After a year of fighting, neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian air forces have been able to gain control of the skies over Ukraine. That has severely limited the role of its fighter jets and is a preview of what U.S. troops might face in the future, U.S. Air Force officials say.

Even though Russian and Ukrainian planes are still flying, each side’s air defense weapons, like the Soviet-era S-300 or the more recent US-made Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, have forced the other side to change its tactics. For example, instead of sending planes to provide close air support over the front lines, Russia has been sending less accurate rocket attacks from farther away.

U.S. Air Forces in Europe Commander James Hecker estimates that Russia and Ukraine have lost around 60 planes each. Hecker told reporters at an Air and Space Forces Association seminar on March 6 that both Russia’s stronger air force and Ukraine still have jets to dedicate to the fight but that there is a problem.

“The problem is that both the Russian and Ukrainian successes in integrated air and missile defense have rendered many of those planes useless. They’re not doing much because they can’t go and do close air support,” Hecker said.

Long-range sensors and missiles allow Russian planes to target Ukrainian planes behind the front lines, further limiting Ukrainian operations, but Kyiv’s planes continue to launch strikes against Russian forces, often relying on weaponry. American to do it.

Fighter jets are useless over Ukraine.
A Russian Su-35 shot down by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region in April 2022.

U.S. anti-radiation missiles, modified by American engineers for use by Soviet-Ukrainian planes, allow Ukrainian pilots to target Russian radars and anti-aircraft batteries, while U.S.-made kits, recently arrived, allow Ukrainian planes to launch gravity pumps from further distances.

With these weapons and other means, the Ukrainian air force can carry out “a couple of attacks a day” at distances “a bit greater than what HIMARS can now reach, but not very far,” Hecker explained.

According to U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. Charles Brown, the lack of close air support for Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and the tangle of air defense systems precludes it differs from what U.S. troops have faced in prior battles. 

“We can’t predict the future of the kind of environment we’re going to be fighting in, but I expect it to be a lot more contested,” Brown stated at the March 7 symposium. We won’t need as much close air support as we did in the Middle East since there wasn’t much of a threat from the sky or from the ground.

Asked about Hecker’s comments, Brown said it was “accurate” to say that “in a contested environment, it’s going to be difficult to execute close air support.”

“Close air support in a contested environment, that’s not what we do, no matter who you are,” Brown added.

Most Contested Environments

Fighter jets are useless over Ukraine.
An A-10 over Afghanistan in February 2011.

Since assuming command of the Air Force in August 2020, Brown has claimed that future conflicts will be more complicated and lethal.

Brown’s flagship initiative, “Accelerate Change or Lose,” has sought to replace aircraft and other aspects of the force unsuited for that environment, including the A-10 Thunderbolt, a ground attack designed in the 1970s specifically for close air support missions.

Congress has been against getting rid of the A-10 for a long time because it doesn’t have a direct replacement. In December, though, they gave in and let the Air Force get rid of 21 of them in 2023. The service had planned to retire all 260. 

remaining in the early 2030s, but Brown suggested it may happen faster, saying the planes will “probably” be “out of our inventory” in the next five to six years.

“The A-10 is a great plane. It’s a great place in an uncontested environment. The challenge is that we will be in more contested environments in the future,” Brown said, adding that fighter commanders worldwide have little interest in it because it is “a single mission aircraft.”

Other planes can fill that role, Brown said. “I’ve flown F-16s doing close air support. I have flown our bombers in combat doing close air support. We can do close air support, the F-35, and all the other platforms.”

Although it is widely acknowledged that modern anti-aircraft weapons are more effective against the A-10 because of the aircraft’s low and slow flying, many experts and observers have expressed skepticism that any other aircraft could carry out the same close air support missions as the A-10 Thunderbolt.

The apparent reduction in training requirements has also raised concerns about the atrophy of close air support skills among U.S. pilots.

A Ukrainian Su-25 close air support aircraft flies low over the Donetsk region in June 2022.
A Ukrainian Su-25 close air support aircraft flies low over the Donetsk region in June 2022.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Kelly, who is also responsible for training all American fighter pilots, has said that the Air Force’s approach to close air support (CAS) is likely to change but that the A-10 pilots’ pervasiveness throughout the force means they will continue to shape the service’s strategy for the mission.

“one of the best things I saw was the influence of, say, an A-10 airman on a Strike Eagle, an A-10 airman on an F-35,” Kelly said at the symposium on March 7. “They bring not just a mindset but a set of skills that we need to continue to do that mission.” Kelly has been a pilot who has been assigned to different aircraft.

“We have to do it a little bit differently,” Kelly said of future CAS operations, “so we’re going to have to put our sensors in there, and we’re going to have to put our weapons in there” to support troops in combat.

Kelly compared the fighting in Ukraine, which has become an artillery battle with heavy casualties on both sides, to Operation Desert Storm, which was followed by a six-week US-led air campaign to destroy Iraqi aircraft and air defenses.

Kelly said the U.S. Air Force must be able to conduct those missions “at the time and place” to avoid ground soldier losses.

I continue to believe there will be some CAS. I believe it will be quite different,” Kelly remarked. “We must ensure that they understand that any weapon that comes out of a plane and hits someone in front of them comes out of an American jet,” not the other way around.