In long air battle, can Ukraine hold out against Russian Air Force?

 | Updated: Mar 07, 2022, 04:34 PM IST

In 2020, the Ukraine Air Force launched an expansive modernisation plan "Vision 2035" setting a budget of $12 billion to purchase new multi-role fighters, trainer jets and transport aircraft.

Ukraine Air Force

According to a US Congress report, Ukraine’s Air Force had suffered significant losses during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 which weakened its forces.

However, in 2020, the Ukraine Air Force launched an expansive modernisation plan "Vision 2035" setting a budget of $12 billion to purchase new multi-role fighters, trainer jets, transport aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles including Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones and air defence systems.

Ukraine’s air assault brigades had played a key role in combatting Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine seven years ago. It has since increased its size and transitioned into an independent command with heavier equipment.

Formed with US and NATO assistance, Ukraine's special operations forces operate along with NATO standards and principles, the report said.


Ukraine's air power

In the opening hours of the campaign in Ukraine, Russia had specifically targeted Ukraine's air defence and military infrastructure in a bid to disable the country's military capability.

According to reports, Ukraine has 200 aircraft of all types. It has 50 MiG-29 fighters including 32 Su-27s including a sizeable number of Su-24. It also has the older version of the Mi-8 and Mi-24. The country's Air Force was established in 1992 after the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

Reports claim Ukraine has 98 combat aircraft in its arsenal.



Ukraine's air defence

Even though Russia has not engaged its entire air force in the conflict, its forces would still have been expected to rule the Ukrainian air space by now.

The Russian air force is, nevertheless, in a position to protect the advancing army where it counts, such as a convoy -- dozens of kilometres (miles) long of trucks, armoured vehicles and artillery -- advancing on Kyiv from the north, as seen on satellite images last Tuesday.

Reports say air defences deployed in Kyiv and in other cities are still functional leaving the Russians with the hard choice of launching high-altitude attacks and risk carnage among the civilian population or coming in low at the risk of being shot down.


Friendly-fire against Russia

Other factors for the Russian Air Force's hesitancy could be the fear of friendly-fire incidents, and the Russian pilots' limited total flying hours on their jets. 

Reports claim Ukrainian MiG-29 have been engaging Russian Su-35 around Kyiv.

As tensions peaked before February 24 when President Putin announced the invasion, the US Air Force had said it had sent B-52 strategic bombers to the UK for "long-planned" manoeuvres, while the US Navy announced the deployment in the European theatre of four destroyers to reinforce the US Sixth Fleet.



Russia's air superiority

Russia reportedly has 3,863 military aircraft and has been consistently ramping up its strength for the last 20 years. However, experts say Russia's Air Force still do not enjoy total superiority in the skies above Ukraine despite its overwhelming numerical advantage.

According to strategic intelligence research service Janes, Russia's Air Force comprises 132 bombers versus none for Ukraine, 832 fighter jets against 86 for Ukraine, and 358 transport planes against 63 for Kyiv.

Other aerial weapons show a similarly crushing asymmetry, except for drones of which Ukraine has 66 and Russia 25.


Russia's combat aircraft fleet

According to World Air Force Report, 2022, Russia has the third-largest combat aircraft fleet size in the world with 1,571 planes behind the US(2,740) andh China(1,571). The report said the Russian Air Force has 273 Su-24, 192 Su-25, 350 Su-27/30/35 and 125 Su-34.

The Russian fighters accounted for 7 per cent of the global combat aircraft fleet with the US topping the charts with 15% of the total.

As of December 2021, 14,713 combat planes were in operational service in military aircraft fleets across the world, the report said. The Su-27 fighter jet first flew in May 1977 and since then it has undergone many upgradations with new versions unveiled giving the Russian Air Force a major advantage.

Russian news agencies have said over 70 Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jets will be delivered to Russian troops by 2027.

The Sukhoi Su-57 is a fifth-generation fighter that can destroy air, ground and naval targets.


Su-57 fighter jet's stealth features

The Su-57 fighter jet has stealth technology and can reach supersonic cruising speed has an onboard computer the so-called electronic second pilot, a report in TASS news agency said. Reports claim the Russian Air Force will receive 22 Su-57 fighters by late 2024.

Reports claim the first Su-57 fighter was delivered in 2020. The number of Su-57 fighters are due to reach 76 by 2028. The Su-57 had made its debut in January 2010. It can carry hypersonic missiles and has reportedly been tested in combat conditions in Syria.


Sukhoi fifth-generation fighter jet

Russia had unveiled a prototype of a new Sukhoi fifth-generation fighter jet at its annual MAKS air show last year with an eye on export markets.

The warplane, given the project name "Checkmate", is likely to be touted as a rival to the US F-35 stealth fighter, said Oleg Panteleyev, head of the Aviaport analytical agency.

Reports first surfaced that the jet was being manufactured in May 2020.

According to the launch video it was developed "in record time".