Ukraine and Laying a Foundation for the Future: The Airpower Transition

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the NATO nations have largely followed a “new weapon of the month club” approach. It often feels like leadership in Washington, London and elsewhere puts up a good face about having a strategic plan, then quickly capitulates when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes a full-court press to the public.

The result: a steady flow of land-based weapons going to Ukraine with no strings attached. And while there are good reasons to support Ukraine — they are, without question, the victim in this war — this situation is becoming untenable. Simply sending more armored vehicles to Ukraine without a clear calculus behind it will only mean pushing Ukrainian forces into a death trap of a war of attrition, with a country with 11 time zones and a historical willingness to throw as many bodies at a problem as possible.

It’s time the NATO nations remember that if they are supplying the weapons, they should have a political say in what happens with Ukraine’s future. And it’s time for them to realize a path forward for ending the conflict. We need war termination, and we need airpower as a way to enhance Ukrainian capabilities and to inform the Russians that Ukraine will never be theirs.

Our proposal: the West should train Ukrainian pilots on modern aircraft and then provide them with enough jets and airborne ISR assets that they can control their own airspace.

And in exchange, Zelenskyy should be told to accept a new boundary with Russia and call a truce.

We know Ukraine has stated it will never accept the lost territory Russia has claimed over the last year. In fact, Ukrainian leaders say, they will not only take those back but then also push into the Donbas. In our estimation, that is simply not realistic; a much more likely outcome is a continued, unending war of attrition with hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides thrown into a meat grinder. Meanwhile, the risk of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin deciding to pull the nuclear option hovers over everything — the single action that must be avoided at all costs.

It is not in the interests of other nations to keep that nuclear threat in play, nor to face the continued humanitarian and economic disaster that the war has created. And these nations are not helpless. As Matthew Paris argued recently in The London Times:

“We do understand, of course, that our weaponry is meant for defence, not attack — but in the heat and uncertainty of war the boundary between those two ideas is hazy indeed. We cannot allow an impression to arise that we in the West are just there to supply free weaponry. We are paying the piper here. The tune is not for Zelensky alone to choose.”

NATO leaders should make it clear they will not provide more weapons if Zelenskyy will not work towards an agreement with Russia that allows them to keep some of the territory they have claimed. It’s not fair or just that Ukraine loses this territory, but it is realistic that it has to happen.

But we will not leave Kyiv defenseless long-term. The other side of this deal is the proliferation of Ukrainian air power. We need to prepare for the defense of Ukraine after the war, even as that war still rages, and airpower is the only means to do so.

The Russians need to understand that the ability of the Ukrainians to conduct effective operations against their aggression will only go up as the Ukrainians — already trained by the California Air National Guard in the Western way of air-enabled ground maneuver operations — shift to modern airpower to be able to defend themselves in the future.

The introduction of airpower is not simply part of the “new weapon a month club” approach. It is about laying the foundation for deterrence in the future and laying down a marker to Moscow that the United States or whatever Western powers provide aircraft is doing so to end the war, not bleed the Ukrainians to death, or let the wars threaten World War III until we are in it.

Understanding why building Ukrainian airpower represents a major shift and transition towards the future is underscored by our recent discussion of the airpower option with our friend and colleague Dave Deptula of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies.

Deptula underscored that their more than 20 years of partnership with the California Air National Guard has given the Ukrainians an understanding of the multi-role use of combat aircraft and added that the Ukrainians are in fact much more knowledgeable and agile in the use of airpower than might be realized.

Deptula made it clear that “Airpower is critical to determining the fate of Ukraine—although the continued determination to provide ground equipment for a ground war of attrition by the four-star Army general who is the Secretary of Defense, and the four-star Army general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—seems to not recognize that fact.”

Time is a factor here.

Brian J. Morra, author and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, has warned, “There is no time to waste.  If Russian Air Force Commander General Surovikin has the authority from General Staff Chief Gerasimov to shape Russian air operations in 2023, it will be difficult for Ukraine to counter him with their current aviation assets.  It’s important to note that Surovikin shifted the air campaign dramatically when he took overall theater command in October 2022.  Up to that point, the Russian Air Force was losing far too many aircraft flying close air support missions.

“So, he changed the emphasis to long-range strikes with cruise missiles, ASMs, and ballistic missiles.  Surovikin also moved bombers from two bases in Western Russia after the Ukrainians struck the facilities in late 2022.  Russian bombers continue to strike Ukraine, but now they are launching their missiles from deep within Russia, staging from distant bases where the Ukrainians can’t get at them.

“The Russian Air Force pilots are not the bumblers the western press has made them out to be. They were employed poorly until Surovikin’s changes, but they have performed well under duress. I think we’ll see the Russian Air Force perform even better in 2023.”

In other words, there is a short window to work the airpower dimension as part of shaping an American and perhaps Western strategy towards the war.

If one combines the use of air defense systems with the provision of new combat aircraft and appropriate strike systems, the Ukrainians could craft a system of defensible airbases as well. This would be crucial to their future defense after the war, and crucial in terminating the war now.

The USAF is in the throes of reducing its inventory of combat air in the hopes of building up new capabilities. A Ukrainian Air Force could be built from this stockpile alone. Other NATO nations can clearly contribute, but the need is to have cohesive airpower for defense of the Ukrainian territory.

As Deptula suggested with such aid Ukraine could be in a much better position to defend themselves or connect with Western futures in the future deterrent structure as well.

Deptula made several points concerning the approach of the Russians to airpower which suggested the Ukrainians could build a significant advantage by making their own airpower transition.

“First, Russian air doctrine is very different from Western approaches. If one goes back to the history of Russian air doctrine, they view the role of airpower only to provide what is in effect flying artillery support their ground forces. They do not view it as operating as an integrated maneuver force.

“Second, the Russian Air Force leadership is not first rate, and they are not motivated by a priority on operational effectiveness.

“Third, the Russian Air Force is not well trained at a level of effectiveness to which Western Air Forces training with the Ukrainians can provide.

“Fourth, the Russian equipment is not as good as it has been cracked up to be.

“Fifth, the Ukrainians have been very effective in their uses of surface to air missile systems and their aircraft both with their legacy missiles and the short-range air defense systems they have been provided by the West.”

We should help create this reality only by positioning the West for war termination. We have to be clear and honest about what American objectives are in this conflict: they are not to support an endless war.

The current approach fuels an “long” ground war of attrition. The Russians need to face the reality of a Ukrainian Airforce equipped from USAF and NATO air forces. The Russians must be persuaded to negotiate a termination to the conflict. The Ukrainians must be so equipped that they are never invaded again.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on February 17, 2023.

See also the following:

Airpower When Directly Faced with the Authoritarian Powers: The International Fighter Conference 2019