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Russia has vastly more warplanes than Ukraine does, and its warplanes have suffered only comparatively light casualties in the Russo-Ukrainian war. And, NATO forces have not been willing to put their own military forces into action in Ukraine even though they have been generous in supplying Ukraine its military equipment to resist Russia's attack on it, and have imposed economic sanctions on Russia as a result of its military actions. Despite this clear military advantage:

Russia has been reluctant to deploy its airforce over Ukraine since it launched its full-scale invasion of the country[.]

(Newsweek). See also here, reaching the same conclusion.

The underuse of the Russian Air Force in the early days of the Russo-Ukrainian War baffled military experts. (Al-Jazeera cited other military experts who were likewise baffled.)

Several theories have been advanced to explain its reluctance to use its air force in Ukraine:

  • British intelligence has argued that this is "due to the danger of a strike against Russian airfields and the "continued high threat" of Ukrainian air defenses[.]" See also here, reaching the same conclusion.

  • Another possibility is that the Russian Air Force is a paper tiger whose publicly stated aircraft resources are exaggerated and that it isn't actually able to deploy most of its planes in combat because it has a low state of readiness and because it may not have the right kind of aircraft for this conflict or make lack sufficient aircraft delivered bombs and missiles that are functioning.

  • A third possibility is that Russia feared that doing so would make it more likely for NATO Air Forces to intervene directly, perhaps establishing a "no fly zone".

  • A fourth possibility is that Putin has less loyalty in his Air Force than in other parts of his military and that senior Air Force generals pushed back on the Ukraine War in general and their units playing a major part in it.

Why has Russia made surprisingly little use of its Air Force in the Ukraine conflict? And, are its reasons actually well-founded ones, or are they simply caused by the dysfunctional organizational culture in the Russian military?

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    This question isn't really answerable with publicly sourced information as it would require knowing sensitive national security information of Russia. Neither NATO or Russia has any interest in divulging the details that would be required to source for providing a definitive answer to this question. Otherwise, simply put, its because they cant really do more than they are.
    – David S
    Apr 12 at 18:15
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    Voting to keep open. I do not see how the current close reasons apply: "This question has been flagged as: Not suitable for this site: ... This question does not appear to be about governments, policies and political processes within the scope defined in the help center. (1) // Opinion-based: This question is likely to be answered with opinions rather than facts and citations. It should be updated so it will lead to fact-based answers. (2)" On the contrary: the question is about governments (Russian gov't), and it can be answered with citations (see the top-voted answers below). Apr 12 at 20:22
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    This is really a military strategy question. The answer is likely technical and secret. In no answer I can learn something about politics. That's why I think it's not about politics. Having said that, why should it be anything else but missing combat value? Btw. the same could be asked about the Russian Black Sea fleet. Apr 12 at 22:00
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    This question has been reopened but it's definitely not a politics question. Sometimes curiosity trumps guidelines because there is no military strategy stackexchange. The armchair generals can give their best. Btw. quite a number of Russian aircraft have been shot down by Ukraine. Apr 13 at 8:50
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    @wrod "Discussing what is publicly known about these contributing causes seems both relevant and on topic." Doesn't seem so to me. The question is simply asking for a detail of military strategy. This is not part of the political process, just of the execution. The answers will likely simply be technicalities and given that it's a war, highly inaccurate, because most such details aren't public. But that's not the point. For me the point for judging the off-topicness is simply that I won't learn anything about how governments operate. Your definition is too broad. Apr 14 at 12:21

6 Answers 6

15

We can't really have a definitive answer to this until Putin and Shoigu publish their memoirs, or better--memos of their internal discussions, which however I don't think I'll live long enough to see (published).

A few more facts worth adding though:

  • The Russian leadership clearly doesn't want to risk its aircraft in the same way they are sending waves of tanks, APCs & IFVs packed with infantry at the Ukrainian lines.

  • They have other (unmanned) means for strategic bombardment of Ukraine that they used a fair bit: ballistic and cruise missiles, even in their crude Iranian-inspired variants. Strategic bombers have sometimes been used to launch missiles from afar.

  • Ukraine has also struck the bases of these bombers a couple of times, with various improvised drones IIRC, because they're far away and Western nations don't want to provide Ukraine with weapons to hit back far into [pre-war] Russia.

  • More recently Russia has been using their tactical manned aircraft to launch 'glide bombs', reportedly from as far as 70km from the targets. It's been said these have been a factor in their success in Avdiivka.

  • Western countries have sent a certain amount of their modern SAM systems to Ukraine. Just based on open sources, the exact impact of these is more difficult to judge on fixed-wing aircraft, but there certainly have been videos of Russian helicopters destroyed by these.

  • NATO shares with Ukraine real-time or "near real-time" radar data from their AWACS flying over NATO space. This reduces the exposure (time on) of Ukraine's own surveillance radars, making them more survivable.

(If there's some doubt on these statements, leave a comment on what you doubt, and I'll add some references.)

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    FWTW, there's the mysterious claimed downing of two A-50 'AWACS' Russian aircraft this spring. There's even less info how that really happened than what happened to the Moskva. Apr 12 at 21:13
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: yeah, if we trust the Western figures Russia hasn't prioritized tactical aircraft production much "Meanwhile the VKS currently procures only about 20 total Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft per year." I'm not sure if they have parks of older aircraft they could use in a pinch, but unlike with tanks they don't seem willing to go that route. I suspect pilots cost too much in terms of training etc. to waste them on [near-]junk. But of course, it's hard to say for sure what the leaders in the Kremlin are thinking. Apr 13 at 7:22
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: of course, it depends whom you ask. Russia claims 5 times that number [of combat aircraft produced] tass.com/defense/1737801 (Wel, that's slithgly fogged as "100 new and repaired aircraft". ) So it's difficult to base an answer on such data/claims. Apr 13 at 12:23
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    Ukraine has inherited over 100 S-300 batteries from the USSR. That's an insane amount of air defenses, more than any country short of the US, China, or Russia. Flying anywhere close to these systems is suicidal. Patriots, operating at a different frequency, make it even more dangerous.
    – Therac
    Apr 14 at 20:08
11

British intelligence has argued that this is "due to the danger of a strike against Russian airfields and the "continued high threat" of Ukrainian air defenses[.]" See also here, reaching the same conclusion.

According to the military analysts, military correspondents and sources at the front line in Ukraine and in the West, this is the top #1 cited reason:

the "continued high threat" of Ukrainian air defenses

This reason is mentioned much less often, maybe as the top #3 cited reason:

due to the danger of a strike against Russian airfields


Another possibility is that the Russian Air Force is a paper tiger whose publicly stated aircraft resources are exaggerated and that it isn't actually able to deploy most of its planes in combat because it has a low state of readiness and because it may not have the right kind of aircraft for this conflict or make lack sufficient aircraft delivered bombs and missiles that are functioning.

This is the top #2 cited reason:

Russian Air Force is a paper tiger


A third possibility is that Russia feared that doing so would make it more likely for NATO Air Forces to intervene directly, perhaps establishing a "no fly zone".

I have no heard much of this one. I assume this is not a valid reason at all.


A fourth possibility is that Putin has less loyalty in his Air Force than it other parts of his military and that senior Air Force generals pushed back on the Ukraine War in general and their units playing a major part in it.

I have no heard much of this one, either. I assume this is not a valid reason at all, by the same token.


NOTES:

Similar reasons to #1 and #2 have been mentioned frequently for the relative lack of Russian tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine. An interesting, but old, anecdote, refers to Russian military putting into service some truly old tanks that were barely older than WWII tanks.

References:

Top #1 cited reason: the "continued high threat" of Ukrainian air defenses:

The Russian air force lost another Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber on Thursday, the Ukrainian air force claimed. If confirmed, the Thursday shoot-down would extend an unprecedented hot streak for Ukrainian air-defenses.

The Ukrainian claim they’ve shot down 11 Russian planes in 11 days: eight Su-34s, two Sukhoi Su-35 fighters and a rare Beriev A-50 radar plane.

But those 11 claimed losses are worse than they might seem for the increasingly stressed Russian air force. In theory, the air arm has plenty more planes. In practice, the service is dangerously close to collapse.

Exactly how the Ukrainians are shooting down so many jets is unclear. It’s possible the Ukrainian air force has assigned some of its American-made Patriot missile launchers to mobile air-defense groups that move quickly in close proximity to the 600-mile front line of Russia’s two-year wider war on Ukraine, ambushing Russian jets with 90-mile-range PAC-2 missiles then swiftly relocating to avoid counterattack.

But the distance at which the Ukrainians shot down that A-50 on Friday—120 miles or so—hints that a longer-range missile system was involved. Perhaps a Cold War-vintage S-200 that the Ukrainian air force pulled out of long-term storage.

Losing 11 Jets In 11 Days, Russia Stumbles Toward Aerial Collapse


The top #2 cited reason: Russian Air Force is a paper tiger:

The Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS, continues to burn through the life span of its fighter aircraft in the war against Ukraine. After two years of air war, its total force is slightly less than 75% of its prewar strength.

The VKS has directly lost approximately 16 fighters over the past eight months. However, this does not account for the imputed losses, which arise from an aircraft accruing more flight hours than planned, reducing its overall life. Based on updated information, the VKS is on track to suffer approximately 60 imputed aircraft losses this year from overuse. That is equivalent to losing 26 new airframes. Meanwhile the VKS currently procures only about 20 total Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft per year.

Russia’s air force is hollowing itself out. More air defense can help.


The top #3 cited reason: due to the danger of a strike against Russian airfields:

Russia is painting decoy fighter aircraft on the tarmac at its airfields to try to confuse Ukraine's forces but is undermining this move by landing helicopters on the silhouettes, British defense officials have said.

Russia's Air Force suffered heavy aircraft losses over the last few weeks, including more than a dozen warplanes such as Su-34 fighter bombers, Su-35 fighter jets and a rare A-50 military spy plane.

In its daily update on Tuesday, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said that it was "likely" that Kyiv's spat of successful strikes on military locations had forced Russia to "implement a number of decoy and deception techniques to obfuscate Ukrainian targeting efforts."

Russia Deploying Decoys After Heavy Fighter Jet Losses: UK


More references will be added later. These will be mostly Ukrainian or Western sources. I do not keep the Russian sources organized well, unfortunately. They would have been valuable too for this question.

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    A nice quote I saw that basically sums up #2: Russia has large and modern army, though the modern army is not large and the large army is not modern.
    – David S
    Apr 12 at 20:00
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    @DavidS This is a great quote, thank you! Unfortunately, I could not easily find the source... Do you happen to know? All I have found is this: Russia has large and modern army, the modern army is not large, the large army is not modern. : r/memes Apr 12 at 20:16
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    With the airfields it's important to note that cfields closer neearby are more at risk, which means launching the planes from further away which in turn increases flight hours, furthering the wear and thereby the "losses" through overuse from #2
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 15 at 7:35
  • @Hobbamok Thank you for the comment! You make a great point. Apr 15 at 18:08
5

Frame challenge:

You could ask this question in the past tense, but it seems to me that its assumptions are no longer true. Russian Airspace Force made heavy use of FAB bombings during the winter Avdeevka campaign and elsewhere. Russian command clearly underestimated the importance of guided bombs and did not have them ready in the beginning of the war. Unguided bombs have much worse utility even in the best case (air superiority, can fly directly over target) and are useless in worst case.

However, when equipped with UPMK controlled planning kit these progressively larger FABs finally make a difference on the battlefield.

Other than that, Ukrainian SSR had the best, most dense air defence in all USSR due to its strategic location, so it took a while to exhaust its potential that was inherited by Ukraine, and get some freedom of action.

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  • Another factor can be their overconfidence when they launched the 2022 invasion. They expected to quickly scare Ukraine into surrendering, so they marched in with a huge column of ground vehicles almost as it was an occupying force after a war which was already won. The air force did very little in those crucial first days, when they would have had the best chance to cripple most of the (at the time) unprepared air defenses. This mistake of theirs allowed Ukraine to keep a large part of their air defense infrastructure intact, and it became a constant threat to later Russian operations.
    – vsz
    Apr 14 at 20:51
  • @vsz The night of February 22 saw a number of spectacular explosions of Ukrainian weapon stockpiles, air fields and naval vessels. But the whole point of air defense is to be resistant to air strikes. This is why I'm also sceptical of SEAD against a comparable opponent.
    – alamar
    Apr 14 at 21:09
  • Yes, there were air attacks, but I remember seeing many military analysts wondering during the next few days that those attacks were much more limited in scope and magnitude in comparison to what they were expecting to happen.
    – vsz
    Apr 15 at 4:05
5

However, Russian aircraft have largely adjusted by avoiding the areas where Ukraine’s air defenses — many of which have been supplied by the West — are expected to engage them. Russian warplanes, according to him, have evaded Ukrainian air defenses by using standoff weaponry and have modified their tactics after entering Ukrainian airspace.

This statement might be unsettling to the Ukrainian military, which claims that it regularly causes significant damage to the Russian Aerospace Forces. By the end of February, when Ukraine marked two years since the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian military claimed it had managed to take down 342 Russian planes and 325 helicopters.

While these claims could not be independently verified, between mid-February and early March, the Ukrainian air defense forces claimed they had shot down about two dozen Russian fighter jets, most of them the formidable Su-34 Fullback bomber, which launches guided bombs.

Celebrating the shootdown of two Su-34 bombers, Ukrainian Air Force commander Mykola Oleshchuk said, “Given such losses of fighter and special aircraft, the Russians should have a think and stop their aviation meat grinders at least for some time.”

The reports from Ukraine noted that Russia lost a huge number of aircraft as it was attempting to gain ground in Ukraine following the evacuation of Ukrainian forces from Avdiivka and three other villages in the Donetsk Oblast region. At that time, Yuriy Ihnat, the Air Force’s spokesman, told reporters that Ukraine had accumulated “tools” to destroy planes “at quite long distances.”

Military watchers attributed most of these shootouts to the Patriot missile defense systems. Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at British think tank RUSI, said, “Ukraine is being more aggressive with risking Patriot launchers close to the frontlines to engage Russian jets.”

https://www.eurasiantimes.com/new-debunks-kyivs-claims-of-massive/

They are used sparingly and only when it makes sense, because Ukraine has formidable anti-air defence, and the cost of deploying aircrafts to high-risk areas is not worth the cost associated with building, maintaining and training new pilots.

-1

What do you mean "using a little it's Air-forces?"

The first sense, that it is not war style of Russia to use a Carpet bombing.

Capet bombing first time was used in Spain civilian war in 1937. Then it was German and UK-US bombings while WW-2. For example Dresden was totally destroyed under bombings. And Hiroshima?

Then it was the bombing of North Korea bombing, then the bombing of Vietnam, then was Kambodja time... then Yugoslavia - it's capital, Belgrade, was crushed. What then, Iraq - the Bagdad bombing. Then was Libia. Not it is Gaza time...

If it is about Russia, Russia used bombing not selective bombing only one time episodically while SU had warring in Afghanistan war.

So, it is just not Russia style of war. Why?

Not-touch war was always a style of the UK-US, because they used a lot of ships, aircrafts, navies, but they didn't use army - ground troops a lot. The fact, that they never used a lot of troops, because this makes the war unpopular in one time. That is why collateral damage is more prefer then troops deaths.

Russia has another philosophy of the war - civilians are not militaries. But Carpet bombings are not ever effective against militaries, especially because they are not warring large groups today. But purposely they may be aimed by artillery or missiles like Kalibr or even more hypersonic Kinjal.

Why is it? Because Carpet bombing is not ever effective against fortified buildings and bunkers, so, lots of civilians killed with the low war result.

Second moment, that you are mislead that the Ukraine today has no anti-air defence. It has lots of S-300 SU systems from the all over ex-SU area(easten EU), BUK M-1, then several of PATRIOTs-US, NASAMS-II-US-Northland, IRIS-T-German(1?), MIM-23 Hawk, and lots of other SU stuff like Tor, Osa and else... And in sense 3 units of S-300 is not worse then 1 unit of Patriot(same age), and probably better then 1 Patriot. S-300 is very decent system against lots of usual targets and aircrafts in effective area. And for unusual, like hypersonic, there is no system today - nvm it is S-300 or Patriot. And Patriot is not a new one system... So, sense of the mass weapons is more then sense of the little-bit-higher-tech when it is about extended war front.

To say that the Ukraine air-defence is not effective is to think that SU weapons not work. But it is still work, and the quantity have a equal sense as tech-class for big numbers of real war.

The third point, Russia had to find the key to huck the air defence, and it was finded - FAB and CAB bombs. Russia today has also unique FAB-1500 bomb, very powerful, and FAB-3000 will be soon too.

FAB-1500 explosion diameter 20-25 m and deep 6 m, with of aiming to 5 metrs and distance of launching is about 40-100 kilometers(that is enough to avoid from modern air-defence). And FAB is not so hard to produce like missiles, so it is mass weapon for real serious modern war.

And the forth sense that at the anti-air-defence circumstances, aircrafts had to use missiles or planing bombs on the distance to shut down directly the target. That is the most effective today.

And i am not saying about drones, because it is one more large theme. Drones today are evolved very fast. But they still are not so deadly like prime bombs-with-wings - FAB, CAB and else. Also drones need navigation and web-connection, but FAB is full autonomous.

The problem of the west wartech sector that they have to produce expensive weapons, because war have to be a business. And simple near chip stuff like bombs is not popular. Though UK-water drones ware painful for Russia ships in Black sea, but it is not the weapon that can won the ground war.

And the last. Russia didn't start full force war at one moment, as i understand it tried to treaty for the first year of the conflict, than there was about half year of inner doubts and reorganisation(remember the story with Warger head), and Russia start warring seriously only since last autumn. Before that time it was mostly demonstration of modern military stuff from the both sides and defensive and waiting position of Russia militaries. But FAB today is the most serious and touch-unable attacking weapon.

The question is not "can Russia to war?" but "wish Russia to war seriously?".

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  • "What do you mean "using a little it's Air-forces?"" Asking for clarification should be done below the question. In an answer it might be a bit too late. Apr 13 at 11:30
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    Nobody's doing carpet bombing anymore. As for Russia not hitting civilian targets nytimes.com/2019/10/13/reader-center/… etc. Apr 13 at 12:40
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution It's a figure of speech to repeat the question before replying to it. Apr 13 at 14:20
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    Okay, so this is a frame challenge. But maybe asking for clarification first would have been better. Apr 13 at 15:25
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution "But maybe asking for clarification first would have been better." - rhetorical figures not for asking, it is for modality Apr 14 at 13:06
-2

Russia is not the USSR.

While this point needs to be repeated over and over again, it's even more important to understand why it matters militarily. Until roughly 2005, Russia was in its Weimar Republic stage. After 2005, it entered its Fascism stage. This has been treated in other places on this site and this is not a fringe school of thought because its supported by academics who study Russia rigorously. Because this has been done in other questions, I won't expound on that much other than to point an interested reader to Timothy Snyder's quote

if Russia today is not a fascist regime, it is really difficult to know what regime would be fascist. It is more clearly fascist than Mussolini's Italy, which invented the term.

Unlike the Hitler's Germany, however, Russia has not rebuilt its industry. It squandered it. Its capacity to produce planes and tanks is not at the level of an industrial power. It's at the level of pre-WWII Japan. It can only produce single units with a great effort, but it has no organized system of mass production. But even that doesn't tell the whole story.

The cost of being a Weimar Republic on Russia's readiness.

Military profession became a backwater for those who simply could not figure out how to steal from the more profitable parts of the economy. Theft of military hardware and state funds was the only motivation that Russia's top military officers had. The ideology of the Soviet Union was gone. The West was the model to emulate, not to fight. There was simply no good reason to maintain military hardware in working order if it was formally designed for fighting the West.

When it comes to air force, Russia has fallen behind almost to the level where China is.

It's a great mistake to evaluate Russia's capacity to wage war based on the Soviet Union's capacity. Russia's Weimar Republic period saw a complete devastation not only of its industrial capacity, but also of its former institutions. The only ones which survived were the ones sponsored by the West. Russia's space/rocket industry, for example, survived because the West used Russia's space industry as cheap labor for launching satellites.

But enough platitudes. Here's some facts.

Russia (not the USSR, but Russia) has never fought a war against a country with an air force until its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

That's not a platitude. That's a fact. That's 30 years of having no practical combat experience for its pilots -- 2 generations. The know-how would be very dated even if it had been maintained. But it hasn't been. The ineptness of both of its anti-aircraft and its pilots is nothing short of staggering. The only combat its pilots saw were during engagements with rebels in Syria (who had no air force) or other land-based resistance-movement-type forces.

Pilots must train rigorously and continuously to remain current.

Despite having planes, Russia didn't have pilots competent enough to fly them. It takes years of rigorous training to produce competent pilots. They need to have competent instructors. Pilots need to stay active to stay current. It takes roughly 200 flight hours per year for a pilot to remain in top shape. Russia's pilots in the most active military district saw an average of 100 hours per year before 2022. Which means the overwhelming majority of Russian active-duty pilots were not maintaining their skills even if they once had them.

Mariupol showed that Russian air force was incapable of performing against any enemy with teeth.

During the siege of Mariupol, Ukraine regularly resupplied the Azov Steel Plant defenders by helicopters. Even when Russia controlled the rest of the city, Ukraine still was able to sneak in occasional helicopters with supplies. The only reason Mariupol fell at all was that Russia was able to bombard it from the sea (because it's a port city on the Black Sea). Russian pilots ability to stay in the air in Ukraine was questionable at best.

Russia never established control of Ukraine's airspace.

In fact, despite the war, today there are some discussions going on about resuming passenger flights to and from Lviv. It's only 20km from Poland, but still... civilian flights despite constant terrorist attacks against Ukrainian civilian population by the Russian military.

Russian air force is still used, but mostly without crossing the front lines.

Air sirens blast in Ukraine and alerts hit the cell phones when bombers and Migs take off in Russia. Not when they cross into Ukraine. They can't cross the front lines. They approach front lines and launch missiles before turning around and running. And yet they still continue to lose planes.

Prigozhin's rebellion completely put Russian air force to shame.

While it's mostly an icing on the cake, during Prizoghin's march on Moscow, his private military company anti-aircraft "guy" downed 2 planes and 2 attack helicopters. One of the planes was Il-22M, an airborne command and control center. These are supposed to be unassailable and yet it has been shot down by mercenaries just for good measure. What was interesting was Prigozhin's reaction. He was not exhilarated that his forces were capable of doing this. He was effectively pensive about it, claiming that his forces were just too eager.

Ukraine had some air force remaining as late as February of 2024.

There was a report of an experienced Ukrainian pilot being shot down as late as February 8, 2024. That's 2 years into the war. Not only has Russia not established control over Ukraine's air. Ukraine still had, and perhaps still has, active military planes.

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    Ah, the joys of #. Why not put this in all-caps? It would be even more convincing... This answer manages to not talk about ... Soviet/Russian air support doctrine, new technological challenges, actual uses of Russian airpower in early war... About the only thing of interest is noting they don't fly their pilots enough. How is a big command aircraft supposed to be "unassailable"? Did you miss how close the RAF's came to being shot down over the Black Sea? They are sitting ducks. News to you: no one, not just Russia, has fought a peer enemy in the air since 1967/1973. Apr 13 at 17:17
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica the answer says Russia hasn't fought any country with an air force. This isn't about relative strength. It's about pilots having to fly sorties in actual combat. It's a question of readiness. The US spent 15-25 years doing that in the MidEast. BTW, Iran-Iraq war saw a number of sorties among peers. Apr 14 at 1:36
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica it's not that Russia didn't see combat against peers in the air. It hasn't seen combat against any country with an air force at all. Why are you harping on this point? Obviously this matters. Apr 14 at 1:39
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I don't know why you are so upset here. We are not trying to predict the future here. This isn't saber rattling. We are trying to ascertain the causes of outcomes which have already happened. Are you suggesting that the points I made have not been true or that they cannot be contributing causes to the observed outcomes?
    – wrod
    Apr 14 at 1:48
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    The US spent 15-25 years flying in low-lethality contexts. That is very different. The one big advantage they do have is that they intimately know how to fly close air support effectively and it doesn't seem like the Russians do. For the rest, make no mistake, flying against the Taliban or even Iraq is nothing like flying on this battlefield. I am not "upset", but you criticized Alamar's answer, and though IMHO they're "backing the wrong side" it's shorter, less strident and more informative. Apr 14 at 2:18

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