How Ukraine and Russia’s Air Forces Compare

Western countries are resisting Ukraine’s increasing calls for advanced fighter jets to fend off Russian air attacks.

On Monday, the US and the UK ruled out sending advanced F-16 Fighting Falcon, Typhoon and F-35 fighter jets to Ukraine.

Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov, had previously suggested that the advantages of having Western-made fighter jets would be “immense.”

“Fourth-generation aircraft, this is what we want,” Sak told Reuters.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda quoted the country’s air force spokesperson, Yuriy Ihnat, as advocating for 200 multi-purpose fighter aircraft.

“We are behind when it comes to technologies. Therefore, the need is serious,” Ihnat said. “We need to create up to five tactical aircraft brigades with a single type of Western-type multipurpose aircraft.”

He said Russia had up to six times more war planes than Ukraine, according to the BBC.

In this image combination, Ukrainian MiG-29 fighters take to the skies near Kyiv, main image, and a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM multirole fighter is pictured taking off, inset. Ukraine’s air fleet is largely made up of Soviet-era jets and Kyiv is pressing for Western-made fourth-generation fighter aircraft.

By one count, Ukraine has lost a confirmed 52 fighter jets since Russian forces invaded on February 24, 2022, but this is likely to be lower than the true, unknown figure. In a Facebook update on Wednesday morning, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said 293 Russian planes had been destroyed since the start of hostilities, but did not go into the specifics of the type of aircraft lost.

It is also difficult to determine just how many aircraft Kyiv’s forces had to begin with. One Forbes estimate suggests Ukraine had around 24 Su-24s, 30 Su-25s, plus MiG-29s and Su-27s, which Ukraine received ahead of its post-Soviet Union independence.

The twin-engined MiG-29 has a top speed of around 1,500mph, and is designed with air-to-air combat in mind. Often compared to the F-15 and F-16, it has a ceiling just shy of 60,000 feet. The Su-27 has a similar ceiling and top speed.

Russia’s inventory is not too dissimilar, also heavily featuring Cold War-era jets. But post-Soviet modernization has rejuvenated Russia’s fleet, equipping it with Su-30s, Su-34s and Su-35s.

On January 9, 2023, the UK Ministry of Defense said Russia had “almost certainly” utilized its most advanced fifth-generation fighters against Ukraine. The Su-57 Felon jets have highly advanced avionics and stealth technologies, but Russia was limiting their use, the ministry added.

“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 ministry said.

Throughout the Ukraine war, Western commentators and analysts have mused that Russia’s air force has failed to live up to its expected potential. One initial evaluation from the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank from March 2022 suggested that the Russian air force did not have the “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale.”

Writing in British magazine The Spectator in November, Professor Justin Bronk of the RUSI think tank argued that Russia’s failure to establish air superiority “has been one of the defining features of the invasion so far.”

However, it would be “a dangerous mistake to underestimate Russian air power as the war continues,” he said.

In air-to-air matches, Russian fighter jets “completely outmatched their Ukrainian opponents,” Bronk said. Notably, Russian Su-35S and Su-30SM jets have superior radars to those in Ukrainian Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft. Ukraine also has far fewer fighter aircraft at its disposal, Bronk added.

But Ukrainian air defense systems, including surface-to-air missiles, blocked Russia’s attempts to establish air superiority, Bronk said.

He continued: “Radar-guided, mobile surface to air systems quickly began to inflict serious losses on Russian aircraft flying at medium and high altitude inside Ukrainian airspace, forcing them to start flying very low to avoid radar detection.”

Frank Ledwidge, a barrister and former military officer who served in the Middle East and the Balkans, said it was difficult to evaluate exact numbers for the two opposing air forces, but Ukraine had sustained heavy losses since the start of the war 11 months ago.

He told Newsweek that Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems had been the “winning card” in fending off Russian air superiority.

“Russia has not been able to leverage its numbers, because Ukraine has essentially successfully challenged for air superiority over its land,” Ledwidge said.

“No Russian aircraft would venture over Ukraine, or if they do, it’s extremely rare, and they tend to get shot down. The purpose of Western fighters—of whatever model, and they’d all work well—is to try and gain some level of control over the battlefield,” he added.

But if Ukraine were to receive sophisticated Western-made fighter jets, they are likely to be superior to the majority of the aircraft Russia operates, according to Ledwidge.

The Russian air force has also shown itself to be incapable of putting large numbers of aircraft in the air simultaneously, or focusing a significant number of aircraft on a particular target and conducting battle damage assessment, Ledwidge argued.

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