A day after ignominiously shooting down one of their own top-end Su-34M jets, Russian surface-to-air crews may have repeated the mistake, this time knocking a Russian Su-35 out of the sky. The intended target may have been a U.S.-supplied rocket.
Several videos have emerged of the latest shootdown. One shows the stricken aircraft going down almost vertically leaving a trail of smoke before it disappears behind trees. A second shows the final stages in which the flaming aircraft plunges to the ground, producing a huge fireball. A third video shows the burning wreck, with the pilot parachuting down in the distance. The location is near Nova Kakhova behind Russian lines, and some observers believe that the aircraft may have been hit by Russian anti-aircraft fire.
Su-35 downed by anti-air system
The Ukrainian air force claimed that they shot down the Russian Su-35 but have provided no evidence. Other sources indicate that the Russian aircraft was attempting to intercept Ukrainian aircraft at the time.
The loss of an $85 million Su-35 is an even bigger embarrassment than the previous loss of a $36 million Su-34 bomber. The Su-35 is one of Russia’s most advanced fighters, a ‘supermaneuverable’ evolution of the Su-27 It is packed with sophisticated sensors and armed with a built-in cannon and twelve hardpoints for air-to-air missiles, and can also attack ground targets. Some say the Su-35 is overhyped, but it appears to have been reasonably successful in the current conflict with only one Su-35 previously lost, compared to ten Su-34 bombers shot down so far.
Russia lacks Identification Friend or Foe (IFF)
It is possible that this aircraft was shot down by Ukraine as claimed, but the location and timing, immediately after a similar incident, suggests that it might have been brought down by the Russians themselves due to issues with their Identification Friend-or-Foe (IFF) systems.
Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Interrogators are electronic devices that emit an “interrogating” radio signal at one frequency, prompting an IFF Transponder to emit a reply signal at a different frequency, indicating that an approaching aircraft is “friendly.”
Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Antennas enhance both Interrogator and Transponder signals, work with all standard IFF Modes, and are often integrated to also support other C4ISR systems, like Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) and air traffic control (ATC) radar signals.
The S-300, S-400 and Buk anti-air system lacks IFF threats libraries hence the system incapable of distinguish between friend or foe causing Russian to shoot their own aircraft.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was a scheduled passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down by Buk missile on 17 July 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine.
The lack of Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) was the primary reason Russian Buk missile shot down Malaysian airline MH17 aircraft as Buk missile’s fire control radar could not discriminate between a commercial aircraft and fighter jets.
Russian military also lacks networking and a common datalink amongst forces creating communication barriers for multi-domain operations in the Ukraine war.
Russia failed to discriminate between HIMARS and fighter jet
In a Twitter thread on Sunday, a military analyst who goes by the nom de plume of Layman noted that the S-400 is able to detect and track the American rockets but operators may have been instructed not to engage them because of difficulties with positively identifying a HIMARS guided rocket compared to a cheap Grad rocket. So it may be only now with rising losses that Russia has decided to let its air defenses off the leash and allow them to engage everything. But changes to existing processes and procedures without sufficient training often cause glitches.
“If this is correct, it means that Russian is hurriedly implementing untested modifications to counter Ukraine’s new capabilities,” Layman notes.
Russia shot down its Su-24 bomber
When the Su-24 was shot down earlier it was suggested that the problem was a lack of communication between the local air defence commander and the Russian Air Force, and this may again have been a factor. Or it may be that, as Layman suggests, demands from higher-ups to ‘do something’ about HIMARS ended badly.
This looks like another one of those cases where the Russians will be quite happy to credit the kill to Ukrainian forces rather than admit they did it themselves, so it may be some time before we know for sure what happened. Meanwhile the HIMARS keep firing – now joined by the even more dangerous M270 which carries twice as many rockets – and Russia still has no answer.
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