– Russia’s Air Force may have performed poorly at the start of the war in Ukraine, but intelligence leaks last month showed United States nerves about the prospect of Vladimir Putin returning to the sky to change what’s happening on the ground.
The Pentagon document dated February 28 said that missiles for Soviet-era S-300 and Buk air defense mid to long-range systems, which Ukraine relied on early on to target aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, could be fully depleted by this month.
Ukrainian air defense has been weakened by Moscow’s constant attacks on infrastructure with cruise missiles launched from within Russian territory and barrages of Iranian-made kamikaze drones.
Putin may have shelved the assets of his country’s air force but it is still the world’s second-largest and includes approximately 900 fighter jets and 120 bombers, which is a significant ace to hold ahead of the widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Russians “have an almost overwhelming level of air superiority they have not introduced into the war yet,” Dale Buckner, CEO of international security firm Global Guardian, told Newsweek. “Russia has in reserve a very large fleet 10 times” that of Ukraine.
He said that the Mikoyan Mig-35, the Sukhoi SU-35 and the Sukhoi SU-57 are part of a modern kit “that could decimate that counteroffensive” if it included large columns of Ukrainian tanks and armored personnel vehicles without adequate air coverage.
“So there’s a real tactical risk on the ground for the Ukrainians if they don’t have proper air defense and if they don’t have multiple layers of air defense,” Buckner added, referring to how different types of weapons intercept aircraft and missiles flying at different altitudes.
Pentagon officials say Ukraine could be under threat, especially if Russian planes get freer rein to attack troop positions and essential artillery targets on the ground and allow Putin to use his fighter jets to change the course of the war.
An analysis last month by Mark Cancian, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted that Ukraine will be able to defend its military forces with its remaining air defenses but not its cities or infrastructure.
Cancian told Newsweek that so far Russia has been risk-averse in the air and so he did not expect Russia to roam Ukrainian skies imminently. However, “as the Ukrainians run low on missiles, they’re not going to be able to shoot down every cruise missile or kamikaze drone that comes over.”
“Longer term, if the Ukrainians don’t get more air defense assets, then I think that gradually the Russians will be able to use their air superiority and get an increasing advantage,” he said.
Although, “it’s going to be quite a while before they’re comfortable overflying Ukraine and the Russians just don’t have that many cruise missiles so I think it will take some time.”
The Biden administration announced in April it would send additional air defense interceptors and munitions as part of a $2.6 billion aid package to Ukraine, part of which will help Kyiv’s counteroffensive preparations.
Meanwhile, NATO has sent small numbers of medium-range systems ideal for defending Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure. These include the SAMP/T and the NATO Hawk, although only in small numbers, according to Cancian’s analysis.
In November, Ukraine received the first shipment of the National Advanced Surface-To-Air Missile System (NASAMS) but while there is a large number of available missiles, there are only two launchers.
Ukraine is receiving four Patriot batteries but the $4 million price tag each missile carries makes them unsuitable for defending against inexpensive drones, which have wreaked havoc on Ukrainian cities.
“If the Ukrainian air defenses continue to deteriorate, the Russians will become increasingly aggressive,” Cancian told Newsweek.
Cancian does not believe that suddenly there will be squadrons of Russian aircraft flying over Kyiv, “but you may see some of them overflying parts of the front where there aren’t very good air defenses.”
“That might then sort of expand out as the Russians test the air defenses or lack of air defenses,” he added.
Meanwhile, Buckner said unknowns in the war include whether NATO and the U.S. have “quietly” brought in proper layered air defense systems to Ukraine and if Putin would want to risk deploying their most advanced aircraft and losing them at scale.
“We’ve had this war of attrition and now as we go into this next phase, it’s a bit of cat and mouse of, has NATO brought in their defense or not? Will the Russians introduce their most advanced air platforms and how successful could that limit the counterattack?”
Buckner believes if the Russians get a sense that the Ukrainians “are vulnerable” and their aircraft can go up with minimal threat, “I think they’re going to deploy at least some portion of them, even though it would be considered a strategic reserve for a much larger conflict.”
Retired U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command said that Putin is “very concerned about air defenses and I think he’s very concerned about tangling with us.”
“While we might see incremental changes to their policy, I’m not sure that we’re going to suddenly see a massive shift in the Russian approach to this to this war in the air,” McKenzie told Newsweek. “The essential issue is how much how much do the Russians have left in the cupboard that they’re going to be willing to put into the fight.”
“We have a sense of what’s left in the Ukrainian cupboard and we’re working apparently very hard to increase their resourcing. What are the Russians doing on the other side?
“The heart of the people doing the conducting of those operations is a factor. We have a good sense of the heart of the Ukrainians,” said McKenzie, who is now executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida. “I think we also have a good sense of the lack of enthusiasm that the Russians have for this.”
“Part of it comes down to who can hang on the longest, who has more heart for the fight, even in a technical thing like air defense and air warfare,” he said.