The US has 'lost air superiority', and that's bad news for Ukraine

A Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border is sparking fears of drone warfare

TRANSBAIKAL TERRITORY, RUSSIA  SEPTEMBER 13, 2018: Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles take part in the main stage of the Vostok 2018 military exercise held jointly by the Russian Armed Forces and the Chinese People's Liberation Army at the Tsugol range. Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defence Ministry Press Office/TASS (Photo by Vadim Savitsky\TASS via Getty Images)
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With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops, backed by heavy armour and warplanes, said to be massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, there are understandable fears that the build-up might lead to the resumption of hostilities between the two countries.

An uneasy stalemate, punctuated by occasional bouts of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces, has settled on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since Russia launched its military offensive in 2014, which resulted in the capture and annexation of Crimea.

The presence of another large concentration of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border is especially worrying as Moscow recently has accused Kiev of trying to disrupt water supplies to Crimea.

The possibility of renewed hostilities, moreover, raises the prospect of the conflict broadening well beyond the confines of Ukraine’s eastern border, as Ukrainian forces are now receiving military support from key Western allies, such as the US and Britain.

In his annual State of the Union address on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the potential significance of rising tensions between Moscow and the West when he warned the US and its allies not to cross a “red line” with Russia, saying such a move would trigger an “asymmetrical, rapid and harsh” response.

This photo released on Thursday, April 22, 2021 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, shows a Russian military vehicle preparing to be loaded into a plane for airborne drills during maneuvers in Crimea. The Russian military is conducting massive drills in Crimea involving dozens of navy ships and thousands of troops in a show of force amid tensions with Ukraine. The maneuvers were described as the largest since Russia annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula in 2014 and threw its weight behind separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
A Russian military vehicle preparing to be loaded into a plane for airborne drills during manoeuvres in Crimea. AP
An uneasy stalemate has settled on the Donbas region

Mr Putin’s comments were made in light of what he sees as Western interference in both Ukraine and Belarus – two countries that Moscow regards as falling within its natural sphere of influence – as well as the West’s support for Alexei Navalny, the prominent Russian opposition politician.

In addition, the US has imposed a new round of sanctions against Moscow, and expelled ten Russian officials, following accusations of Russian hacking in the US and allegations that Moscow tried to interfere in the recent US presidential election. This has prompted Mr Putin to assert that Western powers are constantly trying to "pick on" Russia and threaten the stability of its ex-Soviet neighbours.

"We don't want to burn bridges,” the Russian president declared, “but if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid and harsh. We'll decide for ourselves in each case where the red line is. The organisers of any provocations against Russia will regret [their actions] in a way they never have before."

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesperson, later described the "red lines" as "our external security interests, our internal security interests in preventing any outside interference, whether in our elections or other domestic political processes".

The sheer size of the Russian military force amassing on Ukraine’s border certainly adds weight to Western concerns that Mr Putin is preparing to defend his so-called “red lines” by force, and US President Joe Biden has responded to the deepening crisis by dispatching two American warships to the Black Sea as a deterrent.

Mounting concern in the White House over the Ukraine crisis prompted Mr Biden earlier this month to telephone Mr Putin personally to underline Washington’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to offer to meet the Russian lead face-to-face at a neutral, third-country location.

The White House later issued a statement explaining that, in the phone call, the President had made clear that the US will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to Russia's actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference.

The Kremlin has yet to respond to Mr Biden’s offer of arranging a summit between the two leaders, and insists its military build-up close to Ukraine is nothing more than part of the annual military exercises conducted every year to test the readiness of Russian forces. Nevertheless, so long the build-up continues, the prospect of a flare-up remains, requiring forces in both Russia and the West to remain on a high state of alert.

A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces stands guard at fighting positions in Horlivka near the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, April 21, 2021. Picture taken April 21, 2021. REUTERS/Marian Kushnir
A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces stands guard at fighting positions in Horlivka near the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, on April 21, 2021. Reuters

One important factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that, if there are to be renewed hostilities, the conflict will be very different to the more conventional military operations that have characterised previous clashes. For, thanks to new technological advances, the landscape of the modern-day battlefield is being transformed beyond recognition, as can be seen from the deployment of new weaponry and tactics at such varied locations as Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Ukraine. In all these instances, the fighting has revealed important new developments in modern war-fighting technology, where smaller units rely increasingly on modern technological developments to achieve rapid success on the battlefield.

The recent success Azerbaijani forces enjoyed in capturing territory in the disputed Caucasus territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is a good example. Rather than sending infantry units to tackle well-fortified Armenian positions, the Azerbaijanis achieved their objectives by employing Turkish TB2 drones, which destroyed hundreds of armoured vehicles and air defence systems.

In a closed briefing to a congressional committee in Washington on Wednesday, the head of US Central Command, Gen Frank McKenzie, told politicians that “for the first time since the Korean War, [the US] is operating without complete air superiority”. His comments were in reference to drone attacks launched at Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group with suspected Iranian assistance.

But arguably the most impressive example of modern technology working hand-in-hand with traditional military firepower emerged during Russia’s earlier 2014 assault on eastern Ukraine, when intelligence acquired from the internet and drones was integrated with Russian missile systems to achieve a decisive defeat of Ukrainian forces.

Consequently, while the build-up of a large Russian force on the Ukrainian border is the cause of current security concerns, any future conflict is likely to be decided by the deployment of new technological advances, such as drones and integrated missile systems, rather than cumbersome conventional forces.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National