In Ukraine, the Russian Air Force is gradually (and for a long time) self-destructing

The conflict in Ukraine is an easy-to-quantify disaster for Russia. The dedicated Oryx site thus maintains accurate and documented lists of material losses from the two sides involved in the war, and this tally is enough to give you a headache.

Since the start of the invasion eleven months ago, Moscow has lost more than 8,500 pieces of equipment, including 1,600 tanks destroyed or disabled, several thousand armored vehicles of various types and hundreds of pieces of artillery.

If the site doesn’t take into account the human toll – the frightening figure of 100,000 Russian dead or wounded has been exceeded, by American counts –, it lists the number of planes lost by the Russian air force (VKS). And here too, Moscow paid a heavy price for its invasion of Ukraine: 67 aircraft were reportedly hit and 63 shot down, including 24 copies of the widely used Su-25 Frogfoot and 17 of the more modern and expensive Su-34 Fullback aircraft.

Despite the undeniable numerical superiority, this inability to seize the Ukrainian skies was due to completely incompatible material and doctrinal questions. These initial problems were greatly magnified by the massive delivery to Ukraine of various air defense systems by its Western allies, with the goal of protection being reaffirmed by Volodymyr Zelensky during his New Year’s address.

But a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank whose work Business Insider reported on, published on Nov. 30, points to other concerns and Russia’s poor choices. And like costly ground wars, they could permanently erode the Russian Air Force’s strength relative to the rest of the world.

According to RUSI, even before the start of the conflict in February 2022, the VKS thus underestimated the detection and destruction systems of Ukraine’s anti-aircraft defenses, was then outnumbered but its tenacity, tactics and courage however very quickly led to heavy losses on the Russian side. .

Reporting on Ukraine’s calculations, the think tank explains that the Russian Air Force only entered the conflict with about 100 pilots actually trained in combat, a number that appears to be very low. Moscow quickly realized the error and is therefore trying to pull veterans out of retirement to strengthen its air force.


But the damage has been done, and will likely continue for years to come, as the Kremlin has also decided to send to the front – and in the most dangerous of missions – experienced instructors drawn from the schools where they teach. “The mobilization of flight school instructors hindered the ability to produce new pilotsnotes the RUSI report. The Ukrainian army noted a greater presence of very young or very old pilots in the Russian air force, with experienced pilots being sent back to the front lines.

Business Insider notes that this trap is unknown to historians. During World War II, the German Luftwaffe made exactly the same mistake: it sent more and more instructors on lethal missions, thereby preventing proper training and solid training of young pilots. Which, with the progress of the war, caused the once formidable Nazi air force to lose quality and efficiency. A good plane but an inexperienced pilot without a mentor will not make a good air force.

Hence, once again in the long term the Kremlin is embarking on a military might of its own, which surely won’t fail to register its rivals as allies for another potential conflict to come.

RUSI also notes that serious disciplinary and organizational problems have taken a toll on the Russian Air Force. The Kremlin army’s atavistic tendency to store fuel and ammunition close to aircraft has created highly explosive targets for long-range Ukrainian strikes – the Voronezh base may be the latest casualty.

The fact of frequently forgetting to clear caches on the sensors of aircraft sent into combat – a classic, according to RUSI – also isn’t ideal for imagining winning. But is the latter no longer, for Vladimir Putin and his followers, a distant fantasy?

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