Air Superiority or Air Denial: The Truth about the Air War in Ukraine
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 37.4, Oct-Dec 2022 | Date : 21 Feb , 2023

In 1939, Winston Churchill described the intentions of Russia as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. The idiom is equally relevant today in respect of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It all started with an attempt to capture Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. When that failed, Russia moved its forces to capture the Donbas region of Ukraine. Ukraine is now counterattacking and Russia has moved its troops out of some of the captured areas. In short, there is little clarity about Russia’s intentions and where the war is headed. The news in the public domain is mostly from the Western media, which has little credibility considering its biased reporting in the early days of the war and its complicity in the information campaign waged by the West against Russia. The lack of clarity has, however, not prevented military analysts from reviewing, discussing or drawing lessons from the conflict. Some lessons being suggested question the viability of long held military concepts such as air superiority and tank warfare.1 The question that arises: are the analyses and lessons learnt are really valid? Or are such major conclusions somewhat premature? This article proposes to examine if the events in the Ukraine-Russia war signal a shift in the time-tested doctrinal imperative of air superiority and is air denial an appropriate substitute.

As we discuss the Ukraine-Russia war, it would be appropriate to highlight that all wars are contextual. Warfare is all about who is fighting whom, for what objectives, resources available and the constraints. Correct appreciation of the happenings is possible when there is some clarity on the political objectives, military strategy and the constraints – military, political and economic. Only then can one appreciate the reasons behind how the war unfolds. This war took place under unprecedented media glare, with the West attempting to influence opinions of Russians against President Putin. Journalists and even civilians uploaded video footage, many of which turned out to be fake, such as the one on the ‘ghost of Kyiv’, about a Ukrainian pilot shooting down numerous Russian aircraft. Every Russian move was criticised even at the United Nations (UN) and by human rights activists, creating immense pressure on Russia.

The Russian objectives kept changing starting initially by attempting to coerce Ukraine by threatening Kyiv. This ran aground and operations veered towards capturing the Donbas region and creating a land link between Russia and Crimea. Russia expected that the Russian speaking people of Donbas, who were seeking autonomy in Ukraine, would readily agree to merge with Russia. Since the residents of Donbas were likely to become citizens of Russia, Russian forces would need to exercise caution by avoiding excessive damage to the infrastructure and injury to the inhabitants. The Russian advance was thus slow and the forces were bogged down in a messy urban war, an unenviable task for any army fighting with one arm tied behind its back.

The most telling aspect that emerges from the War is that Ukraine was provided intelligence on Russian moves by the United States (US) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), besides being supplied weapons and logistics on an unprecedented scale. As a matter of fact, Ukraine appeared to have become a testing ground for the latest weapons of the West. Russia was surprisingly found short on intelligence and information on Ukraine’s dispositions. This was a major shortcoming Russia had to grapple with. One needs to consider all these factors before drawing any lessons or extrapolating the happenings to another context. Let us examine air operations during the Ukraine-Russia war against this backdrop.

In the initial days of the war, an impression was created that the Russian Air Force or VKS, a new branch of its military, was missing in action, even as hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles rained down on Ukraine. The failure of the Hostomel Airport assault using helicopters, beaten back by alert Ukrainian forces, added to the view on the absence of VKS.2 However, it subsequently came to light that the Russian Air Force, far from being missing, was fully involved in the first few days of the war. When the invasion commenced on February 24, 2022, the fleet of Sukhoi Su-34, Su-30SM and Su-35S multi-role fighters flew nearly 140 sorties per day, conducting sweeps, air strikes and counter-air missions.

Air strikes were carried out against hundreds of targets such as long-range radar installations, Air Defence (AD) systems, and storage sites mainly along the routes to be followed by the assault forces. These air strikes were supported by electronic jamming and use of decoys. Ground Based AD (GBAD) systems such as S-300 and S-11, were rendered ineffective by radar jamming, particularly in the North. Missiles were also used to target the GBAD systems. Ukrainian fighters, mainly the MiG 29s, opposed Russian aircraft and inflicted some losses. But Ukrainians lost many aircraft to the Russian fighters which were technologically more advanced and proved more than a match for the Ukrainian fighters with their longer-range missiles. The initial reporting of the Ukrainian Air Force taking a heavy toll of Russian fighters, turned out to be highly exaggerated. Russian fighters flew Combat Air Patrols (CAP) over Kyiv and other targets. After the initial success of Russian air operations, there was a pause after the third day which continued for some time. After a week of ground operations, it became clear that the land forces moving towards Kyiv were bogged down due to unexpected Ukrainian resistance and logistics issues.3

The failure of the Russian operations along the Kyiv axis resulted in Russia reorganising its forces and focusing on capturing the Donbas region and further South, the city of Mariupol. The ground forces apparently faced communication problems which hampered coordination. It is also reported that the electronic warfare capabilities which degraded the Ukrainian GBAD systems were causing serious interference in the communications between the Russian ground forces4. This Electronic Warfare (EW) capability was, thus, most likely not used by the Russian Air Force any more.

Based on the changed plans, the Russian Air Force switched over from attacking Ukrainian AD assets to supporting the advance of the ground forces. With the VKS turning to support the ground forces, Ukrainian GBAD recovered, recouped and relocated their S-300 and SA-11 systems. With no offensive air action and no interference by Russian EW capabilities, the Ukrainian ground-based AD systems posed a threat to Russian aircraft. This forced intruding Russian aircraft to operate at low levels. The Russian Air Force thus lost control of the Ukrainian airspace which had far reaching consequences. Ground attack aircraft such as the Su-25 faced effective GBAD of radar guided AD missiles alongside numerous types of MANPADS. This resulted in the loss of several ground attack aircraft. In short, the Russian Air Force was unable to establish control over the contested airspace, generally considered the primary task of an air force and was thus unable to operate with impunity and attack enemy ground forces.5

The attack helicopter fleet comprising the Mi-28, Mi-24/35 and Ka-52 were effective in the early stages of the war attacking Ukrainian forces in depth. These helicopters had escorted the Mi-8/Mi-17 fleet carrying troops for the ill-fated assault on Hostomel airport on the day of the invasion. Subsequently, when the Russian Army attacked Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region, the man-portable missiles supplied by the West along with SA-8, took a heavy toll of the attack helicopters. This forced the helicopters to fire from longer distances, adversely impacting their effectiveness.6

Based on the above analysis, it seems that the Russian Air Force did not have in place an overall concept of operations in terms of prioritisation of roles and missions. Its roles were tied to the requirements of the land forces.7 It thus switched missions before achieving the required results, such as when it abandoned the pursuit of air control just as it was succeeding in suppressing Ukrainian AD forces. The Russian Air Force’s approach appeared at best, tentative, maybe on account of the numerous constraints discussed earlier. With overwhelming superiority in numbers and technology,8 the Russian Air Force should have been able to deliver a knockout blow in the initial attacks. It, however, failed to concentrate its forces in time and space and was thus unable to grasp the initiative and dictate terms. In short, the Russian Air Force was unable to establish control over Ukrainian airspace, generally considered the primary mission of a powerful air force. The inability to control airspace over the battlefield, forced Russian aircraft to operate at low levels exposing them to lethal MANPADS such as SA-8, Stinger, Javelin and others. Losses resulted in reducing the exposure and consequently, lesser air attacks and support to ground forces. Attack helicopters operations also suffered adversely on account of their vulnerability resulting in high losses. In addition, Russia was not prepared to counter the drones or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) employed by Ukraine. The Russian Air Force was thus unable to get its act together. It lost the initiative at the start and never attempted to regain it.

Does the above match up with the conclusion that the concept of air superiority is past its sell-by date and focus should now turn to air denial? There are two reasons why such a conclusion is farfetched. Firstly, the conclusion does not flow from the events of Ukraine-Russia war. The Russian Air Force never really pursued the air superiority objective with determination to its logical conclusion of establishing control over contested airspace. It abandoned this mission early on and permitted Ukrainian AD forces to recoup and reorganise themselves. Subsequently, with aid from the West, Ukrainian GBAD systems posed a formidable threat to operations by the Russian Air Force. Its ability to support the ground battle also suffered on account of this initial failure. The Russian experience can hardly be construed to imply that gaining air superiority is no longer a doctrinal imperative. On the contrary, the war proves that lack of air superiority or control of airspace adversely impacts all other air operations.

The second aspect concerns the illogical conclusion that air denial is an appropriate substitute for air superiority. In this regard, one cannot but emphasise the fact that by its very nature, airpower is inherently at its best when employed offensively. To elaborate, air denial does not enable own airpower to exploit its offensive potential. Air denial may inhibit enemy airpower from operating in one’s space, but does not guarantee safe air operations of own aircraft over the battlefield or in the enemy’s interior. Air denial is somewhat of a vague concept, since airspace cannot be sealed and a determined attacker will always get through. Air denial is thus inherently a defensive option suited to the weaker side. It inhibits the full exploitation of airpower’s potential. The Ukraine-Russia war was does not, in any manner, qualify as a paradigm shifting event heralding a changeover from the concept of air superiority to air denial.

The 1973 Yom Kippur war is a classic example of a display of air denial and air superiority. When the Egyptian armour was operating under ground-based air defences, Israeli air power had little effect due to Egypt adopting the air denial strategy. However, the Israeli Air Force after initial losses, started using Electronic Warfare pods and tactical routing to penetrate the ground-based air defences and attack them. Israel quickly regained control of the skies and then the tide of the battle turned and the Egyptian and Syrian forces were literally on the run.9 This instance from history reveals that air denial can be a short term means of fending off a more powerful air force. But if airpower is to play its rightful role, air superiority or at least its lesser cousin, favourable air situation should prevail.

It can be said without hesitation that air operations during Ukraine-Russia war do not in any manner portend the need to abandon the doctrinal imperative of air superiority. Instead, the war brings home the necessity of the concept so as to exploit the offensive potential of one’s airpower. The flexibility, reach and ability to strike the enemy’s centre of gravity can only be realised if airpower has the freedom to exploit these attributes. The need and importance of air superiority retains its exalted position in the theory of airpower. A weaker military may look at the concept of air denial, but that should be thought of only if air superiority or favourable air control is not within one’s grasp. Amen.


  1. Many articles such as: Snehesh Alex Philip, Why the famed Russian Air Force failed in Ukraine and the vital lessons IAF can draw from it, The Print, 15 October, 2022,; and Maximillian K. Bremer and Kelly A. Grieco, Air denial: The dangerous illusion of decisive air superiority, Atlantic Council, 30 August 2022,; and Air denial over supremacy: lessons from Ukraine, Air Force Technology Features, 8 September 2022,
  2. Tim Robinson, Air war over Ukraine-the first days, Royal Aeronautical Society, 2 March 2022,
  3. Dr Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Dr Jack Watling, The Russian Air War and Ukrainian Requirements for Air Defence, RUSI, 7 November 2022,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Tyson Wetzel, Atlantic Council, Ukraine air war examined: A glimpse at the future of air warfare, 30 August 2022,
  8. Cristian Segura, Russia’s aerial warfare in Ukraine falters, 16 October 2022,
  9. Richard Saunders and Mark Souva, Air Superiority and Battlefield Victory, Research and Politics, October-December 2020, 1-8,,air%20superiority%20and%20battlefield%20outcomes
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt PK Mulay

is a Test Pilot and has Commanded an Attack Helicopter Squadron.  He is a PhD in Defence Studies.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

One thought on “Air Superiority or Air Denial: The Truth about the Air War in Ukraine

  1. Air war has come a full circle. Control of the air now firmly rests with the land forces via lethal Ground Based Air Defence Systems.
    Majority of the attrition is being inflicted by missiles and Artillery. Air Powers contribution is just pinpricks. The so called Western Democracies have also fought lopsided asymmetric wars so far. Against a capable adversary they will face the same losses.
    In the Indian context ,tactical Aviation and its assets should now be handed over to Army and Navy in their respective domains. Air Force should concentrate on Air Defence of the National airspace be it against enemy manned aircraft/unmanned UAVs or Missiles. That by itself is a handful and challenging task for the Air Force.The Air Force attitude of wanting its finger in every pie while unable to even undertake its primary task is questionable and self-centric which actually just boils down to turf protection and vacancies for higher ranks .

More Comments Loader Loading Comments