Please join the Belfer Center’s Defense, Emerging Technology, and Strategy Program (DETS) for a seminar on “A Pilot's Reflection on the Russia-Ukraine War: Airpower’s Decisive Role in Preventing Operational Stalemates” on Tuesday, October 10th at 3:00 PM in the Allison Dining Room (Taubman-520). Refreshments will be served. Please RSVP here

​Russia (and some Western countries) predicted a quick victory with a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. With a national population nearly four times that of Ukraine’s, logically this sounds plausible that a large power can quickly dominate a smaller power. Yet, that did not happen. How come?

Nations tend to over-estimate their chances of success and the speed at which victory will be achieved. Germany over-estimated their chances in WWI with the Schlieffen Plan. The failure to achieve a quick victory combined with new technologies such machine guns, chemical weapons, and long-range artillery manifested in bloody trench warfare with massive casualties unfathomable in those time. Trauma from this experience inspired leaders to develop other forms of warfare to prevent such stalemates again: introduce airpower. Several cases in the 20th century stand out as to how airpower can be integrated into combined-arms strategies to achieve decisive results in a relative short period of time. The Luftwaffe’s integration into the Wehrmacht’s combined arms strategy in WWII, the Israeli-Arab War of 1967, and the US-led operation Desert Storm are clear examples of how to integrate airpower into operational strategy successfully.

In retrospect, Russia could not achieve the same level of success despite their best efforts. Given their technological and numerical superiority over Ukraine, what went wrong? I’ve witnessed Russia’s theory of warfare while flying through the skies of Syria in 2015-16 and through eastern Europe in the early months of 2022. I will offer my insights and observations that postulate why Russia had difficulties and what others can learn from Russia’s and Ukraine’s experience in the war.