- A limited number of guided air-to-ground munitions hamper Russia’s ability to conduct air strikes.
- But more powerful air-to-air missiles are helping Russian jets keep Ukrainian aircraft at bay.
- Both sides are using air-launched weapons at speeds that are alarming to experts watching the war.
Russian air forces are more successful in hitting targets in the air than on the ground.
Limited quantities of guided air-to-ground munitions have hampered Russia’s ability to conduct effective air strikes. But a powerful combination of air-to-air missiles—some with longer ranges than their Ukrainian counterparts—has helped keep Ukrainian aircraft at bay.
Indeed, both Russian and Ukrainian air forces are running out of missile stockpiles, according to analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British defense think tank.multiple experts spoke at the briefing To the launch of the 2023 edition of the Institute’s Military Balance, an authoritative tally of weapons owned by nations around the world.
Douglas Barrie, IISS Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace, said: “In both Moscow and Kiev, we see a gap in capacity and a lack of inventory depth.”
Russian airstrikes have been hampered not only by Ukrainian aircraft and air defense systems, but also by the lack of smart bombs.
“This is most important with the Kh-101. The Kh-101 is a very long-range, air-launched cruise missile that has seen repeated use, but the service also lacks a specific type of tactical air-to-ground weapon. ” said Barry, Russian Air Force.
Barrie believes that Russia’s biggest shortfall in missile arsenal is the Kh-38, a short-range missile. Modular air-to-ground missile Use against armored and unarmored targets.
The Kh-38 has an inertial guidance system and can also be configured to include radar and laser homing, thermal imaging and satellite navigation. According to Russian defense maker Rosoboronexport, it covers a range of up to about 25 miles (about 25 miles).
The Kh-38 is a Soviet concept that dates back to the 1980s, but the Russian Air Force has never procured them in “operationally useful numbers,” Barrie said. The lack of air-to-ground weapons forces Russia to resort to desperate measures such as: Fire an S-300 anti-aircraft missile at a ground target.
Russia had luck with its missiles against Ukrainian aircraft.
“Where the Russian Air Force really succeeds is in its medium- and long-range air-to-air missile capabilities,” Barry said, referring to Su-35S fighters armed with R-77-1 missiles. Has a range of about 62 miles.
Russian fighter jets, including the Su-35M and Su-30M, also employ the R-37M missile, which has a range of 200 miles, according to the Royal United Service Institute, another British defense think tank.
Ukraine’s old Soviet-designed MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters are armed only with R-27 missiles, which have a range of 50 miles.
The R-27 has semi-active radar guidance. This means that the launcher must use its own radar to continuously illuminate the target for the missile to follow. This makes the R-27 uncontrollable and vulnerable to attack while in flight. Russian aircraft can also detect continuous radar waves and take evasive action.
Complicating matters for Ukraine, Russia’s long-range missiles are active radar-homing weapons, with on-board “fire-and-forget” radars capable of autonomously detecting and homing Ukrainian aircraft.
Russian long-range air-to-air missile fire is “unlikely to kill, but forces Ukrainian pilots to defend themselves or risk being hit while out of effective range. The shootings were spotted…their marks,” RUSI noted in a report published last year.
Russian air-to-air missiles were “effective in limiting the ability of Ukrainians to use their own air force,” Barry said.
Still, when it comes to Russian military power, even against a vastly outnumbered enemy armed with old Cold War era aircraft, the best the Russian Air Force can do is to keep Ukrainian planes from bombing Russian forces from time to time. That’s it.
Nevertheless, Ukraine will remain at an air disadvantage unless the West decides to provide advanced fighter jets and air-to-air missiles such as the US-made AIM-120D.
The only boon for Ukraine for now is that Russia doesn’t have many of these long-range air-to-air missiles. “Overall limitations in terms of inventories remain evident in the way Russia must use air power during war,” Barry said.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science.follow him twitter and LinkedIn.