Here’s Why Russia Lost 31 Su-34 Fullback Fighter Bombers in Ukraine War, Some Were Downed By Cheap MANPAD

The crews of the Su-34 fighter-bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces fly in Syria and Ukraine with Garmin StreetPilot hand-held GPS navigator. Source JPost.

The most frequently downed Russian fighter jet in Ukraine is the Su-34 Fullback fighter bomber. Since the beginning of the conflict on February 2022, 21 Su-34 units have been intercepted, shot down, or damaged during a mission. Ten Su-34 were either crashed or damaged at the Crimea airbase in the Crimean Peninsula.

The question remains why how one of the most combat aircraft of the Russian Space and Armed Forces, such as the Su-34 have a downing rate comparable to a 48-year-old aircraft?

The first Su-34 was shot down just five days after the start of the conflict – February 28, 2022. From then until today, at least one and a half Su-34 aircraft are shot down or passed every month on average. A rather unpleasant number for the VKS against the background of the 148 serially produced Su-34s. I.e. about 20 percent of the Su-34 inventory has been shot down. This number is significantly higher, considering that the 148 units are distributed among the five military branches of the Russian Federation.

Russian propaganda has been claiming that it is one of the most advanced Russian fighter jets, why is Su-34 shot down so often?

The Su-34 is a non-stealth aircraft, but that does not mean it would be downed by MANPAD so often. The Su-25 mentioned above is also not stealth but has the same downing rate as the Su-34. Russia lost two squadrons of Su-35 since the start of the war.

The same can be said for two other participants in the air raids – the Ukrainian MiG-29 and the Russian Su-30. They are not stealthy, but they are also frequently shot down by enemy anti-aircraft missile systems.

This means that this aircraft will fall into the range of the enemy’s air defenses and the enemy’s EW system. If this is the case, experts can question the quality of the Russian EW integrated into the Su-34. I.e. Khibiny electronic countermeasure system.

Russia claims that the SAP-14 and SAP-518 passive jamming stations create an impenetrable shield. If Khibiny is not what Russia claims, SAP-14 and SAP-518 jamming stations are not so good either. The possibilities for the frequent downing of the Su-34 are precisely the uncertainty surrounding the quality of the Khibiny.

Poor Thrust-to-weight ratio

For most flight conditions, an aircraft with a high thrust-to-weight ratio will have a high value of excess thrust. High excess thrust results in a high rate of climb. If the thrust-to-weight ratio is greater than one and the drag is small, the aircraft can accelerate straight up like a rocket. In contrast to Sukhoi’s claim, Russian engines bleed energy in kinematic performance; hence Sukhoi fighter jets will take longer to recover from a tight turn. Hence, cheap MANPAD is taking advantage of the sluggish performance of the Su-34 and shooting it down.

A good TWR is 1.3–1.5. You should do this mathematics equation (thrust ÷ weight then TWR ÷ gravity of planet in g) to get the final TWR. The Su-34 has TWR of 0.63, which is really poor.

The Sukhoi family aircraft is perhaps the least manoeuvrable Russian fighter compared to the most advanced Western fighter jets, such as F-15, Rafale, Gripen and Eurofighter.

The Su-34 is a heavy fighter. And a big one too. This is because it is dual-role, both fighter and bomber. I.e. it carries a much larger payload than other fighters.

Imagine the Su-27, lifting off with a maximum weight of 67,000 pounds. Now, picture the Su-34, a step up, boasting a maximum take-off weight of 99,000 pounds with the same Saturn / Ljulka AL-35F engine. The maximum weight of any single munition carried is 4,000 kg (8,800 lb). Its stand-off weapons have a range of up to 250 km. This would create a lot of problems because the thrust-to-weight ratio will be compromised.

Although it is not designed as an attack aircraft, the Su-34 has to lower its flight height several times to deliver more precise airstrikes. In this way, the aircraft becomes vulnerable to mobile short-range air defense systems and hand-held portable anti-aircraft systems, such as the Stinger for example.

The fact that the Su-34 has been the most downed modern Russian aircraft is a testament to the challenges that the aircraft faces in this type of conflict.

Poorly trained pilots

In order to become a Russian Air Force pilot, one must first enlist in the Russian military and complete basic academic training. After basic training, those interested in becoming a pilot must then attend the Russian Air Force Academy, where they will undergo one year of flight training on Yak-130 and MiG-29UB. Upon graduating from the academy, pilots will then serve a minimum of four years in the Russian Air Force for various specialist fighter wing and undergo additional training on specific aircraft for six months with no further training and combat exercises.

Russian oligarchs steal billions of defense budgets and poor Russian pilots have to endure Soviet-era training methods, no G-suite, basic training, Soviet-era helmet and no combat training due to jet fuel shortage. Russia is one of the biggest energy exporter, but Russian air force restricted pilots training due fuel shortages and availability of aircraft.

Russian pilots have struggled to support their troops on the ground because of poor training and outdated equipment, according to a report published by the top British think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

The report, published this week, outlines the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s air force in Ukraine based on a series of interviews with intelligence services, military experts, and Ukrainian air force commanders.

It found that one of Russia’s biggest failures in Ukraine since it first invaded in February last year is that its pilots have been unable to “provide dynamic close air support to Russian units on the battlefield.”

Supporting ground troops requires Russian pilots to fly at a very low altitude, which very few have been trained to do, the report found.

“Very few Russian fixed-wing pilots had significant training or currency for very low-altitude close air support in contested airspace, since this never formed part of their core training tasks before the invasion,” it said.

On top of this, some Russian aircrafts have “known deficiencies” with several sensors and weapons that disallow them from being able to effectively hit their targets, RUSI said. This includes Russian targeting systems and precision-guided munitions.

“Russia has not invested heavily in the sort of sensors, weapons, and pilot training that Western air forces have taken for granted after decades of counter-insurgency campaigns where airpower provided the majority of deployed joint force firepower,” the report added.

The Russian air force has lacked success since the start of its invasion mostly due to the resilience of Ukraine’s ground-to-air defense systems.

Ukraine has largely defended its skies with its own systems until October 2022 but is now mainly relying on Western-supplied weapons, including US Stinger missiles, the report said.

Despite this, Russia still has lots of aircraft left, which could put additional stress on Ukraine’s air defenses, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin warned earlier this year.

“We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left,” Austin said. “We need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can.”

No mission planning

Even the more optimistic assessments assumed that Russia would mount a significant air campaign to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force on its airbases, coupled with large-scale strikes with stand-off cruise and ballistic missiles to blind Ukrainian long-range early warning and surface-to-air missile (SAM) system radars.

This would have forced Ukraine to move its mobile surface-to-air missiles away from the frontlines and to try and inflict a steady drumbeat of losses on Russian aircraft penetrating too far. Meanwhile, the defense of Ukrainian frontline units would be mostly left to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to at least make Russian low-level attack runs a dangerous prospect.

A Su-34 skidded off the ground and became up-side down.

Russia’s inability to plan and conduct large, complex aerial strike packages is one of the country’s most significant unforeseen weaknesses during this war. It largely explains its inability to establish air superiority over Ukraine.

We in the West take the large air campaigns led by the US Air Force in Iraq, the Balkans and Libya almost for granted, but the level of planning, logistical and command and control capacity required to conduct these complex air operations is enormous. Every pilot involved must be able to understand their role in the entire operation, including precise timings, routes and procedures as part of a comprehensive briefing and planning process before each sortie. Tanker support is critical to ensure that planes have sufficient fuel to complete the expected mission once all the strike elements have assembled after launching from their disparate bases and transiting to the rendezvous points. Coordination between various strike elements is complex even before the shooting starts, and once in combat, every element in a strike package from escort fighters, fighters tasked with destroying enemy air defences, bombers, electronic warfare escorts, and combat search and rescue teams must know exactly what they and all the other force elements are expected to do in any given situation.

The State Border Service of Ukraine announced Friday that officials had awarded “pensioner” Valeriy Fedorovych with a medal for shooting down a Russian Su-34 with a rifle. The Su-34 was believed to be flying low avoid Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles, but shot down by rifle’s bullet instead.

Since Russian pilots are trained almost exclusively to fly in pairs and have little exposure to larger exercises; get relatively few flying hours compared to most NATO fighter crews; do not have support from tankers on most operations; and are not doctrinally trained for large air campaigns, it is perhaps unsurprising in retrospect that the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS)proved incapable of conducting a western-style air war against Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces shot down Su-34 using RBS-70 MANPAD.

However, the consequent inability to rapidly overwhelm and destroy the Ukrainian mobile SAM threat has meant that Russian aircraft soon had to stop flying beyond the immediate frontline areas by day. Even near the frontlines, Ukrainian air defense began to take a significant toll on Russian fighters flying at medium level and MANPADS were a constant danger at lower levels. Flying at very low altitude makes aircraft hard to detect and engage with radar-guided SAMs but it also greatly restricts a pilot’s field of view and leaves aircraft vulnerable to short-ranged MANPADS and anti-aircraft fire. As such, night-flying trained Russian Su-34 fighter bomber crews were able to bomb Ukrainian cities near the borders at night when MANPADS operators struggled to spot them, but during low-altitude night attacks they could not reliably hit small or moving targets.

No datalink, EW and targeting system

The Russian Air Force’s operates Soviet-vintage MiG-29, Su-30SM, MiG-31BM and Su-35 fighter jets remain badly outranged by the radars and weapons of modern Western fighters. Russia so far has lost several squadrons of Su-35 and Su-34 fighter bombers in the Ukraine war.

The lack of identification of friend-or-foe, networking and datalink were two primary reasons the Russian air force did not operate in a formation and operating within occupied territories of Ukraine.

Captured Russian pilot Andrey Fedorchukov told Ukrainian officials that Russian Air Force distributed Garmin GPS and Pronebo mobile app to navigate in Ukraine because of the poor quality of Russia’s inaccurate GLONASS guidance system.

Russia used older generation Su-24 and Su-25 in Syria and Ukraine because the newly built Su-35 lacks precision strike capability due to an erroneous GLONASS guidance system.

Most Su-35 fly with older Infrared-seeking and semi-active variants of R-27 because R-77 is in short supply. The lack of competent armament puts Su-35 and Su-57 at a significant disadvantage. The AIM-120 and Meteor BVRAAM missiles outranged the R-77 missiles used by Russia—and multiples could be fired in succession.

Russia’s domestically delivered production variant Su-57 and MiG-35 are fitted with Soviet-era Irbis-E, and Zhuk-M phased array radar because the Russian prototype AESA radar failed the bench test.

In addition to already poor performance, Irbis-E is vulnerable to jamming by modern electronic warfare suites owing to a smaller bandwidth, which you can tell from inferior SAR resolution.

Especially against Western jets as an adversary with a capable AESA radar offering a superior range and being highly resistant to DRFM jamming from Su-35’s L-175V Khibiny.

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