Vladimir Zelensky daily calls on Western leaders to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. In this regard, the West finds itself facing a moral rather than a political or military choice. The current state of Russia's military aviation leads to its daily weakening, the demoralization of the pilots, and an even greater isolation of the country. There are technical problems as well: NATO fighter jets will not reach Kharkov.
Russia's war against Ukraine has been going on for two weeks now and has obviously gone far beyond Moscow's original plan. Since the first days of the war, the Ukrainian leadership and the public in Western countries have been calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine to stop the use of Russian military aircraft. However, the leaders of the United States and other NATO member states (and only these countries can, in theory, provide such a zone) have refused to take this step.
Despite supporting Ukraine with defensive weapons, equipment, and money, the West is not prepared to act as a party which would coerce Moscow into peace through military force. It is not only the West's political caution, but also the fact that the absence of such a zone weakens Russia militarily, politically, and morally more than its presence would have done. Besides, there are doubts as to whether such a zone is in principle technically feasible for NATO aviation. Therefore, it is implied that Ukrainians themselves will make it as difficult as possible for Russia to use its aviation in the Ukrainian sky with the help of weapons supplied by the West.
Not a political, but a moral choice
Since the start of the war, Russia has lost a significant number of combat aircraft: photo and video footage confirms the loss of at least 13 aircraft and 15 helicopters, while Ukrainians claim Russia has lost 49 aircraft and over 80 helicopters. Even at the low end, this is comparable to the total losses of the Russian air force during, for example, the first Chechen war. In 1979-1989, in Afghanistan, the USSR kept losing an average of 12-13 airplanes per year (in 1984-1988, peak annual losses reached 19-20 airplanes) and 30-33 helicopters. At the same time, deliveries of American man-portable air defense systems have only just begun, and Russian losses will be increasing with each subsequent day of the war.
What are Russia's production capabilities? In 2021 Russian army received more than 60 new planes and helicopters of all types, and another 200 were upgraded (it often simply means routine repairs). Thus, Russia's two-week losses, even at their bare minimum, are a third of the annual production of the entire military aviation industry. And given the embargo on all equipment and components for the Russian military-industrial complex, imposed by the West and supported by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, it will be very difficult for Russia to make up for these losses.
Wreckage of a helicopter shot down in the Nikolayev region
Given the likely decline in exports, the capacity of aircraft and helicopter plants can be re-oriented to the country's own needs, so the existing stock of spare parts, components and imported equipment will somehow support production in the face of sanctions. On the other hand, exports provide the Russian military-industrial complex with an inflow of foreign currency - $13 billion a year in 2020-2021 and nearly $15 billion a year in 2016-2019. In addition, exports made it possible to partially compensate the costs in the interests of the Russian army, as it traditionally pays less per unit of equipment than foreign customers.
Foreign experts note the modest number of Russian aircraft present at the battlefield. This can be explained by both the shortage of precision-guided munitions (as evidenced by the increased use of unguided aerial bombs), and Russia's lack of experience in conducting complex air operations. In Syria, a few dozen fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft made only 1 or 2 sorties a day. We see roughly the same intensity of aviation use in the war with Ukraine. But a third factor must also be taken into account: the shortage of target reconnaissance assets.
Modern warfare uses space reconnaissance: pilots need to know where to fly and what to bomb. And while in recent years the Russian air and space forces have made up for the acute shortage of communication, navigation, and early warning satellites, optical, radar, and electronic reconnaissance satellites are still in short supply. Out of more than 100 Russian military satellites, only four are optical reconnaissance satellites, two more are radar reconnaissance satellites, and six more are maritime electronic reconnaissance satellites. And this deficit can be compensated neither by reconnaissance aircraft, which are also in short supply, nor by professional air reconnaissance aircraft. Simply put, Russian aviation has little idea of what to bomb. This informational impotence stimulates air terror tactics against Ukrainian cities, when schools, hospitals, maternity hospitals, and simple residential buildings are targeted and destroyed.
An acute lack of space intelligence stimulates air terror tactics against Ukrainian cities
Under these circumstances, the question of a no-fly zone is no longer so much a political as a moral choice for the West, as the tactics currently used tends to further weaken Russia's political position and, along with losses, demoralize pilots.
As for the Iskander ballistic missiles, sea and land-based cruise missiles of the Kalibr family (Kalibr-NK, 9M728 and 9M729), and air-launched missiles (Kh-101), over 600 missiles have been used up in two weeks while the production capacity is limited. By indirect evidence, we can conclude that the rate of production for each type of Russian high-precision missile capable of hitting targets at distances of several hundred kilometers does not exceed 40-50 per year (for comparison, the US Tomahawk missiles were produced at a rate of several hundred per year). Thus, in the two weeks of war, Russia has probably used up most of the missiles produced in the recent years, and it will have to replenish these stocks in much less favorable economic and technological conditions than in 2014-2021. In this situation, Western policymakers may also proceed from the expediency of encouraging the maximum consumption by the Russian army of its hard-to-replace missiles.
Distance is another factor. When NATO forces imposed a UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, NATO aircraft could reach the populated and urbanized areas in the north of the country within minutes from their airfields in Sicily, and could travel hundreds of kilometers further south. During the operations by the international coalition or Israel in the skies over Syria, distances were not a serious obstacle either. The situation in the Ukrainian sky is different: NATO fighters taking off from the territory of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania could at best reach Kiev. That is, they could hypothetically ensure a no-fly zone only to the west of the Dnieper. There is simply nothing to defend Kharkov that suffers from air raids - even for the latest-gen American F-35 fighters this city is almost beyond the combat radius. Moreover, the city is subjected not only to air raids but also to artillery fire directly from Russian territory, which makes the no-fly zone concept ill-suited for eastern Ukraine. Unless NATO planes are placed directly on Ukrainian airfields, which is politically unacceptable to US and European politicians at this time.
It turns out that the only effective way to limit Russia's domination in the skies over Ukraine is through mass deliveries of portable anti-aircraft missile systems, which are relatively easy to master and use. In addition, current air tactics make Moscow more vulnerable to political, international-legal and moral pressure due to its use of prohibited methods of warfare. And this issue will become particularly relevant when it comes to the post-war settlement.