Analysis of the progress of the war in Ukraine: "the air and naval front" (second part)

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
07/04/22

After treating in the previous analysis the progress of the air warfare operations conducted up to now by the Russian Air Forces, let us now analyze what has been done up to now by the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces of Ukraine and then move on to naval operations.

Before starting it is necessary to specify some concepts that help us to better understand why it is not wrong to say that the V-VS has conquered the domain of the skies even in a situation in which the Ukrainian Air Force (PSU) and the Air Defense Forces continue. to "exist" and "be active".

As the theoretical manuals of the art of air warfare teach, the control of the skies by one of the contenders is exercised through five degrees of intensity which are defined as follows:

inability to fly: it is the initial phase during which the "attacking" air force does not yet have the slightest control of the enemy airspace and cannot exercise any kind of influence on it;

aerial denial: it is the phase in which the attacker progressively erodes the control of the opponent's airspace preventing him from exercising it as he would like and should;

air parity: it is the phase during which the two contenders fight, so to speak, under "neutral skies" where it is not yet possible to clearly state who has prevailing control;

air superiority: it is the phase in which the attacker completely snatches control of the airspace from the enemy and reaches the full ability to strike at 360 degrees, trusting in a contained reaction of the enemy in the meantime reduced to a bad start;

air supremacy: it is the final phase, in which the air and air defense capabilities of one of the two contenders find themselves in a situation so compromised that they are now totally ineffective.

It goes without saying that each degree of intensity corresponds to its opposite in reverse order; the attacker's initial aerial inability corresponds to an aerial supremacy by the defender and, vice versa, a final aerial supremacy by the attacker corresponds to an aerial inability by the defender.

As is well known to all, after the very first days of the war, Moscow announced that it had achieved complete "air superiority" in the Ukrainian skies, although not yet "air supremacy". What does all this mean in practical terms for the Russians and the Ukrainians? Put simply, it means that the V-VS is largely, if not fully, capable of exercising control of the Ukrainian skies both above the front line and in depth and conducting war operations without the PSU being able to obstruct them. in a tangible way.

A consequence of all of this is that the PSU has little chance of inflicting casualties on the V-VS as it has little chance of supporting the other branches of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Security Forces engaged in the war. However, it is also very important to note that the above does NOT mean that ALL aircraft and anti-aircraft defense systems in Ukraine have been destroyed.

Exactly as seen in the past in the case of the now forgotten Kosovo War, the Ukrainians, just like the Serbs, are carrying out an intelligent resistance campaign by making the best possible use of the assets at their disposal while demonstrating dedication and spirit of sacrifice in a situation which, unfortunately for them, sees them at a clear disadvantage. Having said that, it must first be noted that the Ukrainians have nothing comparable to the Beriev A-50s. Mainstay already mentioned in the previous analysis and this deprives them of an important “power multiplier”. Likewise, they are devoid of ELINT and EW aircraft and this makes the process of acquiring intelligence data even more problematic, which only the massive use of the same platforms by NATO and Sweden in favor of Ukraine has made it possible to at least partially rebalance. In any case, even if Ukraine had AWACS, ELINT and EW aircraft at its disposal, due to their size and reduced speed they would have zero chance of surviving in an air environment literally “infested” with Russian aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles.

As per the textbook, the Ukrainians have compensated for this deficiency with the use of ground-based radars but this too has created problems and, in the light of the sustained suppression of enemy anti-aircraft defenses (SEAD / DEAD) by the Russian side, today they are forced to use their surviving radars sparingly (one or two minutes at most consecutively) to avoid their detection and destruction. Such a claim may raise more than one eyebrow, however skeptics must remember that both discovery and targeting radars (no matter whether they belong to the old or the new generations) are very powerful systems that emit a large amount of electromagnetic energy. In contemporary battlefields they are easily identifiable by modern sensors installed on various types of ELINT platforms of all types that the Russians also have at their disposal.

The continued use of radar systems in a modern conventional warfare situation such as the Russian-Ukrainian War is comparable to lighting a flashlight in the middle of a forest at night. At this juncture, the one who holds the flashlight can only see what is illuminated by the flashlight in front of him, while all the rest of the forest, immersed in darkness, can see the one who holds the flashlight in his hand because of the beam. of light that it emits. Hence, the radar, from an instrument capable of providing an important advantage, suddenly turns into a double-edged sword.

The alternative to this situation is to have a massive array of integrated systems available to each other that guarantee 360-degree protection and that can exchange information quickly and effectively so that they can respond in unison, even if they are not involved. of the components of an orchestra (this set of anti-aircraft systems organized to operate in an integrated way is called "IADS" - Integrated Air Defense Systems).

As already mentioned over and over again in the course of previous analyzes, on the eve of the Russian invasion, Ukraine was equipped with a large number of anti-aircraft defense systems operated by both the Ground Forces and the Air Force, however they were not integrated into a coherent IADS and failed to respond in a unified and harmonious manner to the Russian air offensive which completely disrupted them in the first days of the war.

Even if this state of affairs is denied by the main media, the amount of data available after more than a month of war is such that this state of affairs is no longer simply ignorable and confirms what has already been said and reiterated: the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses they were completely "broken through" by the Russians. This does not mean, however, that they have all been defeated in a definitive way or that they cannot still do harm if used intelligently.

As mentioned in the first installment of this series of analyzes, when I described the changes in tactics of the Russians and Ukrainians in the context of the SEAD / DEAD operations, the Ukrainians showed ingenuity and changed tactics. Instead of opposing the enemies in an "active" way, they have decided to use the radars in a modality that we could define "intermittent", turning them on for short periods of time and then turning them off and changing their position and, if possible, also the frequencies. This has made it possible to save a certain number of batteries but, in return, means that the Ukrainians now have a "very faded picture" of the progress of the Russian air operations. To remedy this inconvenience, the senior leaders of the Armed Forces have decided to create and equip in record time a network of "spotters", a sort of sentinels who have the task of constantly watching the sky and warning of the arrival of Russian air formations. Even the "spotters", however, are not "infallible" and in the past weeks they have had serious problems in fulfilling their duty due to the meteorological conditions characterized by the prevalence of fog and low clouds.

As also emerged from the testimonies of several Ukrainian pilots contacted by some important Western media and beyond, the Ukrainian Air Forces as well as the Army Aviation managed to save at least part of their tactical aircraft by dispersing them on some secondary bases, on dirt tracks or on motorway sections suitable for aerial operations.

Different speech, however, with regard to transport aircraft, which were evacuated shortly before the outbreak of hostilities. The transport planes of the Ukrainian Air Force, together with the assets belonging to the various Ukrainian airlines (especially the cargo ones) that were abroad at the time of the Russian invasion, were subsequently concentrated in Poland to form a composite " Air Transport Force in Exile ”which is very active in the transfer of both armaments and volunteers to the war fronts.

As for the aircraft that remained at home, the main problems encountered by the Kiev aircraft are essentially two: the maintenance and communication.

The problem of maintenance apparently it would seem of second order given that, in the popular vulgate, the Mig and the Sukhoi are airplanes also designed to be able to operate from dirt tracks or even on meadows, if necessary, unlike the much more “delicate” western airplanes. This is undoubtedly true, however it must also be pointed out that operating from "semi-prepared" runways (as they are defined in military jargon) is not a joke at all and, on the contrary, has a very negative impact on the durability and solidity of aircraft cells. Secondly, ensuring the necessary maintenance in “field” conditions is no joke at all. First of all, it is necessary to have a whole series of mechanical equipment and tools that wear out "in the field" much faster than the aircraft themselves. Furthermore, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee that general "cleanliness" which is a fundamental and necessary prerequisite for making aircraft work at its best and avoiding accidents.

Another problem facing Ukrainians, which will become more and more serious as the war continues, is fuel shortages. For several weeks in fact, the Russians have considered the elimination of enemy fuel deposits as a strategic priority, so much so that today the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their entirety, and the Air Force in particular, are beginning to suffer from a serious lack of fuel suitable for their needs. One might then be tempted to use so-called "polluted" and non-regulatory fuels but this choice would very soon lead to the need for a complete removal and replacement of the engines, something that, nowadays, Ukraine cannot even remotely allow. Not only that, with the destruction of the only plants suitable for the production of spare parts and maintenance of aircraft, there is the risk that, very soon, the courageous Ukrainian pilots will have to face the dramatic choice of having to fly on potentially aircraft. "Not suitable for flight". It is true that in a situation of war for national survival in which it is lawful to fight with whatever is available, such problems turn out to be trifles.

Still on the issue of maintenance, it is also necessary to consider air-to-air missiles. Although it is true that aircraft of Soviet origin are designed on purpose to "be treated badly" and to be able to operate from runways "on the verge of human", this is not true at all for their war load consisting of precious air-to-air missiles, in particular the R-27s which from this point of view are famous for being extremely delicate.

Soviet-made air-to-air missiles are very easily damaged if subjected to excessive vibration when the aircraft to which they are attached pylons take off and land. This is why operating from semi-prepared runways represents the easiest way for Ukrainians to ruin their entire supply of “air bullets”, the repair of which would then open up further problems. For this reason, the air-to-air missiles supplied to the Ukrainian Air Force have earned the nickname of "once and for all".

Coming now to the communication, it is easy to understand that, if it is true that at least part of the aircraft were saved from the initial devastating Russian attack by dispersing them over the territory, it cannot be said that the same was true for the bases and other support infrastructures, including the command and control centers which have been repeatedly hit. This also makes communications between the various aircraft formations a very complicated and potentially very dangerous business whenever the Russians manage to intercept the flows of information. That's why, often times Ukrainian pilots bypass the problem by simply patrolling a certain area assigned to them in complete radio silence. However, this fact greatly reduces the usefulness and operational flexibility of their CAPs (armed air patrol missions).

The communications problem particularly affects the Air Force Headquarters with the result that it requires a large amount of time to have a sufficiently defined picture of the situation and prepare the attack missions of the Su-24 and Su-25 aircraft against the Russian armored columns. It is also true that such missions too often take place in a context of minimal intelligence on the arrangement of enemy air and anti-aircraft defenses, with the result that the aforementioned Ukrainian aircraft have to contend with the full power of Moscow's fighter aircraft such as the Su-27, the Su-30s and Su-35s as well as ground-based anti-aircraft defenses and, consequently, their losses were serious enough to convince the Kiev strategists to allocate an increasing number of Mig-29s to attack missions that would usually be used instead for air defense tasks. Kiev uses its Su-27s exclusively for air defense tasks along with most of the Mig-29s.

As mentioned in the past, Ukrainians suffer from being equipped with aircraft equipped with non-state-of-the-art electronic equipment and missiles. This, plus the lack of AWACS aircraft and other "power multipliers" puts them at a total disadvantage when forced to go head to head with the Russians.

As soon as Ukrainian pilots take off and gain sufficient altitude, they are instantly spotted by the A-50s Mainstay (photo) or from ground-based enemy radars that proceed instantly to hijack even numerous formations against them (we are talking about 12 planes per shot) of Su-27SM, Su-30 or Su-35 (the latter particularly feared by pilots of Kiev).

Thanks to the numerical and technological advantage, the Russians do not even try to engage the Ukrainians in a maneuvered combat but, in order not to give them even a chance, they attack them from a distance using their R-27 missiles of the latest versions and R-77. The latter in particular, considered a sort of Russian response to the American AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, is characterized by an estimated range between 80 and 193 kilometers depending on the version and is armed with an actively guided self-searching warhead (at least in the phase terminal), becoming a true fire-and-forget weapon in Western air warfare terminology. At the beginning of the conflict, the Ukrainians tried to remedy the problem by keeping the radars of their aircraft off, getting as close as possible to the Russian aircraft at low altitudes and then "getting up" at the last moment and engaging them with their R-27ET missiles ( version equipped with a head characterized by an infrared guide system) aimed using the electro-optical aiming systems mounted on the Mig-29 and Su-27. The problem is that the seeker warhead of the R-27ETs is out of date (the missiles date back to the early 80s) and the electro-optical targeting systems of the Ukrainian Mig-29s and Su-27s are not as up to date as those of their Russian counterparts.

Since the start of the conflict, Ukrainian fighter jets have managed to record several confirmed killings of Russian helicopters so far, but there is still no clear evidence that they have managed to shoot down any fixed-wing aircraft of the V-VS, having on the contrary suffered several bloody lessons.

The last major problem Ukrainian pilots have to deal with is Russian anti-aircraft, both missile and conventional. The loss, on February 25, of Aleksandr Yakovlevich Oksanchenko (photo), perhaps the most experienced PSU driver, caused a great impression. At the controls of a Su-27, Oksanchenko (codename: "Gray Wolf") ended his career and his earthly parable while defending the skies located above the capital, disintegrated by a missile fired from an S-400 battery. located 125 kilometers away, in Belarusian territory.

After the death of their most famous "top gun", his comrades in arms immediately changed their operational assets by flying at very low altitudes to avoid Russian radars (both those of the missile batteries and those of the A-50s) but in this way they have become vulnerable even to small arms fire from the ground.

It is very difficult to say with certainty how many fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft are still in the availability of the Air Force and the Army Aviation also because, according to the testimonies given by the Ukrainian pilots themselves to various Western press organs: "Not a day goes by that Ukraine does not lose some aerial assets and today the Armed Forces have more pilots than aircraft".

What is certain is that while the V-VS now carries out between 300 and 500 sorties per day for each of the war fronts, the PSU has increasingly adopted the posture of "strength to power" (force in being), focusing on the salvation and preservation as much as possible of its assets in view of a final confrontation, for the time being, with the V-VS when Ukraine will find itself fighting the decisive battle for the fate of the war. For the moment, the Ukrainians carry out about 20-30 sorties a day and leave the task of countering the enemy's offensive above all to the Air Defense Forces.

In the previous analysis we had already talked about the progress of the SEAD / DEAD campaign and how this deadly tussle between the Ukrainian missile batteries on the one hand and the Russian aircraft on the other has so far gone through the whole conflict.

Both the Ukrainians and the Russians have shown flexibility and capacity for innovation in conducting a type of war that, as all the military knows, is one of the most difficult.

At the time of writing it seems that, net of conventional anti-aircraft, Ukraine is still in possession of 30% of the missile batteries that were at its disposal at the beginning of the hostilities and that they are still very active especially in intercepting missiles. cruise ships (this tactic borrowed from the Serbs during the Kosovo War). Moreover, it seems that the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses are in the process of being reinforced by an important number of batteries of the same systems already supplied that the United States has promised to supply.

The sources from which the United States has obtained are essentially three:

- their personal "treasure" of missile batteries of Soviet and post-Soviet origin obtained over the last few decades in the most disparate situations;

- the arsenals of ground-to-air systems of Soviet origin in service with their NATO allies ex-Warsaw Pact but not only (for example Greece);

- additional batteries bought in a hurry from other countries (especially Egypt) in exchange for counterparts.

This aid should represent a real "godsend" for the Kiev anti-aircraft and will allow the Ukrainians to continue fighting under the umbrella of a fairly effective anti-aircraft defense.

However, the radiograph of Ukrainian air operations would not be complete without mentioning the contribution that UAV and UCAV have so far provided for the protection of the country. In particular the Ukrainians are making the best possible use of the Baykar UAVs / UCAVs Bayraktar tb2, whose reputation has been further cemented, even if the use of a type of UAV alone will hardly be enough to change the tide of a war.

Let us now close this second analysis by talking about naval operations.

Since the first stages of the war, the naval front has been characterized by complete superiority on the Russian side. The forces of the Black Sea Fleet, heavily reinforced by several vessels detached for the occasion from the Northern Fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Caspian Flotilla, the Mediterranean Squadron and even the Indian Ocean Squadron, and assisted by the local Flotilla of the FSB Border Troops, attacked the naval and coastal infrastructures of Ukraine, supported the action of the ground forces of the First and Second Front, imposed a total blockage of naval commercial traffic to and from Ukraine ( effectively cutting it out of international markets) and bombed the Ukrainian territory both on the coastal strip and in depth both by means of on-board artillery and embarked cruise missiles.

There are conflicting versions regarding the fact that, on February 26, the Russian naval forces carried out an amphibious landing in the Mariupol area, a first step which then led to the encirclement of that city in the following days. Although this event has been given for certain by a plurality of sources, to date an official photo has yet to emerge that will allow us to disperse once and for all the so-called "fog of war".

Russian ships were also used to act as platforms for infiltration of Spetsnaz and VDV cores transported by helicopter. Although before the start of the conflict the Russians had considerably strengthened the amphibious component until it reached the "fantastic" figure of 13 units (3 class Alligator, 9 class Ropucha - photo - and 1 class Ivan Green), the Russians have not felt, up to now, to try to attack the port of Odessa, which would lead to its natural conclusion the campaign of conquest by the Russian of the southern area of ​​Ukraine, preferring to use their naval units for the transfer of men and vehicles to the various areas of the front.

The Ukrainians have tried to cope with such activities as they could, using naval mines and their own coastal missile batteries and coming to declare that they have sunk as many as 7 enemy naval units. A careful analysis of the videos produced by the Ukrainians, however, shows how the claims of sinking on their part have concerned merchant ships of other countries unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the right time.

It should be noted, for a level playing field, that the Russian air and naval forces have also attacked civilian ships several times to send the unequivocal message that no one would have to risk supplying Ukraine from the sea anymore.

Russian naval operations suffered two setbacks, the second more serious than the first, on the 22nd and 24th of March respectively.

On the first date, the Ukrainian forces in defense of the besieged city of Mariupol fired two 9M113 anti-tank missiles Konkurs against Russian ships bombarding the city in support of the advance of the siege forces. One of the two missiles hit a Project 03160 “Raptor” patrol ship, damaging it and forcing it to be towed to port for repairs.

On the second date, Russian ships anchored in the port of Berdiansk were the subject of the outbreak of a catastrophic fire that led to the sinking of the BDK-65 Saratov (photo), class amphibious ship Alligator as well as the damage, actually slight, to the other two amphibious ships present on the dock that day, the BDK-64 Caesar Kunikov and the BDK-46 Novocherkassk, both belonging to the class Ropucha.

The warring parties immediately gave two different versions of what happened. According to the Ukrainians, the ship was hit by their 9K79 OTR-21 ballistic missile Tochka which caused the ammunition packed on board to explode. According to the Russians, however, the ship was hit by its debris Tochka Ukrainian intercepted by their ballistic anti-missile systems which then triggered the well-known chain reaction.

On closer inspection, however, both the Ukrainian and the Russian versions are not satisfactory. Viewing and analyzing the videos of the entire event in detail, we first notice that there is no detonation compatible with the attack by a ballistic missile. Secondly, in the sky there are no trails of any kind that denote even an attempted interception. Third, in the area of ​​the city no damage has been reported to structures and people compatible with the falling from the sky of fragments of ballistic missiles (which can be really large and demolish entire buildings, as the Israelis did in 1991!). Lastly, the BDK-65 Saratov does not "explode" as one would expect from a ship loaded with ammunition (otherwise the effect would have been similar to that of the Beirut explosion of 4 August 2020) but, on the contrary, it is progressively "consumed" in a sort of immense "Funeral pyre".

In light of these and other elements, the author of the present analysis believes that the ship in question carried not ammunition but a large amount of fuel and that the origin of the fire is instead to be found in the bad discipline of the troops who, probably, to make loading and unloading operations faster, they arranged the load without taking into account the most elementary safety rules. To those who believe that this explanation may seem exaggerated, it would be enough to remember that even the most powerful navy in the world, the US Navy, has been plagued by similar events that earned the front pages of all newspapers and which in some cases led to the loss of entire naval units. Some famous examples:

- on October 26, 1966, the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany it was the subject of a fire while it was engaged in the Vietnam War, the ship was saved but 44 died and 156 were wounded;

- on July 29, 1967, the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal it was struck by one of the worst catastrophes ever to a large military ship while it was also engaged in the Vietnam War. Also in this case the ship was saved but there were 134 dead and 161 wounded, in addition 21 planes were lost in the stake and another 40 were damaged;

- on January 14, 1969, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise it was in turn hit by a fire like the previous two while it was also on a mission in the Vietnam War. Also in this case the ship was saved but 34 dead and 314 wounded were recorded, moreover 15 planes were destroyed;

- On May 23, 2012, a fire broke out aboard the USS submarine Miami while anchored at the Portsmouth shipyards. The fire damaged the submarine in such a way that it was later decided to dismantle it;

- on July 12, 2020, another catastrophic arson fire broke out aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard which was also wrapped in a huge "funeral pyre" and was declared lost, just like today the BDK-65 Saratov.

The loss of one of the 13 amphibious ships allocated to the Black Sea Fleet at the beginning of the war undoubtedly dealt a bad blow to the Russians, however it does not represent an event that would completely disrupt the course of war operations given that naval domination along the coasts of Ukraine it remains firmly in the hands of Moscow.

(Go on)

Analysis of the progress of the war in Ukraine: "the air and naval front" (first part)

Photo: Russian Fed MoD / progress.gov.ua / US Air Force / Mil.gov.ua / YouTube