Details are emerging of the Ukrainian Air Force’s air defence suppression doctrine as the country seeks to win and sustain air superiority and supremacy in her ongoing war against Russia’s occupation.
It is a reality of the ongoing war in Ukraine that neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian military has managed to win and sustaining air superiority. The US Department of Defence (DOD) defines air superiority as “that degree of control of the air by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats.” Air superiority is the essential pre-requisite to establishing air supremacy. Returning to DOD definitions, air supremacy is “that degree of control of the air wherein the opposing force is incapable of effective interference within the operational area using air and missile threats.”
Ongoing combat losses of Ukrainian and Russian aircraft illustrate that neither side has won, let alone sustained, control of the air. This is problematic for Ukraine as she continues to resist Russia’s aggression and works to expel Moscow’s forces from her territory. During the Second World War the celebrated British Field Marshal Bernhard Montgomery argued that “if we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly.” Over 80 years later, his words still resonate. Ukraine cannot win her battle on the ground if she cannot control the air. Winning control of the air depends on attritting Russia’s fighter strength and destroying the Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD) she has deployed to the Ukrainian theatre of operations. In short, Russian GBAD in Ukraine must be wiped out. Any new GBAD systems Russia deploys into theatre as replacements must meet a similar fate.
Achieving depends on Ukraine having the kinetic and electronic weaponry relevant to the SEAD battle. Kyiv’s allies have not been shy about providing artillery and precision-guided weapons. Examples of the latter include MBDA’s Storm Shadow/SCALP (Système de Croisière Autonome à Longue Portée–Emploi Général/Autonomous Cruise Missile System for General Employment) and Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition precision guidance kit for unguided bombs. Likewise, Texas Instruments/Raytheon AGM-88B/C HARM (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles) have been invaluable. AGM-88s have helped make life miserable for Russian ground-based air surveillance and fire control radar operators.
The Ukrainian Air Force (UAF), and armed forces more widely, have been fighting hard for air superiority and supremacy. Sources close to Ukraine’s SEAD battles shared with Armada the approaches adopted to date. Ensuring that UAF aircraft avoid areas where Russian GBAD is robust and concentrated is paramount. This prudence is vital to conserve UAF airframes. However, this tactic alone does little to reduce the ferocity of the defences Russia has arrayed against Ukrainian air power. Allied to GBAD avoidance tactics is discretion, primarily concealing UAF movements as much as possible. As the Ukrainian sources note, finding Russian radars places a premium on Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) gathering. Find the radar signal and you find the radar. To this end, “operational and strategic level (ELINT),” including that collected from space, is vital.
Avoidance tactics are merged with offensive actions against “hostile air defence facilities.” Ukrainian sources noted the importance of electronic warfare to the UAF’s endeavours. Detecting the radars supporting Russian GBAD is the vital first step in the kill chain. Regarding effects, the UAF has three choices; kinetic weapons like the AGM-88, electronic attack and possibly cyberattack. Details on the execution of all three tactics are understandably kept under wraps.
UAF SEAD doctrine places a premium on sanitising an area up to 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) deep from the tactical edge. Ensuring the electronic and kinetic attrition of Russian GBAD in these areas is key to assisting Ukrainian Close Air Support (CAS). Such tactics pose a dilemma for Russian land forces: They can pull back their GBAD units, particularly their Short-Range Air Defence (SHORAD) systems beyond this 15km limit. In doing so, they risk leaving Russian units at the tactical edge dangerously exposed to Ukrainian CAS. If the Russian leave their GBAD units there, they risk kinetic attack.
Learning from history
It is noteworthy that Ukrainian airpower places a premium on employing Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to support the SEAD fight. This makes sense as SEAD is an inherently dangerous mission. The fewer aircrew that are put at risk, the better. The Israeli Air Force pioneered the use of UAVs to support SEAD. Witness the employment of such aircraft against Syrian GBAD during Israel’s 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee. Israel Aerospace Industries’ Harpy loitering anti-radar weapon distils lessons from that, and other, SEAD efforts. Fighting Russian GBAD at the tactical edge and beyond also depends on fires with GBAD units engaged by artillery.
Ukraine is learning SEAD lessons the hard way in the unforgiving crucible of war, but a crucible that is a great teacher. The UAF, and the Ukrainian military in general, have clearly sharpened their SEAD doctrine to a fine point. Nonetheless, doctrine is half the story. Ukraine needs the electronic and kinetic capabilities to finish the job and banish Russian GBAD from the theatre of operations. Likewise, she needs to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum, to achieve and hold spectrum superiority/supremacy. Only by doing this can Ukraine hope to win on the ground. Getting Kyiv enough of these tools is the challenge faced by Kyiv’s allies, a challenge they must not forsake if they are serious about Ukraine’s victory.
by Dr. Thomas Withington