Russian Air Force missiles can still keep Ukrainian jets at bay

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A limited supply of guided air-to-surface munitions hampers Russia’s ability to conduct airstrikes. However, more powerful air-to-air missiles help Russian jets keep Ukrainian planes at bay. Both sides are using air-launched weapons at a rate that is striking to experts watching the war. Something is loading.

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The Russian Air Force has a better chance of hitting targets in the air than on the ground.

Limited quantities of guided air-to-surface munitions hampered Russia’s ability to conduct effective airstrikes. However, a powerful mix of air-to-air missiles – some of which are beyond the range of their Ukrainian counterparts – helped keep the Ukrainian planes at bay.

Indeed, the Russian and Ukrainian air forces are depleting their stockpiles of missiles, according to analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British defense think tank. Several experts spoke at a briefing for the launch of the institute’s 2023 edition of Military Balance, an authoritative tally of weapons held by nations around the world.

“I think one of the things that stood out to all of us on the panel was the high utilization rates, certainly, of air-launched guided weapons,” said Douglas Barrie, IISS principal investigator for the military aerospace. “You see capability gaps and a lack of inventory depth from both Moscow and Kyiv.”

A Ukrainian plane launches flares over Bakhmut on October 28. Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency

Russian airstrikes were hampered not only by Ukrainian aircraft and air defenses, but also by the lack of smart bombs.

“It’s most important with the Kh-101, which is a very long-range air-launched cruise missile that they’ve used a number of times, but the service also lacks certain types of air-to-ground tactical weapons. “, Barrie said of The Russian Air Force.

Barrie believes the most significant shortfall in Russia’s missile arsenal has been the Kh-38, a short-range modular air-to-surface missile intended for use against armored and unarmoured targets.

The Kh-38 has an inertial guidance system that can also be configured to include radar and laser guidance as well as thermal imaging and satellite navigation. It has a range of up to around 25 miles, according to Russian defense manufacturer Rosoboronexport.

The Kh-38 is a Soviet concept from the 1980s, but the Russian Air Force never bought them “in operationally useful numbers,” Barrie said. Shortages of air-to-surface weapons have forced Russia into desperate expedients, such as firing S-300 anti-aircraft missiles at ground targets.

The wreckage of a Ukrainian fighter jet in a field in Kherson on January 7. Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Russia had better luck with its missiles against Ukrainian planes.

“Where the Russian Air Force has actually done better is in its medium- and long-range air-to-air missile capability,” Barrie said, pointing to the missile-armed Su-35S fighters. R-77-1, which have a range of approximately 62 miles.

Russian fighters – including the Su-35M and Su-30M – have also used R-37M missiles with a range of 200 miles, according to the Royal United Service Institute, another British defense think tank.

The old Soviet-designed Ukrainian MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters are armed only with R-27 missiles with a range of 50 miles.

The R-27 has semi-active radar guidance, which means the launch aircraft must use its own radar to continuously illuminate the target for the missile to track. This prevents the launch aircraft from maneuvering while the R-27 is in flight, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Russian aircraft can also detect continuous radar waves and take evasive action.

The problem for Ukraine is compounded by the fact that Russian long-range missiles are active radar homing weapons, with on-board “fire and forget” radar that allows them to detect and target Ukrainian aircraft autonomously. .

A Russian weapons crew with an R-27 missile during training in June 2018. Yevgeny Polovodov/Russian Ministry of Defense/

Although Russian long-range air-to-air missile fire “has a low kill probability, it forces Ukrainian pilots to defend themselves or risk being hit while still far beyond their own effective range, and a few of those long-range shots found their mark,” RUSI noted in a report released last year.

Russian air-to-air missiles have been “effective in limiting the Ukrainians’ ability to use their own air force,” Barrie said.

Still, it says a lot about Russian military capabilities that even against an outnumbered enemy armed with old Cold War-era aircraft, the best the Russian air force can do is prevent Ukrainian planes to bomb Russian troops from time to time.

Nevertheless, Ukraine will continue to be at an air disadvantage unless Western nations decide to supply advanced fighters and air-to-air missiles such as the American-made AIM-120D, an active radar missile from an estimated range of 100 miles.

For now, the only blessing for Ukraine is that Russia does not have many of these long-range air-to-air missiles. “Overall inventory limitations continue to be evident in how Russia must use its air power in war,” Barrie said.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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