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March 3, 2022
Notes from the Pentagon

Lack of Russian air power in Ukraine a mystery

By Bill Gertz
Military analysts monitoring the war in Ukraine are puzzled why Russian air forces have been largely absent from the conflict.

“They’re not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots,” said one senior defense official.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a veteran of U.S. air wars, said Moscow’s failure so far to control the skies in Ukraine prior to ground operations is surprising.

A report by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute said the absence of Russia’s vast combat air power in the conflict may be linked to a shortage of precision-guided munitions, or poor pilot training.

The war began Feb. 24 with cruise and ballistic missile salvos on ground-based early warning radars, in a bid to blind the Ukrainian air force. Strikes also took place on several Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries.

What was expected next, tracking the U.S. military model in recent conflicts, were large-scale airstrikes by the Russian Aerospace Forces, known by the acronym VKS. But the expected large-scale strikes by Russian Su-35, Su-34 and Su-30s fighters so far haven’t materialized.

“If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen,” the RUSI report states.

Russia had about 300 advanced combat jets within range of Ukrainian targets in the northern, eastern and southern parts of the country, but they appear to have stayed on the ground during the fighting so far.

The inaction allowed Ukrainian air forces to conduct defensive counter-air and ground attack flights that had some success against Russian attack helicopters. The jets flying over cities also provided a morale boost to Ukrainian fighters on the ground.

The lack of Russian warplanes also boosted the air defense forces in using shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, like the Stingers provided by U.S. and allied nations. The RUSI report said the lack of air power is one reason the Russian advance has been slow and for the heavy early losses in Russian air assault operations.

The near-total lack of Russian offensive counter-air operations compounded problems for the ground forces, revealing poor coordination between the troops and their air defenses. Several Russian troop columns advanced beyond the reach of their surface-to-air missiles and some air defense batteries were stuck in traffic jams.

The result: Ukrainian forces were able to attack the troops using Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 armed drones that inflicted significant damage on vehicle columns.

The report said among the likely explanations for the lack of air power is the limited numbers of precision-guided bombs in Russian air force stocks.

During combat in Syria, Su-34 fighter jets regularly used precision strike bombs. Others used unguided bombs. Years of fighting in Syria also may have depleted the advanced strike weapons.

Another factor may be the Russian military’s inability to safely coordinate airstrikes with its own ground forces’ air defenses and avoid friendly fire incidents. Russian air force leaders “may be hesitant to commit to large-scale combat operations which would show up the gap between external perceptions and the reality of their capabilities,” the report said.

Also, the relatively low number of flying hours by Russian pilots may have played a role, too. Russian pilots train an average of 100 to 120 hours per year. By comparison, U.S. and British pilots train about 180 to 240 hours a year.

The report added a cautionary note that the war is barely a week old and the Russian air force remains “a potentially highly destructive force, and one that could be unleashed against aerial and fixed ground targets at short notice over the coming days.”

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell has another theory: The lack of air power is part of Russian psychological warfare by President Vladimir Putin.

“My assessment is that Putin is waiting to drop the hammer,” Capt. Fanell said.

The delays in large-scale assaults on Kyiv and other major cities could be part of a strategic pause on the part of the Russian military

. “And given that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg went to Poland to tell them to not provide [MiG fighter jets] to Ukraine, Putin knows that his forces will have no threat from the air,” he added. “NATO is not going to fight; America is not going to fight — despite a handful who have called for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.”

Additionally, the lengthy military convoy north of Kyiv could move on the capital. When that takes place, “it is going to be bloody,” Capt. Fanell said.

Former Joint Chiefs chair in Taiwan
Retired Adm. Michael Mullen traveled to Taiwan this week with a group of former officials dispatched by the Biden administration in a bid to reassure Taipei in the face of threats from China.

Adm. Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, provided no new assurances to protect Taiwan from fears of a Chinese military attack in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In remarks following a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Adm. Mullen said the United States will “continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo” — boilerplate language that does not offer any new commitments by Washington in the face of stepped-up recent military provocations by the Chinese military.

China has been increasing military flights inside Taiwan’s air defense zone in recent months in what U.S. officials say is an attempt to intimidate Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

On Saturday, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a direct challenge to Chinese maritime sovereignty claims. China’s Foreign Ministry denounced both the Mullen visit and the warship transit.

Adm. Mullen said Wednesday that keeping Taiwan free is an international imperative.

“Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just a U.S. interest but also a global one,” he said. “I do hope by being here with you, we can reassure you and your people, as well as our allies and partners in the region that the United States stands firm behind its commitments.”

Adm. Mullen and a group of other former officials traveled to Taiwan amid growing fears China’s ruling Communist Party will follow Russia’s example on Ukraine and invade Taiwan. Other former officials in the delegation included Evan Medeiros, a pro-China National Security Council adviser during the Obama administration.

Dispatch of the Mullen delegation was widely seen as a bid to preempt the visit to Taiwan also this week by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former State Department policy planning official Miles Yu. Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Yu were key architects of the tougher new U.S. policy toward Beijing during the Trump administration.

Chinese COVID role goes unmentioned by Biden
President Biden made no mention of China’s role in spreading the deadly COVID-19 disease in his State of the Union speech Tuesday or whether his administration will hold Beijing accountable for its role in the devastating pandemic.

The omission reflects the growing shifts in policy toward the Communist superpower by the president.

China in the early days of the outbreak in early 2020 failed to identify the virulence of the virus and refused to provide virus samples to the international health officials. Beijing also failed to limit travel from Wuhan, where the outbreak began, and has refused to cooperate in identifying the source, either a leak from a government laboratory or from an infected animal.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States’ competition with China will not involve blaming Beijing for the pandemic.

That was reflected in the Biden administration’s recent Asia Pacific Strategy report, which read in part, “Our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” The report said the administration would seek to work with China on issues of mutual concern such as climate change and weapons proliferation.

“This shows the complete cluelessness of the entire Biden approach to the Chinese Communist Party threat,” said a former State Department China policymaker during the Trump administration. “It’s not whether we want to change China or not, it’s the undisputable reality that China is already changing and destroying the U.S. in a fundamental way.”

The Chinese are targeting the U.S. industrial and economic base, American freedom of expression in academia, Hollywood and online, and is undermining democratic values, defense technology and public health through cyberattacks, critics say.

As a result, “the CCP is systematically dismantling the critical sinews of America,” the former official said.

The official said the Biden approach is flawed for seeking to manage relations with China instead of seeking to change a flawed bilateral relationship that is not based on reciprocity, candor and realism.

“It’s the pre-Trump administrations’ lazy, run-of-the-mill diplomatic buzzword for inaction,” the former official said.

Emphasizing cooperation with allies and partners is code for giving up American leadership in confronting the CCP, the official argued.

As for working with China on climate change, “fifty years of fruitless ‘engagement’ with China in hopes of cooperation on anything has taught the Biden administration nothing,” the former official said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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