According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, the Russian Federation has lost roughly 300 combat aircraft throughout its campaign. While this is certainly impressive, by no means has the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) suffered a definitive defeat. Nevertheless, developments in long-range drone capabilities will continue to frustrate VKS operations for the foreseeable future. Using a diverse set of imagery sources and open-source data, we can draw together a picture of the state of VKS air operations. Moreover, The threat of VKS air operations in Ukraine underscores the desperate nature of Ukrainian requests for F-16 fighter jets.
Key Judgment 1: It is highly likely that VKS air assets will prioritize targets over eastern Ukraine in the next 6 months.
Key Judgement 2: It is highly likely that VKS air assets will be forced to operate in an increasingly restrictive environment in the next 6 months.
Key Judgment 3: It is likely that VKS air operations will adversely impact Ukrainian ground operations in the next 6 months.
Sources of Geospatial Analysis
- Esri GIS
- Google Earth (Maxar, Airbus)
Key Judgment-1: It is highly likely that VKS air assets will prioritize targets over eastern Ukraine in the next 6 months.
a. The military situation around the key strategic city of Bakhmut significantly deteriorated in the last few weeks. Ukrainian forces are in danger of becoming encircled by 3 Wagner PMC tactical groups [source].
b. The VKS began arraying a large amount of fixed and rotor-wing air assets in western Russia [source].
c. Senior NATO officials indicate that the VKS is still “relatively intact” to the order of 80% operational [source].
d. However, The VKS is running low on stocks of air-to-ground missiles capable of accurately hitting targets. Russian fighter aircraft further place Ukrainian aircraft on the defensive owing to the longer range of their R-77-1 and R-37M missiles [source].
e. Ukrainian military intelligence believes that VKS air assets will be used to for offensive operations in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts [source].
f. A recent report highlighted Ukrainian proficiency on missile defense systems during training exercises in the United States [source].
g. Russia is using occupied Ukrainian airfields in Zaporizhzhia Oblast primarily as logistical staging grounds [see Fig. 1].
Name: Berdyansk Airport
Location: 46°48’46.94″N, 36°45’35.56″E
Description: A small regional airport located north of Berdyansk. We observe an enclosed aircraft maintenance facility as well as a 2 story terminal building located to the south of the runway. An aircraft curtain plays host to several military vehicles, among which are probable Ural-4320 utility trucks and GAZ-66 light utility vehicles. We are relatively confident that we are able to observe several BMP-2s as well. A defensive fortification and trench were erected around the curtain further indicating that the area hosts military vehicles worth protecting.
Key Judgement-2: It is highly likely that VKS air assets will be forced to operate in an increasingly restrictive environment in the next 6 months.
a. Two separate Russian Su-25s were shot down over Bakhmut by the Ukrainian State Border Guards Service on February 7th and 11th using foreign-provided MANPADS [source].
b. On February 13th, a Russian Su-24M was shot down by the 3rd “Spartan” Ukrainian National Guard Brigade using a Polish-made Piorun MANPADS [source].
c. Belarusian partisans damaged a Russian Beriev A-50U AWACS aircraft at the Machulishchy Air Base by using drones provided by the Ukrainian military [source].
d. Russia already lacks developed airborne warning and control capabilities. In turn, the loss of the A-50U will further impact Moscow’s ability to conduct long-range airstrikes [source]. We observed 2 Beriev A-50U aircraft at Melitopol one month before a rocket attack at the airbase [see Fig. 3].
e. A Ukrainian defence firm successfully tested a long-range kamikaze drone with a total range of 1,000 km [source].
f. This drone, a modified Tu-141 reconnaissance drone, was used to strike VKS air installations in Saratov Oblast and damaged a Tu-22M, a Tu-95M strategic bomber and killed 3 Russian servicemen [source].
g. The US provided the Ukrainian Air Force with JDAM-ER munitions, capable of striking targets at more than 70 km, as well as AGM-88 HARM missiles [source], [source].
h. Melitopol Airfield is now under use primarily by Il-76 heavy-lifting transport aircraft. We observed at least 2 damaged or destroyed aircraft at the installation and an absence of fixed-wing combat aircraft [see Fig. 2, Fig. 3]. Melitopol Airfield was targeted in a HIMARS attack on 5 March of last year in which roughly 200 Russian service members died [source].
Name: Melitopol Airfield
Location: 46°52’41.84″N, 35°18’11.17″E
Description: A large air base under occupation by Russian forces. The airfield hosts numerous Il-76 heavy lifters as well as some rotor wing aircraft which we believe to be Ka-50 or Ka-52 and Mil Mi-8 helicopters. A rail line terminates near a rail yard in the air base. We observe a destroyed and damaged Il-76 and damage sustained to what appear to be barracks possibly due to a HIMARS strike.
Name: Melitopol Airfield (before HIMARS attacks)
Location: 46°52’41.84″N, 35°18’11.17″E
Description: This image was captured one month before the reported HIMARS strike and shows a larger variety of combat aircraft present. Buildings which appeared damaged in later imagery are intact here. We observed Su-25 CAS aircraft, Ka-50 or Ka-52 attack helicopters as well as several Mil Mi-8 helicopters. We also observe 2 Beriev A-50U AWACS aircraft.
Key Judgment-3: It is likely that VKS air operations will adversely impact Ukrainian ground operations in the next 6 months.
a. Switzerland and Brazil refused to resupply Ukraine will additional stocks of ammunition for the German-made Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun [source].
b. The VKS is using occupied Ukrainian airfields such as Melitopol and Berdyansk as a forward logistics staging area.
c. According to Ukrainian military intelligence, the VKS “amassed” 450 fixed-wing and 350 rotor-wing aircraft in strategic installations near its border [source].
d. According to Andriy Yusov, from the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, the aircraft were placed well out of the 200 km range of HIMARS rockets [source].
e. Russia arrayed a large number of air assets in western Russia, even before reports emerged of a large-scale amassment of air units last month [see Fig. 4, Fig. 5].
Name: Millerovo Airbase
Location: 48°57’11.50″N, 40°17’53.82″E
Description: A large airbase home to the 368th Assault Aviation Regiment and the 31st Fighter Guards Regiment. We observe fuel facilities, hangars and maintenance facilities as well as barracks and residential compounds. There is a total of 12 Su-30SM multirole jet fighters, 10 Su-25 close air support aircraft, 1 Il-76 heavy transport aircraft and possibly 2 Mig-35D fighter jets. We also observe 2 Su-24 Fencer ground attack aircraft likely operated by the 368th Assault Aviation Regiment and several assorted aircraft which we were unable to identify.
Name: Morozovsk Airbase
Location: 48°18’52.16″N, 41°47’2.01″E
Description: A large airbase which hosts the 559th Bomber Aviation Regiment, a segment of the 1st Guards Composite Aviation Division. We observe a total of 25 Su-34 fighter bombers and 4 Su-24 ground attack aircraft. Some of the aircraft appears to be in the process of being re-armed between sorties. A large area of revetments is being used as a storage area.
We have a high amount of confidence that the VKS is capable of significantly impacting the battlefield situation around Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in the coming months. Moreover, we are confident in our assessment that Ukrainian ground operations will suffer adverse impacts from Russian air assaults. Nevertheless, Ukrainian missile strikes and air defence systems pose an enormous risk to VKS air assets in the air and on the ground. We observed a reduction in the number of combat aircraft at Melitopol following a HIMARS strike. Particularly noted is the absence of the highly valuable A-50U AWACS aircraft after the strike. We feel this supports our assessment that the VKS is forced to operate in a far more restrictive environment going forwards.
We have a lower amount of confidence in our assessment that increased VKS air operations in eastern Ukraine will create a significant adverse impact on Ukrainian ground operations. Ukraine demonstrated a high amount of proficiency in air defence doctrine and strategies throughout the war. The hesitation of the VKS to launch an all-out air assault using their numerical advantage is likely indicative of their perception that the threat vastly outweighs the reward of doing so.
Intelligence Cut-Off Date: 30 March 2023