Fighter jets are ‘worthless’ over Ukraine, and it’s a sign of what US pilots and troops may face in future battles

Ukraine Air Force Su-25 jet

A Ukrainian Su-25 close air support jet flies low over the Donetsk region in June 2022.Scott Olson/Getty Images

  • Neither Russian nor Ukrainian aircraft have been able to establish air superiority over Ukraine.

  • As a result, neither side is able to provide close air support to its troops on the front line.

  • US pilots and ground troops may face a similar situation in future wars, US Air Force leaders say.

After a year of fighting, neither the Russian nor Ukrainian air forces have been able to take control of the skies over Ukraine. That has severely limited the role of their fighter jets, and it’s a preview of what US troops could face in the future, US Air Force officials say.

While Russian and Ukrainian aircraft are still active, each side’s air-defense weapons — such as major Soviet-era anti-aircraft systems like the S-300 or newer shoulder-fired missiles like the US-made Stinger — have forced the other to make tactical adaptations, such as launching less accurate rocket attacks from longer ranges rather than sending aircraft to provide close air support over the front lines.

Ukraine is estimated to have lost more than 60 aircraft and Russia more than 70, according to Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces in Europe. Russia’s larger air force still has jets to devote to the war, as does Ukraine, Hecker told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association symposium on March 6, but there is an issue.

“The problem is both of the Russian as well as the Ukrainian success in integrated air and missile defense have made much of those aircraft worthless. They’re not doing a whole lot because they can’t go over and do close air support,” Hecker said.

Long-range sensors and missiles allow Russian aircraft to target Ukrainian aircraft behind the front lines, further limiting Ukrainian operations, but Kyiv’s jets continue to launch strikes on Russian forces, often relying on US weaponry to do so.

Russian Su-35 fighter jet crash in Ukraine

A Russian Su-35 downed by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region in April 2022.Press service of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout via REUTERS

US-supplied anti-radiation missiles, which US engineers jury-rigged to operate with Ukraine’s Soviet-designed jets, allow Ukrainian pilots to target Russian radars and anti-aircraft batteries and recently delivered US-made kits allow Ukrainian jets to launch gravity bombs farther.

Using those weapons and other assets, Ukraine’s air force is able to do “a couple of strikes a day” at ranges “a little bit farther than HIMARS can get right now, but not real far out at all,” Hecker said.

The lack of close air support for Russian and Ukrainian troops and the thicket of air-defense weaponry preventing it is a departure from what US troops have faced in recent wars, according to Gen. Charles Brown, the US Air Force chief of staff.

“We cannot predict the future of what kind of environment we’re going to fight in, for one, but I fully expect it’ll be much more contested,” Brown said at the symposium on March 7. “The amount of close air support we will do will probably be less than we’ve done in the past, typically in the Middle East, because that environment was that we didn’t have an air threat or a surface-to-air threat.”

Asked about Hecker’s comments, Brown said it was “spot on” to say that “in a contested environment it’s going to be tough to execute the close air support.”

“Close air support in a contested environment, that’s not what we do, no matter who you are,” Brown added.

‘More contested environments’

A-10 refueling from KC-135 over Afghanistan

An A-10 over Afghanistan in February 2011.Air Force photo/Master Sgt. William Greer

Since taking over as the top Air Force officer in August 2020, Brown has stressed that future battlefields will be more complex and deadly for the Air Force.

Brown’s signature initiative, “Accelerate Change or Lose,” has sought to replace the aircraft and other aspects of the force that are ill-suited for that environment — including the A-10 Thunderbolt, a ground-attack jet designed in the 1970s specifically for close-air-support missions.

Congress has long opposed retiring the A-10, objecting to its loss without a dedicated replacement, but lawmakers relented in December, allowing the Air Force to retire 21 of the jets in 2023. The service had planned to retire the remaining 260 by the early 2030s, but Brown suggested it may happen faster, saying the jets will “probably” be “out of our inventory” over the next five to six years.

“The A-10 is great airplane. It’s a great airplane in an uncontested environment. The challenge is we’re going to be in more contested environments in the future,” Brown said, adding that combatant commanders around the world have little interest in it because it’s “a single-mission airplane.”

Other aircraft can fill that role, Brown said. “I’ve flown F-16s doing close air support. I’ve flown our bombers in combat doing close air support. We are very capable of doing close air support, the F-35 and all the other platforms.”

While the low- and slow-flying A-10 is generally acknowledged to be more vulnerable to modern anti-aircraft weapons, experts and observers have expressed doubt that other jets can conduct the same kind of close-air-support missions as the Thunderbolt. An apparent reduction in training requirements has also raised concern about the close-air-support skill set atrophying among US pilots.

Members of the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron, from Oklahoma City, and Estonian tactical air control party specialists acknowledge a 442nd Fighter Wing A-10 Thunderbolt II from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., during a show of force after completing close air support training at Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range in Salina, Kan., Dec. 13, 2017.

US and Estonian troops gesture to an A-10 after close-air-support training in Kansas in December 2017.US Air National Guard

Gen. Mark Kelly, who oversees US fighter pilot training as head of Air Combat Command, said the way the Air Force conducts close air support, or CAS, is likely to change but the fact that A-10 pilots have filtered through the force means they will still influence how the service approaches the mission.

As a pilot who has been assigned to different aircraft, “one of the best things I saw was the influence of, say, an A-10 aviator in a Strike Eagle, of an A-10 aviator in an F-35, because they bring not only a mindset but a skillset that we need to keep doing that mission,” Kelly said at the symposium on March 7.

“We have to do it a little bit different,” Kelly said of future CAS operations, “so we’re going to have to get our sensors in there and we’re going to have to get our weapons in there” to support troops in combat.

Kelly contrasted Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which was proceeded by a six-week US-led air campaign to destroy Iraqi aircraft and air defenses, with the fighting in Ukraine, which in recent months has settled into an artillery battle with heavy casualties on both sides — losses that Kelly said are high “because no one has established air superiority and no one has been able to execute air-defense takedown.”

The US Air Force needs to be able to do those missions “at the time and place” of its choosing to prevent US ground troops from experiencing those kinds of losses, Kelly said.

“I still think there’s going to be some CAS. I think it’s going to be very different,” Kelly added. “We’ve got to make sure we understand that we owe them, first and foremost, [that] any weapon coming off an airplane that they see comes off of a US airplane hitting someone across them, not the other way around.”

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