Russia's air force is struggling to hit targets in Ukraine, but its missiles can still keep Ukraine's jets at bay
Limited numbers of guided air-to-ground munitions hinder Russia's ability to conduct airstrikes.
However, more potent air-to-air missiles are helping Russian jets keep Ukrainian aircraft at bay.
Both sides are using air-launched weapons at a rate that is striking to experts observing the war.
Russia's air force is having better luck hitting targets in the air than on the ground.
Limited quantities of guided air-to-ground munitions have hindered Russia's ability to carry out effective airstrikes. However, a potent mix of air-to-air missiles — some of which out-range their Ukrainian counterparts — have helped keep Ukrainian aircraft at bay.
Indeed, both the Russian and Ukrainian air forces are depleting their missile stockpiles, according to analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British defense think tank. Several experts spoke at a briefing for the launch of the 2023 edition of the institute's Military Balance, an authoritative tally of the weapons owned by nations around the world.
"I think one of the things that struck us all on the panel has been the high utilization rates, certainly, of air-launched guided weaponry," said Douglas Barrie, IISS senior fellow for military aerospace. "You see capability gaps and a lack of inventory depth both on the part of Moscow and Kyiv."
Russian airstrikes have been hampered not just by Ukrainian aircraft and air defenses but also by a lack of smart bombs.
"This is most important with the Kh-101, which is a very long-range air-launched cruise missile that they've used repeatedly, but the service also lacks certain kinds of tactical air-to-surface weapons," Barrie said of Russia's air force.
Barrie believes the most significant shortfall in Russia's missile arsenal has been the Kh-38, a short-range modular air-to-ground missile for use against armored and unarmored targets.
The Kh-38 has an inertial guidance system that can also be configured to include radar and laser homing as well as thermal imaging and satellite navigation. It has a range of up to about 25 miles, according to Russian defense manufacturer Rosoboronexport.
The Kh-38 is a Soviet concept dating back to the 1980s, but the Russian air force never procured them "in anything like operationally useful numbers," Barrie said. Shortages of air-to-ground weapons has forced Russia into desperate expedients, such as firing S-300 anti-aircraft missiles at ground targets.
Russia has had better luck with its missiles against Ukrainian aircraft.
"Where the Russian Air Force has actually been more successful is in the capability it has in medium- and long-range air-to-air missiles," Barrie said, pointing to Su-35S fighters armed with R-77-1 missiles, which have a range of about 62 miles.
Russian fighters — including the Su-35M and Su-30M — have also employed R-37M missiles with an 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 only armed with R-27 missiles with a range of 50 miles.
The R-27 has semi-active radar guidance, which means the launch aircraft has to use its own radar to continuously illuminate the target for the missile to follow. This prevents the launch aircraft from maneuvering while R-27 is in flight, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Russian aircraft can also detect the continuous radar waves and take evasive action.
Compounding the problem for Ukraine is that the long-range Russian missiles are active radar homing weapons, with an on-board "fire and forget" radar that allows them to detect and home in on Ukrainian aircraft autonomously.
Though long-range Russian air-to-air missile shots "have a low probability of kill, they force Ukrainian pilots to go defensive or risk being hit while still far outside their own effective range, and a few such long-range shots have found their mark," RUSI noted in a report published last year.
Russian air-to-air missiles have been "effective in limiting the Ukrainians ability to use their own air force," Barrie said.
Yet it says much about Russian military capabilities that even against a badly outnumbered foe armed with old Cold War-era aircraft, the best that the Russian air force can do is keep Ukrainian planes from bombing Russian troops some of the time.
Nonetheless, Ukraine will continue to be at an aerial disadvantage unless Western countries decide to provide advanced fighters and air-to-air missiles such as the US-made AIM-120D, an active-radar missile with an estimated range of 100 miles.
For now, the only blessing for Ukraine is that Russia doesn't have a lot of these long-range air-to-air missiles. "The overall limitations in terms of inventory continue to be manifest in the way Russia is having to use its airpower during the war," Barrie 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 in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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