analysts who thought the much more numerically superior VKS would establish not just air superiority over the country of Ukraine, but virtual air supremacy over the entire conflict, giving them complete control of the skies. But the truth has been a bitter pill for Putin and his commanders to swallow. According to Oryx, a Dutch based open-source intelligence defense analysis website, Russia has lost over 400 fixed-wing and rotary (helicopter) craft, twice the number of confirmed losses for Ukraine’s air force. Ukrainian military sources claim Russia’s losses are much higher, over 600 fighter aircraft and attack helicopters combined.

But why has Russia’s air force performed so badly? Is it the planes they’re flying? That would be a weak excuse as Ukraine has been flying almost identical Soviet-era aircraft, mostly MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker jets. Russia actually has the capability to fly more advanced aircraft, like the Su-35, which has been compared to the US F-35 in terms of capabilities. The VKS has slowly been replacing their more aging Soviet aircraft with the Su-35, but even these advanced craft are being shot down. The big problem with such high losses for the VKS is not just the craft themselves, of which they have a few thousand more to draw upon. The more challenging thing to replace are the trained pilots. Good pilots are almost irreplaceable.

The Importance of Pilot Training and Experience ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

The Importance of Pilot Training and Experience

Their experience is invaluable to younger pilots; most air forces have learned from the US’ system during World War II of rotating experienced pilots back home, where they would pass along their expert knowledge of air combat to less experienced pilots. Losing these veteran airmen has greatly weakened Russia’s overall ability to train new pilots, which in turn leads to less trained and less skillful pilots, who don’t last as long. This develops into a downward spiral that feeds back on itself. Japan saw that problem firsthand in World War II, when their pilots were expected to keep flying until they were shot down. That left a huge gap in training for their replacements, who were then shot down with increasing ease by the better trained US pilots they fought against. It’s this lack of pilot training that may be the single most significant reason for such high losses in Russia’s air war. But why is Russia sending up relatively inexperienced pilots into combat in the first place, and can Russia do anything to turn the tide?

The History of Soviet and Russian Fighters Versus US and Western Fighters ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

The History of Soviet and Russian Fighters Versus US and Western Fighters

During World War II, the Soviet air force battled a much more experienced, qualitatively better equipped and, at least during the early years of the war, better supplied German air force. The Luftwaffe began the war with more experienced and better trained pilots, many of whom saw combat in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, then in the Western campaign of 1940 that toppled the French government and fought toe-to-toe with Great Britain’s Royal Air Force. Meanwhile, the Soviet air force early in the war had inadequate planes, insufficient support crews and not enough air bases from which to station it’s growing air fleet. Stalin had to make do with whatever he had to stall out the Germans while his industrial base reestablished itself further east. They made effective use of American-built P-40 Warhawks, which they received as part of the more than 15,000 aircraft that the US sent to the Soviet Union during the Lend-Lease act.

Leading into the Cold War, the US had a significant advantage both in aircraft quality and numbers over the Soviet Union. Still, combat against Soviet aircraft during the Korean War had come as a rude surprise to US pilots, who found that the smaller Migs they faced were agile and nimble dogfighters. The US quickly learned from those early losses, and by the 1970s, were considered to have the best air force in the world. But that’s where Soviet doctrine began to diverge from US plans.

The first difference was one of application: Soviet leaders never expected to have fleets of fighters sweeping the skies of enemy planes. They left that job to their more numerous and economical surface-to-air missile batteries. SAM batteries took a heavy toll of US aircraft in the Vietnam War and were still a considerable threat as late as the 1990s during combat in the first Gulf War. More importantly, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, considered their air force as another component of their artillery. They were intended to deliver close air support, as well as long-range strikes against all manner of ground targets. Just like the way they used massive numbers of artillery to overwhelm any opponent, they designed an air force, and the planes their pilots flew, to be rugged, strong, and numerous. The Soviet air force was expected to overwhelm the enemy with massive numbers, not unlike how they expected to overwhelm NATO countries with their massive advantage in tanks and artillery.

During the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets didn’t just have the numbers advantage, some of their fighters were better in a few ways:

  • They were more rugged and were designed to be repaired with as little as an ordinary welder’s torch in any sufficiently well-equipped workshop.
  • Many of their fighters had more massive engines, which often gave their aircraft better thrust-to-weight ratios compared to their Western counterparts.
  • Many of their fighter aircraft had better aerodynamic capabilities, though that was offset in many cases by the lack of sophisticated welds.
  • The higher thrust-to-weight ratio made the Soviet fighters more maneuverable at lower altitudes.
  • The USSR was the first to implement the helmet mounted cueing system (HMCS) that the US and other Western air forces were late in adopting.

These details all appeared to give the Soviet Union a qualitative edge, in addition to numerical superiority. But over this same time period, the US and NATO made their own advances:

  • The West created better electronic warfare (EW) systems, while creating advanced radar jamming capabilities.
  • They relied more on beyond visual range (BVR) weapons and more powerful onboard radar to direct them.
  • The US developed superior stealth technology to defeat enemy radar.
  • The US also developed vastly superior AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) aircraft.
  • And NATO and the US established a much more robust and coordinated close air support capability.

With a different theory of air power—defeating your enemy before they could get within range to counter-attack—the US and NATO developed a system where they’d defeat any Soviet or Russian aircraft before, they had a chance to implement their numerical superiority.

It should be noted that The Soviet Union and then the Russians did eventually develop their own BVR missiles and other advanced capabilities over time, but their designs weren’t as reliable nor as sophisticated as their Western counterparts and were more prone to jamming and electronic interference. The Soviets and Russian air forces also lacked other Western technical advances, like targeting pods, and were late in developing precision guided munitions. And for the past decade, Western sanctions have made it increasingly difficult for Russia to manufacture advanced aircraft and other components that need high-quality computer chips and other sanctioned items.

It All COmes Down to the Man in the Seat ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

It All Comes Down to the Man in the Seat

Despite these qualitative and quantitative differences, the Russian air force was still thought to be the second-best air force in the world, after the US Air Force—and after the US Navy’s air force, and the US Marine’s air force. But they were still lacking that most important component: trained and experienced pilots. While the US and the West had a chance to gain experience in two Gulf Wars, the Russians had only limited shooting-war experience in helping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad suppress anti-government forces in his country beginning in 2015. But those missions are nothing like the deadly combat zone over Ukraine.

First of all, Russia never had more than a few thousand troops and a few dozen planes in Syria at any one time. That allowed Putin to rotate his best troops and units in and out, which prevented them from being exposed to the unrelenting harshness of a full-scale conflict like that seen in Ukraine. The Russian troops were also facing lightly equipped rebels in Syria, worlds away from the NATO equipped Ukranian army. For example, in the opening weeks of the war, the US alone delivered over 17,000 man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to Ukraine, including the very effective Stinger missile, which have taken a devastating toll on low-flying Russian aircraft and helicopters.

And third, Russia’s air attacks in Syria were mostly in desert regions with scattered cities, while Ukraine is filled with forests, hills and river valleys that make identifying a potential threat much more difficult.

That lack of real-world combat training has cost the Russian air force dearly. They have been gaining that knowledge slowly, but only after they’ve lost between 300 and 500 of their best front-line pilots. That experience cannot be replaced: some of those pilots were actually instructors at VKS training units, pressed into combat to make up for the attrition their units have suffered. It’s gotten so bad that reports suggest Russia has sent many of its inexperienced pilots to be trained by the Belarus air force, since so many Russian instructors are serving in aviation schools there.

A Comparison of Russian Training Versus US and NATO Training ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

A Comparison of Russian Training Versus US and NATO Training

Once more, we come back to training, or more specifically, the lack of Russian pilot training. Retired US Army Major General Mick West said that for any offensive action, he considers the following “seven considerations: purpose; design; timing; location; resources; adaptation; and politics. These are all still relevant. I have now added an eighth: training.”

Training has never been as high on the Russian wish list as it has been for the West. Part of that has been the vastly different budgets: the United States spends about $877 billion on its annual defense budget, a whopping 3.8% of its total GDP, while Russia spends a mere $87.9 billion. And even that number doesn’t truly show us how powerful the Russian military is, estimates of Russian corruption run as high as 40%, with top officers siphoning off funds from everything, including stockpiles of munitions, gasoline reserves, equipment maintenance, and yes, training. That’s how people like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are able to afford $18 million mansions (in 2015 dollars), and how many more are able to buy mega-yachts and send their children to exclusive European or Turkish schools.

Along with every other section of the Russian military, that industrial scale kleptocracy has severely affected Russian pilot training. Russia’s air force can’t afford the time and expense necessary to put fledgling pilots into seats and let them learn how to fly their planes. While NATO nations expect their pilots to have between 150 to 200 hours of flight training per year, while Russian pilots would be lucky to get even half that, or between 70 and 120 hours per year. Based on admissions by the VKS, flight hours for bomber crews are considerably under the 150-hour mark considered to be the standard for adequate performance in NATO air fleets. The situation isn’t much better for fighter and multirole groups, with some units being congratulated for hitting an average of only 70 flight hours for the year.

In comparison, it’s been estimated that a US pilot will see a minimum of 130 hours of flying experience every year but will actually average closer to 230 hours. That’s in addition to the strong emphasis the US places on training time in advanced simulators, which Russia simply does not have in adequate numbers. When comparing US and Russian pilots, on average, a Russian fighter pilot who has been with his unit for at least four years will likely have accumulated just 480 total flight hours, while American pilots with the same four year stint will have reached around 920 total flight hours, almost double the cockpit experience of their Russian adversaries.

The US also runs its renowned adversary school known worldwide as Red Flag, a massive air combat exercise that forces a variety of aircraft to coordinate with one another in realistic settings against aggressor aircraft and pilots trained specifically in emulating the behavior and tactics of opponent nations.

The Red Flag Air Combat Exercise ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

The Red Flag Air Combat Exercise

Red Flag is a two-week advanced aerial combat training exercise held several times a year by the United States Air Force and its allies. It aims to offer realistic air-combat training for military pilots and other flight crew members from the United States and allied countries.

Red Flag exercises are conducted on the vast bombing and gunnery ranges of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), which covers an area of 60 nautical miles by 100 nautical miles, about half the area of Switzerland.

Red Flag exercises involve Blue Forces (friendly) and Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations. Blue Forces are made up of units from various US and allied air forces, while Red Forces are composed of Aggressor pilots flying the F-16C and simulating enemy tactics, as well as electronic warfare and ground-based air defenses.

Red Flag exercises are designed to improve the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a realistic training environment and a forum for exchanging ideas and lessons learned. Participants can debrief their missions using sophisticated data and video systems that allow them to replay the mission and learn from their mistakes.

Red Flag exercises were developed in response to the poor performance of US pilots in air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War, where the exchange ratio (enemy losses vs. US losses) fell to less than 1-to-1. Red Flag exercises aim to expose pilots to their first 10 combat missions, which are considered to be the most dangerous and where most losses occur.

Every year, US allies from around the world send their pilots, aircraft, and ground support crews to participate in Red Flag, which strives to increase both the scale and authenticity of this combat training environment. According to the US Air Force, it’s not uncommon for more than 30 or more different types of aircraft to participate in any single Red Flag exercise, along with a long list of ground-based defense systems and other threats expected to be encountered in real-world combat scenarios.

Russian pilots had virtually no combat experience fighting over a large, forested country, let alone against an adversary capable of hitting their jets with layers of air defenses. They were given little to no training in such tactics before the invasion as no one except for Putin’s inner circle even knew that there were plans for a full-scale invasion. That inexperience and lack of training is partly why, despite sometimes flying hundreds of missions per day early in the war, Russia has been unable to eliminate Ukraine’s air force, or suppress its air defenses.

Meanwhile, in preparation for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, US pilots who were going to be assigned to eliminate Iraqi air defenses trained for months to conduct such strikes, though they were not informed about their specific targets until just a few days before the attack, in order to preserve operational security (OpSec) surrounding the mission. But while the US pilots knew from the beginning what their mission would be, what type of routes they’d be flying, and what the opposition would most likely consist of. Putin, in his infinite military wisdom, decided that his Airforce won’t need any of that silly training or preparation. Many soldiers and officers were surprised when they received orders to invade Ukraine. This lack of preparation gave no time to Russian pilots to prepare for the intense air defense that Ukrainian forces were able to put up against them.

The Consequences of Poor Training and Tactics ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

The Consequences of Poor Training and Tactics

Another factor in the lack of effectiveness by the VKS was the way Russia chose to employ its limited air force units. Because Russia’s ground attacks struggled against stiff Ukrainian resistance early in the invasion, the VKS was quickly reassigned from eliminating Ukrainian air defenses to providing close air support. This adjustment prevented Russia from establishing air supremacy, and it forced the Russians to fly at low altitudes, within reach of the US-made Stinger missiles and other NATO-supplied MANPADS. As a result, they lost many helicopters and fighter jets in ultimately unsuccessful ground attack missions.

There have been several examples of how this lack of training has had disastrous results. One of the more glaring occurred on March 14th 2023, when two Su-27s tried to divert an unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drone flying over the Black Sea. While dumping fuel on it to force it down, one of the Su-27s apparently struck the drone by flying too close to it. Was this collision on purpose, or an accident based on poor training?

There have been other instances where poor training led to the loss of planes, from fighters dropping all of their decoy flares too soon, allowing them to be hit by a patient MANPADS operator, to inexperienced pilots not accounting for turbulence and crashing during a two-fighter take-off. There was even an incident in early May 2023 where two fighters and a pair of attack helicopters were shot down by their own air defense systems, possibly due to the pilots not coordinating sufficiently with their local radar operators.

However painful these losses have been, the VKS has been learning its lessons. Although its pilots have failed to suppress Ukraine’s air defenses, it must be understood that such missions are notoriously time-consuming and challenging, as US pilots have realized in both Gulf Wars and earlier conflicts.

The VKS's Attempts to Adapt and Overcome ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️

The VKS’s Attempts to Adapt and Overcome

The VKS is learning this lesson as well. Rather than continuing to lose pilots and their aircraft by flying more-conservative and less-effective missions, it’s trying to wear down Ukrainian air defenses by using empty Soviet-era missiles and Shaheed drones purchased from Iran as decoys. There have been analysts who have suggested that Ukraine may be running out of the missiles and MANPADS needed to keep the VKS from flying over Ukraine. In fact, one of the classified documents released during the Discord leaks earlier this year, dated 23 February and marked “Secret,” outlines in detail how Ukraine’s Soviet-era S-300 air defense systems could be depleted by the first weeks of May at their current usage rate.

But since Ukraine has continued to defend itself for more than a month past that expected deadline, we think Ukraine has been supplied with more than enough missiles to defend themselves. They’ve also been getting additional anti-air systems like the German Geppard, useful against drones like the Iranian Shaheed, and the US-built Patriot pac 2 systems, which have reportedly been able to shoot down Russia’s thought-to-be-invincible hypersonic Kinzha missile.

This is bad news for Russia and its pilots. As Ukraine gets more and more NATO air defense equipment, the estimated 65 to 75 pilots that graduate every year in Russia face a grim reality. Russia losses in the war in Ukraine are far outstripping Russia’s ability to replace those valuable pilots. And as the summer unfolds and Ukraine begins its long awaited counter-offensive, it’s clear that Russia’s vaunted VKS will not be able to support its ground units. The best they’ll be able to do is launch more fruitless missile attacks against Ukrainian civilians from deep within Russian air space.

By the end of the year, when the West begins to deliver new fighter aircraft to Ukraine, which should include the modernized F-16 with its Mid-Life Update (MLU), Russia’s air force may even have to concede the air space over its own borders. And as Russia loses mount and Putin rushes more undertrained and inexperienced pilots into frontline combat, the average quality of the VKS will only get worse. This degradation might take a decade or more to overcome, by which time we can only hope that someone more stable might be occupying the high chair in the Kremlin.

Conclusion ❗💥🤦🏿‍♂️


The war between Russia and Ukraine has exposed the weaknesses and failures of the Russian air force, which has been unable to achieve its objectives and has suffered heavy losses in both aircraft and pilots. The main reasons for this failure are the lack of training and experience of the Russian pilots, the poor tactics and strategy of the Russian command, and the superior air defense capabilities of the Ukrainian forces. The VKS has been trying to adapt and overcome these challenges, but with little success. The war has shown that air power is a crucial element of modern warfare, and that Russia is far behind its Western rivals in this domain. The VKS will need a lot of time and resources to recover from this debacle, and to regain its credibility and effectiveness as a fighting force.



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