Revitalizing European Air Defense
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has sparked significant debate about the future of European defense. What is often lost in many of these discussions, however, is the role airpower will likely play in any future European conflict. This is surprising, because should a wider conflict break out between the Russian Federation and NATO, airpower would likely be the force initially called on to blunt Russian advances. Wherever such hypothetical conflict occurs, the challenges facing NATO will be similar: Russia will be informed by their missteps in Ukraine and will potentially adapt, and NATO will have to overcome significant capability and capacity gaps, particularly if the United States is heavily engaged elsewhere. In order to overcome these gaps, NATO and European nations should invest in air defense capabilities, air enabling capabilities, and increase munitions stockpiles. Likewise, the United States should assist its European allies in this endeavor and ensure its force posture in Europe is sufficient to bolster allies where needed.
Russian Airpower Failures in Ukraine
At the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intent was to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in two days, decapitate the government of Volodymyr Zelensky and bring a quick end to the fighting. Instead, Russian forces committed a series of strategic and operational blunders which stalled their advances. While Russian missteps were many, one of the most surprising was the Russian Air Force’s (VKS) failure to muster any sort of coherent air campaign.
Quite simply, Russia failed to gain air superiority over Ukraine, counter to the basic concept of combined arms that Russia professes to employ. While Russia started the campaign with a significant numerical and technological advantage over the smaller Ukrainian Air Force, it made several critical mistakes employing its airpower. The VKS operated with poor intel on key targets of interest, operational planning was slapdash, and there was no concerted attempt to neutralize Ukraine’s integrated air defenses, commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), in order to protect their own aircraft and so enable strikes against all other target types. Additionally, the VKS initially focused solely on supporting ground troops but did not seem to have a plan to strike high value targets which could have made achieving their aims easier.
These failures are partly due to the outdated but longstanding Russian doctrine that focuses airpower on supporting the ground battle while missile forces conduct strategic strikes. In Ukraine, however, this doctrine has proven faulty. As Russian long-range weapon inventory has begun to run low, the Russian military has been left scrambling for means to conduct deep strikes, even using surface-to-air missiles in a surface-to-surface role. Meanwhile, the VKS’s early failure to conduct any appreciable SEAD has denied it the ability to conduct deep strikes with aircraft. Unable to conduct a true long-range precision attack, Russia has instead been conducting mass terror attacks with minimally guided weapons on the Ukrainian populace, similar to German V-weapon strikes on the United Kingdom in World War II. Much like in World War II, instead of weakening Ukraine’s will to fight, this has strengthened their resolve and united much of the world behind them.
Likewise, Russia has failed at basic air domain tasks that are inherent in their own doctrine. The VKS has been unable to support Russian ground forces due to stiff Ukrainian resistance, as well as extremely poor integration of Russian air assets with other forces. In fact, Russia’s air forces have played no appreciable role in the effort to counter recent Ukrainian advances, or in Russian attempts to start new offensives of their own. The VKS is even holding back its most advanced aircraft because of the fear they will get shot down and the resultant PR coup it would bring Ukrainians. This is due in no small part to the Ukrainian strategy of air denial, which is designed to not beat the Russians in the air, but merely keep Russia from gaining an advantage through innovative tactics and constant harassment of air forces. Effectively, the Ukrainian Air Force has created a "fleet in being" for the air to keep the VKS tied down in one way or another and effectively out of the fight.
NATO and the United States cannot assume, however, that these Russian failures in Ukraine mean that the VKS is a hollow or incapable force. The majority of VKS aircraft remains, including long-range bombers, and Russia has proven remarkably resilient after military setbacks throughout history. It is very likely that the Russian military, and the VKS in particular, will adapt how they fight based on the lessons of Ukraine. When that will occur and what form it will take remain to be seen, but the West should remain ready to face a Russia that has learned lessons, and perhaps even adopted the air denial strategy Ukraine has used so successfully against them, to minimize NATO’s superior air forces.
NATO versus Russia in the Air Domain
The VKS is at a distinct quantitative and qualitative disadvantage when compared to the combined airpower strength of NATO. Although some of Russia’s newest fighters have fifth-generation characteristics, none can truly be called fifth generation. Furthermore, Russia’s targeting process, at least in Ukraine, depends on a human intelligence network that, while effective, is not timely. Routine delays of more than 48 hours lead to preplanned strikes on stale targets, suggesting an inability to dynamically detect and adapt in real time. And finally, Russia lacks the doctrine, infrastructure, and practice to dynamically coordinate large-scale air operations. Despite these shortfalls, the VKS is hardly impotent, and can also draw from several strengths that may be relevant in a conflict with NATO, including the ability to forward deploy to airfields within Russia, and long-range bomber forces which remain intact. Furthermore, Russia has long believed it lags behind NATO and the West in airpower capabilities. As a result, it has heavily invested in surface-based air defense (SBAD) systems. Such systems protect critical military and infrastructure sites and are matrixed into military formations to provide a credible defense of maneuver forces at every echelon.
There are several other considerations that work to Russia’s advantage. Geography plays a role—for example, the Kaliningrad Oblast gives Russia a position to project counter-air and counter-naval umbrellas throughout much of the Baltic Sea and bordering countries. While not invincible, Russia’s SBAD capabilities, backstopped by the VKS, could tie up NATO defenders for some time. Additionally, Russia’s use of surface-to air-missiles as surface-to-surface terror weapons could inflict costly civilian casualties while buying time with their SBAD forces, which would likely constrain any NATO counterattack for some time. Finally, Putin has shown a high tolerance for casualties due to suppression of the press and other authoritarian controls, so political constraints are less of a factor than in the West.
Based on these factors, it is possible to make some broad predictions about how a conflict between Russia and NATO in the air would play out. In an air-to-air fight, Russia would be outclassed in numbers and tactical ability by a NATO force. In addition to a numerical disadvantage, Russian forces are not as trained as NATO pilots. Despite attempted modernization, Russia has struggled to build a modern air force. Russia conducts little training at integrated air operations. Most training flights are only formations with small numbers of aircraft. Additionally their pilots generally fly less than 100 hours a year, about a third of what the average NATO pilot flies. However, NATO’s advantage assumes its combined force has been activated and forward deployed. This will take time, however, and with sufficient surprise, Russian missile attacks against NATO airfields could level the playing field. Furthermore, Russia will rely heavily on its SBAD forces, which will present a significant challenge to NATO airpower capabilities to extend behind Russian lines. SEAD capabilities would help degrade the Russian systems, but only if they are available for use.
If Russia were to time any attack on NATO to when the United States was engaged elsewhere in the world, say the Indo-Pacific theater, NATO advantages would be degraded. In a concurrent fight, U.S. airpower will be split between both theaters, but there is no guarantee that split will be even. As the largest air force in NATO, and the force with the most enabling capabilities, the fight becomes a much more even prospect, particularly if Russia pursues an air denial strategy and avoids over-extending itself. There has been a marked divergence between U.S. and NATO airpower capabilities in the last few decades. In addition to low numbers of command and control, surveillance, and refueling aircraft, NATO as a whole is largely dependent on the United States for SEAD and offensive electromagnetic warfare capabilities. There also remain wide technical disparities and interoperability challenges between many NATO members.
It is very likely that Russia could take lessons learned from their recent struggles, take advantage of these challenges and the dependence on the United States for key capabilities, and engage in the same strategy of air denial the Ukrainians have used so successfully against them. This could expose NATO ground forces to increased risk, where the Russian army can use numerical superiority and its vast strategic reserves to offset NATO’s technical and tactical superiority on land.
In order to avoid such a situation, four key reforms would be beneficial. First, NATO should diversify its portfolio of enabling capabilities. There should be no single point of failure where the entire alliance is dependent on a single member for a key capability or munition. Depth in both areas is key. Second, there should be a concerted effort to enhance European missile defense capabilities to counter Russian surface-to-surface missile capabilities, thus providing some measure of protection to NATO basing. Third, NATO should take significant action to improve interoperability challenges. Interoperability has been a goal of NATO since its founding. As NATO members are pledging more of their budget to the alliance’s defense, that interoperability needs to be baked in from the beginning, or integrated by design. Lastly, the United States should evaluate its force posture in Europe, specifically in the air domain, to determine if plans will meet expectations should conflict occur, especially if there is a potential for simultaneous conflict in two theaters or on two fronts. The United States should also be transparent about these results with NATO headquarters and the allies they can make decisions on which capabilities they may need to enhance or procure. These reforms may seem difficult at times but are critical to ensuring the survivability and success of NATO airpower in a future fight.
Lastly, there are a few proposed ways to reach these goals. First, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) defense planning staff should advance these proposals as they work through the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) with the nations, ideally through consensus, but by tasking, if necessary, to build enabling capabilities in more countries. Second, depth should be built in platforms, crews, and especially munitions, both to backfill equipment and munitions given to Ukraine, but also to build credibility of defense. NATO’s fifth-generation capability is spectacular, but too few high-end fighters cannot make up a deficit en masse, create the ability to be in two places at once, or maintain sortie rates as conflict stretches into weeks or months. The credible force is a capable force, and that is the combination ability and capacity. Third, interoperability needs to be more than a platform-centric approach (e.g., F-35, and Patriot missile systems). Rather, it means common standards on such issues and releasability, encryption, information technology systems, communication systems, and more; these issues are as much a matter of organization and policy as they are technical. Such standardization enables nations to upgrade their technology to a common standard as they are able, an also enables multiple vendors to provide solutions to common problems, increasing healthy competition. Finally, nations should look for new consortium opportunities, and expand on existing programs like the very successful A330 MRTT. Consortiums do not require the bureaucracy of a fully NATO-owned and operated asset (like NATO Airborne Warning and Control System), but can greatly improve economies of scale and build interoperability in from the beginning. In the case of big-ticket items like tankers, it can get smaller nations into a capability they could not otherwise afford. Alternatively, for high-volume items like munitions and expensive necessities like electromagnetic warfare systems, consortiums can greatly improve buying power, thereby increasing magazine depth across the alliance. There are no quick solutions to NATO’s challenges, but these proposals will keep NATO on a positive track while discouraging adversaries large and small.
John Christianson is a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Matthew Hanson is the chief of staff of NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre in Kalkar, Germany.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.