On Tuesday, April 5, Dr. Kelly A. Grieco gave a talk entitled “Ukraine, the US, and the Future of Air Warfare” to the Center for Security Studies (CSS). She provided students with important analytical frameworks for the future of air warfare as well as an answer as to why so many analysts inaccurately predicted what the role of airpower would be in the invasion of Ukraine.
Dr. Grieco is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security focused on US foreign and defense policy, military force structure, the future of warfare, and most importantly for this talk, air and space operations. She was also an assistant professor at the Air Command and Staff College, Air University, as well as held multiple fellowships from MIT. Dr. Grieco will also be teaching a course at Georgetown as an adjunct professor in the fall entitled “Bombs, Drones, and Hypersonics.”
At the outset of the war in Ukraine, analysts assumed that Russia would gain air superiority quickly because it had an advantage both in the quantity and the quality of its aircraft. Indeed, Russia’s advantage in the sheer number of aircraft was ten times larger than that of Ukraine. In addition, Russian aircraft were more technologically advanced than their Ukrainian counterparts. So why didn’t the Russians do better at gaining the upper hand in the skies?
Dr. Grieco summarized three of the common explanations. Some are centered around specifically Russian problems like their poor training in air operations (they only get about 100 hours of flight time) and their shortage of pilots. Another explanation argues that the Russians have deconfliction problems which make large-scale operations with combined arms and maneuvering much more difficult. Finally, some analysts also believe that Russian failure to gain air superiority is due to their adoption of a land-centric doctrine. This doctrine assumed a blitzkrieg strategy would succeed quickly without the need for a dedicated air campaign to suppress enemy air defenses.
While surely these explanations for Russian failure to control the skies sound logical, Dr. Grieco provides a theory that points to the changing character of modern air warfare as the major contributing factor to what we see in the air in Ukraine. This theory offers a good indicator of what we should expect to see in the future.
Dr. Grieco’s explanation is more systemic and has to do with how air warfare has changed and has been impacted by technological advances. It has long been assumed by war theorists that airpower is innately offensive because historically, it has been easier and less costly to penetrate the enemy’s airspace and attack from above than it has been to defend the skies. However, the development of defensive weapons that combat airpower has shifted the balance to favor the defense in air warfare. Weapons and technology such as surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and drones have made defense the less costly option for states.
Specifically, in Ukraine, weapons like S-300s and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) are easily maneuverable and therefore harder to detect by the Russians. The Ukrainians are also employing unique tactics which take advantage of the airspace Dr. Grieco has coined the “air littoral” or the low-altitude airspace in air warfare. They are using their Soviet-era SAMs and more cost-friendly Turkish drones or TB2s to lure in Russian aircraft and then use the MANPADS to target and destroy them.
Smaller, cheaper, and more maneuverable aircraft and air defense systems have changed the character of war. Even if a state has air superiority at higher altitudes in a conflict, it does not mean it will not face obstacles in the air littoral. Dr. Grieco emphasized that this change is not a uniquely Russian problem, but also has policy implications for other states. For the United States, this means that contested skies will be the new normal in conflicts. A shift to the defensive in the skies will likely lead to attrition-style air warfare in which gaining the upper hand in the sky will be a continuous process rather than a one-and-done strategy at the beginning of a war.
Dr. Grieco concludes that Russia’s failure in using its qualitative and quantitative airpower to its advantage should serve as a lesson and warning to the United States. that something fundamental to the character of air war has changed. Therefore, assumptions, doctrine, and training should be re-evaluated and changed accordingly.