Should We Forgive People Who Work for Propaganda Outlets?
Also: Why don't the Russians have air dominance yet?
Programming note: I’m out of pocket the next couple days, so no Triad on Wednesday or Thursday this week. See you on Friday.
Don’t sleep on Thursday Night Bulwark this week. David Frum will join Bill Kristol, Mona Charen, and Tim Miller.
Set yourself a calendar alert for it. Thursday night. 8:00 p.m.
1. The Russian Military Question
There are a lot of questions about this war, specifically surrounding air power.
Where is the Russian Air Force? NATO has never had a great deal of respect for the Russian Air Force. But even so, the Ukrainian Air Force has about 100 fixed-wing combat aircraft. The Russian Air Force is sitting on close to 1,200 fighters, of which about 300 are in range of the Ukrainian theater.
Where are they?
This deep dive from RUSI suggests that there may be a few factors at work:
(1) Lack of precision-guided munitions. The Russian Air Force didn’t have a lot of smart munitions and their stocks should be dwindling already:
During combat operations over Syria, only the Su-34 fleet has regularly made use of PGMs, and even these specialist strike aircraft have regularly resorted to unguided bomb and rocket attacks. This not only indicates a very limited familiarity with PGMs among most Russian fighter crews, but also reinforces the widely accepted theory that the Russian air-delivered PGM stockpile is very limited. Years of combat operations in Syria will have further depleted that stockpile, and may mean that the bulk of the 300 VKS fixed wing combat aircraft massed around Ukraine have only unguided bombs and rockets to draw on for ground-attack sorties. This, combined with the lack of targeting pods to spot and identify battlefield targets from a safe distance, means that the VKS fixed wing pilots’ capacity to provide close air support for their forces is limited.
If the Russians decide to make heavy use of unguided munitions, that will be a political decision as much as a military one.
(2) Friendly fire. Here’s something I didn’t know: The Russians are not great at the technological coordination needed to keep their SAMs from firing at their own aircraft:
Friendly-fire incidents by ground-based SAM units have been a problem for Western and Russian air forces alike in multiple conflicts since 1990. Running joint engagement zones in which combat aircraft and SAM systems can engage enemy forces simultaneously in a complex environment without friendly-fire incidents is hard; it requires close inter-service cooperation, excellent communications and regular training to master. So far, Russian forces have shown extremely poor coordination across the board, from basic logistics tasks, to coordination of airborne assaults with ground forces activity and arranging air defence cover for columns on the move.
(3) Training and readiness. It’s a story as old as the Soviet Union: Ivan has more aircraft, but lacks the resources to train his pilots adequately, because training is expensive:
While accurate numbers across each unit are hard to find, periodic Russian official statements suggest an average of 100–120 hours per year across the VKS as a whole. Fighter unit flying hours are likely to be lower than those for transport or helicopter units, so the real figure is probably a little under 100. RAF and US Air Force fighter pilots often complain that they struggle to maintain multirole combat readiness with around 180–240 flying hours a year, access to modern high-fidelity simulators for additional training, and better cockpit ergonomics and weapon interfaces than their Russian counterparts.
I suspect that each of these factors has contributed to the lack of Russian air power. But it’s also possible that the reason we haven’t seen Russian air dominance is that Russia hasn’t leaned heavily on fixed-wing aircraft yet and that more is to come.
Furthering this point: You’ll note that when I wrote yesterday I said that “the West is winning”—not that Ukraine is winning.
We have no idea what Ukraine’s losses have been to this point. Ukraine’s dominance in the information space—at least here in the West—has been so complete that we constantly see images of burned-out Russian vehicles (that may or may not be contemporary), hear about Russian operational failures, and are given estimates of Russian losses.
But Ukrainian losses are a black box.
Please understand that none of this is meant to disparage the Ukrainians’ bravery or to take away from the fact that their amazing stand has turned this operation into probable strategic defeat for Russia.
My point is that we do not have an especially clear picture of the battle and as the Russians learn, become battle-hardened, and change tactics, Ukraine’s position could deteriorate.1
I want to close with some analysis from my colleague Ben Parker:
The thing that bothers me is that we haven’t seen videos of Bayraktars going after that big column heading for Kyiv. It’s a huge target—why not? I think there could be two reasons:
(1) The Russians are getting better and learning fast about MSHORAD. Maybe the target isn’t as exposed to the air as other Russian formations have been?
(2) This is a bigger point about the war—the Ukrainian information warfare dominance is making it hard to get a clear picture. Every Russian defeat and embarrassment is exaggerated. The Ukrainian losses are essentially secret. One reason that convoy might be safe could be that the Ukrainians have lost some of their Bayraktars and we don’t know about it. That would be bad, because without those, attacking that convoy with the manned UAF becomes much more difficult—especially if point 1 is also true.
A last thought about the Russians shelling civilian areas—it’s been a theory for more than 100 years that strategic, counter-value targeting would deplete moral and lead to early victory. The only problem is that it’s never, ever actually worked like that. Didn’t work in WWI. Didn’t work in WWII—not in the UK, not in Germany, not in the USSR, not even in Japan after the nukes (though that’s a more complicated situation). Civilian populations are much more resilient than people imagine, and they can endure unimaginable atrocities rather than surrender—just ask Vlad from Leningrad.
Keep all of this in mind as you watch developments over the coming hours and days.
2. The Great Resignation
I was looking at Tim’s great piece today about RT and it got me thinking. There are people in America who work for RT and, I suppose, Sputnik. Not just talent, like Dennis Miller and William Shatner, but back-of-the-house operations. Someone does makeup. Someone does lighting. People produce the shows and work at the reception desk and process accounts-payable and whatnot.
How does that work? How do you take money from the propaganda arm of a murderous dictatorship and not quit your job?