Su-35s secure air superiority: deciphering the Avdiivka triumph

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In a surprising turn of events, Russia has been unsuccessful in securing air dominance in Ukraine, catching military observers off guard. However, there is evidence to suggest that temporary and localized air superiority was achieved by Russia during the recent assault to seize Avdiivka. This move supported their ground forces in the final moments of the offensive. 

Photo credit: Twitter

This is a significant development, marking the first instance of Russia successfully obtaining air superiority. If Ukraine’s air defense missile stock runs out as predicted in March 2024, there’s a possibility that Russia will replicate Avdiivka’s success. 

The US-based research institute, Institute for the Study of War [ISW], warns that the delay in Western security assistance could potentially limit the Ukrainian air defenses further. 

Contrastingly, the Russian Air Force has had an underwhelming presence in Ukraine since the war’s inception in 2022. Sustaining substantial losses of significant aircraft, they have maintained a status of “air parity,” not superiority. 

The Russian Air Force has endured major losses. Losses include a 40 percent reduction of their Kamov Ka-52 Hokum B attack helicopter fleet compared to pre-war levels. The Mil Mi-35 Hind and Mi-28N Havoc B stores have also been significantly depleted. 

Russia’s Mi-8MTPR-1 HIP electronic warfare helicopters have also experienced a decline of at least 20 percent since the war’s onset. Along with the loss of their two-seater Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback fighter ground-attack aircraft and Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft, these figures will be included in the 2024 edition of The Military Balance. 

Photo credit: UAC

According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian forces have assumed “full control” of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, as their forces continued their advancement. This suggests that Ukrainian forces may have decided to withdraw from Avdiivka. 

Geographical footage from February 17 shows that Russian forces have penetrated further north of Avdiivka, along the railway line. They have also made their way into the eastern section of the Avdiivka Coke Plant and the industrial area near the Avdiivka quarry. Additional location-specific footage verifies that Russian forces have advanced from the south into central Avdiivka, securing the City Administration and Palace of Culture buildings. 

The ISW’s assessment of the Russian campaign in Avdiivka reveals that usage of glide bombs in the theater has steadily increased since 2023. 

According to a spokesperson for a Ukrainian brigade operating near Avdiivka, Russian forces released 60 KAB glide bombs in one day on February 17. Reports suggest that up to 500 such bombs were launched at Avdiivka in recent days. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Capable of reaching distances up to 70 kilometers, glide bombs are now being utilized by Russian forces to execute deep strikes within their territory using tactical aircraft, thus minimizing the loss of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. 

Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander, Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, stated that a record-breaking 73 airstrikes were conducted by Russian forces in the Tavriisk direction [which stretches from Avdiivka through western Zaporizhia Oblast] on February 14. This corresponds with the intensified tactical movement within Avdiivka by the Russian forces. 

Russian military bloggers attribute the weakening of Ukrainian defenses in Avdiivka to the use of glide bombs. This has led to claims that Russian forces have achieved air superiority in the region. 

An instructor from the Russian Storm-Z stated that Russian forces had previously struggled with conducting mass airstrikes in close air support operations. 

As highlighted in the ISW report, “The success of Russian forces in launching intense strikes over consecutive days in the most active area of the front line suggests that Ukrainian forces were unsuccessful in preventing them from accessing airspace around Avdiivka.”

There is weight loss

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Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Rustem Umerov, emphasized on February 17 the importance of bolstering the country’s modern air defense systems, citing the need to contain the threat from Russian glide bombs. This crucial insight emerged from the defense operations carried out in Avdiivka. 

The challenge that Ukrainian forces face is to neutralize the Russian Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft launching glide bombs deeply from the safety of Russian territory to halt the bombing activity. 

Warnings from Ukrainian officials highlight a looming crisis as the country grapples with a critical shortage of air defense missiles. An assessment by American officials, as reported by the New York Times on February 9th, forecasts the depletion of Ukrainian air defense missile supplies by March 2024 unless Western security forces step in to replenish them. 

With an exhaustively dwindling supply chain, Ukraine finds itself at a strategic crossroads. Against the backdrop of constant missile and drone attacks on populated areas, Ukraine must make some hard decisions regarding which regions will benefit from air defense protection. 

Photo by Alex Beltyukov

“Achieving a pervasive disruption of air supremacy would permit Russian forces to routinely undertake large-scale aviation operations, laying waste to Ukrainian cities beyond the frontline,” warns the ISW report. 

On paper, Ukrainian forces have shot down three Russian fighter jets, two Su-34s, and a Su-35 over Donetsk Oblast, as of February 17. This statistic suggests that Ukraine simply doesn’t have sufficient air defense resources to safeguard the entire country. Confirmed reports indicate Russian advancements near Bakhmut and Avdiivka, and westward towards Zaporizhia Oblast. 

In addition, Russian forces have been tweaking their technology to gain an edge in Ukraine. A Russian military blogger divulged on February 17 that tests are currently being conducted on the Russian “Hermes” missile system on both Ukrainian grounds and training areas in Russia. 

The “Hermes” system is a versatile, guided missile system designed for both ground and air usage, and can also double as an anti-naval missile or coastal defense setup.

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