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What we know about the battle for the skies over Ukraine

Before Russia invaded Ukraine 2 weeks ago, military watchers expected the much larger Russian air force to overwhelm Ukraine's and quickly grab "air superiority." Instead, the U.K. said Wednesday that Ukrainian air defences have probably kept Russia from "achieving any degree of control of the air."

Russia was expected to quickly grab air superiority, but so far that hasn't happened

This image taken from video on Feb. 7 shows a view from the cockpit of a Russian Su-30SM fighter jet as it flies over Belarus during joint drills. Russia has not dominated the skies in the early days of its invasion of Ukraine, surprising some experts. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

Two weeks after Russia first invaded its neighbour, the battle for the skies over Ukraine is still up in the air.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Before Russia moved in on Feb. 24, military watchers expected the much larger Russian air force to overwhelm Ukraine's and quickly grab "air superiority," defined by NATO as being able to conduct operations without "prohibitive interference" from the opposing force.

Instead, an intelligence update from the U.K. early Wednesday said Ukrainian air defences "appear to have enjoyed considerable success against Russia's modern combat aircraft, probably preventing them achieving any degree of control of the air."

The surprising development comes amid repeated and passionate calls from Ukraine for a no-fly zone, as well as requests for more fighter jets. Here's a look at some key things to know about the skies over Ukraine.

The battle for air superiority

U.S. intelligence had predicted a blistering assault by Moscow that would quickly mobilize the vast Russian air power that its military assembled in order to dominate Ukraine's skies.

Ukraine is vastly outnumbered by Russia's military. According to FlightGlobal's World Air Forces directory 2022, Russia had slightly over 1,500 combat aircraft before the war began. It moved about 300 aircraft into "easy range" of the conflict zone, according to Justin Bronk, research fellow for airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think-tank based in London.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has just under 100 combat aircraft.

After the opening salvos, analysts expected the Russian military to try to immediately destroy Ukraine's air force and air defences.

Bronk wrote that was "the logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938."

Instead, Russia is still flying through contested airspace. Ukrainian troops with surface-to-air rockets are able to threaten Russian aircraft and create risk to Russian pilots trying to support ground forces.

"The failure of ... the fixed-wing portion of the Russian air force to establish air superiority over Ukraine is really striking," Bronk told CBC News Network.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a damaged maternity hospital after it was shelled by Russian forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

He said that it may speak to a lack of ability to plan and execute complex strike operations. In an article for RUSI entitled, "Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?" he said his theory that the answer is no may yet prove wrong.

"If it does not, however, it will have profound implications for its potential combat power against Ukrainian forces in the coming weeks and its value as a conventional deterrence tool against Western countries."

Bronk tweeted on Tuesday that there is some evidence Russia is changing its tactics. Whether it is achieving air superiority, though, will be indicated by results on the ground, including the destruction of Ukrainian airbases, he said.

Though it can be difficult to tell definitively what is happening in a war zone — and Russia has had successful airstrikes as well as ground-based attacks —  if Russia had widespread air superiority, observers would be able to tell, said Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., and the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.

"It would make the invasion force much more potent because a very mobile air force can be used to call in airstrikes on opposition or enemy formations in order to overcome any resistance on the ground," he said.

Ukraine's side

The Russian air force hasn't dominated the way it was expected to, but that doesn't mean Ukraine's air force has control of the skies.

Dorn said Ukrainian jets have to be cautious because they can be outrun by Russia's more modern air force.

That's why, for instance, the kilometres-long convoy of Russian military vehicles north of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, isn't under constant barrage from the air. Instead, the Ukrainians have been able to keep Russia's air power in check from the ground.

"Ukraine has the ability to fire surface-to-air missiles to bring down Russian aircraft," Dorn said. "That means that Russia has to have a different pattern of flying, which is limited in its use."

Without air superiority, planes must fly lower to avoid surface-to-air missile systems, which gives them less situational awareness and also makes them vulnerable to portable missiles known as MANPADS (man-portable air-defence systems), which Western countries have been sending to Ukraine by the thousands.

Bronk said the Ukraine air force has shown "relatively limited" effectiveness in terms of damage to the Russians, except for some drone strikes in the early days of the fight.

No to no-fly zone

Ukraine's leaders have asked that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization enforce a no-fly zone, which would require not just air superiority but the total control known as air supremacy.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggested that almost three-quarters of Americans support a no-fly zone. However, NATO officials and many military experts have said that's not tenable because it would bring NATO troops directly into combat with Russian troops.

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"Obviously we would all love to see the Western air forces come in and kind of save the day and stop all of the horrible things we're seeing," Bronk told CBC News Network. "But quite frankly, a no-fly zone requires you actually to enforce it, which means shooting down Russian aircraft."

He said there is no way the West could manage the potential escalation if that happened.

Russia "is a nuclear-armed power and one also controlled by a regime which really does have its back to the wall with almost no good options here," he said. "So while we would all emotionally love to see it, it's just too dangerous."

Getting jets to Ukraine

Another request from Ukraine has been for jets that their pilots can fly.

The U.S. administration threw Poland a hot potato with a request to send Soviet-made fighter jets, which Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly, to Ukraine. Poland threw it right back, saying it was prepared to hand over all 28 of its MiG-29 planes — but to NATO by flying them to the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany.

A Polish Air Force MiG-29 is flown during the Radom Air Show at an airport in Radom, Poland, in 2015. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

"Poland didn't want to take the responsibility of being at war with Russia without NATO being directly implicated," Dorn said, while the U.S. wanted NATO to aid Poland but not directly supply the jets.

This makes any swap less likely, Dorn said, adding that it may still be possible for retired volunteer pilots who want to join the Ukraine foreign legion to fly the planes.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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