OLIVER JJ LANE 22 May 2023

Russia Forming ‘Elite’ Air Squadron Underlines Ukraine Failures, Says UK

Russia is offering financial incentives to experienced pilots to join a new “elite” air attack force and this highlights the degree to which the regular air force has failed to perform in their war against Ukraine so far, British intelligence has said.

Once an object of fear for the Western world, the Russian airforce “have severely underperformed in their core function” during the Ukraine war to the point that Moscow is having to build from the ground up a new strike force to actually fight, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) has said.

The new “elite” attack force will deploy fighter-bombers and attack helicopters — underlining the intended role of the squadron — and is to be manned by “highly skilled and motivated pilots”. In addition to conventional recruitment, Russia will also seek to attract “retired aviators” — presumably those with experience in past wars — to return to flying with “large pay incentives”, the MOD said.

Whether failure to date is down to a failure of discipline, morale, or doctrine is not explored in the brief UK intelligence bulletin. But it remains the case that, to Western observers, the continued failure of the on-paper enormous Russian air force to establish dominance over Ukrainian skies is one of the great surprises of the war.

It does not appear to be a problem of supply of equipment: as the United States observed earlier this year, the vast majority of the Russian Air Force has not been touched by the conflict to date.

NATO’s Centre of Excellence for Joint Air & Space Power (JAPCC) has its own answers to why Russia’s airforce appears to have failed to perform against Western expectations of what it might be capable of in a near-peer conflict.

Observing the “low presence and performance of Russian Air Power in the Ukraine war has been a shock to everyone”, JAPCC said earlier this year the Russian air force appears to be “unable to perform complex operations” and doctrinally considers itself “highly responsive flying artillery” rather than something concerned with achieving air supremacy.

Nevertheless, JAPCC warned that this could change, as Russia would realise the shortcomings of its doctrinally backward air component and innovate. The establishment of a new “elite” airforce within an airforce highlighted by the MOD could herald such an evolution.

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