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Other Peoples’ Air Power: Air Superiority without Fast Jets — Peter Layton

Peter Layton continues his analysis of other peoples’ air power. In this post, he looks at Russia’s use of alternative means to deny the air domain to others while exploiting the third dimension for Russia’s own purposes. His first post in this series, looking at Islamic State’s air power, is here.


Say ‘air superiority’ and people instinctively think of highly manoeuvrable aircraft, silk-scarfed fighter pilots, the Battle of Britain and perhaps Top Gun. That is all somewhat last century though.  Manned aircraft are no longer always essential to either gain air superiority or even exploit it, as Russian combat operations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine demonstrate.  Here a kind of air power different to our normal expectations is being employed.

Buk-1M (SA-11 GADFLY) information. [Image credit: Bloomberg]
Buk-1M (SA-11 GADFLY) information. [Image credit: Bloomberg]

While Russia quickly seized Crimea in February 2014, the Donbas proved more problematic.  Ukrainian land forces gradually recaptured lost territory supported by the Ukrainian air force. In mid-June though Russia pushed back, introducing various types of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS – mainly SA-18) and radar-guided surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems (mainly SA-11).  The MANPADS were used in Ukrainian territory principally by proxy forces while the radar-guided SAMs crossed the border occasionally, were employed and then quickly returned back to Russian territory. This shoot-and-scoot tactic seems to have shot down a high-flying An-26, a Mig-29, a Su-25 and an Su-24M together with Malaysian Airlines MH-17.

Overall, ten military helicopters (five Mi-8 and five Mi-24) and eight military fixed wing aircraft (An-30B, An-26, Il-76, two MiG-29s, two Su-25s and an Su-24M) were shot down. Some 89 personnel were killed with the greatest loss of life being the Il-76 shoot-down that killed 58. By the end of August, Russia had gained control of the air over the battlefield almost solely through using SAMs, rendering the Ukrainian air force ineffective and allowing Russian land forces to freely manoeuvre.

Russia exploited this air superiority exclusively using drones.  Russia has deployed some 14 different types of drones ranging from high-altitude surveillance UAVs flying along the border to small quadcopters.  Of particular note is that Russian tactical drones in the Donbas are closely integrated with artillery and rocket units.  Artillery has a prominent place in Russian military doctrine. Whereas for Western forces, artillery supports manoeuvre, for Russian forces, manoeuvre supports artillery – which then finishes off the engagement. Some 85% of the Ukrainian land force casualties have been caused by Russian artillery and rocket attacks. An American observer noted that in one attack: “in a three minute period… a Russian fire strike wiped out two mechanized [Ukrainian] battalions with a combination of top-attack munitions and thermobaric warheads.”

Ukrainian forces consider that if a drone flies overhead and locates them, a Russian area attack from mobile artillery and multiple launch rocket systems can be expected within 10-15 minutes.  Exploiting this fear, the Russians often fly multiple drones at varying altitudes; if one draws fire this can highlight the location of the Ukrainian forces to other drones. Russian tactical drones are vulnerable to hostile fire such as from 14.5mm machine guns, but have proven difficult to engage with a rare loss acceptable given their generally low cost.  Apart from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and artillery fall adjusting, some drones are also reportedly used for signals intelligence and electronic jamming.

Russia’s use of electronic warfare (EW) in the Donbas differs from Western approaches that sees EW mainly as an adjunct to kinetic attacks.  Russia considers EW “an important part of their offensive and defensive arsenal” and is closely integrated with air and land forces to allow multi-domain attacks

Some Russian EW systems are used to geo-locate electronic signals emanating from Ukrainian land forces (or mobile phones) and pass this targeting data onto command centers, allowing mass artillery and rocket attacks. Other EW systems undertake wide area jamming preventing dispersed Ukrainian forces either communicating using radios or accessing GPS signals for navigation.  Other systems intercept Ukrainian transmissions to collect useful intelligence information.  Still others jam the electrical fuses used in Ukrainian artillery shells preventing these exploding.  Lastly, mobile phones are exploited with text messages sent to local communities just prior to an attack to create confusion and panic, while the defending Ukrainian soldiers receive personal SMSs calling on them to surrender.

There are some implications from all this.

Firstly, SAMs alone can achieve air superiority through inflicting a steady rate of attrition. Russian forces use an interlocking network of diverse SAM systems where each compensates for technical or tactical weaknesses in others.  This may seem a problem only for fourth generation aircraft as fifth generation stealth aircraft today can confidently penetrate walls of intertwined SAM systems.  USAF however sees this capability noticeably eroding over the next decade.

Secondly, battlefields may not be clear fire zones.  Many wars have had territorial sanctuaries where friendly forces cannot engage hostile units.  In the Donbas case, the SAM batteries can be within Russian territory but their engagement envelopes can reach well into Ukrainian territory albeit only against high-flying aircraft.  Honouring the potential threat can force friendly aircraft down low into MANPADS zones, prevent persistent surveillance of hostile ground units and push back combat enabler aircraft.

Thirdly, providing close air support for friendly land forces in the face of SAM and EW threats may be challenging. It may be difficult to maintain adequate air-ground communication links, particularly if ground forces fear any transmissions will shortly lead to an artillery and rocket attack.  Air assets may need to be allowed to engage identified targets independently of nearby ground units.  On the other hand, close air support without good ground intelligence may require aircraft to loiter while building up a comprehensive picture.  Loitering inside a SAM envelope may need some adroitness, including for fifth generation aircraft without all-round stealth.

A single grenade-carrying drone caused this explosion. [Image credit: Popular Mechanics]
A single grenade-carrying drone caused this explosion. [Image credit: Popular Mechanics]

Fourthly, drones have some ability to undertake several manned aircraft missions. In addition to ISR and EW tasks, Russian hexa-copter drones have dropped small incendiaries onto fuel and munitions depots. These attacks have occasionally included accompanying hexa-copters dropping fragmentation grenades to dissuade friendly fire fighting efforts.  Such attacks can be effective. In July 2017 a drone dropped a ZMG-1 thermite grenade on a vulnerable part of the Balakliya munitions storage facility causing continuing sympathetic detonations and some one billion dollars worth of damage. A similar attack at Svatovo in October 2015 destroyed some 3,000 tons of explosives.

Lastly, the use of drones rather than manned aircraft to support Russian land forces suggests that Russia perceives using drones as being in some way less provocative, and thereby lowering the possibly of conflict escalation.  In future gray zone conflicts – like the Donbas – drones may be the initial aircraft of choice.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.


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