Size Isn’t Everything

Despite having the second largest Air Force on the planet, the Russians cannot, and will not, gain air superiority in Ukraine. This fact has played a massive role in the ongoing slugfest of a  ground war that we’ve observed in that nation over the past seven months. This was not Putin’s plan for his “special military operation,” and I’m sure he’s not happy with the progress, or lack thereof.

As reported in mid-March by Business Insider and multiple other news outlets, Putin expected a “swift and decisive” victory in Ukraine, hoping to redraw the nation’s borders and execute regime change in the capital city of Kyiv. However, he believed his own propaganda and overestimated the willingness of his troops to fight and die for Mother Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announces his “special military operation” to the world. Screenshot from YouTube and WLTX TV.

Just minutes after making the televised statement shown above, Russians started bombing several critical areas in Ukraine, including the capital city of Kyiv. US intelligence agencies, of course, had been analyzing the situation for many weeks and came up with their own assessments and theories. The Director of the CIA, Bill Burns,  informed US lawmakers that he believed Putin’s goal was to take Kyiv “within the first two days of the campaign.” He went on to say how he believed the city could not fight off the invaders for more than a day or two.

But, in general, Mr. Burns, the CIA, and US intelligence were wrong…Kyiv did not fall, and Ukraine did not give up in a matter of days. Quite the opposite. Today, after months of bloody combat and tens of thousands dead on both sides, Ukraine seems to have the upper hand, pushing the Russians back up against their own borders.

A Weak Start to the War

How did this happen, and how did Moscow not gain the immediate air superiority they had hoped for? Let’s start at the beginning. In the opening days of the war, Russia launched over 775 ballistic and cruise missiles across the border into their neighbor. Many of these struck military targets such as airfields, and some took out communications centers. An unsettling aspect of the missile launches is that many were aimed at purely civilian targets, such as large apartment complexes. This was done for no other reason than to dishearten the Ukrainian people and show them who is boss. They hoped to cause a public outcry for their troops to give up so the shelling would stop. Instead, this steeled the resolve of the citizens, and they dug in for a hard fight.

A high-rise apartment building was targeted during the early days of the war. No military value here at all; they were murdering civilians. Screenshot from YouTube and #NWYT

According to, at the onset of hostilities, Russia had over 940 multirole fighter aircraft, 467 attack aircraft, 124 bombers, and over 500 attack helicopters. The Ukrainians, by contrast, had almost 100 combat aircraft and roughly an equal number of combat helicopters spread among their Air Force, Army Aviation, and Naval forces. All these numbers are to be taken with a big grain of salt because simply having the aircraft does not mean they are fully operational and combat-ready.

One would expect that once the Russians softened targets in Ukraine by taking out radars and communications systems, they would follow up with several combat sorties to take out additional targets and prove air superiority. Why would they want to do this? According to US military doctrine, “In modern military operations, achieving this level of control of the air is a critical precondition for success.”  

What is Air Superiority?

How, then, do we define air superiority? According to the US Air Force, “The air superiority condition is achieved when friendly operations are able to proceed without prohibitive interference from
opposing forces.” Simple enough, you can fly around and do as you will over enemy airspace without the overwhelming fear of being shot down.