Exclusive: Russia's Air War in Ukraine is a Total Failure, New Data Show

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 coast.

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 weapons.

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.

"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.

"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 space.

In other words, Russia did adjust. It found a way to hit the target. Or did it?

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.

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The effort to destroy the Zatoka bridge revealed Moscow's weaknesses. odesa journal

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.

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 attackers.

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.

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.

"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."

ukraine russia putin biden
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. ukrainian govt

"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?

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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