On Monday morning, as columns of armored vehicles and soldiers paraded through Moscow in celebration of Russia’s 1945 victory over Germany in World War II, one element of Russian military power was conspicuously missing: its warplanes. And though officials blamed their grounding on bad weather, Russian planes, pilots and air-to-ground weapons have all grossly underperformed in the war against Ukraine. The absence underscored President Vladimir V. Putin’s failure to build a capable modern air force, as Russian aircrews race in and out of Ukrainian airspace and heave unguided bombs while fleeing enemy surface-to-air missiles that Moscow has still not managed to destroy, even after 75 days of combat.
Russian warplanes are generally flying 200 to 300 sorties each day, a senior Defense Department official told reporters during a briefing on Monday, but have failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine, which continues to fly its own fighters and attack jets against Russian troops. And as the war stretches into its third month, Russia has already expended many of its most accurate weapons, such as cruise missiles and both short and medium range ballistic missiles.
On May 2, the Pentagon said Russia had fired more than 2,125 such weapons since the invasion began. Their use dropped sharply after the second week of the war, Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, said in a speech on Monday. The Russians “have blown through” many of their precision-guided munitions, said the senior US official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on details of Russia’s shortcomings. “In fact, they continue to hit Mariupol with a lot of dumb bombs.”
The official also said that sanctions and export controls established after Russia invaded Ukraine had limited Moscow’s access to the kinds of electronic components it needed to build guided weapons, thus affecting Mr. Putin’s ability to restock his military with modern aerial munitions.
Russia’s lack of guided weapons, and their often poor accuracy when used, offers more indications of just how far behind Moscow’s armed forces are compared with Western militaries. Instead of being able to quickly target Ukrainian troops and moving vehicles with laser- or satellite-guided bombs, Russia has largely shown it can hit only fixed targets like military buildings or civilian population centers — either by firing volleys of unguided artillery shells and rocket attacks at them, U.S. officials said, or by using large guided ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles that often fail or are inaccurate.
Russian warplanes continue to rely on unguided bombs that are crude, compared even with those the United States built immediately after World War II. Whereas the standard American Mark-80 series of bombs used by NATO can be readily reconfigured for different missions and have a forged steel body, the Russian counterpart is welded together. One senior intelligence official said the Russian design favors cheap mass production over accuracy, and requires much less assembly before flight — which makes those bombs a more attractive option for use by comparatively untrained Russian forces.
The guided munitions Russia has been using are limited to air-launched Kh-101 cruise missiles deployed from Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers flying in Russian and Belarusian airspace; ground-launched short- and medium-range ballistic missiles like Tochka and Iskander; and a small number of Kalibr cruise missiles fired from warships at sea, one official said.
Comment: I knew things were bad when Russia used Bastion anti-ship missiles a week or two ago to target Odesa. Yesterday Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles hit Odesa from Black Sea Fleet ships. Two Tu-22M3 Backfire Bombers flying out of Khmeimim AB in Syria were also used to launch cruise missiles at Odesa. They’re scrounging for stuff to throw at Ukraine. A couple more months of this and they’ll be breaking out the catapults and trebuchets. And they still can’t stop the trains. Looks like the “arsenal of democracy” is going to call the shots again.