Capabilities Analysis

Russian, Iranian air forces lack deep strike capability


Issues with Russia's aircraft and guided weapon program have become apparent as the war in Ukraine rages on, while Iran, which uses Russian weaponry, finds itself with the same deficiencies.

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A Beriev A-50 early warning and control aircraft flies over the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow May 9, 2020. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]
A Beriev A-50 early warning and control aircraft flies over the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow May 9, 2020. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

The inability of Russian aircraft and tactics to carry out deep strikes in Ukraine has significant ramifications for both the Russian air force and Iran, which relies heavily on Russian-made aircraft.

Deep strikes are operations aimed at destroying, degrading or neutralizing enemy land, sea and air forces before they are brought to bear against friendly forces, and typically take place far behind the front lines, according to a 1995 report published by the National Defense University.

The most notable example is the air campaign conducted by the US Army and Air Force in Iraq at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.

Helicopters destroyed Iraqi radar sites with Hellfire missiles and knocked out Iraqi anti-aircraft facilities, according to the US Army Center of Military History.

"The attack created a 20-mile gap in the enemy's air defense network opening a corridor through which US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighters, supported by EF-111 Ravens, raced into Iraqi air-space virtually unopposed followed by hundreds of US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coalition fixed-wing aircraft and cruise missiles," according to the center.

The air campaign, which paved the way for the successful military operation that would liberate Kuwait, was also the first time Global Positioning System (GPS) and precision-guided munitions were used on a massive scale.

The type of high-level deep strike capability shown by US and coalition forces in Operation Desert Storm stands in stark contrast to Russia's war on Ukraine.

Early in the war, the Russian air force launched intense raids inside Ukrainian territory but lost many of its aircraft to Ukraine's air defense systems and failed to gain air superiority.

Since then, Russia has been able only to conduct strikes near the front for close air support of ground forces, relying on long-range weapons like cruise missiles and ballistic missiles to attack targets deep inside Ukraine.

Russian air force deficiencies

Deep strikes require an accurate, timely flow of intelligence for targets as well as command and control capable of tackling complex operations.

The Russian air force has so far demonstrated that it is incapable of either of these.

Russia's small number of stealth fifth generation jets means that it is forced to rely on older fighter aircraft, which must fly at low altitudes to avoid detection by anti-aircraft systems.

That situation cuts down their situational awareness, limiting them to hitting only fixed or predetermined targets near the front because of their general inability to locate targets such as tanks and artillery.

They are also unable to maintain observation over long distances, which denies them the ability to rapidly assess battle damage in support of decision-making on the necessity to re-engage.

Russia's Sukhoi (Su)-35 fighter jets, for example, have a radar cross-section between one and three square meters -- about the size of a large dinner table. The Su-35 is more vulnerable to detection by anti-aircraft systems than is the F-35, which is believed to have a radar cross-section of 0.01 square meter.

The Su-35, which Iran in November announced it had bought from Russia, is the only major fourth-generation aircraft without the option of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

AESA radar has a longer range, higher ability to detect smaller targets and better resistance to jamming than does the Su-35's older passive electronically scanned array (PESA).

Compounding the problem is the lack of airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) in the Russian air fleet.

Ukrainian forces have since the start of the year reported the downing of two Russian Beriev A-50 "Mainstay" AEW&C aircraft, a component crucial to the Russian air surveillance picture over Ukraine.

Prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia was estimated to have nine A-50s, including a number of modernized A-50Us, in active service, The Warzone reported March 1.

In addition to the two combat losses, another A-50 was damaged in a drone attack while at a base in Belarus last year; its current status is unknown, leaving six or seven aircraft in active service.

Too risky

Deep strike operations are too risky for the Russian air force, given these weaknesses, restricting its coverage to near the front.

Kyiv in February alone claimed the downing of as many as 13 Russian aircraft amid an increase in Russian air support for ground offensives in eastern Ukraine, according to an article published March 12 by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

The Russian air force has increasingly turned to guided, unpowered gliding bombs that can be dropped farther away from the front as a means to avoid Ukrainian anti-air defenses.

The guidance kits, which include stabilizing wings and navigation systems, likely took most of 2023 to develop and fabricate, according to the CEPA.

Meanwhile, Russian cruise missiles still have far to go before being fully capable for deep strikes.

US officials assessed in March 2022 that Russia was suffering failure rates as high as 60% for some of the precision-guided missiles used to attack Ukraine.

Senior US Defense Department officials who spoke to the New York Times in May 2022 also said Russia's failures in Ukraine pointed to a "Russian guided-weapons program still in its infancy, with pilots unable to quickly locate and engage targets on the ground, and missiles launched into Ukraine that often miss their targets -- if they work at all."

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