Three real keys:
"I don't know anything about your Zatoka bridge," the retired
Air Force official says, "but so many of the targets I've looked
at are marginal." He says that the Russians are 30 years behind
the U.S. "They aren't prepared for this sustained level of operations,
haven't grasped the importance of effects-based targeting [as opposed
to physical destruction], don't seem to have good BDA [battle damage
assessment] and certainly don't have any kind of dynamic targeting."
"Gain control of the skies to protect American soldiers from air
attack," the officer says. "it is one of the ten commandments.
But it is also essential to degrading enemy capabilities, as we
did in 1991 and in 2003."
"For now, one unintended consequence of the Ukraine air war is
doubly disastrous for Moscow. No one who can afford otherwise will
want to buy Russian weapons in the future. Russia is the world's
second largest arms exporter after the United States, and nothing
about the course of the war augers well for its future in this space.
(Go to the above citation for pictures etc.)
Exclusive: Russia's Air War in Ukraine is a Total Failure, New Data Show
BY WILLIAM M. ARKIN ON 5/25/22 AT 5:00 AM EDT
Current Time 0:00
Russia has fired more missiles in the Ukraine war than have been fired
by any country in any other conflict since World War II—a record,
according to air-warfare experts and new data obtained exclusively by
Newsweek, that has failed to pay off for Moscow.
"Just think of this terrible figure: 2,154 Russian missiles hit our
cities and communities in a little over two months," Ukrainian President
Volodymyr Zelensky said last week. "The Russian bombing of Ukraine does
not cease any day or night."
But the bombing campaign has done little to help win Putin's war,
exposing key lessons about the future of warfare.
Two bridges tell the story: one in North Vietnam 50 years ago and one
from last week, in the Ukrainian beach resort of Zatoka on the Black Sea
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Russia's Air War in Ukraine
A Ukrainian soldier examines a fragment of a Russian Air Force Su-25 jet
after a recent battle at the village of Kolonshchyna, Ukraine, Thursday,
April 21, 2022. Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the leaders of the
Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states at the
Kremlin in Moscow on May 16, 2022.
EFREM LUKATSKY/AP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV/GETTY
Control of the Skies
Russia's dubious world record in accumulating missile strikes comes as
President Zelensky announced that his country destroyed their 200th
Russian airplane, an embarrassing result for an air force that is 15
times larger than that of Ukraine.
The global commentary on this milestone lauded Ukraine's defenders while
noting Russia's failure to take advantage of its overwhelming numerical
advantage, Moscow's misstep in not establishing air superiority in the
skies over Ukraine, and Russia's dwindling supply of precision-guided
In the face of all of this, Russia retaliated on Sunday by announcing
that it had destroyed 165 Ukrainian aircraft since the beginning of its
"special military operation." That would be almost three times the
number of flyable fighter jets that Ukraine even possesses.
"The Russian Air Force (VKS) still shows no sign of running a campaign
to gain air superiority," says retired British Air Marshal Edward Stringer.
"Campaign" in this context means a methodical effort to destroy
Ukraine's air defenses—particularly the early warning and communications
paths that are needed to cue surface-to-air missiles and to enable
defenders to know when and from where planes are coming.
The United States set the gold standard for such a campaign in the first
Gulf War, "a well-worn tactical process," Stringer says, that it is
assumed to be essential in any war.
"Blind the enemy, disrupt their ability to talk, shoot down their
fighters, disable their airfields, blunt their SAMs [surface-to-air
missiles] on the ground," says a senior retired U.S. Air Force general
who oversaw American air wars in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
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"Gain control of the skies to protect American soldiers from air
attack," the officer says. "it is one of the ten commandments. But it is
also essential to degrading enemy capabilities, as we did in 1991 and in
"Yes the army took the spoils [in Iraq]," says the officer, who
requested anonymity in order to discuss operational issues. "But it
never could have done so were it not for airpower paving the way."
Russia's failure to follow this path has become a significant feature of
the Ukraine war—one that confuses Western observers. After 48 hours of
attacks on Ukrainian air defenses in the opening salvo of the war,
Moscow seemed to give up on pursuing this American war prerequisite. The
Russians attacked airfields and air defense sites on the first two days
but mostly didn't follow-up. Ukraine's small air force was largely
grounded, but Kyiv was given an opportunity to adjust, especially in its
dispersal of air defense missiles, in particular shoulder-fired ones.
This created what Stringer calls "poor man's air superiority."
Then, threatened by Ukrainian SAMs, Russia flew fewer and fewer bombing
aircraft beyond its own army's front lines, just over 10 percent of the
total number of sorties flown, according to U.S. intelligence numbers
examined by Newsweek. Long-range strikes on so-called "strategic
targets" continued, but they were undertaken by a combination of air,
sea, and ground-launched missiles. The attacking fighters and bombers,
supplemented by ground launchers and ships and submarines also firing
missiles, all delivered their weapons while never entering Ukrainian air
In other words, Russia did adjust. It found a way to hit the target. Or
Tale of Two Bridges
Sixty kilometers south of Odesa on the Black Sea coast lies the sleepy
beach resort of Zatoka, spreading out on two narrow spits of land that
form the mouth of the Dniester river, Europe's third longest river
outside of Russia. The bridge connects Odesa with a region known as
Budjak, the southern part of historical Bessarabia, an Ottoman outpost
that was acceded to Russia in 1812. With a population of 600,000, Budjak
is the country's southern gateway to Romania, accessible only over the
Zatoka bridge. (A second crossing, 30 miles to the north, crosses the
international border into Transnistrian territory in Moldova, with all
of the restrictions and dangers associated.)
Connecting the two spits at the mouth of the Dniester estuary is a
distinct 500-foot long rail and road bridge, a vertical lift iron
monstrosity built by the Soviet Union in 1955. The center is lifted as
many as five times a day to allow river traffic to pass in and out of
the Black Sea.
Russia took its first shot at the Zatoka bridge on March 3, the eighth
day of the war, attacking a nearby military installation. It was the
first documented use of air-delivered cluster bombs in the war, and
Ukraine reported that it had shot down the attacking Russian plane, the
pilot ejecting to save himself. On March 15, twelve days later, Russia
returned to Zatoka, this time with warships opening fire with ship-based
artillery on it and targets in three other nearby coastal towns.
The two attacks on Zatoka, 60 km (37 miles) south of Odesa, many
commentators said, augured possible preparations for an amphibious
landing. But the truth was simpler: the route to Romania provided a
transit corridor for cargo no longer able to use Black Sea ports that
once handled 70 percent of Ukraine's trade.
ukraine russia invasion military refugees casualties
The effort to destroy the Zatoka bridge revealed Moscow's weaknesses.
On April 26, on day 62 of the war, Russian returned at 12:35 p.m., this
time attacking the bridge itself with three cruise missiles. According
to U.S. intelligence, one missile technically failed and landed in the
water. A second missed the target; a third hit the eastern edge of the
span, causing minor damage. The next morning at 6:45 a.m. the Russians
were back, again with a cruise missile attack. Odesa region military
spokesman Serhii Bratchuk declared the bridge destroyed. Moscow said the
attack was part of another of its "campaigns," this time to destroy
railroad chokepoints and airfields that were being used bring western
arms into Ukraine. The day after, traffic was restored.
On May 3, Russia returned to the bridge, again launching three cruise
missiles. "The bridge is completely destroyed and cannot be operated,"
Bratchuk stated. Russia had just announced that it was seeking to take
all of southern Ukraine, including Odesa region, putting a new spin on
the reason for the third direct strike. A week later, on May 10, they
were back. "The enemy continues attacks on the already damaged bridge
across the Dniester estuary," said Ukrainian Operational Command South.
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Russia's eight attacks make the Zatoka bridge one of the most frequently
attacked fixed targets. By the time it was cut, the initial reason for
the effort had been forgotten.
On May 16, two more cruise missiles reached the Zatoka bridge, a third
failing to launch and jettisoned into the sea, according to U.S.
intelligence. Ukrainian authorities complained that the road and rail
connection had been out of operation for more than two weeks. "The
bridge is so damaged that repairs will take a lot of time and money,"
Operational Command South said.
The Russian effort to destroy the Zatoka bridge harkens back to an
earlier U.S. struggle to destroy the Thanh Hoa bridge in North Vietnam,
70 miles south of Hanoi. Renovated in 1964, the 540-foot-long reinforced
highway and railroad bridge over the Song Ma river was declared target
number 14 by the Joint Chiefs because of the traffic it sustained. The
North knew it, and the bridge was defended by multiple air defense
units, backed up by ancient MiG-17 fighters positioned to thwart off
On April 3, 1965, at the beginning of the Rolling Thunder campaign, the
U.S. Air Force made its first run on the target, flying a total of 67
fighters and interceptors. The attacking planes mostly carried gravity
("dumb") bombs, but they also fired steerable Bullpup missiles for a
total of an eye-popping 152 weapons. The vast majority of the weapons
missed the bridge and those that did hit it caused negligible damage.
The next day a similar mission with a similar number of weapons was
little more successful: a small number of the 750-lb. dumb bombs damaged
the structure. The bridge, however, did not fall.
Over the next three years, Air Force and Navy fighters flying from
aircraft carriers tried to cut the hardy Thanh Hoa bridge, but it
endured. Each time the American bombers caused damage, the North
Vietnamese made repairs and put the bridge back into action. The effort
was suspended in 1968 when the U.S. declared a bombing halt in the
North. Finally, in May 1972, specially equipped Air Force F-4 Phantom
fighters dropped 26 first generation Paveway laser-guided bombs on the
bridge, disabling the western span. On October 6, 1972, the final strike
was undertaken—four Navy aircraft delivering Walleye guided missiles
finally managed to cut the bridge altogether.
For the United States, the saga of the Than Hoa bridge became the story
of modern air warfare. The U.S. did not possess an accurate enough
weapon with a large enough explosive yield to destroy priority targets.
As a result of the frustrating effort to destroy the bridge, a series of
new weapons with more explosives and better guidance were developed.
"Single-shot kill" became the new mantra. By Desert Storm, seven percent
of the bombs dropped were precision-guided (compared to less than one
percent in Vietnam). By the air war over Kosovo in 1999, new (and cheap)
satellite-guided bombs accounted for 35 percent of weapons used. By Iraq
in 2003, nearly 70 percent of the munitions dropped were guided.
The Age of Missiles
Long-range cruise missiles were also developed parallel with smart
bombs, becoming the modern day weapon of choice for sensitive American
attacks, even as the cost (at over $1 million per missile) has limited
their use. Over 32 years, some 2,300 Tomahawks have been used in combat,
from punishing attacks on Saddam Hussein to "wag the dog" strikes in the
former Yugoslavia to the 2018 attack on Syrian chemical weapons facilities.
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That's about how many Russian missiles have been used in 85 days of
strikes (2,275 missiles have been successfully launched as of May 23),
an expensive and dubious undertaking for Moscow. Whether Russia's
vulnerability to Ukrainian air defenses is responsible for Moscow's
reliance on these (similarly expensive) long-range missiles, or it is
more in the nature of Russian culture to use flying artillery, is still
open to question.
The Russian air force is largely an adjunct to the ground forces,
supporting ground commanders in their missions, rather than an
independent entity with a doctrine and strategy of supporting larger war
goals outside the battlefield. Russia does have a bombing force, one
that goes out beyond the battlefield to strike "strategic"
targets—headquarters and military bases, industrial capabilities, oil
and electricity, and the transportation grid—but it has failed to
develop a relatively low-cost weapon (similar to the U.S.
satellite-guided bomb) that it can use in abundance to accurate strike
at such targets.
Though Russia has dropped dumb bombs in Ukraine, and has fired some
laser-guided munitions, the preponderance of what it has fired beyond
the battlefield are missiles. Iskander missiles (630 of them) have been
launched from the ground in Belarus and Russia—both ballistic and cruise
missile varieties. Ships and submarines have launched Kalibr cruise
missiles (the Russian equivalent of the Tomahawk). Coastal anti-ship
batteries in Crimea have fired Onyx shore-to-ship missiles against a
handful of targets. In the air, tactical fighters and medium and heavy
bombers have delivered a hodge podge of air-to-surface missiles—the
Kh-22/32, the Kh-55/555, the Kh-59, and the Kh-101. A dozen Kinzhal
hypersonic aero-ballistic missiles have been fired.
There have been some range constraints in hitting certain western
Ukrainian targets, and there have been inventory problems that have
forced shifts from one weapon to another, but overall the biggest
problem Russia has faced is that they are not doing very well.
U.S. Sends Heavy Weapons to Ukraine After Putin Ally Threatens World
"If you look at the launches overall, we are talking well under half of
all Russian missiles hitting their aim points," says a senior Defense
Intelligence Agency official who is working on the war. The official,
granted anonymity to discuss sensitive information, says that two to
three out of every ten missiles fired fail to launch or fizzle during
its flight. Two more have technical problems such as not fusing properly
even if they fly to their intended range. Two to three more miss their
aim-points even when they reach their intended target.
"Right now, we're holding Russian missile success at just below 40
percent," the DIA official says.
Ukraine says that it has shot down 110 Russian cruise missiles, almost
10 percent of those that make it into Ukrainian airspace.
"And then there's the question of what they [the Russians] are hitting,
and what their intentions are even when they do succeed," the DIA
official adds. "For a couple of days it's airfields and air defenses.
Then the emphasis shifts to ammunition depots, then oil, then factories,
then the transportation grid. In each case, we are not seeing effective
attacks and we are seeing little if any follow-on strikes."
A strategic air campaign—in the way the United States conceives it—has
not even been attempted, both officials agree. Like the failure to shut
down Ukraine's air defenses, Russia has made no effort to attack the
electrical power grid or civil communications.
"Shutting Zelensky down," the retired U.S. Air Force official says,
puzzled. "I get it that they might not be able to take out the internet
or the communications grid, but they haven't even tried."
After each strike about a week passed before the Russians revisited the
Zatoka bridge and tried again: that's how long it took to assess the
damage and plan another mission.
"I don't know anything about your Zatoka bridge," the retired Air Force
official says, "but so many of the targets I've looked at are marginal."
He says that the Russians are 30 years behind the U.S. "They aren't
prepared for this sustained level of operations, haven't grasped the
importance of effects-based targeting [as opposed to physical
destruction], don't seem to have good BDA [battle damage assessment] and
certainly don't have any kind of dynamic targeting."
That's why after each strike about a week passed before the Russians
revisited the Zatoka bridge and tried again: that's how long it took to
assess the damage and plan another mission.
Of the 20,000 or so sorties that the Russian air force has flown so far
in the Ukraine war, fewer than 3,000 have entered Ukrainian airspace,
almost all of them over the battlefield. Is Russia afraid of Ukraine's
air defenses, or is this more or more or less intentional, that missiles
were supposed to have been the predominant weapon, and that they can be
fired at long distance?
What Putin's General Was Doing in Ukraine, According to Top Secret Report
The implications for the future are important. Are 1,000-mile range
missiles the cutting edge of future wars, indeed where "single shot"
accuracy and reliability puts virtually every target at risk, where
control of the skies diminishes in importance? And will everyone
eventually master the same capabilities—that is, will a future Chinese
adversary effectively be able to use its even more extensive inventory
of missiles to strike at long distances and achieve desired effects?
For now, one unintended consequence of the Ukraine air war is doubly
disastrous for Moscow. No one who can afford otherwise will want to buy
Russian weapons in the future. Russia is the world's second largest arms
exporter after the United States, and nothing about the course of the
war augers well for its future in this space.
"Here's where 'most' just hasn't been a factor," says the retired U.S.
Air Force officer. "I hope we learn that lesson as well."
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