Why no Airstrikes on the Convoy Headed to Kyiv?

Some speculation from the BBC.

Via the BBC comes a question I have asked myself many times over the last week: Why doesn’t Ukraine attack the Russian convoy?

Here is a possible answer from Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security editor (spoiler: he doesn’t know, either):

Everyone is baffled as to why Ukraine has not done more to attack the Russian convoy as it is a sitting duck for drone and airstrikes.

There are several possible explanations, Ukraine may be running out of armed drones and its small, outnumbered air force may be wary of being shot down by Russian air defence batteries.

Ben Barry from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) suggests the Ukrainians may well be safeguarding what resources they do have in readiness to counter-attack when the Russians get closer to Kyiv.

I am not an expert on military tactics and I certainly have no insights as to the exact level of force capabilities that the Ukrainian military has at the moment, but it has continually struck me that the Russian convoy heading to Kyiv is extremely vulnerable to air attack and, yet, as far as I know, this has not happened yet.

The notion that the Ukrainians are holding off attacking until the Russian forces are at some strategic point makes some sense, but I can’t help but wonder if disrupting that convoy now wouldn’t be extremely useful. The longer Kyiv stands, the more foolish Putin’s gambit becomes.

FILED UNDER: Ukraine
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    Zelensky is asking for planes. We should give him planes. I thought we actually were giving him planes (there were reports that they were getting old Russian jets from Poland, who would get American fighters in exchange).

    (Zelensky is also asking for a no-fly zone, but a hot conflict with another nuclear armed superpower is not in America’s interests, even if there is polling saying that 74% of Americans favor a no-fly zone — polling which makes me think 74% of Americans don’t understand what a no-fly zone is)

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Something I read this AM stated that Uk army has had some success in attacking the convoy on the ground using Javlins. Between that and the decrepitude of the convoy vehicles that have regularly broken down the convoy is proceeding slowly.

    1
  3. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    I think they don’t understand what a no-fly zone is, nor its implications.

    4
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I read on twitter this AM (from people who supposedly would know) that they had finally begun to hit it with airstrikes (drones and SU-2somethingorothers). time will tell if it is true or not.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: Well, I’m in favor of a no fly zone. As long as somebody else enforces it and it doesn’t lead to an exchange of nukes or a broadening of the war or…

    2
  6. gVOR08 says:

    If they fly, they die.

    Drones maybe. I’ve seen lots of stories about all sorts of weapons flowing in, but I’ve seen nothing about Turkish drones. I have no idea how their drone stocks are holding up. Nor that there aren’t higher priorities in the south.

  7. CSK says:

    Zelenskyy says that NATO has in effect given Russia a “green light” to continue shelling Ukraine.

    Putin says the creation of a no-fly zone will be seen by him as “participation.”

  8. Argon says:

    I vote we drop Sean Hannity and Lindsey Graham near the convoy and let them attack it. At least no one on earth would think the US was behind that!

    3
  9. Andy says:

    I think this is something I have some expertise on.

    The short answer is that the aircraft would likely get shot down. Russia has air defense systems embedded into its units and it has very good long-range systems inside Russia with engagement zones that cover much of Ukraine. For this reason, Ukrainian aircraft can’t fly at medium and high altitudes over much of their own country and at low altitudes, they become vulnerable to the Russian tactical ground-based systems and MANPADS, which are heavily deployed along that road.

    The drones likely do not have the range. Ukraine’s drones are controlled via data links to a ground station, so their effective range is limited by line-of-sight and distance to the ground station. This is unlike US drones which use satellites for the data links, so they can be controlled from anywhere. The traffic jam is near the Russian border and far enough away that they likely are out of range of Ukrainian ground stations.

    Similarly, the Russians have failed to knock out Ukraine’s air defense systems. They struck some fixed targets at the beginning of the war, but they likely lack sufficient ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) to track and engage mobile air defense units, and Ukrainian aircraft movements at dispersal sites. Given all the propaganda on both sides, it’s difficult to determine facts on the ground, but reporting suggests the Russians are mainly flying at lower altitudes and at night to avoid Ukrainian air defenses. And they are also likely worried about fratricide – getting shot down by Russian air defenses.

    That said, I have been very surprised that Russia hasn’t made a bigger effort to destroy Ukraine’s air defense systems and aircraft. It’s increasingly looking like this is due to deficiencies in Russia’s air force capabilities and training. They don’t have a lot of experience with the complexities of large-scale air battle management, they continually have problems deconflicting with ground-based air defense (particularly the tactical units), which are essential to prevent fratricide, and their pilot training does not emphasize these sorts of coordinated operations – not surprising since Russian pilots get about half of the flight training hours that US pilots do.

    Ukraine is in a similar situation. Attacking the convoy isn’t merely a matter of sending aircraft there and dropping bombs – to make such a mission have any chance of success requires a coordinated operation to successfully penetrate Russian air defenses and that is something Ukraine can’t do.

    So for both sides, ground-based air defense is controlling the skies more than aircraft. That, combined with a lack of experience, training, and what seems to be the absence of effective air battle management command and control, means that the air forces will be much less effective than they otherwise would be on both sides of the conflict. But this advantages the Ukrainians more since they are on the defense. Effective, coordinated air power is essential for modern combined-arms offensives. Without this, the Russians have to slog along and use massed fires such as artillery to break up resistance when it’s encountered.

    Finally, I think a lot of people in the west have become used to seeing the United States make this look easy. But we train extensively for this and we have a lot of combat experience to draw on. We also have specialized capabilities that the Russians and Ukrainians don’t have, such as “wild weasel” aircraft, and precision stand-off weapons that allow us to degrade, dismantle and destroy adversary air defense systems. We also have the command-and-control infrastructure and personnel to manage complex air operations.

    No one else has these sorts of capabilities, not even NATO. That’s one reason why US assistance was essential for the war against Libya in 2011, Europe couldn’t prosecute that war on their own.

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  10. dazedandconfused says:

    The Russians can be predicted to protect that convoy with every available SAM and a 24/7 top cover by fighters. It can be predicted we are feeding the Ukes intell on that. Drones capable of carrying large bombs are slow, easy targets. What would Admiral Akbar say?

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  11. Lounsbury says:

    @Gustopher: When one is in medium range ballistic missile range of Russia, one reasonably has pause before taking steps that can be reasonably interpreted as becoming a co-beligerant. Never mind unreasonably.

    @Gustopher:
    I am rather stunned myself at the easy talk particularly among Americans for No Fly Zone as if this happens magically, rather than being the path to blunder into WW III some 30 years late.

    Of course most Americans likely think this is just a lark like doing Libya.

    Recalling myself Threads in my youth and Day After…. I am rather nervous thta emotional pressure will override reason eventually.

    @Andy: Useful reflexion. Equally this RUSI analysis says provisionally similar things.

    @CSK: As Ukranian president of course he says that. He is desperate.

    However, the world is worse off stepping up to nuclear exchanges and direct NATO-Russia air combat is not only likely to go not excellently for Russia but to push Putin to the edge of desperation and tactical nuclear usage, maybe EMP bursts, and from there, God help us.

    1
  12. JohnSF says:

    I was thinking that it was because local air defence was too hot; the losses taken would be too high.
    Which may still be part of it.

    But the other part is, because it looks as if that convoy is headed nowhere.
    That by now it is less a convoy than a traffic jam.

    It seems Ukrainians have blown a lot small bridges, and have been able to get small units close enough at night to hit a few vehicles with ATGW and to hit truck radiators with sniper fire.
    The Russians can’t disperse off the road because their wheeled vehicles get stuck in the mud.
    If they try to send armour out wide Ukrainians play stalk the tank.
    Russian try to clear flanks with helicopters, they meet Stinger fire.

    The bridging gear they need is caught in the jam; takes ages to shift to where needed by corduroying bypass tracks.
    And in the meantime, a lot of vehicles need to run engines periodically even when stationary.
    They are running out of fuel while not moving.
    And where are the fuel tankers?
    Stuck in the jam.

    And pretty soon they are going to start running low on rations.
    Because the supply trucks are stuck in the jam.

    It has all the signs of an absolutely epic supply SNAFU.

    It looks as if the Russians tried to shortcut by securing the forward end of the pile up, Hostomel airport, where they could fly in supplies etc to unsnarl the front.
    Having lost it twice to counter-attacks, it seems.
    But latest is they have managed to take the airport proper, but the surroundings are still contested. So any attempt at an air bridge risks being wrecked by Stingers.

    Ukrainians may calculate that it is simply not worth precious air assets to hit a traffic jam that is sucking in supply and combat effort.

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  13. Andy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Thanks for the RUSI link.

    It’s interesting that Russia picked up their air operations yesterday and today and, as a result, have lost a dozen aircraft or more. I would not be surprised if some were downed by friendly fire.

    The initial bad planning assumptions for this invasion are compounding. It’s most evident with the stalled column north of the capital, but it’s also apparent in air operations. It seems the Russians were not planning to have to fight for air superiority and they don’t have a plan B.

    4
  14. JohnSF says:

    Beside the convoy, I have a feeling that something very odd is going on in the air aspect.
    Either the Russian air forces are just being sluggish for some opaque Russian reason, or the Ukrainians are being incredibly skillful.
    Or something else.

    Russian air seems to operating at night, or at low altitude, to avoid Stingers; but also seems to be avoiding high altitude daytime operations.
    I wonder if rather more UK Starstreaks than advertised have made their way to Ukraine?

    Also, possibly over the past eight year, some clever soul has managed to update the ex-Soviet LR-AAM’s the Ukrainians have?

    I don’t know, but it’s puzzling.

    2
  15. charon says:

    @JohnSF:

    https://twitter.com/funwithwords2u/status/1499861789932232710

    Need to click in the box to bring up the transcript

  16. JohnSF says:

    @Andy:
    Not entirely.
    ALARM and ARMAT.
    Not quite as capable as US ARM, but they can get the job done.
    The European problem is usually (cf Libya), lack of stocks, shorter ranges, and lack of sufficient long range strike aircraft.

    And just had a thought I should have had earlier, re. air battle: I wonder what’s happening with Electonic Warfare (and it’s various subdivisions).
    It’s possible the Ukrainians plus NATO EW specialist over last eight years have contrived a very unpleasant electronic environment for Russian air ops.

    Because UKR has an inside track on the Soviet electronics a lot of modern Russian systems are based on.

  17. charon says:

    Here is the sort of information Fox News viewers are seeing:

    https://twitter.com/ClintEhrlich

    In case you all are wondering where the alternate reality they live in comes from.

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF:
    Consider the mental state of the Russian soldiers stuck in that convoy. Short of fuel, short of food, and guess what your odds are if you’re wounded. The brass isn’t going to risk a helicopter for you and the nearest ambulance is two weeks away. I’d love to know the desertion rate, especially if this drags on. Get past the Ukrainian patrols, go to the nearest village and order a taxi to the Polish border. There’d be the fact that your credit card’s dead and your rubles are toilet paper, but you can sell your Kalashnikov.

    4
  19. Gustopher says:

    @Lounsbury:

    I am rather stunned myself at the easy talk particularly among Americans for No Fly Zone as if this happens magically, rather than being the path to blunder into WW III some 30 years late.

    The US Right Wing hasn’t figured out the right response to Putin/Ukraine yet. Clearly, it has to be that Biden is weak on Russia, but how they get to that conclusion, they haven’t quite figured out yet.

    I expect that part of the “No Fly Zone Boosterism” is coming from the right, in a cynical view that by calling for something that Biden cannot do (because he’s not an idiot), then Biden is weak on Russia for not doing it, and it is all Biden’s fault.

    But, floating trial balloons for Hot Takes doesn’t work that well when the obvious retort is “Do you want WW III? Because this is how you get WW III.”

    But the No Fly Zone sounds good until you know how it is implemented.

    So the Ring Wing is still trying to find the angle.

    Lindsey Graham’s calls for a Russian Brutus were criticized by Ted Cruz, of all people, as being reckless. Also, after we find the Russian Brutus, we need to find the Russian Mark Anthony and the Russian Augustus, as the whole Roman endeavor did not go well. Not to mention the Chinese Cleopatra, although that might just be Xi.

    4
  20. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I would to see media love stories of Russian soldiers getting asylum status. Ideally true stories, but I’ll take what I can get.

    Russian kid doesn’t want to go on a killing spree? That seems like someone who would make our country stronger.

    2
  21. JohnSF says:

    Another aspect of all this.

    Everyone is, understandably, focusing on the battles for Kyiv, for Kharkiv, for Mariupol.
    But look beyond.
    Odesa is not going to fall easily.
    And there is an area as big as all of Britain south and west of the areas the Russians “hold”.

    Which includes the Carpathian Mountainsand Ruthenian Hills, and Trancarpathia.
    That may be more than a little hard for the Russians to digest.

    And they need to take it.
    Because if they don’t take the west, they aren’t going to be secure in Kyiv/south coast/east-of-Dnipr.
    Because even the Russophone east, where so many, who knew little of Ukraine, thought they would be welcome, turn out to have little desire for the rule of Moscow.

    The West has got some time to sort itself out and supply even more air defence systems and aircraft to Ukraine, based in Carpathia, and time to train the Ukrainians in using them.
    By the time the Russians are advancing into the Lviv region, it could be like shoving an arm into wood chopper.

    I suspect a lot of Russian commander are going to be contemplating May in the Carpathians, and wondering if there are any openings in garrison duty in the Arctic.

    3
  22. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:
    Xiolpatra?

    Actually sorta works in Ancient Greek 🙂

    Oh, don’t be such an asp!

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK:

    Putin says the creation of a no-fly zone will be seen by him as “participation.”

    And he’ll be correct, for a change. Still, not the first time the West has declined to intervene when one side is outgunned. Won’t be the last either.

    1
  24. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Don’t matter.
    Deliver batteries of Rapiers and/or Aster, plus GLMRS, set up in Carpathian Mts.
    Plus Stingers and Starstreak.
    Current versions of Stinger, as opposed to the Afghan war type, have effective range 7,600 m (at least) and velocity Mach 2.54 . Nasty environment for a ground attack plane.
    Try going low and you may come up against the Polish Piorun (surprisingly enough, European missiles can actually be better than American or Russian).

    If the Russians ever make it to Lviv, which at the moment I rather doubt, they will have a very unpleasant time trying to secure the country SW.
    For “tens of thousands dead” values of unpleasant.

    1
  25. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    And by that point Russia as developed economy is going to falling to pieces.
    People are still underestimating the impact of the sanctions imposed.
    “Russia has reserve of 650 biilliyion dollars”. LOL

    1
  26. Neil Hudelson says:

    People on this thread would probably be interested in this “mud and maintenance” thread.

    https://twitter.com/TrentTelenko/status/1499894935209795594?t=AjNcpKn_oSWYMWzzN2mR7A&s=19

    Key quote “The Russians have formed the world’s longest POW camp and the Ukrainians don’t even have to feed it.”

    5
  27. Richard Gardner says:

    As a military guy the RUSI link was great. Andy’s comments were great too (I’m a Navy Submarine Arms Controller, so dealt with some of these folks and still loath the Belerus government, stuck in a Stalinist age with nothing changed in 30 years). I also had many briefs on the Balkin stuff in the 90s. Story changed week by week.

    My view, never cut off their ability to retreat. Never trap off. Let them escape. Let them tell mama back home they left us escape.

    {militarist wet dream, A-10 Brrr-brr-brrap – kill them all) – not me

    I’m seeing so much psy-op way beyond what we even considered 20 years ago. Layers on layers.

    Rant I’ve made for at least a decade here, from Evita, let there be distinguished exiles. let them exit stage left, rather than forcing them to fight to the bloody end. (All exiles are distinguished, more importantly, they are not dead – Evita) NO we need blood!

    2
  28. Lounsbury says:

    @Richard Gardner: In re the lesson is don’t let emotion based sense of justice and revenge override cold calculation.

    In a fashion Putin seems to be making this error, rather than leaving the Ukranians with a path to climb down. His rhetoric, either needed to shore up domestic or from his own emotional blindness (or both) rather incites anyone but hard-core Russia/Putin faction collabo to fight on

    2
  29. grumpy realist says:

    If anyone wants to know where the Putin apologists have gone, they’ve been writing screeds over at TAC, or littering the commentary threads.

    Somehow I don’t think TAC’s reputation is going to survive the pro-Russia circle-jerk they’ve turned themselves into. It’s one thing being an isolationist; it’s another level entirely when you keep finding excuses for someone else’s invasion and bombing of a country. And the only thing Rod Dreher can do is find articles about transsexuals and wring his hands and moan about how horrible it would be if we got into a nuclear war.

  30. Lounsbury says:

    @grumpy realist: I saw by requote tweet Dreher retweeted direct Russian AgitProp on progress in the Ukraine. He really is a narrow, pathetic person.

  31. Moosebreath says:

    On the other hand, we can adopt TFG’s advice:

    “Trump mused to donors that we should take our F-22 planes, “put the Chinese flag on them and bomb the shit out” out of Russia. “And then we say, China did it, we didn’t do, China did it, and then they start fighting with each other and we sit back and watch.””

    A stable genius (in exactly the way Mr. Ed was).

    3
  32. charon says:

    @Moosebreath:

    A stable genius (in exactly the way Mr. Ed was).

    He will continue ever more stupid as the senile dementia progresses.

    1
  33. Skookum says:

    My lingering question: Did Putin send in his best military forces and weapons to invade Ukraine, or is he holding them in reserve for an all-out war with the west?

  34. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: Indeed, when Ive told our forum readers that we indeed ARE the best, I know it came across as arrogant bravado. Now the world is witnessing how large the gap is between 1st and 2nd place. I promise you, Russia is no slouch military. But the US enjoys a technology and Training advantage that simply gives us a military victory code…courtesy of our rather large defense budget. Our military spending is the cushion we endlessly debate should be reapportioned domestically. Bet many on the left are glad we have that cushion today. There will always be a leader out there who will take someone’s lunch money simply because they can.

    Ukraine has only been building military capability for 8 years which is about a quarter of what it takes to be in the 1st would military weight class. They will prevail in the long-term but for the next year or so…Putin is going to punish them for resisting him. Its going to be gut wrenching to behold…but we need to let the Ukes bleed the Russians now that its clear Putin is all in on victory. We have a real opportunity here to set the Russian military machine back for decades if we avoid direct confrontation as heart wrenching as it will be.

    Also Andy, Ive been hoping we’d kit the tactical drones out with Satcom packages so they can fly them from safety. That would be a game changing adaptation if it doesn’t already exist.

  35. Jax says:

    @Jim Brown 32: I was so born in the wrong era. I’m too old now to fly a drone for the military. 😐

    1
  36. Charles Stanley says:

    Too bad Biden did not learn lessons from Jimmy Carter’s blunders. Weak leadership and passive attitudes only emboldens bad actors to do as they please. Evil does not appreciate the meek or timid. Evil jumps on the meek and rips their throat out. That is why we did not have any problems during Trumps term.