A View from Above

Air Domain Focused Observations on the Ukraine Conflict

By Colonel

By Col

 Erik

 Rab

, NE

 AF

Joint Air Power Competence Centre

By Wing Commander (ret.)

By Wg Cdr

 Jez

 Parkinson

, UK

 AF

Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Published:
 July 2022
 in 
Warfare Domains: Air Operations

Introduction

Although the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is still ongoing, with no prospect for termination of the hostilities in the foreseeable future, some initial observations can be made with respect to the air domain. These initial observations are made by the JAPCC’s Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and are just that, not to be seen as comprehensive, all-encompassing assessments. No firm analysis can be performed yet, because of the diffuse information situation. Therefore, these observations are based solely on data collected from open sources and cannot be validated. However, we deem these observations as consequential and relevant, whilst open for further analysis once definite information becomes available. This article focuses on four areas of interest: the Russian Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, resilient basing, helicopter operations, and Space.

The Russian A2/AD Strategy

Following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, there was renewed interest in the Russian strategy and the development of Russian military capabilities. On the one hand, there was the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, which had been published the year before the annexation and described a new, non-linear form of warfare (the so-called ‘hybrid warfare’). On the other hand, the introduction of new weapon systems expected to enable an A2/AD strategy and give Russia a certain level of dominance over a future battlefield.

The developments above have received much attention from military strategists, scholars, and reporters. For NATO as well, the recent years have been dominated by the challenge of properly dealing with the alleged Russian hybrid and A2/AD threats, which had a real impact on exercises and training. While joint and strategic headquarters focused on countering a hybrid threat, Air Forces were trying to develop ways to bust the A2/AD bubble effectively.

However, in the current Ukraine conflict, Russia seems to fail to apply the A2/AD strategy to its full advantage. This is demonstrated by, among other things, Russia’s persistent difficulties in achieving air superiority over large parts of the battlefield. In trying to figure out the reasons behind this failure, we can certainly consider technological, organizational, operational, or logistical (economic) shortcomings.

For the time being, one can only speculate why Russia seems unable to implement an A2/AD strategy with the military capabilities at its disposal, such as long-range air defence weapons, air-launched cruise missiles, or hypersonic missiles. Firstly, from the organizational and operational sides, there seems to be a lack of cooperation and coordination between the different branches of their armed forces. For example, the Russian Air Force mostly employs its weapons from a cleared airspace outside the battlefield. This could be due to insufficient (joint) training, improper (multi-domain) planning, interoperability issues, and perhaps even mistrust between the different branches of the armed forces. In addition, the exposed communications failures, which have been widely reported in the mass media, could also be a contributing factor.

Secondly, it could be the case that Russia is trying to implement its A2/AD strategy, but is unable to dominate the battlefield due to technological and logistical shortcomings. For example, the Russian stocks of precision-guided munitions may be limited due to their high production costs and magnified by the effects of international sanctions imposed on Russian weapons manufacturers. Furthermore, modern missile defence systems seem unable to detect and eliminate targets fast enough, and the various long-range missiles do not appear to be as precise as expected.

Resilient Basing

The JAPCC is currently working on a major project looking at the issue of Resilience. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘Resilience’ is: ‘The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.’ The concept of the Resilient Basing project is to capture the roles and functions of any given airbase and then look at what threats and hazards may be ranged against that airbase. Analysing the roles and functions of a facility and then identifying its weaknesses will provide an insight into what aspects of any output must be made more robust to make activity more resilient against prevailing threats and hazards. This methodology can be applied to any asset irrespective of role and function, so it is in reality a joint tool.

Russia’s inability to dominate the battlefield from the outset would lead to a fight for supremacy in a contested environment. Russia does not appear to operate effectively in a contested area, resorting to the destruction of entire areas indiscriminately.

The project aims to examine the complete spectrum of conflict from Baseline Activity and Current Operations (BACO) to activity at the Maximum Level of Effort (MLE). The spectrum of threats to be explored includes both kinetic and non-kinetic threats from various actors, ranging from terrorist organizations to near-peer adversaries, while also considering hybrid threats. This, in turn, is set in the contemporary Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) environment.

This project has considerable relevance when considered in the context of the current conflict in Ukraine. No matter which side you examine, both have been impacted by the actions of the other in terms of attacks on infrastructure, which have been all the more effective given that the targeted infrastructure was lacking in Resilience. The lesson appears to be simple – nations have forgotten the ‘art of war’ or, in relation to the Air Component, we have forgotten how to operate our airbases as fighting platforms! We have lived through the epoch of so-called ‘wars of choice’ and are now being confronted once again by competition, if not yet a war, where if we fail to learn or re-learn the lessons of the past, the outcomes will change our way of life. The point is clear; our adversaries will exploit any lapse in Resilience.

As JAPCC publications have highlighted on many occasions, NATO Joint Air and Space Power is what our adversaries fear most – it is NATO’s asymmetric advantage. However, while investing in the latest platforms is essential, if we do not invest equally in their enablers and create resilient systems, then we will fail. To return to a point made in the recent JAPCC white paper ‘NATO Force Protection on a Knife Edge – A Think-Piece’, we are in grave danger of our platforms being little more than flaming piles of very expensive scrap at the end of a runway, if we do not adopt the principles of Resilient Basing.

Helicopters Operations – Missing Out on a History Lesson

Prolonged helicopter usage in Afghanistan taught us that helicopters that fly low and slow are too vulnerable to Small Arms Fire (SAF) and Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). For this reason, helicopter operations in Afghanistan were mostly executed above 5000 ft. During the 2014 Donbas war, Ukraine lost ten helicopters (Mi-8 and Mi-24) to SAF, heavy machine guns, and MANPADS fired from the separatists’ side. This might have given them the (renewed) insight into low and slow-flying aircraft vulnerability. But also how to protect or, if necessary, destroy them.

Where many nations use the American AH-64 Apache gunship, Russia uses the Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter as its counterpart. The Ka-52 helicopter is a formidable machine, but as recent history shows, Ukraine is not intimidated. Ukraine claims to have destroyed at least four Alligators in the early days of the war against Russia.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Russia planned first to take the capital, Kiev. Hoping to overwhelm Ukrainian defences, a group of 34 helicopters used for this invasion (on the morning of 24 February) was escorted by Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters. The invasion did not work according to plan as the Ukrainians shot down the Alligators with heat-seeking air defence missiles and the attack was repulsed in heavy fighting. Pilots did not expect to be shot at by missiles fired from MANPADS.

The overall (under)performance of the Ka-52 must be frustrating for the Russians. Their highly rated gunship is falling victim to shoulder-fired missiles. However, they should have known, taking into account the difficulties encountered against insurgent-fired Stinger missiles during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. A missed history lesson.

During the initial stages of the conflict in Ukraine, how events unfolded in the Space domain was a vital aspect, which has also affected the way the conflict is currently unfolding. Three items stood out, the cooperation between Russia and the international community with the purchase of the Soyuz rockets, the limited denial of the electromagnetic spectrum by Russian forces, and the commercial space industry stepping into the fray to augment Ukrainian forces.

In the early stages of the conflict, the majority of the international community spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine, specifically the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. These countries, among others, are partners within the International Space Station (ISS) and regularly use Russian Soyuz rockets for their space programmes. Due to the diplomatic outrage, Russia responded by declaring that any nation that spoke out against the conflict would no longer be able to purchase Soyuz rockets. This has far-reaching consequences for emerging Space programmes as they rely on the Soyuz rockets to place satellites into orbit. As a result of this threat, the aviation and space industry has already made proposals for Soyuz replacement.

It was widely anticipated that Russia would dominate the electromagnetic spectrum by actively denying the Ukrainian defence’s GPS and voice communications usage. As the conflict progressed, it became evident that Russia was hesitant to employ its electronic countermeasure capabilities as they were unable to operate their own forces. In fact, many frontline reports suggested that Russian forces were commandeering cell phones from Ukrainian civilians to conduct operations. This was a massive unforeseen benefit to the Ukraine defence, as it enabled listening and tracking of their communications.

Lastly, the impact of the commercial space industry cannot be understated. A Ukrainian official requested via Twitter to Elon Musk for access to his Starlink Communication system. Within hours, Elon Musk reconfigured his system, and within a couple of days, truckloads of Starlink equipment arrived in the country. When reports of Russia’s interference surfaced, Elon Musk developed a software update within days that eliminated the interference. The Starlink system has been a crucial tool for Ukrainian defence. In addition to the communication assets, the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) community stepped up its support by delivering high-resolution intelligence to the Ukrainian defence forces, thus enabling constant visibility of Russian troop postures.

These observations are based on open source information, should not be considered definitive, can serve as the basis for further analysis and evaluation.

Content Navigation
Author
Colonel
 Erik
 Rab
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Colonel Erik Rab has been assigned to the JAPCC as the Branch Head Air Operations Support since November 2020. During his previous assignment he was a Senior Policy Advisor at the Directorate-General of Policy at the Ministry of Defence in The Hague. Col Rab was commissioned by the RNLAF Officer Training School in 1989. He has served as an operational pilot, tactical instructor pilot, flight supervisor, flight safety officer, staff officer, director of operations, and squadron commander. Col Rab is a command pilot with more than 2.500 flying hours on the F-16AM, F-16A, T-38 and T-37. His last operational assignment was the Commander of 322 Fighter Squadron at Leeuwarden Air Base. Following his operational career Col Rab transitioned to the USA to become the Assistant National Deputy for the Netherlands at the F-35 Joint Program Office in Arlington Virginia. When he returned to The Netherlands transitioned to the Directorate of Operations, Royal Netherlands Air Force Command in Breda to become the Head of the Fighter Operations Branch.

Information provided is current as of March 2022
Author
Wing Commander (ret.)
 Jez
 Parkinson
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Wing Commander (ret.) Jez Parkinson is a RAF Regiment Officer with 33-years’ regular Service; over half in the Multinational environment and in excess of 7-years on operations. He continues to work as a Reservist in the Force Protection Environment and as a civilian on Asset Protection collaborating with the military, industry and academia. He is the author of NATO FP Policy, FP Doctrine for Air Operations and the current Custodian for Joint FP Doctrine. He is responsible for the development and delivery of NATO FP Courses as well as writing several publications and articles on FP.

Information provided is current as of February 2022
Author
Lieutenant Colonel
 Marco
 Sampimon
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Lieutenant Colonel Marco Sampimon is the primary point of contact within the JAPCC for Exercises and Lessons Learned. He is also JAPCC’s permanent liaison to NATO’s Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger. As JAPCC’s Exercise coordinator, he is actively involved with the development and scripting of NATO exercises as Ramstein Ambition and Steadfast Jupiter, and fulfils the role of Chief Opposing Forces (OPFOR) Air during the execution phase of those exercises.

Lieutenant Colonel Sampimon started his career with the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) in 1984. Since then he has acquired a background in Air Battle Management and Air Command and Control at the tactical, operational and Strategic level. He is an experienced Air Strategist, Air Campaign Planning Lead, Defence Planning Lead and Air C2 Requirements Manager. He has fulfilled his duties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United States and has been deployed for operations.

Lieutenant Colonel Sampimon has a Bachelor degree in Business Administration (Management) and a Master degree in Military Strategic Studies (Military Management and Logistics).

Information provided is current as of March 2022
Author
Major
 Brian
 Ladd
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Major Brian Ladd graduated from Bowling Green State University in 2005 with a Bachelor’s degree in History and received his commission by AFROTC. His first tour was at the 4th Space Operations Squadron at Schriever AFB in Colorado Springs, CO, where he was a Satellite Operator of the MILSTAR communications system. His other operational tour was as the Liaison Officer at RAF Fylingdales Strategic Missile Warning Radar. He has completed many Space Staff assignments at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Vandenberg AFB, and Offutt AFB. He transitioned to the US Space Force in October 2020. Since June 2021 he serves as the Chief of Cyber and Space Readiness at the JAPCC.

Information provided is current as of July 2022
Author
Major
 Eelco
 Tolsma
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Major Eelco S.Tolsma joined the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1987 to become a helicopter pilot. After earning his wings he started his flying career at 300 squadron at Deelen AB which he soon left to join 303 Search and Rescue Squadron at Leeuwarden AB in the northern part of the Netherlands.

Major Tolsma kept flying the SAR helicopters until 2015. During his flying years he served as deputy commander and commander of the 303 SAR squadron, he was a flight instructor on the PC-7 and was instructor/examiner on the AB412 helicopter as well as the B412 simulator. He has extensive operational experience as a helicopter planner during military missions and SAR.

Apart from active flying, he served as the Maritime Helicopter Procurement Officer at the Air Force HQ in Breda and as the long term helicopter planner(N3.5) at the Navy HQ in Den Helder. His posting before joining the JAPCC-team was at the CAOC Uedem as the Personnel Recovery Operations Officer.

Information provided is current as of February 2022

Other Articles in this Journal

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100 Years of the Italian Air Force

An Introspective Look over a Centenary of Tangible Relevance

Transformation & Capabilities

High-Altitude Platform Systems

Alternative, Supplement, or Competition to Satellites?

Artificial Intelligence – Human Symbiosis in Fighter Aircraft

End of the Fighter Jet Era or a New Evolution?

Good News or Bad News?

Embryonic Development of Network Enabled Weapons

Human-Machine Interface: An Evolutionary Necessity

Developing Benchmarks for Future Driven Interface Designs

Close Air Support Command and Control

Digitally Enhanced CAS Operations

The Role of Aircraft Carriers in a Contested Age

Retaining Primacy in the Maritime Domain

Cluster Satellite Architectures

Micro Satellites Formation Flight

Viewpoints

Defining the Swarm

Challenges in Developing NATO-Agreed Terminology Across All Domains

Collective Defence in the Space Domain

Confining the Ultimate War in Threatened Space

Out of the Box

The Next ‘Small Step for Man’ in the Metaverse

Operating Between Virtual and Physical Worlds

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