Russia Does Not Have Air Superiority In Ukraine, U.S. Says

Credit: U.S. government

[UPDATED]—The Russian military does not have air superiority in Ukraine, with the U.S. Defense Department assessing that Ukrainian command and control has remained intact and the country is still operating air defenses and aircraft, a senior Pentagon official said Feb. 27.

Though Russian momentum has continued to slow in areas, more than two-thirds of the forces Moscow assembled near Ukraine’s borders have now entered the country. This total is a substantial increase from two days before, when the Defense Department said just one-third of Russian forces had crossed the border.

As of the morning of Feb. 27, the U.S. military assesses that Russia has fired more than 320 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, along with cruise missiles, at Ukrainian military targets. There are indications that some of the missiles have failed to launch. The official would not give a specific number of how many, though it is not a majority. The Pentagon also would not say how many Russian aircraft have participated in the invasion, just that it is more than the 75 that flew in the initial incursion on Feb. 23.

“By and large, the bulk of the targets continue to be military related, targeting Ukrainian defensive capabilities, targeting their supply and logistics capability, targeting their air and missile defense ... yesterday [this] included trying to hit aircraft on the ground, trying to target physically where they know Ukrainian armed forces are located,” the official says. 

The U.S. has observed civilian infrastructure and residential areas impacted by the missile strikes, though the official would not say if they were intentionally targeted. The official said Russia appears to be adopting siege tactics on cities to the northeast of Kyiv after having trouble capturing and holding territory. This has included increased rocket attacks in urban areas.

“When you adopt siege tactics, which any student of military tactics or strategy in history will tell you, ... it increases the likelihood of collateral damage to civilian infrastructure as well as to civilian life,” the official said. “Because a siege basically becomes an all-out effort to take a city without regard to civilian infrastructure. So that’s worrying.”

Despite the barrages, Ukrainian air and missile defenses are working but have been degraded, the official said. U.S. surveillance has observed Ukrainian missile launches, though the Pentagon did not comment on a reported ballistic missile attack on a Russian military airfield across the northern border.

There are Ukrainian aircraft in the air that are engaging and denying access to Russian aircraft, the official said. Air defenses “continue to be viable ... they have, clearly, some of their defensive capabilities and that would include air and missile defense,” he said.

The resistance has slowed much of Russia’s advance, especially closer to the capital city of Kiev and across northern Ukraine. The official said on Feb. 26 that the resistance is greater than what the U.S. believes Russia anticipated, and there are indications that the Russians “are increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum over the last 24 hours.”

Russian forces are also targeting a hydroelectric plant farther west both through conventional attacks and cyberattacks. This is part of a broader effort by Russia to claim infrastructure. Despite this cyberattack, the U.S. said Russia has not fully used its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities in Ukraine.

The Pentagon has assessed Russia’s invasion is largely focusing on three axes: from Crimea in the south, from the west toward the city of Kharkiv and from the northern border with Belarus to Kyiv. The approach to Kyiv has largely slowed so far as Ukrainian forces have fought back. 

“They are not advancing as far or as fast as we believe we expected they would do that,” the official says. “A good indicator of that is no population centers have been taken.”

Russia still has a lot of operational advantages, despite significant problems with logistics and sustainment, the official says. It is still early in the operation, and Russia can learn from what has happened so far and adapt its tactics.

“This is a major, major conventional operation,” the official says. “That is rare in recent Russian history. They simply don’t have a lot of experience moving on another nation state at this level of complexity and size.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include new information.


Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


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