The Ukrainian Fighter Fleet’s Last Attack? Russia Shoots Down Five Heavyweight Fighters

Four Ukrainian Air Force Su-24 strike fighters and a single Su-27 heavyweight fighter were reportedly shot down on March 28, according to a report from the Russian Defence Ministry. The loss marks the first of Ukrainian heavyweight combat jets reported two weeks, and comes as analysts have long since considered these high maintenance platforms to be inoperable following multiple Russian strikes on airfields. Over half the Su-24 fleet of 14 aircraft in service before the beginning of the war have been reported destroyed by Russian and allied forces. The Su-24 represents by far Ukraine’s most capable aircraft for air to ground missions, with a sizeable fleet having been inherited from the Soviet Union, although with few upgrades being applied since and without post-Soviet standoff munitions their capabilities have been limited. The Su-27 also represents an elite aircraft in the Ukrainian fleet which when inherited in 1991 was considered the most capable fighter class in Europe, although like the Su-24 neglect for modernisation has limited its viability to engage in combat 30 years later. 

Ukraine fielded a fleet of an estimated 35 Su-27s when hostilities with Russia broke out on February 24. At least one was previously shot down by a Russian S-400 missile battery based in Belarus, with four more shot down over Western Ukraine on March 5 in an air battle, with Russian Air Force Su-35 fighters thought to have been responsible. The latest shootdowns come as Russia has exerted even greater control of Ukrainian airspace, although it remains uncertain whether they were downed by Russian fighters - the more likely possibility - or by ground based systems such as the S-400. The Russian Army has deployed mobile BuK-M3 air defence systems using tracked launchers to Ukraine, which may well have been responsible and defended personnel on the ground should they have come under attack by the Su-24s. It is also possible that the Su-24s were being escorted for a strike mission by one of Ukraine’s few operational Su-27 fighters before all were neutralised by Russian fighters. Ukraine’s heavy losses in the air come as the key city of Mariupol, guarded by Azov Battalion militias, was lost to Russian forces. 

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