Attrition: Russian Air Force Attrition


May 12, 2024: Since invading Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has lost nearly 700 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. About half the losses have been the more expensive fixed wing fighter-bombers and specialized surveillance and electronic warfare aircraft. So far that is about ten percent of the official number of Russian military aircraft, counting all the ones nominally available including those out of service in storage. The worst aspect of this is that Russia is only able to replace five percent of these losses because the companies that build aircraft are too few to produce what is needed and were believed unable to increase production because of international economic sanctions.

This means that the Russian Air Force is fading away.  The process won’t stop and be reversed until Russia is free of all the economic sanctions. To cope with the current situation Russia has switched to a wartime economy, which increases resources for weapons and the defense budget in general. This comes at the expense of civilian living standards. Russians are becoming more outspoken about what the Ukraine War is doing to Russian living standards. The government reaction was to arrest and prosecute those who openly criticized the war. That did not halt the open criticism, and more Russians quietly supported the critics, especially those imprisoned.

Meanwhile the air force continues to lose aircraft and helicopters. Since early 2022, the Russians have lost about nearly 400 fighters, fighter-bombers, and attack aircraft. Most of the fighter losses were the modern Su-30/34/35 aircraft. The attack aircraft losses consisted of Su-24s and Su-25s. A similar number of helicopters have been lost.

 While Russia is unable to produce many replacement aircraft, Ukraine has received hundreds of aircraft and helicopters from its NATO supporters, with most being old Soviet models left over from the Cold War. Because of NATO aid, Ukrainian air defense grew stronger as the war went on and by 2023 Russian combat aircraft would no longer fly into Ukraine. Instead, Russian fighter-bombers or heavy bombers launched air-to-ground missiles from inside Russia and usually close to the Ukrainian border. Most of those missiles either failed because of defects or were shot down by Ukrainian Air-Defense systems. Russia still loses aircraft to accidents and lack of spare parts to keep aircraft operational.

This is changing because China has recently been quietly supplying materials, barred by Western sanctions, that enabled Russia to produce, missiles, tanks, and other armored vehicles and munitions at a faster pace over the last year than at any time since World War II

Russia was only able to reach these levels of production because of considerable help from China, which has shipped machine tools, microelectronics, and optics. Most of these items are coming from China and most of these goods are dual use, meaning they have commercial as well as military applications.

The United States has criticized China for this support because it enables Russia to continue fighting in Ukraine. There the Russians have adopted a scorched earth policy. This means concentrating on civilian infrastructure in an effort to make it difficult for the civilian population to survive.

The Chinese assistance has made it possible for Russia to rebuild and upgrade its defense industries. European diplomats tell China that these policies make Russia more of a threat to the rest of Europe as well as Ukraine. Since 2023, NATO countries have strived to prevent other countries from aiding the Russian war effort. This did not work with Iran and North Korea, which were quite willing to send weapons to Russia as long as Russia could pay for them, and this seems to be now happening with China. It’s unclear how Russia is paying for the much larger assistance they are now receiving from China because the Chinese are noted for not giving things away or even offering generous credit terms, that include the possibility of default.

The Chinese assisted revival of Russian defense production has not shown up in Ukraine yet, but it soon will and Ukrainians will find their losses are because of Chinese aid to the Russians. That is unusual because before the war, which actually began in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea, China had been eager to do business with Ukraine, even when it meant trouble for Russia. Now the Chinese are backing Russia in a big way for unexplained reasons. The Chinese aid will enable Russia to build more combat aircraft to replace heavy losses.

China has been building its own combat aircraft but it is unlikely that any of these J-10, J-11, J16 or J-20B aircraft will show up in Russia. The J-20B is particularly interesting because it is a Chinese designed stealth fighter that is actually in service. The only other nation to build and use stealth fighters is the United States with its F-22s and F-35s. 




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