How does Ukraine Discourage Russian Air Attacks?

January 19, 2024
In this #UkraineWorldAnalysis, we delve into how Ukraine became the first military to down an A-50 military aircraft in history and how Russia motivates soldiers to join airborne assault brigades.
Photo credit: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

UkraineWorld spoke to Ivan Kyrychevsky, military expert at Defense Express Media & Consulting Company

What is the current state of Russia's military capabilities?

If we look at the quantitative indicators of conventional weapons for land warfare, the Russians still have many tanks—approximately 3,000, up to 5,000 armoured vehicles, possibly more.

Moreover, concerning artillery at the end of 2023, it is assessed that Russia has more than 15,000 machine guns formally in conservation.

They have enough weapons to currently cover 50% of their operational needs.

According to Ukrainian intelligence, there are currently 460,000 Russians based on the frontlines.

However, Russian estimates strongly differ from those of Ukraine’s, declaring 7,000 tanks in operational order.

Therefore, the general consensus among experts is that Russia has the means to continue its war for years to come, although without achieving any quick results.

The notion that Russia is running out of missiles is rather outdated. During one of the large-scale shelling attacks this winter, a missile fragment dated Q4 2023 was recovered.

This indicates that the Russian military is indeed gearing up for a prolonged war, demonstrating their successful reestablishment of missile production facilities.

Compared to last winter, one could argue the Russians don’t possess the large stock of missiles they once had.

However, considering they are still launching these attacks deep into Ukrainian territory, this proves missiles have not ‘dried up’ as once reported.

This is due to the fact that they are used off the assembly line (the longer a missile is in storage, the more expensive it is to maintain).

For example, the supersonic cruise missile Kh-31 and Kh-59 are used by the Russian army in an attempt to jam and overload our air defence, reducing its ability to intercept all incoming projectiles.

The Kh-31 targets radar radiation, which is what makes it a dangerous tool in the Russian arsenal, and the Kh-59 MK is rather small in comparison to other missiles, which makes it difficult to detect, yet has an unforgiving warhead - 300 kg.

As part of the attacks, the Russians combine long-range weapons that are easier detected (Kh-101, Kh-22, Daggers) in sync with less detectable weapons directed at taking out the positions of our air defense systems.

What does the downing of the A-50 mean for military history?

The main nuance of A-50 Russian specialised aircraft for air control is that they fly quite the distance away from the line of contact—150-200 kilometres.

There was a belief among experts that the Russian A-50 was capable of detecting targets at a distance of 400 kilometres, but in fact it is 200-300 kilometres.

It is an attempt to use the doctrine of using aviation that exists in NATO, that is, for a radar surveillance aircraft to act as the eyes for tactical aircraft.

Russia first raises A-50s, then Su-34 and Su-35 fighters in an effort to attack ground targets or interfere with our aviation.

Of course, the fewer "eyes" the Russians have in the air, the harder it will be for them to fire long-range weapons along the frontline, weakening their attempts to counter Ukraine’s aviation.

The Russians have calculated that they need 10 A-50 aircraft to effectively cover the perimeter of their state border, yet they reportedly have only 8 in service.

The A-50 can operate for 4 hours before breaking down. Previously, Russia employed a rotation of three of such aircraft to cover the territory of Ukraine's radar surveillance at any given time.

Up until this week, no other nation, nor military group had managed to shoot down a radar surveillance aircraft.

There is the case of 1982, during a wave of the Arab-Israeli war when the Syrians shot down an Israeli E-2 Hawkeye radar aircraft with a S-200 system.

Now, knowing that a radar surveillance aircraft can be successfully intercepted and shot down, the Americans and the Chinese would be interested in knowing how.

After all, this would be useful if conflict were ever to break out in the Pacific region.

Is Russia capable of landing troops in Ukraine?

The formation of airborne assault brigades in combined arms armies is just one additional way of motivating troops to engage in war against Ukraine.

When troops are supposed to be airborne, they are incorporated into airborne troops.

The so-called "elite" status of Russian airborne troops is due to the fact that they are directly subordinated to the General Staff.

At present, the doctrine of their use does not provide for helicopters for reconnaissance.

Calling them air assault helicopters is more of an element of motivation to be cannon fodder.

The Russians did dare to conduct some helicopter landings in the first weeks of the war, when our air defence system was disorganised.

However, the Russians only began to be afraid to fly tactical aircraft over the front line in May 2022.

Moreover, the very fact that the Russians are experimenting with new types of guided bombs demonstrates that they have no great desire to enter Ukraine's air defence zone.

If they did have the ability to land small groups of airborne soldiers in our rear from covert helicopters, they would most probably do things like: send sabotage groups into poorly controlled areas of Chernihiv or Sumy oblasts, as the terrain is wooded and you can't set up checkpoints everywhere.

Therefore, there are currently no real concerns that Russia could conduct another landing like the one seen in Hostomel.

Daria Synhaievska
Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld