Russia is Committing Air-Suicide

Ukraine’s path to victory opens up

Shankar Narayan
8 min readFeb 29, 2024
Su-35: Credit: DP

In ten days, the Ukrainian Air Force destroyed twelve Russian aircrafts. Nine Su-34s, two Su-35s and an A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft.

Total monetary loss: Approaching $1,000,000,000

Money is not the problem here. Russia can drill oil, starve its people, and make that money back in a few days. However, you cannot build airframes overnight. It takes months, and in most cases, more than a year. But that is applicable during times of peace. In the midst of war, you are refurbishing airframes.

The Russian airforce started the war with an estimated 900 tactical aircrafts. By August 2023, Russian airforce had “lost between 84 and 130 of those to air defenses, fighter aircraft, and crashes. That’s only a portion of total losses, however. Overuse of these aircraft is also costing Russia”.

RAND corporation’s Michael Bohnert, after calculating imputed losses (overuse leading to reduction in potential flight hours), forecasted the Russian airforce to lose a quarter of its capacity by the summer of 2024.

This assessment was published months before Ukraine updated its air-deterrence strategy in December. Between December 1 and February 29th, Ukraine has destroyed 26 aircrafts in air and 3 aircrafts in Belbek airfield, Crimea.

Let’s pause to summarize Michael Bohnert’s analysis of Russian airpower losses. His analysis was well-structured, presenting logical conclusions. According to Bohnert, factoring in both actual and imputed losses, Russian airpower is projected to decline to 75% of its pre-war capacity by the summer of 2024.

Key to his analysis was the number of flight hours booked by the Russian air-force.

His report was published in August 2023.

Since then, the Russian air force has notably increased its sorties along the Russian frontline. On some days, they have dropped approximately 70 glide bombs in Avdiivka alone. Just a few days ago, Ukrainian President Zelensky remarked that the Russians have deployed roughly 3200 glide bombs since January 2024.

The flight hours logged by the Russian air force in the last three months far exceed their sorties before August 2023. Russia has also experienced a notable loss of aircraft since December 2023.

Between February 2022 and August 2023, Russia lost approximately 100 to 130 aircraft. In the last three months alone, they lost around 30 aircraft. While I cannot precisely estimate the imputed losses, if I were to speculate, it would likely reduce the Russian air force to very close to half of its prewar strength, or possibly even less.

This intense activity despite the declining strength of airpower indicates a shift in operational strategy.

Russia is refusing to pull back its air force. I don’t think they are going to withdraw until the Presidential elections are over on March 17th. The Russians are committing air suicide in order to provide President Putin with a propaganda air-lift to face the elections.

A week ago, Russian military officer and well-known military blogger Andrei Morozov committed suicide. He was driven to death by higher-ups in the Russian military. His “crime” was his refusal to stop discussing the staggering loss of manpower suffered by the Russian military in Avdiivka.

“The colonel reportedly threatened to cut off ammunition and military equipment supplies to Morozov’s unit if he did not delete his reports about the Russian military’s heavy losses in seizing Avdiivka and told Morozov that he would not be able to change the current situation on the battlefield and that only presidential elections could trigger some changes,” the Institute of Study of war reported on February 21.

“Only presidential election could trigger some changes”

It all makes sense now.

The Russian air force, which hastily withdrew its jets after suffering losses in the first few weeks of the war, is now refusing to do the same despite the scale of Ukrainian hits and the greater damage inflicted on Russian airpower.

It cannot be the result of false confidence either because even the United States cannot build one fighter jet per day, especially in the midst of war. The loss of these jets is only a small part of the decline slope; the major part is the loss of experienced pilots. If Russia had lost around 120 to 160 fighter jets, then they would have also lost nearly the same number of pilots.

Let us send a big thank-you note to the Kremlin’s fear of the presidential elections because losing a quarter of your airpower in three months in pursuit of propaganda is the stupidest thing you can do on the battlefield.

Russians are paying way too much in terms of human bodies, equipment, and aircraft to protect the theater-wide initiative.

Of the three, it is the airpower losses that they are accumulating now that are going to hurt them big time in the summer.

Why?

If the Russian army thinks that it was their stupendous performance on the ground that allowed them to win Avdiivka, then they are horribly mistaken. A whole lot of factors helped them. Ukraine was critically short of artillery, and the glide-bombs dropped by the Russian air force every day, sometimes in excess of 50 bombs per day, played a major role in aiding the Russian ground troops’ advance. Take the airpower out of the equation, and the Ukrainian defense, despite being low on manpower and ammunition, would have given one heck of a fight to the Russian infantry.

The Russians are pouring so many troops and so much equipment into their effort to evict the Ukrainian troops in Krynky, right next to the Dnipro River. Yet, all efforts keep failing, and it has been failing for months. A small group of Ukrainian troops sitting there destroying everything Russians keep throwing at them?

How?

It is because the terrain does not allow Russia to effectively deploy its airpower in the sector. If Ukraine had given them a clear pocket to target, Russia would have taken control from the skies, bombarded them, and used their infantry to great effect.

Take air-power out. The results are never the same. Russia will be the one struggling.

Ukraine took the risk. They deserve the incoming payoff

From the looks of it, I don’t see the Russians pulling back their air force. The Russian army continues to advance, especially around the Avdiivka region. Ground troops need air support to soften Ukrainian resistance. Now that the Russian charge is being hyped all over Russian state media, the idea would be to keep this charade up all the way until March 17th when Russia votes to elect the President.

They need to show they are winning.

In that process, they are going to keep pushing their air force to engage the frontline. The Ukrainian disadvantage with the glide bombs is that they are nearly impossible to shoot down. There is very little time to react. The advantage is that the Russian pilots have to get closer to Ukrainian lines to drop the bombs. These are not stand-off weapons that you launch from a distance and then retreat. You have to get closer to the target. This makes the jets a far easier target by Ukrainian air-defense.

The Russian air force potentially lost a quarter of its capacity in the last three months, and they are likely to lose even more. I hope they lose a whole lot more before they decide to stop.

How Ukraine can exploit this weakness?

The Russian air force will be at half or less than half of its pre-war strength when the F16s arrive. Well-trained Ukrainian pilots, backed up by the world’s best air defense systems, will be facing off against less experienced Russian pilots. This will be further complicated by the weakened status of Russian air defense systems.

Take a look at this video below, that shows “Storm Shadow missiles swerving unimpeded over the Russian air defense systems, unable to be intercepted”.

This has been happening for a very long time. Storm Shadow missiles continue to evade S400 and other Russian air defense systems. Russian pilots who will come face to face with Ukrainian pilots flying the F16s will have to do so with the knowledge that their air defense systems are nowhere near competing with the ones on the Ukrainian side.

They need to be wary of the F16s while praying to their version of gods not to be spotted by the Patriot air defense systems.

This is already an extremely hazardous and dynamic airfield for the Russian pilots and it will get worse for them.

How Ukraine can win from here

The losses suffered by the Russian air force now open up a huge opportunity for Ukraine and the West to turn the whole situation around.

We now have a direct path to win.

The F16s will be in Ukraine by the summer. If the West can bolster the air defense systems and transition from merely using them for defense to completely denying the Russian air force by increasing the density of the air defense, Ukraine will be able to establish strong control over the skies.

This war will be won by the side that controls the sky. Russian air-force is well on its way to reaching half of its pre-war capacity, but that applies to the number of fighter jets. If they have 50% of their pre-war capacity, their pilot numbers will be hovering dangerously low.

Knocking this Russian air-force out of the air is well within the West’s reach.

Ukraine needs more Patriot systems.

For a very long time, this battle has been the result of a series of mistakes committed by both the West and Putin. They make one move, he makes another. The West made a complete mess of Ukraine’s position by not delivering weapons on time. The Russians have a massive advantage on the battlefield now, but instead of slowly realizing the gains, their overreach is decimating their air power.

The West can recover from the mistake it committed, but Russia cannot recover from the mistake it is committing today.

This is one of the worst tactical blunders I have seen in this war. Totally avoidable. Totally unnecessary. As the saying goes, when your enemy is bent on making a mistake, why stop him?

https://ko-fi.com/shankarnarayan

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Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.