We, 31.05.2023

Russia is creating a flying «private army» within the Air Force

Erkki Koort
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The wreckage of a warplane burns after it crashed near Yenakijeve, Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.
The wreckage of a warplane burns after it crashed near Yenakijeve, Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. Photo: AP / Scanpix
  • The impact of the special unit of the Air Force to be created is local.
  • The news suggests a lack of cooperation between different aircraft types.
  • The unit is also a sign of a lack of pilots and low motivation.

Unexplained events are taking place with the Russian Air Force, during which their aircraft are destroyed, and they also seem to have strange plans, writes security expert Erkki Koort.

There is a joke circulating on the net about the level of the Ukrainian president's English skills. If a few years ago it corresponded to the B1 level, in 2023 it will be the F-16.

Getting modern warplanes for Ukraine is undoubtedly important and would also make the counter-offensive more successful, but the modern planes will not arrive before autumn. It takes time from the decision to the creation of training, delivery and logistics. Still, this is very good news, because the US decision to allow the delivery of warplanes shows that the West is ready to support Ukraine in the war with Russia for a long time to come.

Is Russia creating a new air force?

If there is any clarity about the Ukrainian air force, the Russian air force seems more and more mysterious. There has been a long discussion about the possibility that Russia will carry out large-scale airstrikes or destroy the equipment supplied to the Ukrainians from the West. This has not happened. As there have been no major air operations either. There are attacks by individual planes in Ukraine and bragging on the borders.

On May 22, 2023, British military intelligence reported a development in the Russian Air Force. Namely, according to intelligence data from the United Kingdom, Russia is creating a new elite air force unit «Storm». According to published data, it consists of at least one squadron of Su-24 attack bombers and Su-34 fighters. A squadron of attack helicopters will also be added to them. From the formation plan of the unit, British intelligence deduces that they will be used mainly against ground targets. This is probably true because the air force is also small in Ukraine now.

The unit is said to be trying to attract highly qualified and motivated pilots. They are offered a better salary than usual, and efforts are also being made to attract retired military pilots back.

According to the British, the creation of the group shows Russia's assessment of the effectiveness of its air force. They have not achieved their goals, nor have they been able to act in a coordinated manner.

According to Kiev, Russia has lost approximately 300 aircraft since February 2022. At the same time, the actual losses are higher, because Ukraine does not include planes that have been destroyed at airfields in Russia or occupied Crimea. Moscow has also lost dozens of aircraft through accidents, and on May 13 alone, Russia lost 4 aircraft in the Bryansk region under confusing circumstances.

Two things follow from Russia's actions. Just like the entire army, the Air Force is not so capable than it was tried to present. The Syrian experience rather reinforced tactics where individual planes attack and there was no need for cooperation between larger groups. Due to this, it is not possible to act jointly in the war against Ukraine. The fact, that the formation of joint groups of different Russian air assets is news, indicates the very poor quality of the air force there.

What does that really mean?

Even now, nothing has prevented the Russian Air Force from forming different battle groups, squadrons or other formations. Practicing various aircraft is very necessary for the successful execution of a combat mission.

The special unit to be created will consist of Su-24 bombers and Su-34 fighters protecting them. Helicopters whose brand is not specified will also be added. The helicopters are apparently tasked with fire control and pilot evacuation.

There are usually 12 aircraft in one squadron, which makes their total number at least 36. The number seems very high, but it is not enough for a successful attack on Ukraine. According to experts, this is not enough to successfully attack even one air base, let alone a city. It is rather against a very single target like an anti-aircraft battery. It is not excluded that it is the improvement of Ukrainian air defense that has forced to form such a unit.

A unit with 36 aircraft requires about a hundred pilots and the same number of flight technicians. The large number comes from the fact that during the intensive period flying is done in shifts, and for this it must be possible to deploy 2-3 pilots per aircraft. Since the existing cooperation between different types of aircraft is tight, it takes at least 2-3 months to train the unit.

According to public sources, the newly created unit will have a higher salary and retired pilots will also be called back. This in turn points to two shortcomings - lack of pilots and lack of motivation.

All in all, it is certain that the creation of only one such unit will not give a great military effect, but it will create the conditions for attacking individual high-value land objects. One such unit can create a local air bubble for a moment, but it quickly closes in favor of the Ukrainians. Hopefully, the F-16s given to Ukraine would allow the Ukrainians to shoot down at least half of the aircraft of this «special unit» before they reach the combat zone.

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