Abstract. This paper considers the most important operational-tactical and military-technical problems of building and developing the strike aviation of Russia’s Aerospace Forces in light of the main factors and trends inherent in military conflicts at the beginning of the 21st century.
An analysis of military conflicts in the last decades of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries reveals a number of operational-tactical and systemic-technological factors determining both the effectiveness and development of the strike aviation of Russia’s Aerospace Forces (ASF) and the nature of combat and special missions performed by aviation, as well as forms of its employment and methods of its operations.
The first factor is connected to the development by countries with the most advanced aviation of high-precision weapons, including those using hypersonic technology, and to the rapid reequipment of strike aviation with the most advanced weaponry. Their combat employment can be clearly seen in the transformation of corresponding trends based on the results of military conflicts of the past three decades and current military conflicts involving Russian Armed Forces and US-led Western coalition forces.1,2
General conclusions from the results of military conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st century, as far as combat aviation is concerned, can be reduced to the following main points.
1. Starting from the first concentrated fire attacks, the main combat missions of aviation have consisted in destroying, throughout the depth of enemy territory, important aboveground and abovewater installations pertaining to state and military control, economy, power industry, communications, air and missile defense, and army and naval forces. Among the important installations to be destroyed, a special group was so-called vital installations whose destruction would strongly affect the ability of the top military and political leadership to exercise state and military control, use power systems, and ensure the combat readiness of troops (forces).
2. From the very start of combat operations, all air defense and missile defense systems and assets, enemy aviation in the air and at air bases, and respective air defense and aviation control systems and centers were destroyed right away in an effort to achieve air superiority.
3. Necessary battlefield air interdiction missions were carried out in addition to operations for the massive destruction of enemy armor; artillery; defense strongpoints and centers of resistance; petroleum, oil, and lubricants storage depots; ammunition and armament warehouses; communication and supply lines; and other top priority installations.
4. Practically every local war or armed conflict of a US-led Western coalition of NATO countries has started with an air offensive during which aviation delivered from one to three concentrated missile and air strikes (CMAS) using new high-precision weapons (HPW)3: AGM-84 SLAM-ER, AGM-86D CALCM, Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles and guided missiles (including missiles with bomb kinetic energy penetrators for destroying hard and deeply buried targets); CBU-105 WCMD SFW, CBU-97 SFW, CBU-107 WCMD cluster air bombs with homing submunitions; JDAM, AASM smart bombs; and several other types of aviation weapons.
5. From one conflict to the next, the share of HPW used by the Western coalition of NATO countries has constantly risen – from 35% in the war with Yugoslavia (1999) up to 68% in the war with Iraq (2003).
6. Aviation operated, as a rule, beyond the reach of enemy air defense and after its preliminary neutralization, which practically eliminated or minimized combat losses.
7. In the conflicts, all the most advanced and modernized manned and unmanned combat (strike) aircraft systems (ACS) were used, including for their operational testing.
Similar trends are evident when assessing the results of the use of Russian combat aviation in the special military operation in Ukraine. During the operation, long-range aviation (LRA) and operational-tactical aviation (OTA) launched several massive and multiple air attacks on key Ukrainian infrastructure using Kh-101 long-range cruise missiles; Kh-22, Kh-32, Kh-35U operational-tactical antiship missiles; Kinzhal hypersonic missiles; and Kh-59 longer-range guided missiles. In addition, multiple strikes were delivered using Geran-2 long-range, long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Long- and medium-range air defense installations were immediately attacked by Su-35S and Su-30SM OTA aircraft that struck radio-wave emitting targets with Kh-31PM and Kh-58UShK antiradar missiles.
Military conflicts of the past three decades have confirmed the importance of strike (multifunctional) aviation and its steadily increasing significance in combat and special missions.
The second factor relates to the implementation of a set of programs by the US, Western NATO countries, and Russian Armed Forces aimed at creating favorable conditions for the rapid deployment of reconnaissance-strike (information-reconnaissance-strike) systems in military operation areas in order to form a common information and intelligence domain, making it possible to set up a flexible system for neutralizing a potential adversary in military operation areas up to and including the whole theater of operations (TO) or strategic direction (SD). A common information and intelligence domain is formed and updated through the reliable functioning and widespread use of global satellite navigation and communications systems forming a field of combat control in the TO (SD); a constellation of surveillance satellites for conducting radio engineering reconnaissance and radar and imagery intelligence; surface and air reconnaissance forces and assets; aerial components of reconnaissance-strike systems comprising ACS of aerial radar picket and surveillance (ARPS), airborne operations centers (ABOCs) and UAVs, and combat control signals and communication retransmission stations; a system of automated command posts in small and large units of various combat arms and Armed Services; ground-based stations receiving and processing space and aerial reconnaissance information; and systems automating the planning of the use of HPW and development of combat and flight missions that are located at headquarters and command posts with various application fields.
The third factor is connected to the transformation of practically all combat ACS (strategic aircraft, land-based and sea-based multirole fighters, attack aircraft, military transport aircraft, gunship and assault helicopters, reconnaissance-strike systems with UAVs) into carriers of the most advanced high-precision strike weapons. As a result, such air groupings are now able to perform not just tactical and operational but strategic missions in any military conflict, which poses a great threat to an adversary. At the same time, the increasing dependency of the course and outcome of a military conflict of any scale on the results of strike operations of the armed forces’ aviation component is becoming a generally recognized trend.
The fourth factor, which has already become a norm, is the desire of technologically advanced nations to implement the concept of conducting noncontact strike operations in a common strategic information-combat (network-centric) domain. For example, the US is already accumulating considerable stockpiles of long-range air-launched cruise missiles (with a range of 900 km or more) – up to 10,000 missiles. Tests are being done to explore the technological capabilities of the simultaneous and massive use of as many as 36 AGM-154 and JASSM-ER cruise missiles from В-1В and В-52Н strategic bombers. The possibility is being considered of deploying these missiles from US medium and heavy military transport aircraft using parachute systems to drag several containers housing four to 12 cruise missiles each out of the fuselage.
The principal factors requiring specification of aspects of improving combat methods are modernized and new ACS and aviation armaments (including a new generation of hypersonic weapons) that have entered service with strike aviation. The creation and development of hypersonic weapon systems make it possible to transition to preparing and conducting military operations characterized by delivering strikes from the air and/or outer space on targets located throughout the depth of enemy territory.
One topical issue of using strike aviation in present-day and future military conflicts is the need to build up and maintain the strike power of air groupings in the main TO (SD). For this purpose, it is necessary to continue implementing the following main lines of improving the organizational structure and armament system of the air force as part of the ASF:
● Within the Long Range Aviation Command and air force and air defense armies, establishing trained aviation units possessing advanced strike capabilities, equipped with advanced high-precision medium- and long-range airborne weapons, which will make it possible to rapidly concentrate the air strike groupings’ striking power in the most threatening TO (SD) at a required time and place.
● Having, in all large aviation units of the ASF, organic air reconnaissance aviation units equipped with manned and unmanned aircraft systems, including reconnaissance-strike versions. Specialized units equipped with strike (reconnaissance-strike) UAVs capable of operating both independently and as part of composite task forces of both manned and unmanned aviation need to be deployed in all large aviation units.
● For effective combat use of HPW in large units and units of the Long Range Aviation Command and air force and air defense armies, it is necessary to deploy units (centers) that develop combat and flight assignments for planning the use of and employing HPW and hypersonic weapons with terminal guidance systems by ACS.
● Nowadays, concurrently with the creation of hypersonic robotic systems and weapons using new physical principles, a key role is played by the development and application of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Expert estimates show that the effectiveness of weapons increases five to 15 times if they are designed and produced based on AI technologies.4
● The grouping of ARPS ACS in the ASF air force is currently quite small, which precludes its prolonged use in several strategic directions at once. The numerical strength of this grouping needs to be augmented.
● An extremely important aspect in the development of ASF strike aviation forces and assets is improving intelligence information support in a TO (SD), primarily in relation to surveillance and communications satellites as well as automated control centers.
When selecting options for building up the striking power of aviation units in the main TO (SD) in the mid-term and more distant perspective, it is necessary to consider the effectiveness of ACS formation; the current pace of equipping ASF aviation units with new aircraft, helicopters and UAV systems; as well as the decommissioning of aviation equipment after their service life has expired. Today, several different strategies on improving the availability of advanced equipment in the fleet of aircraft, helicopters, and UAV systems objectively exist in the ASF. An analysis and assessment of the existing aviation fleet show that with consideration to various modifications, there are many ACS of various classes and types, and some of them are available in limited editions.
Obviously, from an economic standpoint, it is preferable for the main aviation branches to transition to a reduced list of combat ACS types by unifying them and making them multifunctional. The transition to several main types of multifunctional standardized combat ACS will require overcoming a number of organizational issues related to specifying the purpose, role, and place of branches of OTA; redistributing the tasks and targets and fire engagement boundaries (zones) within the branches; and establishing a composite structure of aviation units comprising manned aircraft systems and UAV systems.
We can say with a great deal of certainty that both attack and bomber aviation have fused together into one branch – strike aviation. Essentially, already today and especially in the future, reconnaissance aviation as a branch of the OTA will organizationally turn into aviation units of manned and unmanned reconnaissance-strike ACS. The units will perform both operational and strategic missions. Most likely, such formations will, in view of their significance, be directly subordinate to a central command of joint forces in a TO (SD), although organizationally they may be organic to large LRA and OTA units.
Another problem that is just as important is improving the control and intelligence and information support systems of strike aviation combat operations. The main goal of developing control and intelligence and information support (IIS) systems must be to enhance the effectiveness of the combat use of aviation units in the ASF and the quality of addressing administrative tasks, reducing the duration of combat operation preparation cycles. An up-to-date control and IIS system must be organizationally and technologically ready to enter service with new and prospective strike (multifunctional) ACS both in terms of the preparedness level of military control bodies and in the capabilities of the systems and complexes that automate control and communications.
The main lines in the development of control and IIS systems must envisage that in the near future, AI-enabled and robotic systems and complexes of aviation armament may constitute more than half of the combat strength of the ASF air force, which will require further considerable development of a common information-reconnaissance-strike domain in a TO (SD).
An especially acute problem is establishing (developing, maintaining) an airfield network in a TO (SD) for basingstrike aviation and accumulating and storing aviation weapons in advance. At present, the ASF cannot have such air groupings in all main strategic directions required for performing the necessary number of strike missions. Establishing required air groupings in the Western or Eastern strategic direction would require redeploying strike aviation units from some regions to others. This problem is most acute with respect to air force and air defense army units. It will require organizing the refueling of large groups of aircraft, optimizing space-time traffic schedules for various flight echelons, and ensuring the reliable monitoring and control of flights of ASF aviation units.
An analysis of the combat influence zones of ASF aviation units operating from their base airfields reveals all the complexity of performing combat missions effectively when launching multiple air attacks practically from the middle of the country both in the West and the East. It is evident that, without building up an airfield network, aviation units cannot rapidly reach the designated combat employment areas on an on-call basis or according to plans, stay in the areas as long as required, attack targets with relatively inexpensive but effective weapons, redeploy if necessary to other areas to perform fire missions, and return safely to their airfields.
During present-day and future military conflicts, ASF aviation units must use new nontraditional forms and methods of strike actions based on widespread use of reconnaissance-strike and IIS, inter-theater and intraregional maneuvers, and massive air strikes with simultaneous electronic suppression of enemy weapon and troop control systems. This factor and some other circumstances require specifying and developing new forms and methods of using aviation units in combat operations.
During present-day and future military conflicts involving Armed Services and combat arms of the Russian Armed Forces, deep fire engagement of the enemy by ASF aviation units in near real time may be performed at the operational level in the form of joint combat operations in temporary strike (fire) complexes formed in a SD when striking key enemy installations using all-arms forces and aviation, ground forces, and naval assets. Given the nature of their formation, functioning, and missions, such strike (fire) complexes are reconnaissance-strike combat systems that must be characterized by rapid combat mission planning, combat and flight tasks development, and HPW delivery to targets.
Currently, the following methods of using units armed with strike and multifunctional ACS can be considered new (prospective).
● a preemptive massive air strike of air force and air defense armies and LRA Command using long-range HPW against installations of state and military control and the zonal air defense and missile defense system, stationary positions of nuclear missile assets, strategic and tactical aviation air bases, as well as naval installations of the enemy
● long-range group air-to-air (antimissile) combat of fighter aviation units and Okhotnik (Grom) UAVs for destroying enemy air targets
● a consecutive group air strike by Tu-22M3 and MiG-31K aircraft units using hypersonic long-range antiship missiles against sea-based and land-based enemy targets
● aerospace combat of crews, fighter aviation units when destroying hypersonic aerial vehicles in the atmosphere-space environment, aerospace aircraft, and special space vehicles in low flight orbits
● antimissile combat of crews, fighter aviation units when destroying nonstrategic ballistic missiles and interceptor missiles of enemy missile defense.
The developing methods of the combat employment of ASF strike aviation units in present-day and future military conflicts will be increasingly influenced by the level of tactical training of flight crews, UAV system operators, and combat crews of control centers and command posts. In the process of building the skills required of commanders, pilots, and engineers to effectively perform combat (special) missions, special importance will be assigned to practical forms of their tactical training.
Practical training of ASF aviation units’ personnel, which encompasses inculcating their combat, moral, and resolute qualities, is aimed at preparing combat crews of control centers and command posts and personnel – using advanced tactical training simulation facilities – to perform combat and special missions as members of a crew, team, unit, and large unit under any combat conditions in any TO (SD). To implement advanced effective forms of tactical simulation training, a new generation of simulation systems and a network of simulation training centers for ASF flight personnel must be developed.
Tactical training simulation systems make it possible to perform goal-oriented simulation training of manned and unmanned aviation crews, and combat crews of control centers and command posts in aviation units for performing combat missions in the form of real combat flight assignments in any geographical region, as well as developing and evaluating new methods and tactical techniques of the combat employment of ACS based on modeling combat operations through the use of a common information-modeling domain.
An assessment of the experience of ASF aviation units’ combat operations in recent military conflicts shows that long-range HPW are playing an increasingly larger role in the fire engagement of the enemy. This is because ASF aviation units armed with long-range HPW are an effective first-strike force for destroying military and state control installations, infrastructure, power facilities, military industrial installations, and other targets. Destruction of the aforementioned targets solves the main set of tasks of defeating the military and economic potential of an aggressor state.
The capability of ASF aviation units to deliver long-range HPW strikes against vital enemy installations throughout the depth of the adversary’s territory can change the perception of military operations principles and will make it possible to end the use of some traditional forms of combat.
Fire engagement of the enemy with the large-scale use of long-range airborne HPW necessitates specification of the tasks of ASF strike aviation in present-day combat operations. A principal factor requiring specification of its tasks is the advent of hypersonic weapons in military inventories. In this connection, the following new tasks of ASF aviation units should be named: destruction of maritime enemy targets with hypersonic weapons in conjunction with naval forces and assets; destruction of high-altitude long-range, long-endurance strike and reconnaissance UAVs; destruction of installations in an enemy nuclear missile grouping and enemy missile defense in military-geographically remote areas; deep air reconnaissance and destruction of enemy installations using long-range, long-endurance UAVs; participation in information warfare in a TO (SD).
A key prerequisite for the successful execution of combat operations by Russia’s Armed Forces groupings is achieving and maintaining aerospace superiority, with a leading role played by the ASF in this respect. As for the strike missions of ASF aviation units, superiority is achieved by destroying enemy air, air defense, and naval strike groupings; disabling aviation base airfields; neutralizing (disrupting) zone and point air defense and missile defense throughout the depth of the TO (SD); disorganizing enemy control over aviation, air defense, and missile defense troops and forces and enemy reconnaissance and navigation systems; and eliminating reserves of aviation fuel, ammunition, and other material resources.
HPW of various types will soon play the main role in gaining air superiority. At the same time, there will be a practically complete transition to using airborne HPW. Such weapons include airborne long-range cruise missiles; ope-
rational-strategic and operational-tactical hypersonic airborne missiles; operational-tactical airborne guided missiles with a range of up to 300 km; airborne antiship missiles capable of destroying aircraft carrier groups and groups of ordinary ships through stand-off engagement from beyond their air defense and missile defense operation zones; airborne antiradar guided missiles with launching ranges allowing their stand-off engagement from beyond the enemy zone and point air defense operation zone; tactical airborne guided missiles with ranges from 10-15 km to 70-100 km; guided glider bombs (smart bombs); airborne antitank missiles; and airborne adjustable-trajectory missiles developed on the basis of free aircraft rockets of various calibers.
Special attention should be devoted to peculiarities of using ASF strike aviation during the special military operation in Ukraine.
During the special military operation, certain significant peculiarities have been discovered in combat operations on the part of both the Russian Armed Forces and Ukrainian Armed Forces.
1. Operations on both sides are explicitly combined arms combat with an emphasis on high-priority and large-scale employment of ground forces. In this respect, special significance and importance are attached to large caliber artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. Against the backdrop of ground forces’ operations, strike aviation plays an auxiliary role (for various objective and subjective reasons). This role is limited to using mainly attack aviation and army aviation for the air support of troops on the front line, using OTA fighter and bomber aviation against stationary installations in the tactical and operational-tactical depth, and destroying located long-range, medium-range, and short-range air defense assets using guided missiles and guided (glider) bomb armament.
On a practical level, strike aviation is not executing missions to destroy communications facilities (bridges, river crossings, railroad junctions, railroad trains loaded with troops and equipment) in the enemy troops’ operational depth; although, as far back as February 28, 2022, the Russian Defense Ministry declared that Russian aviation had gained air superiority over Ukrainian territory.
2. Employment of Russian air and space reconnaissance assets has proved to be very limited, especially with respect to detecting moving targets and the troop movements of Ukrainian Armed Forces. This factor considerably limits the ASF strike aviation’s capabilities of delivering prompt strikes against such targets in real time.
3. It turned out that even after air superiority had been gained, strike aviation has been unable to execute missions in full force at the front line and especially in the depth of enemy territory, while the enemy is using a limited amount of air defense assets and receiving full-scale reconnaissance and target acquisition information from ARPS systems – air and space reconnaissance assets of NATO countries. The absence of full-fledged aviation assets and the presence of even a limited amount of air defense assets at the enemy’s disposal, in combination with effective reconnaissance and target acquisition support from NATO forces, prevent Russian strike aviation from effectively performing combat and special missions in accordance with its main purpose.
4. Combat operations of the sides in the special military operation are accompanied by large-scale use of unmanned equipment, ranging from mini-UAVs to long-range, long-endurance UAVs. Unmanned aviation has gained prevalence in airspace over manned aviation in performing air reconnaissance and target acquisition. Special significance in performing strike missions both over the front line and in the depth of Ukrainian territory has been demonstrated by strike UAV capable of delivering considerable destruction to both small moving targets and large installations of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
The world has never seen such massive use of various types of UAV in military conflicts. And this fact is bound to influence the further redistribution of tasks among respective ASF aviation units and lead to the adjustment of the composition of the fleet of reconnaissance-strike and manned and unmanned strike aviation.
5. The special military operation has again demonstrated the significant role of long-range HPW in destroying the enemy’s critical infrastructure. At the same time, it becomes clear that tens if not hundreds of long-range, high-precision cruise missiles must be used in every massive fire attack to reliably penetrate the air defense system and achieve the desired effect of destroying critical infrastructure installations.
The experience of using long-range airborne HPW has also shown the need to rapidly reequip strike aviation with hypersonic missiles against which present-day air and missile defense has low interception capabilities.
The aforementioned peculiarities of the combat employment of strike aviation must be thoroughly analyzed even today and considered when adjusting the directions of organizing and developing Russian ASF for the next planning period and when preparing respective programs and target-setting documents.
In general, the development of ASF strike aviation and solution of the aforementioned problems with respect to strike missions must be performed along the following main lines in the future: further equipment of aviation units with prospective and modernized strike and multifunctional ACS and airborne HPW, including hypersonic weapons; development of employment forms and operation methods of aviation units in terms of implementing and increasing the effectiveness of strike, reconnaissance-strike, air assault, patrol-strike, and special strike aviation operations; completion of the establishment and formation of operational-strategic (operational) and operational-tactical UAV systems units for performing strike-reconnaissance missions; improvement of the ASF’s control system aimed at carrying out strike missions in real time based on the principles of joint integrated control and intelligence information support within the ASF and Russian Armed Forces as a whole; improvement of aviation branch composition and reduction in the number of types of strike and multifunctional aircraft systems carrying HPW in service with the ASF air force.
In view of the complexity, novelty, multitude, and resource intensity of the tasks aimed at solving the aforementioned operational-strategic and military-technological problems of organizing and conducting combat using HPW, required measures must be implemented on a systematic long-term basis. Observing the following fundamental principles of goal-oriented planning of ASF strike aviation development programs is an important aspect of implementing the planned measures: the rational concentration of financial and other resources in the most prioritized areas of the development of ASF strike armaments; the implementation of a strategy that harmonizes efforts to maintain at assigned levels the combat readiness of strike and multifunctional ACS and currently fielded HPW, to modernize existing models of aviation equipment and armament, and to develop new generations of ACS and HPW; and the standardization of aviation equipment and armament models and their subsystems in order to reduce type variety and required financial resources.
Implementing these and a number of other dimensions of the joint work of the ASF Chief Command and all organizations and establishments of the Russian Defense Ministry and defense industry complex participating in this process will make it possible to effectively develop ASF strike aviation that meet the challenges of the first half of the 21st century.
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4. see .
Translated by Igor Putintsev