(Editor’s Note: The U.S. Air Force operates the largest fleet of aircraft in the world, but there are sources that claim the Navy may operate more “aircraft” when UAV are included in these numbers, especially the smaller MQ-11 drones which the Marine Corps flies.)

Russia and the US have stood as world superpowers for decades. While the US Air Force is the second largest air force in the world (behind, sigh… the US Navy), Russia’s Aerospace Forces are not to be dismissed. Although the Russian AF has not been fully brought to bear in the invasion of Ukraine, there is a lot of combat aircraft waiting to be flown.

The big question is: why hasn’t the Russian Air Force established air dominancy? Not for lack of equipment, at least according to GlobalSecurity. Though lagging well behind the US, the Russian Air Force fields nearly 1,600 fighter and attack aircraft, including roughly 125 bombers. Compare that to Ukraine’s minuscule 98 fighters and attack aircraft (no bombers), and you begin to see the gulf. (These numbers do not show helicopter or drone totals, only fixed or swept-wing fighter, attack, and bomber aircraft).

Ukraine did operate bombers as recently as 2000. Russian-made Tu-22M Backfire bombers, to be precise. They were dismantled as part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and START I Treaties. They were dismantled with the assurance that Russia would not attempt to invade or annex the country.

Ukraine stands in a deep hole compared to Russia. If Russia desired it, their air force could simply swarm the Ukrainian defenses, overwhelming them with superior numbers. Why haven’t they? Maybe they are not as technologically advanced as the US? Maybe Ukraine’s air defenses are too effective? Reports coming out of Ukraine point to both.

The Russian Air Force operates at a “near-peer” level with the United States. Their MiG- and Su- series aircraft are on the same basic level as our own F-16 and F-15 models. The Su- series of jets are the base platform for much of Russia’s upgraded inventory. The Su-35 stands as Russia’s attempt to answer America’s fourth-gen fighters. The Su-57, the premiere fifth-gen fighter, has only recently been fielded, and there are currently only four operational.

Sukhoi Design Bureau, 054, Sukhoi Su-57 (Wikimedia Commons, Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia)

Even without the newest Su-57 in the inventory, the Russian Air Force should still dominate in the skies over Ukraine. They outnumber Ukrainian air forces 20 – 1. Russian forces have access to ten times as many Mig-29 fighters as Ukraine. Russian military might overall is nearly three times that of Ukraine. Why, then, have we not been barraged with video of Russian jets systematically taking Ukraine’s air defenses, air force, and morale out of the fight?

A MiG-29 Fulcrum takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine
A MiG-29 Fulcrum takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine, on Oct. 9 as part of the Clear Sky 2018 exercise. The exercise promotes regional stability and security while strengthening partner capabilities and fostering trust. (US Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn)

Some have speculated Russia does not have the munitions to arm all those aircraft. Others say there aren’t enough pilots trained to man a sustained air superiority campaign. Still, others posit the idea that rank-and-file Russian troops don’t have the stomach for this fight. It is likely a combination of these things, plus limiting factors the Western world has no awareness of.