Russia is Dismembering the Ukrainian Air Force: Will it Rebuild with Russian-Made Aircraft?

36 hours after Russian launched a military intervention in Ukraine, there have been multiple indications that the Ukrainian Air Force has suffered considerable equipment losses hindering its ability to threaten Russian forces. The priority targets in Russia’s first rounds of precision strikes were military infrastructure, air defence sites, airfields and aircraft, with Ukraine’s air defence network built around 1980s variants of the S-300 platform reportedly neutralised within 2-3 hours. From the information available, Ukrainian aircraft have also taken significant losses. Two of the country’s highly prized 14 Su-24 strike fighters were reportedly shot down over eastern Ukraine in the war’s opening hours, while attrition of Ukrainian units was reportedly significant enough that a pilot of one of the country’s Su-27 heavyweight air superiority fighters - the most formidable air defence asset Ukraine has - fled to neighbouring Romania. Another Su-27 was destroyed by friendly fire around 24 hours into the operation, and further significant losses of fighters in their airbases have been reported. The fleet’s low availability rates left them vulnerable to being targeted from the air.

Ukraine inherited its fighter fleet from the Soviet Union in 1991, and other than making the fleet smaller it seen few significant modernisations since then leaving it largely obsolete to face the Russian Air Force. With Russian forces expected to quickly capture the capital Kiev and install a Russian-aligned government in power, the question remains how the Ukrainian Air Force will rebuild. While it was previously rumoured that the country could consider acquiring Chinese L-15 lightweight fighters, which have much lower operational costs and are technologically around two decades ahead of its Soviet-built jets, strong Western influence over Kiev ultimately made such a possibility slim as relations between Beijing and the Western Bloc deteriorated. A Russian-installed government could potentially furnish the Ukrainian Air Force with a new generation of fighter aircraft as aid, however, providing newer successors to the Su-27 and MiG-29 it currently fields with which Ukrainian operators will be more familiar. This would be far from unprecedented with Russia providing heavily improved MiG-29 variants to both Syria and Serbia as aid to bolster them against common adversaries and supplying the former with S-300PMU-2 air defence systems. 

With a Russian-aligned Ukraine set to be on the frontlines against NATO, Russia would have a strong interest in furnishing the country with new generations of combat aircraft to replace those lost in wartime and provide a much needed improvement over the obsolete aircraft currently in service. Russia has a large surplus of MiG-29 airframes from the Soviet era, many of which are unassembled, and much like it did to supply India and Syria it could modernise these with phased array radars, modern avionics and new engines to bring them up to the MiG-29SMT standard as a low cost means of rebuilding the Ukrainian fleet. The precedent set by supplying S-300s to Syria, which were drawn from the Russian Military’s own frontline inventory and replaced by newly built S-400s, could also allow Russia to supply Ukraine with its own second hand equipment. The country's capable and relatively new 19 Su-30M fighters, for example, could be donated and replaced by newer and much more capable fighters such as the Su-30SM2 or Su-57. Like with Syria, S-300PMU-2 systems could also be drawn from Russian units to rebuild Ukraine’s ground based air defences. The quality of arms provided will likely depend on the degree of trust between the two governments, and should personnel from Russian-aligned Donyetsk or Lugansk form a new generation of Ukrainian Air Force officers there would likely be a greater willingness to provide more advanced systems. Ultimately while the post-war Russian-aligned Ukrainian Air Force is not expected to be state of the art, it could receive a very considerable upgrade over its pre-war levels which in turn would reduce the burden on Russian forces facing NATO on their Western front. 

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