The Weekly Debrief: What Happened In First Hour Of Russia’s War With Ukraine?
Russia’s missile forces, long-range aviation and tactical aircraft had a clear mission at 4:30 a.m. in Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Arrayed around Ukraine stood an opposing air force fielding a few dozen operable fighters, a handful of Turkish-supplied TB-2 Bayraktars and an air defense system composed—according to a March 2021 analysis by Polish military academics—of 135 missile interceptor sites, along with several major command and control facilities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had just declared war on Ukraine in an angry speech in Moscow. In the first 2 hr. before sunrise in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, it was the job of Russia’s strike aircraft and missile batteries to destroy as many as those sites as possible.
Despite an overwhelming numerical advantage on paper, the Russian air and missile forces did not get the job done. More than 100 hr. after the initial “shock and awe” wave of attacks, Russia had still not established air superiority over Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said on Feb. 28 in remarks to reporters.
The fog of war and the unreliability of official reports by the Ukrainian and Russian governments makes drawing sweeping conclusions difficult after only five days of fighting across a country as wide as Chicago is from New York City. Russian military strategy also does not perfectly mirror the Western approach to modern warfare, which emphasizes a “shock-and-awe” style opening barrage of air and missile strikes to quickly win air superiority and paralyze an enemy’s ability to centrally command and control its forces.
But the limits of the Russian air and missile salvo on the first morning of the war has still puzzled experts familiar with Moscow’s military doctrine.
The attacks featured 160 weapons launched by 75 fixed-wing aircraft, including attack aircraft and bombers, along with ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles, according to U.S. DOD officials. The list of weapons provided by the Pentagon includes the ship-launched 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missile, but other weapons including air-launched Kh-101 or Kh-555 cruise missiles also likely played a role.
The weapons hit targets all over the country, ranging from Kharkiv in the east to Kyiv in the central region and Ivano-Frankvisk in the west. But it still was not the paralyzing strike many had expected. For such a large country as Ukraine with as many targets to strike, the number of precision-guided missiles launched seemed less than necessary.
With such low numbers, Russia’s decision to widely fire the weapons at targets across the country surprised some analysts, including Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer now serving as a fellow at the Atlantic Council. The dispersal of such few weapons likely was intended to impress Ukrainian citizens, but prevented the Russian attackers from concentrating fires at the most important targets, Wetzel says in his latest episode of the Airminded podcast, which he hosts.
The fact the numbers were so low also seems puzzling. Russia’s Long Range Aviation Command fields 63 Tu-95 and 13 Tu-160 bombers that alone have the capacity to release an overall total of 850 cruise missiles, according to Daniel Michalski and Adam Radomyski, who are faculty members at Poland’s Military University of Aviation and published a paper on Russia’s military capabilities in late 2021. An even greater capacity for weapons exists in the ground forces, including 9M79 Tochka and 9K729 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles.
The low numbers may point to a disparity between launch platforms and Russia’s stockpile of precision-guided missiles. Justin Bronk, a RUSI research fellow, says in an essay published on Feb. 28 that a “widely accepted theory” suggests Russia’s stockpile of air-delivered precision-guided munitions is extremely limited, and was further depleted by more than six years of military operations in Syria. The inventory of its ground-launched missiles may suffer the same problem.
Three weeks before the war started, Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired Russian army colonel, wrote an article published in the Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper that warned against invading Ukraine and argued that the Russian military lacked the resources to win.
“The number of Kalibr, Kinzhals, Kh-101 and Iskander missiles is measured in the hundreds at best (tens in the case of Kinzhals),” Khodarenok wrote. “This arsenal is absolutely not enough to wipe out a state the size of France and with a population of more than 40 million from the face of the Earth.”
We should send a dozen or so unarmed Tomahawks over the Russian forces to reminded them they could lose a lot of material and fighters very quickly.