The air war over Ukraine appears to have entered a new phase, with the Russian air force boosting the number of flights it makes per day by 50 percent and deploying an increasing array of Russian drones and munitions over the battlefield, according to U.S. defense officials and military analysts.
The missiles have forced Russia to adjust its aviation operations, but have not stopped them, analysts said. On Monday, a senior U.S. defense official said Russia had flown about 300 sorties in the previous 24 hours, up from an average of about 200 per day earlier in the war.
“It’s very likely that the Russian Aerospace Forces have modified how they’re conducting operations,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a Virginia-based think tank. “There is either attrition in a significant percentage of the Ukrainian air defenses, or they’re being a lot more careful about how they’re carrying out these sorties.”
The increase in Russian flights can likely be attributed to several factors, analysts said.
While there are gaps in information, it appears that Ukraine has concentrated the high-power air defenses it has in a handful of locations, including the capital, Kyiv, and the second-largest city, Kharkiv, Kofman said. That has left Russia more free to carry out an increasing number of airstrikes around the southern port city of Mariupol, where pitched urban combat is ongoing and Russia has its sights set on what would be its first strategic victory in the war.
“You haven’t seen a lot of Russian aircraft shot down around Mariupol, but you can see they’ve conducted a lot of strikes,” Kofman said. “You get the sense that the Ukraine military has decided to defend certain areas over others.”
The vast quantities of MANPADS that Ukraine now possesses have created challenges for Russia in flying helicopters and low-flying jets, but it appears to have adjusted by often staying out of their range.
A “good number” of Russian flights in the war never leave Russian or Belarusian airspace, the senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. Russia has launched airstrikes multiple times on Ukraine from outside Ukrainian airspace, including with cruise missiles from long-range bombers on a military training center in Yavoriv, in western Ukraine, U.S. defense officials said. Other Russian aircraft venture into Ukrainian airspace only for short periods.
The Pentagon has continued to say that airspace over Ukraine is contested, surprising analysts who had anticipated that Russia would quickly capture control of the skies.
Some lawmakers question the Pentagon assessment. In a letter to President Biden sent earlier this month, they wrote that Russia already had established air superiority and said that if Ukraine did not receive additional military aid, Russia’s advantage “could soon develop into air dominance.”
It appears Russia is mostly operating Su-25 jets and helicopters over southern Ukraine, said Rob Lee, a former Marine Corps infantry officer who is now a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. They’re operating the more advanced Su-35 from Belarus, likely to shoot down Ukrainian drones and planes, Lee said.
The Su-25, nicknamed the Frogfoot, operates somewhat like the American A-10, attacking ground targets while flying relatively low to the ground. Ukraine and Russia both have lost Su-25s in the war, in part because they have “outdated” technology that makes them vulnerable, Kofman said.
Kofman said other weapons systems that initially were largely missing from the war have surfaced more broadly, including the Russian Orlan-10 drone. With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, it is used by Russian forces to provide aerial reconnaissance of potential ground targets. Numerous photographs of the drone, which have not been independently verified, have circulated on social media in recent days after some appeared to have been shot down.
“You’re really starting to see some of the capabilities that were very much missing from the opening of the Russian campaign,” Kofman said.
And as unverified photographs from the battlefield appeared to show that Russia has begun to use “loitering munitions” over Ukraine, the Pentagon is expected to deliver Ukraine loitering munitions of its own soon in the form of Switchblade drones.
The single-use weapons are cheaper than most U.S. drones and come in two sizes, according to AeroVironment, the manufacturer. The Switchblade 300 weighs about five pounds and is designed to be carried in a backpack, assisting small infantry units. The Switchblade 600 weighs about 50 pounds and can target armored vehicles. It was not clear which version the United States would be sending Ukraine.
While the United States and allies have sought other ways to boost Ukrainian air defenses, they also have imposed limitations, including nixing a proposal by Poland in which its MiG-29 jets would have been transferred to a U.S. base in Germany and then sent to Ukraine.
U.S. officials said the planes would have had limited value, considering Ukraine has flown its existing jets just a handful of hours per day because of Russian surface-to-air missiles. The transfer, officials said, could also risk provoking an attack on NATO nations by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
David A. Deptula, a retired Air Force general, said it’s time to revisit that decision, in light of Putin’s continued assaults on civilian targets.
“All is fair in providing weapons to Ukraine up to U.S./NATO direct participation against the Russians in combat,” Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, said in an email. “The Ukrainians are fighting on behalf of the complete free world and therefore we should support them to the greatest degree possible, not the least that we can get by with according to White House and Pentagon lawyers.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also has sought more powerful air-defense systems that Ukrainian forces already know how to use, such as the S-300, but there is no indication that the Biden administration has been able to broker a deal to send any.
A handful of NATO allies possess the S-300, and Slovakia has offered to send its system if NATO will send it a replacement. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said the S-300 will be sent “if we can get it in.”