The war in Ukraine has produced another bonanza of Russian weapons for the U.S. Air Force to scrutinize. For over half a century the U.S. Air Force has been on the lookout for Russian aircraft, missiles and electronic systems that were operational or could be made operational for testing. Ukraine is currently providing everything but aircraft to evaluate. That’s fine because Russia hasn’t produced any scary and mysterious combat aircraft since the Cold War ended. Electronics and missile systems are another matter.
Using captured or stolen enemy aircraft and equipment was a crucial aspect of World War II. If you knew the capabilities of enemy aircraft and electronics you could more easily defeat them. After the Cold War ended the U.S. Air Force revealed how many Russian combat aircraft they had obtained and regularly flown. A lot of Russian aircraft and other equipment came from Israel because of several wars with Russian equipped Arab forces. Israel delivered so much of this Russian gear that they essentially became partners with the U.S. in obtaining and evaluating Russian equipment. They shared what they had discovered and this made Russian forces much less effective if there was a war. Towards the end of the Cold War Russian military planners were dismayed when they learned how much the American had learned about performance and flaws of Russian equipment.
The U.S. also offered rewards for pilots of modern Russian fighters who defected. This brought in several modern Russian aircraft in flyable condition. Sometimes air force techs could restore a crashed Russian aircraft to flying condition. The air force was also eager to carry out live tests of Russian air defense systems. These tests enabled the U.S. to develop equipment of techniques that reduced the effectiveness of the Russian air defense systems. Israel was also very active in this area and that’s the main reason Russian air defense systems cannot bring down Israeli aircraft. The most modern Russian stuff can limit the performance of Israeli jets but not hit them or prevent the Israelis from completing a mission.
Ukraine is another example of this because the Ukrainian bag of tricks was ample enough to prevent the larger Russian air force from obtaining air superiority over Ukraine. It should not be a surprise because after Russia grabbed Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014, Ukrainians turned to the West, especially the U.S. for practical advice on how to neutralize the Russian air force. That’s why Ukraine is sharing all captured Russian gear with the United States. The Americans have more resources and experience evaluating the Russian gear and passing the findings on to the Ukrainians.
The Russians knew this was going on but underestimated the ability of the Ukrainians to implement what they learned from the Americans. The Ukrainians, like the Israelis, have plenty of incentive to use any advantage they can get to survive. Israel is not providing weapons to Ukraine in order to retain Russian cooperation in Syria against Iranian efforts to establish forces on the Israeli border. The Russians don’t complain about the flood of Israeli experience with new Russian weapons that reaches Ukraine via American advisors.
The new enemy with weapons performance mysteries is China. No press releases about how that effort is going but the first time American and Chinese systems get involved in combat, it will soon be clear what worked and what didn’t.