On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale war on Ukraine. Various experts and analysts predicted the outnumbered Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) would last only a few days against the overwhelming Russian forces. Things turned out differently. After one year of fighting, the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) losses were high. About 200,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in action – on average, 548 per day. More than 6,500 infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers were destroyed. The RFAF have lost possibly two-thirds of its T-72 main battle tanks that are in active service or recoverable storage.1 In the air domain, Russia – while having one of the largest and most technologically sophisticated air forces in the world – has failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine.2 Despite the predictions of many analysts, Moscow’s ten-day plan soon turned into a war of attrition.
Nevertheless, Western analysts believe that the war may be entering a critical phase where both sides look to launch offensives with improving weather conditions in the spring of 2023. Yet, the UAF are still under tremendous pressure. The Ukrainian Air Chief and his staff remarked: ‘A small Red Army will never beat a big Red Army. Reliance only on the Soviet-production weapons will never allow us to reach quantitative or qualitative parity with the enemy, saying nothing about gaining an advantage’, concluding, ‘we can win only by countering quantity with quality.’3
Although the Western equipment delivered to Ukraine is qualitatively superior to Russian equipment, it will only affect the war’s outcome if it arrives in time and in sufficient numbers, is used effectively and is supported properly. The quality of military personnel, and training is also crucial to maximize use of the superior quality of the equipment; otherwise, the qualitative benefits cannot be adequately achieved.
The current situation in Ukraine demonstrates that despite the military advantage implied by the size of the RFAF, quantity alone is insufficient for a quick victory. Exacerbated by Western sanctions, the lack of economic and technological power likely hampers Russia’s attempt to modernize its military hardware and gain a notable qualitative advantage. Russia’s limited economic power and poor domestic technological base led to the only available option of reliance on quantity over quality in their military warfighting concept. Although the RFAF may be able to achieve short-term victories, in the long run, its overall concept may fail, and at a terrible human cost.
This article will explore how the emphasis on quantity over quality in the Russian military’s warfighting concept impacts its military performance in Ukraine and what implications this holds for the relevance of quantity in NATO’s future air power strategies. To this aim, this paper will address the Russian concept of quantity, describe and detail the shortage in high-tech equipment, highlight the relationship between quality and quantity experienced on the Ukrainian battlefield, and draw conclusions on the relevance of quantity for the Alliance.
A Concept of Quantity
From an operational perspective, Russia always emphasized mass-fire offensive strategies. According to Andrew S. Bowen, an analyst in Russian and European Affairs, ‘the concentrated use of artillery and rocket artillery, along with large tank units, remains at the core of Russian military doctrine’.4 The easiest way to explain the Russian concept of quantity is to expound on the case of tanks.
Western Main Battle Tanks (MBT) are assessed as qualitatively superior to the Russian MBTs fighting in Ukraine.5 Western governments’ decisions to supply tanks to Ukraine revived the quality versus quantity debate. The Russian and Soviet-manufactured MBTs are good examples to explain the quantity concept within the RFAF.
In general, tanks are designed according to the doctrine for which they are made. For Western manufacturers, survivability, ergonomics, maintenance, and battle damage repair were the most essential parameters to guarantee a tank’s best battlefield performance. By contrast, Soviet and Russian tank doctrine emphasized the tank as a building block to a larger formation, requiring an expendable supply of interchangeable pieces. The focus is not on one-on-one tank duels but instead on the overwhelming force. In this doctrine, quantity determines the quality of the total force. This fits with the Soviet and Russian conscription systems, requiring less demanding training for crewmembers. This also makes the individual crew more expendable. It is already priced in that the T-72 tank will probably lose a duel with a Leopard, Challenger, or Abrams MBT. But more tanks can be built because the tank is so light, small, and simple in design. Crews are replenished faster. For example, the Russians believe that a tank formation consisting of twelve T-72 MBTs engaged in battle with four superior Leopard tanks will eventually overpower the Leopards.6
Describing this concept as ‘mass instead of class’ falls short because it is a biased view. It is a different approach. Russian doctrine anticipates that tank formation battles are more likely than one-on-one tank battles. When a few superior tanks fight against many inferior ones, the advantage can quickly tip towards the many. Thus, the superior tank can only exploit some of its advantages on the battlefield before being possibly destroyed. Therefore, much time, money, energy, and resources are spent on producing and maintaining high-quality vehicles, which may not be fully utilized on the battlefield. It can be seen as a quality that the Soviet tanks are very basic and of limited design, to be used as expendable assets in a tactic of saturating and overwhelming the enemy by sheer numbers.7
Lack of Electronics and the Absence of Prestige
High-quality equipment requires advanced microelectronics; let us look at Russia’s defence industry, and its state-of-the-art weapons systems. Since 2000, Russia has had a leading position in global defence markets with a 25% market share. It was second behind the United States (US), but its market share has declined. Russia’s share of the global defence export market fell from 29% in 2011 to 11% in 2021.8 The two biggest markets for Russian defence exports are China and India, but, China is increasingly self-sufficient, and India seeks supplier diversification. Both countries are no longer so reliant on Russia.
Furthermore, US sanctions have had a chilling effect on customers, whereas EU sanctions affect industrial production.9 Since the invasion of Ukraine, the EU arms embargo has been tightened. Even by 2020, defence exports to Russia were negligible. Now, semiconductors and cutting-edge technologies are added to the sanctions list. This is critical, because over the prior decade, almost 100% of machine tools for Russian defence production and 79% of electronics for space applications were imported.10
An examination of 27 pieces of captured or destroyed Russian military weaponry revealed that it contained some 450 foreign-made components critical to their operation.11 This highlights that Russia is relies heavily on imports of Western technology.
Russia needs access to chips to power missiles and other smart munitions for its invasion of Ukraine but is reportedly currently facing a severe shortage of high-technology spares due to trade sanctions. Therefore, keeping modernization programmes like the T-14 Armata and Su-57 Felon viable becomes increasingly difficult. Russia is forced to use outdated microchips, including imported commercial chips from China and, allegedly, other intermediary countries.12 The lack of high-quality electronics will limit Russia’s ability to maintain, enhance, or develop new and efficient weapon systems, forcing the RFAF to continue using outdated and less effective weapons. In short, Russia’s reduced access to Western microelectronics significantly affects modernizing and producing new equipment for RFAF inventories.
Concerning the prestigious Su-57 Felon, Russia has employed its most advanced combat aircraft in operations against Ukraine since at least June 2022, according to the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) reporting. However, ‘these missions have likely been limited to flying over Russian territory, launching long range air-to-surface or air-to-air missiles into Ukraine’, the UK MoD said in its Defence Intelligence Update from 9 January 2023.13 On the surface, the Su-57 Felon looks like a fifth-generation platform, with stealthy configuration in all aspects except from the rear, although analysts have expressed doubts as to the true extent of its combat capabilities.14 All in all, the Su-57 Felon is conspicuous by its absence over Ukraine. It is only a deterrent platform produced in token numbers to support Russia’s narrative of superior technology. Russia is likely trying to avoid reputational damage from any Felon losses in Ukraine, which may reduce export prospects.
Quality versus Quantity
At the beginning of the war, Ukrainian fighter jets were outmatched and outnumbered by Russian aircraft. Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS, in Russian) conducted extensive fixed-wing strike operations, while initial attacks suppressed Ukrainian Ground-based Air Defence (GBAD) capabilities. Russian fighters, particularly the Su-35S and MiG-31BM, were initially highly effective in combat against Ukrainian aircraft. However, since March 2022, the Russian military has lost the ability to operate in Ukrainian-controlled airspace except at very low altitudes due to Ukraine’s effective and mobile Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems and man-portable air defence systems.
During the first months of the war, Russian airstrikes have mainly targeted pre-designated targets with unguided bombs and rockets, with limited use of standoff missiles and anti-radiation missiles to suppress Ukrainian SAM radars. Without air superiority, Russia’s attempts at strategic air attacks have been limited to a sustained bombardment of the Ukrainian electricity grid using cheap Iranian-supplied loitering munitions while using cruise and ballistic missiles against larger targets, often indiscriminately against cities.15 The inefficacy of the VKS surprised many analysts. All in all, the world’s second-largest Air Force failed to establish air superiority despite the VKS’s apparent advantage in quality and quantity.16
From October 2022 onwards, Russia has been destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure with an abundance of cruise missiles and drones, leaving major cities without necessities such as water and electricity. Among the most lethal weapons used by Russia are the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones, which can carry a 110-pound warhead and act as loitering munition. As a result, Ukraine’s air defences are under constant pressure. With a 100% quota for shooting down aimed Shahed drones and cruise missiles, the German-donated IRIS-T short-range air defence (SHORAD) system has become a critical part of that defence.17 The quality of the IRIS-T system is undisputed. However, each system costs € 150 million, and the price for each missile is around € 500,000.18 In contrast, the Iranian-made drones cost as little as € 20,000 to produce.19 Although this calculation does not reflect the value of the Ukrainian assets protected, the imbalance could, over time, favour Russia and be costly for Ukraine and its allies.20
In summary, Russia still has a quantitative advantage over Ukraine in terms of relatively low-tech munitions, supported by much smaller numbers of higher-quality weapon systems. If not replenished by the West, Ukraine could lose the ability to defend itself, creating offensive opportunities for the RFAF.21
During the war, the Russian military moved to a strategy of funnelling human and material mass in pursuit of operational or even minor tactical objectives despite extraordinarily high losses. The Russian approach overwhelms and outlasts the better-led, more purposeful, and increasingly better-equipped UAF. It seems that the Russian leadership believes that time is on their side and that this exhaustion strategy can be managed without leading to a general military or society collapse.22 Such judgment relies on the premise that ‘Russian mass can and will overcome Ukrainian courage and Western arms’.23 In doing so, Russia is accepting significant casualties and equipment losses in exchange for only small territorial gains – as incremental steps on the way to its desired end state of having full control over the four previously annexed Ukrainian provinces.24
Russia faces the challenging task of rebuilding its military forces and combat power in a timely manner as it currently relies on outdated computer chips intended for household appliances. The economic sanctions against Russia will lead to a further deterioration of its industrial and military production, which in turn will lead to delays and cost increases. To compensate, Moscow is exploring alternative sources, such as Iran and North Korea, for missiles, drones, and ammunition. The extent of China’s military support to Russia remains uncertain.25 Although the RFAF combat power is much diminished in the short- to medium-term, Russia maintains a large force and focuses on some high-quality capabilities, such as integrated air defence and long-range strike capabilities.
In his analysis of warfare from the Romans to World War II, Cathal Nolan argues that wars between peer or near-peer adversaries almost always become a war of attrition.26 The current operational environment in Ukraine is characterized by increased use of loitering munitions and other low-cost, hand-held, easy-to-operate, unmanned aerial systems and anti-tank missiles. The IRIS-T vs Shahed example clearly shows the financial imbalance of quality versus quantity equipment. Even with a quality-related strategy, preparing for such an attritional conflict requires enough mass to win outright or sustain a more protracted fight. Unmanned systems are often much cheaper than manned aircraft. Advanced manufacturing plants using 3D printing and robotics have the potential of cheap and fast production so that a return to mass (in terms of numbers) is possible.27
Another noteworthy aspect is Russia’s failure to establish air superiority over Ukraine. Ukraine’s success in contesting the skies turns NATO’s air power paradigm, which traditionally prioritizes gaining air superiority first, on its head because it offers an alternative vision for pursuing airspace denial rather than air superiority.28 Given its limited capacity and irreplaceable pilots, Ukraine has wisely chosen a sustainable course that is probably the only way to counter the RFAF.
The air war in Ukraine suggests that denying air superiority is sometimes a smarter operational objective than trying to gain it outright.29 NATO’s militaries have expensive and high-quality capabilities, such as the F-35 Lightning II stealth multirole combat aircraft. It will cost around $ 100 million each, compared with the $ 30 million cost of the F-16 it is supposed to replace. Due to the cost increase, NATO’s fighters have become more capable, but the overall fleet size is much smaller. Norman Ralph Augustine, an American aerospace businessman who served as Under Secretary of the US Army, explains that defence budgets grow linearly while the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially over time. At the current rate ‘in the year 2054, the entire defence budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.’30 As Augustine observes, the current trend is unsustainable and will lead to far less capacity than is required for operational effectiveness, especially in large-scale combat operations.
In conclusion, NATO’s smaller number of superior aircraft may be inadequate to win a long, destructive war of attrition with a peer or near-peer adversary. These days, losing one aircraft can mean numerous targets remain unengaged, reducing effectiveness and delaying campaign objectives. A paradigm shift comes increasingly into view as expensive, high-quality manned platforms are hard to replace. With either air denial or air superiority strategies, success depends on having a sufficient quantity of platforms and munitions, not just superior technology, as the current situation in Ukraine indicates.
A possible solution could be a mix of manned aircraft and large numbers of smaller, cheaper unmanned aircraft and missiles.31 The right quantity and quality assets would allow NATO to have affordable air power at a reasonable size.