Of all the surprises Ukraine had in store for Russia’s invading forces, perhaps the biggest is Ukraine’s denial of air superiority to a larger and more technologically sophisticated Russian air force. Given that the Russians have shown themselves incapable of conducting complex air operations, it is tempting to conclude that the air war in Ukraine holds few lessons for the United States and other Western air forces. They would surely do better than the Russians in a war like Ukraine. This is a comforting conclusion for Western defense analysts: If Russian failure is mainly self-inflicted, then the air war in Ukraine does not challenge existing doctrine and expensive modernization priorities. Although comforting, such confidence is misplaced.
The air war in Ukraine is a harbinger of air wars to come, when US adversaries will increasingly employ defense in vertical depth, layering the effects of cyber disruptions, electromagnetic jamming, air defenses, drones, and missiles in increasing degrees of strength, from higher to lower altitudes. Even if high-end fighters and bombers manage to gain air superiority in the “blue skies,” the airspace below them remains contested. The “air littoral”—that is, the airspace between ground forces and high-end fighters and bombers—then poses the more challenging and important contest for air control.
Denying manned aircraft—from the blues skies to the air littoral
Ukraine has successfully practiced a strategy of air denial, based on a defense-in-vertical-depth approach that employs multilayered and overlapping systems and integrates their effects across the domain, from the blue skies to the air littoral. As a result, Kyiv has managed to deny Russian manned aircraft freedom of movement over most of Ukraine while simultaneously operating its own, increasingly unmanned assets in the air littoral.
The outer layer of Ukrainian defenses consists of mobile surface-to-air missiles, dating back to the Cold War era, which cover approaches from the blue skies. Ukrainian defenders on the ground have used long-range S-300 series and medium-range Buk-M1 surface-to-air missiles to keep Russian aircraft at bay and under threat in the blue skies. Employing “shoot-and-scoot” tactics, Ukrainian air defense units fire their missiles and quickly turn off the radar and move away—making it difficult for the Russians to find and destroy them. During the 1991 Gulf War, the US-led coalition employed strike aircraft and special forces to hunt Iraq’s truck-mounted Scud missiles, but even with the benefit of air superiority, Iraq’s effective use of maneuver and high-fidelity decoys prevented the Air Force from claiming even a single confirmed kill. Russia’s hunt for Ukraine’s mobile surface-to-air missile defenses is even more challenging: its aircraft are “not only the hunter but also the hunted.” Russian pilots are therefore wary of entering Ukrainian airspace to conduct close-in strikes. As long as Ukraine maintains an active and credible threat against Russian warplanes—an air defense in being—its force is sufficient to deny Russia unfettered use of the blue skies over most of Ukraine.
Desperate to avoid these dangers, Russian warplanes have resorted to flying at low altitudes. Although this tactic allows these aircraft to evade radar detection by high-end surface-to-air missiles, it sends them right into the thick of Ukraine’s inner layer of air defenses—the air littoral. Flying at low altitude, Russian fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are easy prey for Ukraine’s anti-aircraft artillery and thousands of shoulder-fired air defense systems, including some 1,400 American-supplied Stinger missiles. Ukraine has even reportedly used anti-tank missiles to shoot down low-flying Russian attack helicopters. The Ukraine case offers a glimpse of future wars, where the advantage will shift toward cheap mass and away from small numbers of expensive, exquisite manned aircraft.
Ukrainian defenders enjoy an inherent “home-court” advantage in the air littoral. “Ukraine has been effective in the sky because we operate on our own land,” according to Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force. He explained, “The enemy flying into our airspace is flying into the zone of our air defense systems.” The Ukrainians have intimate knowledge of the local topography, which they have exploited to lure Russian planes into their air defense traps. The compressed size of the air littoral not only restricts a pilot’s field of vision and makes it harder to detect incoming threats, but it also critically reduces the window for deploying evasive countermeasures. Taken together, these factors transform the air littoral into a robust and very lethal inner defensive layer.
Ukraine has also shown that defense in vertical depth is most effective when the defender exploits the interactions between the blue skies and the air littoral. Early in the war, Ukraine used Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, operating in the air littoral, to strike Russian convoys and ground troops. Before the Russians had set up their air defenses on the battlefield, they had little choice but to use their high-end fighters to hunt these weapon systems. Ukraine might have used the TB2 as a “decoy” to draw these aircraft from the blue skies into the air littoral, where Ukrainian defenders were ready to shoot them down. Russia has now taken a page from the Ukrainian playbook, introducing more Russian S-400 air defense batteries and drones to keep Ukrainian pilots from regularly flying through the Donbas area. The result is a state of mutual air denial: neither Russia’s nor Ukraine’s manned aircraft can operate consistently or effectively near the front lines.
Fighting robotically in the air littoral
Although Ukraine has denied Russia—and Russia has denied Ukraine—the effective use of manned airpower, Ukrainian defenders have exploited cheap and easy robotic access to the air littoral. Since the advent of military aviation, only major powers have been able to mount the financial, organizational, technological, and scientific barriers to employing large and advanced air forces. Today, however, the democratization of technology—the diffusion of multi-use technologies, rapidly decreasing costs, and the Internet’s global reach—make cheap but effective robotic airpower available to most countries. The TB2 has placed reconnaissance precision strike capabilities in the hands of Ukraine for a fraction of the price of manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike platforms. In addition to military drones, Ukrainian forces also reportedly operate more than 6,000 small commercial drones in a variety of ISR roles, including surveilling Russian movements, spotting for artillery, and inspecting buildings, as well as documenting Russian war crimes. This ability to maneuver in the air littoral adds a “spherical challenge,” with threats in both horizontal and vertical dimensions.
As the fighting has moved east to the Donbas region, both Russia and Ukraine have adapted their tactics. Russia has improved the density and organization of its ground-based air defenses, as well as its electronic warfare capabilities, and ramped up its use of military-grade and commercial drones to surveil the battlefield, retarget weapons, and drop explosives on Ukrainian positions. Ukraine has not stood idle, however; instead, it has adjusted its drone tactics. While Kyiv has had to scale back its use of TB2, reserving them largely for high-value strikes in other areas, it has turned to expendable “kamikaze drones,” or “loitering munitions” to strike Russian ground targets from the air littoral.
Increased jamming and a supposed lack of survivability has not rendered drones obsolete, however. Instead, the contested environment in eastern Ukraine has demonstrated the value of leveraging drones as cheap attritable mass. Whereas steep losses in manned aircraft quickly thinned Russia’s ranks of trained and experienced pilots, heavy Ukrainian drone losses are more sustainable—their operators live to fight another day, having gained wartime experience ready for immediate application. Gen. David Goldfein, the former chief of staff of the US Air Force, acknowledged that it takes a decade and between $6 and 10 million on average to train a fighter pilot. Russia may not have the same exacting standards, but the mounting death toll still limits its force generation and regeneration. The result has been to push the fight further down into the air littoral, where Russia has run short of armed reconnaissance drones and currently lacks the capacity to mass produce these cheap systems at scale.
Preparing for air denial
The United States and other Western air forces need to prepare for this future now. A strategy of air denial might be the smarter and more economical choice when trying to preserve the status quo on NATO’s eastern flank or across the Taiwan Strait. By employing sufficiently large numbers of smaller, cheaper, unmanned systems in a distributed way, the United States and its allies and partners would increase both the costs and uncertainty of Chinese or Russian efforts to quickly seize territory and present their conquest as a fait accompli. Such a strategy requires moving away from the capable but costly and numerically limited high-end fighters and bombers in favor of more unmanned and autonomous systems. It also requires moving away from penetration and precision strike with manned aircraft to swarming tactics of denial with thousands of cheap small-sized drones. Fighter pilots still capture the Western imagination—this year’s highest-grossing box office hit, Top Gun: Maverick, suggests that the mystique of the fighter pilot holds strong—but that kind of aerial combat is the exception to the rule. The future of air warfare is denial.
Maximilian K. Bremer is a US Air Force colonel and the director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense and/or the US Air Force.
Kelly A. Grieco is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
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