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Russia and Ukraine battle daily in the sky. So where are the pilots?

A woman walks past graffiti depicting a Ukrainian soldier firing a missile, in Kyiv on Jan. 25. The Russians are fighting an intense air war, but it involves mostly missiles, drones and anti-aircraft system. Traditional air strikes by piloted war planes have been relatively rare.
SERGEI SUPINSKY
/
AFP via Getty Images
A woman walks past graffiti depicting a Ukrainian soldier firing a missile, in Kyiv on Jan. 25. The Russians are fighting an intense air war, but it involves mostly missiles, drones and anti-aircraft system. Traditional air strikes by piloted war planes have been relatively rare.

Russia and Ukraine are waging a fierce fight in the sky. Russia unleashes drones and missiles. Ukraine often shoots them down with its own missiles, and carries out its own drone strikes.

Yet one thing makes this battle distinctive from all previous air wars of the past century: pilots are rare. And this goes very much against the traditional perception of air combat.

"Top Gun: Maverick is Oscar-nominated this year for Best Picture. And here we are, watching an air war happening. And it looks very different from anything that we see in Top Gun," said Kelly Grieco, with the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

"There are [piloted] aircraft that are still flying at times. But we're talking a very small number of sorties compared to compared to past wars," said Grieco, who keeps close tabs on the air war.

When Russia invaded last February, its air campaign initially looked to be straight from the standard playbook.

Russia sent waves of pilots in advanced fighter jets to bomb Ukraine. The near universal assumption was Russia's powerful air force would quickly overwhelm Ukraine's much smaller force and establish air superiority.

Ukrainian military personnel display a downed Russian drone during a press conference in the capital Kyiv on Dec. 15. Russia has been firing drones and missiles at Ukraine's power systems for the past four months.
SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian military personnel display a downed Russian drone during a press conference in the capital Kyiv on Dec. 15. Russia has been firing drones and missiles at Ukraine's power systems for the past four months.

Russia largely abandons piloted war planes

But Ukraine made the most of its limited, Soviet-era air defenses, shooting down dozens of Russian fighter jets and helicopters in the first few months of the war. Since then, Russia, to the surprise of many, has largely stopped sending piloted aircraft into Ukrainian air space.

"We stared at that for the entire first three months of the war going, 'Why aren't the Russians applying the basic tenets of air doctrine,'" said retired U.S. Air Force officer Peter Gersten.

He knows these tenets well. Gersten flew combat missions as an F-16 pilot early in his career, and later commanded U.S. drone operations in the Middle East. He saw drones assume a prominent role in the U.S. air campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. But piloted U.S. war planes played a significant role in those conflicts as well, and the U.S. alone dominated the skies.

Gersten says it's still not entirely clear why the Russian air force has fared so poorly. But he stresses that Russia still has well over 1,000 advanced fighter jets, with well-trained pilots, that are not being sent into the skies over Ukraine.

"Russian pilots are some of the best pilots in the world," said Gersten. "And they're also some of the most disciplined pilots in the world."

At least for now, Russia has chosen to keep these pilots and their planes on the sidelines. Russia is relying on missiles and drones, which are much cheaper and easier to replace.

Ukraine has a much smaller number of fighter jets, mostly MiG-29s that date to the Soviet era. Ukraine employs them in combat, but sparingly.

"What the Russians have learned is that this is a war where it's much more sustainable to use unmanned assets, whether those unmanned assets are drones or missiles," said Grieco.

This Russian tactic is also forcing Ukraine to make a tough choice. Ukraine has a limited number of air defense missiles, which it's been using to take down Russian drones. Yet Russia gets these drones from Iran, perhaps for as little as $20,000. It's a cost-benefit ratio that favors Russia.

If Ukraine exhausts its supply of missiles while targeting Russian drones and missiles, that could clear the way for Russian pilots in fighter jets to return to Ukraine, with a greatly reduced threat of being shot down.

Ukrainians have collected the remnants of more than a thousand missiles and rockets fired by Russian forces into and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv. Ukrainians say they will use them as evidence in any future war crimes prosecutions.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Ukrainians have collected the remnants of more than a thousand missiles and rockets fired by Russian forces into and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv. Ukrainians say they will use them as evidence in any future war crimes prosecutions.

Drones assume more non-combat roles

Drones, meanwhile, are playing a growing role in non-combat operations on the Ukrainian side.

Consider the Canadian-U.S. company, Draganfly, which has been making drones for civilian use since the 1990s. CEO Cameron Chell says it never did business in a war zone until last year.

"We were contacted by an American (aid group) that couldn't get their ambulances into besieged cities and asked if it could use our drones," said Chell, who's based in Vancouver.

He noted that the Draganfly drones "can carry sensitive pharmaceuticals, like insulin. That's how we got started over there. And then it's just expanded exponentially."

Around 50 Draganfly drones have been sent to various organizations in Ukraine for a wide variety of missions. They conduct search and rescue operations, they detect landmines from the air, and they deliver blood and other critical supplies to front-line areas.

Chell says this war is demonstrating how a smaller country can use civilian drones, creatively and effectively, when facing an enemy with a larger, more powerful, traditional air force.

"Before, you needed massive systems, you needed manned aircraft. Now you've got $10,000, $20,000 and $50,000, even $2,000 systems that have an impact," he said.

"We see budgets and thinking from all the defense forces around the world now shifting rapidly into the adoption and use of small drones," Chell added. "Not just for war fighting, but actually for logistics and for medical and for humanitarian aid."

Still, Ukraine wants more fighter jets to bolster its limited numbers of war planes. Specifically, Ukraine wants the American F-16, which typically requires years of pilot training. And like other Ukrainian fighter jets, it would be vulnerable to Russia's anti-aircraft systems.

Ukraine's Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told NPR he doesn't think these reasons are valid.

"When I ask about F-16, I never heard about a problem with the spare parts or the supply chain. The answer was normally, 'Oleksii, you know, it's a very long period of training courses for your pilots.'"

But President Biden has been clear. The U.S. is sending air defenses, but not fighter jets — which would put more vulnerable pilots and expensive planes in the sky.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.