Air defense upgrades, not F-16s, are a winning strategy for Ukraine

With news that the United States and its NATO allies will send modern battle tanks to Ukraine, there are now renewed calls to provide Kyiv with modern fighter jets, like the F-16. The weapons the United States and other countries give Ukraine should align with a winning strategy, and driving Ukraine toward a Western way of air superiority will not help them win.

If there is one thing the last year of the war taught, it is that contemporary air warfare favors mobile, ground-based air defenses over expensive, fixed-wing aircraft. Any attempt by Ukraine to gain air superiority would be a costly mistake, one that it can ill afford to make given Russia’s still sizable quantitative edge.

Ukraine would not only be ceding its defensive advantage and playing to Russia’s strength, but it would also almost certainly fail to achieve its military goal — achieving air superiority over Ukraine.

Instead, Ukraine needs to hold fast to its successful air-denial strategy, and the international coalition supporting Ukraine needs to continue to supply Ukraine with air defense systems and ammunition. But after decades of near-total rule of the skies, encouraging the neglect of its own air defenses, the United States and its allies can only supply air defense systems to Ukraine in small numbers. To help Ukraine prevail, the United States and its allies and partners should act immediately to increase both the production of current air-denial weapons and the development of future systems.

Russia’s air war in Ukraine has turned even more brutal in recent months. Since October, Russia has pounded Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with missile and drone attacks, causing widespread power outages and shortages of heating and water amid a cold winter. The goal, many analysts assume, is to punish Ukrainian civilians, break their will to resist and pressure their leaders to sue for peace.

Leda Buzinna, 56, sits inside her home that was damaged by shelling when two S-300 missiles hit a rural neighborhood on Oct. 4, 2022, outside of the Kramatorsk district in Krasnotorka, Ukraine. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Leda Buzinna, 56, sits inside her home that was damaged by shelling when two S-300 missiles hit a rural neighborhood on Oct. 4, 2022, outside of the Kramatorsk district in Krasnotorka, Ukraine. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

But these attacks may have another military logic: to achieve air superiority by attrition. For nearly a year now, Moscow has struggled to find an effective counter to Ukraine’s air-denial strategy. Faced with Russia’s more advanced fighter jets and superior numbers, Ukraine kept its air defenses dispersed and mobile — firing and then quickly moving to a new location — in order to escape destruction.

Because of that persistent threat, Russian forces in Ukraine have been unable to bring the full might of their aerial firepower to bear, and they have taken heavy battlefield casualties.

But Ukraine’s air-denial strategy is increasingly at risk. The Russian Air Force seems to have learned from its past mistakes and adapted its strategy, turning to missile and drone attacks to attrit Ukraine’s air defenses.

Moscow has not been able to locate and destroy enough of Ukraine’s mobile air defenses, but it now hopes to achieve the same effect by causing those launchers to run empty. Instead of conducting a traditional campaign of suppressing enemy air defense using fixed-wing aircraft, it is launching waves of missiles and drones at Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure to force the country’s air defenders into expending precious surface-to-air missiles.

Critical power infrastructure burns following a drone attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)
Critical power infrastructure burns following a drone attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Put simply, these Russian attacks are a cunning ploy to gain air superiority. To effectively counter Ukraine’s air-denial strategy, the Russians need to force Ukrainian air defenders to expose themselves.

By targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, the Russians confront Kyiv with an impossible choice: attempt to save its people from a cold and dark winter, but severely deplete its surface-to-air missile stocks; or preserve strength by avoiding unfavorable engagements, but ask its people to pay a high price over this winter for Ukraine’s long-term success.

Moscow seems to have calculated that Kyiv will prioritize the protection of civilians and critical infrastructure — and aggressively intercept Russian missiles and drones — over the survival of its “air defense in being” (that is, preserving its air defenses as an active and credible threat against Russian aircraft).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has the full measure of Russia’s air strategy, warning that Russia may be betting “on exhaustion of our people, our air defense, our energy sector.” The air war over Ukraine is now a contest between air superiority and air denial, mainly fought not by crewed fighters and bombers, but by missiles and drones.

Unfortunately, Ukraine’s endurance in the air war could run out first, particularly if Kyiv is not more selective in employing its air defense capabilities. For Russia’s air superiority strategy to succeed, it must attrit Ukraine’s surface-to-air missiles at a rate faster than the United States and other countries can resupply them.

Ukraine’s S-300 missile stockpiles are rapidly dwindling, and replenishing them is particularly challenging because they are Russian-made systems. Many former Warsaw Pact countries have already scrounged around in their old arsenals and transferred their existing stocks to Ukraine. Having exhausted these alternative supply sources, NATO countries have shifted to providing Western-made systems.

Now, the United States and its allies can only supply air defense systems to Ukraine in small numbers. For example, Washington plans to send only a single Patriot air defense battery to Ukraine later this year. It is not being stingy; there are few spare systems or missiles on hand, and the defense industry cannot surge quickly to meet demand.

To be sure, Russia faces its own struggles in replenishing its missile stocks, but it has the advantage that it can employ low-cost drones and repurposed missiles (including the S-300s Kyiv has used so effectively) to attack Ukrainian cities and towns.

Still, these facts suggest Ukraine may need to accept some uncomfortable truths. To continue to deny air superiority to Russia, Kyiv may have to absorb more Russian missile and drone attacks. That is a bitter pill to swallow: These strikes directly target Ukraine’s civilian population, and Kyiv understandably wants to shield its country from even more devastation and loss of life. But attempting to intercept every Russian missile or drone fired into Ukraine is neither feasible nor sustainable. Indeed, it risks leaving the country and its military defenseless against the full might of Russia’s Air Force. Ukraine’s front-line positions and supply lines would come under more effective aerial attacks, bolstering Russia’s chances ahead of a potential spring offensive.

Ukraine is fighting the world’s first aerial war of attrition based on missiles and drones. To prevail, it will need to hold fast to denial.

U.S. Air Force Col. Maximilian Bremer leads the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. Kelly Grieco is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center and an adjunct associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. This commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department nor the U.S. Air Force.