Russian Fighters vs. Soviet Fighters: Ukraine’s 30 Year Old Combat Jets Take Losses as Russia Dominates Skies

Following the initiation of a Russian air campaign in Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, reports quickly emerged that two of the Ukrainian Air Force’s Su-24M strike fighters had been shot down over the territory of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine near Russia's borders. As Russian strikes targeted military infrastructure, air defence sites, airfields and aircraft, and reportedly neutralised all Ukrainian air defences within three hours, the reported attack by Su-24s appeared to be an effort by Ukrainian forces to retaliate. The Su-24 is the only Ukrainian fighter optimised for air to ground roles, and while unlikely to last long in Russian airspace it may have been hoped that it would have some success operating against targets in Lugansk. The loss of two of the aircraft, which were widely speculated to have been shot down by Russian fighters taking part in the campaign, highlights the very considerable disadvantage faced by the Ukrainian Air Force in terms of the quality of its combat assets which has effectively guaranteed a Russian air superiority advantage from the outset of the conflict. 

Speculation that Russian fighters could have been responsible for downing the Su-24s is based on the fact that in a complex and possibly congested theatre of operations, and with Ukraine’s fleet itself being Russian built during the Soviet era, the risks of friendly fire would make downing an enemy strike fighter from visual ranges with a fighter the safest means to avoid possibly shooting down one’s own aircraft by accident. This is particularly true considering that the Russian Air Force and Russian Navy themselves deploy Su-24s in bases near Ukraine, with Crimea alone hosting two squadrons, meaning there is a significant chance that they are taking part in the campaign. The downing of two Su-24s represents a significant loss for the Ukrainian Air Force, which deploys only fourteen of the fighters which are the heaviest combat jets in its arsenal. With aircraft specifically highlighted as targets for the Russian air campaign, the possibility is significant that many more Ukrainian aircraft have been neutralised possibly in the air but more likely on the ground. 

The loss of the Su-24s, as well as the swiftness with which the Russian Air Force was able to neutralise Ukrainian air defences, highlights the discrepancy between Russia’s modern fighter fleet the bulk of which has been acquired since 2010, and the Ukrainian fleet which lacks post-1980s hardware and retains essentially the same capabilities, albeit on a much smaller scale, as those which it inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The backbone of the Ukrainian fleet is formed of MiG-29A and Su-27S fighters, which entered service from 1982 and 1985, while these have been phased out of frontline roles in Russia and are almost totally obsolete against modern Russian aircraft such as the Su-35 and Su-34. The discrepancy is particularly significant in terms of electronics and sensors, with Russian fighters using electronically scanned  array radars that are often around five times as powerful as their Ukrainian counterparts of similar size as is the case when comparing the sensors of Russian Su-35s and Ukrainian-operated Su-27s. Ukrainian Su-24s in much the same way will lack the survivability needed to operate against Russian forces largely due to a lack of modern countermeasures, as well as the lack of a viable fighter escort able for protection from Russia’s own fighters. With a 30 year technological gap between the two fleets due to a lack of modernisation in Ukraine, the balance of power in the air will remain very one sided to Russia’s major benefit. 

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