Since the start of the counter-offensive at the end of August, Ukrainian troops have recaptured most of the Kharkiv region, more and more towns near Cherson and individual villages in the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist regions. The panic in the Kremlin is growing, as is the Ukrainians’ willingness to fight. Further progress must be made quickly, Ukrainian President Zelenskyi encouraged his country on Monday. But despite all this, the war could drag on for years, experts warn. Because at a crucial point both parties are currently in a dead end: the upper hand of the Air Force.
Ukraine has shot down 55 Russian planes since the start of the war, preventing Moscow from gaining air superiority, the US Air Force commander in chief for Europe said on Monday. And this despite the fact that the Russian air force is significantly larger than the Ukrainian one. According to British intelligence, this is partly because the Russian air force is taking greater risks to provide close-range support to ground forces under pressure from Ukrainian advances. In addition, some pilots lack adequate situational awareness given the fast-moving front line over Ukrainian-controlled territory.
But Ukraine does not have control in the air either. Therefore, the two sides would fight each other on the ground for a long time – a large number of people would die. “There are a lot of casualties because of the lack of air superiority on either side,” General James Hecker, commander of the US Air Force in Europe and Africa, told the Wall Street Journal.
According to some sources, Hecker is in contact with the head of the Ukrainian Air Force every two weeks. From the talks he can report that 80 percent of the Ukrainian air force is intact, especially due to the HARM missiles that the US has supplied. However, the Russian air force can still attack any Ukrainian territory, including by using Iranian kamikaze combat drones and long-range cruise missiles. Iranian Shahed 136 drones in particular could pose a major threat to the Ukrainians, military experts say.
“As long as this situation persists, the war may continue for years,” Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, and military officer Mykhailo Zabrodsky, who is also a member of Ukraine’s parliament, wrote in a strategy statement in early September. Long-range missiles would lead to a quicker end to the war, it says. In order to achieve dominance, Ukraine needs significantly more anti-aircraft weapons from Western partners, stressed the representatives of the US Air Force.
The US has already asked Europe to deliver more of the old Soviet SA-10 and SA-11 weapon systems to Ukraine. The Ukrainian armed forces even want missile systems with a range of 300 kilometers. Ukraine wants everything from the West, Hecker makes clear. “If I were at war with Russia, I would want everything, too,” he says.
The US government is also still considering making combat aircraft available to Ukraine, including training Ukrainian pilots for these aircraft. Air force officials estimate it could take two to three years before US-made F-16 aircraft can be supplied to Ukraine.
At the start of the war, many US officials expected Russia to quickly gain air supremacy. But the Ukrainians shot down more and more planes with the SA-10 and SA-11 missile systems, which is why the Russians changed their tactics. Since then, they have been firing long-range cruise missiles from bomber fighter jets – often beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.