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Prolonged fighting in Ukraine is revealing the Russian air force’s fragility, researchers say

Russian Su-25 jet hit by missile over UkraineA Russian Su-25 at its base after being struck by a man-portable air-defense missile over Ukraine in March 2022.

Russian Ministry of Defense

  • Russia’s air force has struggled in combat over Ukraine
  • It entered the war lacking fully trained pilots and used the ones it has poorly, a British think tank says.
  • Other decisions by Russian commanders are setting the air force up for future problems.

The Russian air force lacks fully trained pilots and has made poor use of the few good pilots that it has, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

“Ukrainian assessments concluded that given limited flight hours and the practice of training being delivered in units, the VKS entered the conflict with fewer than 100 fully trained and current pilots,” the report said, referring to the Russian air force by its initials.

But Moscow is doing something even more dangerous for the long-term health of Russian airpower. It is committing instructor pilots to battle, which means that pilots being trained now and in the future will have fewer experienced mentors.

Russian military pilotA Russian pilot at the Army 2022 forum near Moscow in August.

avel Pavlov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“The mobilization of trainers from their flying schools to frontline formations has also hampered the ability to generate new pilots,” according to the report, which covers events between February and July. “The Ukrainian military has noted a rise in both very young and very old pilots in the VKS, with ageing pilots returned to frontline service.”

It is normal practice in many air forces for experienced pilots to be rotated from frontline duties to training units, where they can pass expertise to rookies. One reason Nazi Germany lost World War II was because a desperate Luftwaffe committed its instructor pilots to combat operations, which led to a progressive decline in pilot quality.

Russia, too, is relentlessly committing its experienced pilots to combat.

“With a military culture that assigns the most dangerous missions to the most experienced crews, attrition in the VKS has fallen disproportionately on this cadre, reducing the overall effectiveness of the force and its ability to train new pilots,” the RUSI report says.

That’s one reason Moscow has sought the return of veteran pilots in negotiations over prisoner exchanges with Ukraine.

Russia Su-25 aircraft wreck Kyiv UkraineThe tail of a downed Russian Su-25 attack jet on display in Kyiv in May.

Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

It is possible for an air force to have well-trained pilots but otherwise be hobbled by obsolete aircraft or lack of spare parts. However, an air force that lacks qualified pilots is likely to have other problems.

Sure enough, the RUSI report pointed to issues with Russian ground crews. Among the most glaring was a failure to remove covers from aircraft sensors prior to combat operations over Ukraine — “an easily avoided mistake which has a severe impact on effectiveness and should be considered negligence. This suggests challenges in discipline and junior leadership among maintenance crews in the VKS,” the report says.

Another sign of poor discipline is the habit of stacking munitions next to aircraft parked at Russian air bases. With Ukraine now using drones to strike airfields hundreds of miles inside Russia, the failure to store ammunition safely could mean the loss of more precious aircraft and pilots.

How badly are all these problems undercutting Russian airpower? RUSI believes they have “corresponded with a significant reduction in the scale and complexity of VKS air operations over Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict.”

Russia Su-57 fighter jetAn Su-57 fighter jet takes off the 15th MAKS air show in Russia in July 2021.

Mihail Siergiejevicz/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Still more ominous are the implications for future Russian air operations over Ukraine. With a peace treaty or ceasefire appearing unlikely in the near future, the war could drag on for years, which may mean Russia will wage a protracted air campaign.

Long air campaigns – including the Battle of Britain, the Allied bomber offensive over Germany, and the US bombing of North Vietnam – required careful management to avoid wearing out aircraft and aircrews.

Russia needs to maintain a flow of properly trained pilots, as well as competent and disciplined ground crews. If it squanders its pool of veteran pilots for short-term gains, the skies of Ukraine will become even more unfriendly for Russian airpower.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider