A Rolling Start to the Ukrainian Offensive

Events are about to move very quickly in Ukraine. Michael Clarke assesses the current military situation and outlines the importance of the air campaign in the coming battles.

The much-heralded Ukrainian offensive cannot now be long delayed. Like the rest of the world, the Russians will know it’s started when Ukraine’s heavy metal – its armoured and mechanized brigades – start to move in force against their positions. Until then, they can only guess where the first blows might fall.

There are some doubts about how well the Ukrainians will have integrated the combined arms elements they will need to employ for a successful offensive, and also about the degree to which mid-level Ukrainian commanders have broken out of the Soviet-army mindsets they inherited from their own trainers. But Kyiv knows that it cannot wait much longer since the weather conditions are now favourable, any delay will give Russian forces more time to strengthen their defences, and the western world expects to see some military output from all the weapons systems that have been donated over the winter.

One reason we know the offensive is imminent is because it’s already begun in the air. The last two weeks have witnessed an increasing tempo of operations across all Ukraine’s contended skies.

The Ukrainian loss of Bakhmut

On 20 May it was evident that Ukrainian forces had effectively lost their final foothold in the south-west corner of Bakhmut. As a matter of coincidence, it was precisely a year – 20 May 2022 – when Mariupol was also finally captured by Russian forces. The first Russian artillery shells fell on Bakhmut on 17 May 2022, so this success for Russia’s forces comes after just over a year of offensive action.

Nevertheless, fighting at Bakhmut has been described by Kyiv as ‘the prelude’ to the much-anticipated Ukrainian ground offensive, and it must manage the political fallout from this setback even as its other forces go into battle. In reality, Ukrainian troops lost the Bakhmut urban centre almost a week ago. The key highway for Kyiv, the T0504, out to the south-west is now believed effectively impassable both for supplies and safe withdrawal of forces.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian troops have not been surrounded, as Russian forces originally attempted, so are free to keep fighting around western Bakhmut, even if not still in the urban area. Doing this is important to Kyiv’s strategic aim of not completely giving up on Bakhmut. If Ukrainian troops are not fighting in Bakhmut, they are still fighting for it.

Meanwhile, on 9 May Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade began a big attack south of the city, around Ivanivske, and on 11 May its 10th Mountain Assault Brigade began at attack north of the city around Bohdanivka and Kramove. These attacks have recaptured some significant areas north and south of Bakhmut and are probably designed to take pressure off forces now outside the city and to threaten Russian units with the prospect of encirclement to the east of Bakhmut if both these Ukrainian thrusts make progress. It was known on 19 May that Russian commanders had begun committing some reserves to stop these local counter-offensives, so the threat of encirclement may be real to them.

The coming air campaign

The struggle for control of the air above and behind any battlespace is not as arresting as the rumble of oncoming tanks, but it’s usually the most important single contest that takes place in a campaign, and most times it determines who will eventually prevail on the ground.

In the invasion of Normandy in 1944 allied air superiority was critical to success and very obvious to everyone involved – the sky was full of allied aircraft and the Luftwaffe hardly made an appearance. Air superiority in the twenty-first century is every bit as important, but these days is rather more ephemeral. There are far fewer aircraft and they operate mainly away from the front lines. There are satellites, missiles, air defence batteries, electronic waves, jammers, scammers, decoys and drones. It’s a complex battle-within-a-battle in which both sides are simultaneously attacking and defending as they play cat and mouse for the right to control the airspace above their tanks and troops and the vital supply lines that keep them going.

Deep-strike probing.  Both Russia and Ukraine have upped their long-range missile attacks, probing for high-value targets far behind the front lines in anticipation of the fighting to come. Russia has attempted a number of deep strikes against Ukrainian supply and logistics centres but there is so far little evidence of their effectiveness, given the success of current Ukrainian air defence. There is no doubt, however, that Moscow has changed its targeting set in its regular air attacks on Ukraine from critical infrastructure targets to military infrastructure and storage targets. On 14 May a Russian strike at Khmelnytsky, just on the Ukrainian side of the Polish border, appeared to hit a big arms cache – almost certainly valuable western equipment and ammunition – on its way into the country.

This attack came only two days after Ukraine launched deep-strike attacks on Luhansk using British-supplied Storm Shadow missiles. And these attacks appear to have worked in harness with the US’s Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) – a missile that can make itself look like several different aircraft or a flight of other missiles as it jams and scams a route to the target for a Storm Shadow flying far below it. Commanders in Moscow claim to be unconcerned by Storm Shadow’s range and penetration, but they must be worried. It was obviously a long-planned attack.

Only on Thursday 11 May did Britain announce it had given Storm Shadow to Kyiv – the day before they were first used. The logistics behind this announcement – and fitting a heavy weapon (1,300 kg) to only certain Ukrainian aircraft capable of carrying it – had been in preparation for some time. Britain informed the international Missile Technology Control Regime in advance of its announcement, as well as the Russian Ambassador in London. Supplying Storm Shadow was obviously intended not just to send a weapon to Ukraine, but also to send an important political message to Moscow.

The air-launched Storm Shadow does the same job as America’s ground-launched Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). Ukraine has long requested it, but Washington continues to withhold the ATACMS. In face of this, the key question for Ukraine is therefore how many Storm Shadows is it getting? Britain’s Storm Shadow inventory is thought to be between 700 and 1,000. Kyiv will probably need several hundreds from this stock, perhaps all of it, or from French stocks, before its offensive is concluded.

More Storm Shadow deep attacks can be anticipated in the near future. In particular, a significant wave of Storm Shadow attacks might be expected as the immediate prelude to the opening of Ukraine’s ground offensive, targeting rear areas and supply hubs – both to hit them but also to force Russia forces to keep supplies even further away from their own front lines.

The SEAD game. While both sides keep probing for key nodes in the opposition’s supply lines, they are also playing the SEAD game – the ‘suppression of enemy air defences’ battle. Only complete dominance can normally achieve the actual destruction of an opposition’s air defence system (DEAD), so they settle for its ‘suppression’ – to disrupt bits of it long enough to let the drones, missiles and bombers through to their targets.

A lot of bluff is involved. When a surface-to-air missile battery – a defensive SAM site – turns on its radars, it reveals its location many kilometers away and is then liable to be targeted itself. Russian SU-34s are currently flying from Crimea carrying Kh-31 anti-radiation missiles, designed to detect SAM radar emissions and attack the sites. They don’t yet intend to risk flying far enough into Ukrainian territory to do so. But they know that SAM sites detect their own Kh-31 emissions and are deterred from switching on their radars until it’s worth the risk. They play a game; trying to keep the SAM radars off to create defensive gaps, then later to provoke them into turning them on to make them easier to attack.

Meanwhile, Russian air defence sites in the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia are less elusive than Ukrainian sites have learned to be, and US-supplied AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles have proved effective once Ukrainian intelligence locates them.

The effect of Patriot batteries. The potential game-changer for Ukraine in this abstruse contest is the Patriot Air Defence System. Its very expensive. Each battery is worth over $1 billion ($400 million for the 8 launchers and $650million for a normal full complement of missiles). Ukraine has just begun to operate two batteries – eight launchers in each – supplied from the US and Germany. Patriot can hit more or less anything, even ballistic missiles, and is already being credited with bringing down – possibly five – of Russia’s ‘Kinzhal’ quasi-hypersonic missiles that President Putin boasted were impossible to stop. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin is making a big effort to target Ukraine’s Patriot batteries, so far without much success. Patriot is not small and not mobile. Its most vulnerable element is its phased-array radar. But it’s so good at defending itself, it will take a big Russian effort to disable a couple of batteries, and more Patriots will be on the way. Ironically, the easiest missile for a Patriot to engage is the one trying to target the battery itself, because at some point, it has to fly straight at it.

So Russia’s best tactics in the SEAD battle, seen since the start of this month, appear to be to try overwhelming Ukrainian defences with sheer numbers and run their defensive missile stocks down to the point where gaps will begin to appear. Moscow conducted fifteen waves of drone and missile assaults on Ukrainian territory after 10 October last year, roughly every two weeks, each attack lasting a few hours overnight. But on 1 May this year it began a sixteenth iteration with bombardments on a forty-eight-hour cycle that has delivered ten heavy attacks in twenty-one days.

Ukrainian defences have done very well so far against this latest onslaught, with interception rates of well over 90%. They’ve been both effective and lucky. But they will have to continue to be effective and lucky for some time to come. And missile usage rates within their myriad air defence systems – from Soviet S-300s and BUK-M1s, to German IRIS-Ts and American NASMS, Hawks and Patriots – will not, by all accounts, take them much beyond September. Of course, there are signs that Moscow’s missile and drone supplies are not unlimited – which is why Putin is increasingly dependent on help from Iran and North Korea – so both Moscow and Kyiv are having to weigh up how many chips they throw into the SEAD game before the main event begins on the ground.  

F-16s and the aircraft equation. Russia’s air force, the VKS, has so far completely failed to provide its ground troops with any consistent close air support (CAS). It’s the most dangerous thing any air force may have to do, and they all hate it. Nor has the VKS been capable of DEAD, and had only limited success with SEAD. Over the first 6 months of the war Ukraine was able to inflict a 5% loss rate on daily Russian sorties – a catastrophic level over several months – forcing Russian pilots to spend very little operational time over, or near, Kyiv-controlled territory. This was mainly down to fire from Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) units. Up to March 2023 Russian aircraft losses were independently confirmed – at a minimum – of 20 x SU-34s (from an active fleet of 130); 30 x SU-25 (active fleet of around 120); 37 x Ka-52 helicopters (active fleet of around 120) and 11 x Mi-28 (active fleet of around 120). Total fixed wing and rotary Russian aircraft losses were 94 out of an original active operational fleet of around 490, which is over 19%.

The VKS is, however, able to operate effective combat air patrols (CAPs) since its newest fighters – which Ukraine does not have – have longer range air-to-air missiles and can engage Ukrainian aircraft first without undue risk to themselves. Their chief vulnerabilities are to Ukrainian GBAD units which have proved more effective than expected. Once the Ukrainian ground offensive gets underway, it is anticipated that the VKS will accept greater levels of risk in order to operate more CAPs to create scope for their CAS assets to assist the ground forces more directly.

The US decision to allow the transfer to Ukraine of F-16 fighters is highly significant. Even the older versions of the F-16 are fourth generation multi-role aircraft – new to Ukraine – with NATO weapon sets that have the ability to conduct very effective SEAD operations, as well as combat air-patrols and, if necessary, close air support. At the moment, Ukrainian aircraft struggle to match Russia aircraft for control of the air, but sufficient numbers of F-16s would likely change that balance considerably. On the other hand, the earliest that F-16s might be operational in Ukraine would be during the autumn, at best, and probably later, in numbers that really counted.

More immediately, the Russian VKS has improvised a very effective weapon in the UPAB-1500B ‘glide bomb’, that makes the best of their practice of ‘standing-off’ as much as possible over Ukrainian airspace. It’s a big, cheap, ‘dumb bomb’ of which Russia has many, that is now fitted with wings and a basic GLONASS-based guidance system so that it can glide up to 40 kilometers and land accurately after being dropped from an aircraft. Its playing havoc in Ukrainian lines in the Donbas. Which is why President Zelensky had become so insistent on getting western aircraft. Ukraine needs western fighters now, in the coming battle, before Russian glide bombs can blunt its heavy metal once it starts moving. Of course, its far too late for that now. But as the ground offensive goes forward, the air battle will evolve with it. Decisions taken around the G7 summit this week could still have a big effect on Ukraine’s chances of success come the autumn.

Michael Clarke is co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I.B. Tauris, 2019 and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Taurus, 2021. He is the former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @MikeClarke2020s

Photograph copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021. Photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins