Nine reasons the Russian Air Force lost more than 26 Su-35, 36 Su-34 and 2 A-50 Early Warning Aircraft

A destroyed Su-35 in Ukraine war.

One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian army and navy.

The Russian Air Force lost seven Su-34 fighter-bomber, Su-35 fighter jets and A-50 early warning aircraft in just three days between February 21 and February 24, 2024. Russia has lost more than 26 Su-35 fighter jets and 36 Su-34 fighter-bombers since the beginning of the Ukraine war, reported Defense News. Russia managed to crash at least Eight Su-34 fighter bombers without any combat mission, reported Forbes.

Such a loss rate for the Kremlin would be impossible to sustain if the success of Ukraine’s attacks continues. Commander Mykola Oleshchuk said the aircraft’s crew was confirmed killed in the attack.

What is a Su-35 aircraft?

Su-35 is the identical airframe of the Soviet-era Su-27 Flanker that entered service in 1985. This basic variant of the Flanker lacks serious capability compared to modern Western fighters at range as it has only an ancient radar, reported the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

While the Su-30SM and Su-35 upgrades made the Su-27 into an actual multirole aircraft, it was very much a “Band-Aid” upgrade at a low cost. The Su-27 has many derivatives and export variants with different radars exported to the People’s Republic of China as Su-30MKK, India as Su-30MKI and Malaysia as Su-30MKM. Malaysia grounded the entire fleet of Russian aircraft.

Nine worse features inherited by its design principles led to the Sukhoi massacre in the Ukraine war. Let’s examine why Su-35, Su-34 and A-50 ultimately failed in the Ukraine.

Number 1: Soviet-era radar and avionics

Russia is the only country exporting fighter jets without an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Russia’s domestically delivered production variants 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.

The lack of an active electronically scanned array radar has been a notable shortcoming of the Su-35, as these have increasingly become the norm in the West since the 2000s.

Mechanically steered Zhuk-ME Pulse Doppler Radar exported to Egyptian Air Force for MiG-29M2 aircraft and adopted the same radar for the prospective MiG-35.

Developed by NIIR Phazotron Irbis-E PESA radar, making them potentially worse at tracking and engaging targets at long range, which you can see by their SAR resolution.

The Hindustan Aeronautics trial shows that the Irbis-E PESA radar detected a single target at a maximum range of 268km. Russian propaganda says Irbis-E can detect a target at a maximum distance of 400km. Hindustan Aeronautics confirmed that Irbis-E radar cannot track and lock on a target beyond 100km for an aerial target and 140km at a ground target. Courtesy: Hindustan Aeronautics.

Hindustan Aeronautics performed a trial of Irbis-E PESA radar for Su-30MKI and published data showing Irbis-E has poor target acquisition capability against air-to-air and air-to-ground targets.  

Garmin GPS is tapped on the cockpit. An exact model of the hand-held Garmin GPS is on the right side.

The Su-35’s Irbis-E radar PESA radar has a two-step electro-hydraulic drive unit, which turns the antenna mechanically to 60° in azimuth and 70° in a roll. In contrast, the antenna device scans using an electronically controlled beam in azimuth and angle of elevation in sectors exceeding 60°. This means the Irbis-E PESA radar does not have a wide angle of view like the European Raven ES or Captor AESA radar.

To make matters worse, Irbis-E is vulnerable to jamming by modern EW suites owing to a smaller bandwidth, which you can tell from inferior SAR resolution. The aircraft is fitted with the legacy cockpit and Soviet-era avionics.

Captured Russian pilot Andrey Fedorchukov Told Ukrainian officials that RuAF 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.

Number 2:  No electronic warfare

The Khibiny electronic warfare system was developed in the 1990s but operationalised in the Russian Armed Forces in 2013 to defend aircraft against air defence systems. Work on the EW system was carried out from 1977 to 1990. Most Russian EW systems were developed in the early 1990s but adopted in 2013 or later.

This is the primary reason the Ukrainian Air Force shot down two A-50 early warning aircraft.

L-265 Khibiny-10ML-26510M of Sukhoi Su-35S

According to the KRET corporation, Russia’s reliance on Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) is the basis for the signals generated by these jamming pods. This is a system by which the threat library of an EW system recognises the radar signal that it is receiving and mimics back the signal so that the radar system appears to have contacted nothing.

1980s SVP-24 Bomb sighting system.

This method depends on the pulses from adversaries being at a constant frequency at a regular interval. However, modern AESA radar always generates different frequencies, making it harder for Russian DRFM-based radio frequency jammers to track the frequency and make the Khibiny electronic warfare system inoperable and useless in actual combat.

Number 3: No datalink and IFF

Russia managed to shoot down its own Su-35 and Su-34 fighter bombers. The lack of identification friend-or-foe (IFF) and datalink were two primary reasons the Russian Air Force did not operate in a formation and within occupied territories of Ukraine.

The Russian military has used civilian mobile phones and radios for their communications, including Chinese-made civilian handheld radio, during the ongoing Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian military lacks networking and a common datalink amongst forces, creating communication barriers for multi-domain operations in the Ukraine war. The Russian army soldiers have been spotted carrying commercial-off-the-shelf wacky-talkie and FM-band antennas in the battle. Ukrainian forces even played music and swearing and interfered with Russian FM-band radios.

Number 4: Soviet-era armament

The Su-35 can only launch semi-active radar-homing missiles, specifically the R-27, requiring the fighter to point its nose at the target during the entire duration of the missile. The Su-35 and Su-34 lack the helmet-mounted cueing and off-boresight capability of the R-73 missile. 

R-77 missile was developed in the 1980s.

The air-to-ground capability of the Su-35 is very basic, being able to employ only some guided weapons such as FAB-500L semi-active laser-guided bombs, which is precisely the reason Russia is using older Su-24 fighter-bombers. Su-24 is fitted with the SVP-24, a navigation system that acts as a computerised bomb sight manufactured by Russian company Gefest & T.

According to the Indian Air Force, the R-77 was never thoroughly tested against any target, proving its efficacy on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the R-77 was promptly exported to India and China to get cash flow in the post-Soviet economy without further testing; the missile was proved inaccurate in the Kashmir skirmish.

Media personnel take images of missiles of an Indian Su-30MKI fighter aircraft, which was being flown by Indian pilots over a Kashmir skirmish, put on display at Pakistan Air Force headquarters in Islamabad on February 24, 2020, to commemorate Pakistan Air Forces ‘Operation Swift Retort’ against the Indian Air Force. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP)

The 80km range of the R-77 was the main reason the Indian Air Force lost the Kashmir skirmish against the Pakistani F-16C with 110km AIM-120B AMRAAM.

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 the Su-35 at a significant disadvantage. Short-ranged R-77 missiles put Su-35 at a substantial disadvantage in BVR combat.

Russian FAB-500L semi-active laser-guided bombs are inaccurate and must fire from a low altitude. Russian dumb dumbs such as FAB-500 bombs are a shorter range that requires pilots to fly close to the battlefield, making it vulnerable to ground-based missile attacks, which is precisely the reason Russia lost 35 Su-34 and 28 Su-35 to Swedish RBS-70 MANPAD, IRIS-T SLM and Patriot missile system.

Number 5: High Radar Cross Section (RCS)

The most notable distinguishing feature of modern Western 4.5 generation designs is using radar-absorbent materials and modified airframe to reduce radar cross-section, enhancing survivability against all beyond-visual range attacks.

On the contrary, Su-34 and Su-35 have used the same airframe since the 1980s without any modification and radar cross-section reduction kits.

The Su-35 notably has a higher frontal radar cross-section for a heavyweight fourth-generation fighter and is higher than that of the Swedish Gripen, American Super Hornet or Rafale. 

Su-35s with high radar crosses as big as 15 square meters appear on modern western Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) of IRIS-T SLM, NASAMS and Patriot Missile System from more than 250km from the battlefield, making them more vulnerable to ground-based air defence system.

Number 6: Unreliable and smoky engines

The serviceability of the RD-33 and AL-31 engines was one of the main problems that worried the country’s air force. Klimov’s RD-33 and AL-31 engines emitted too much smoke, which led to the nickname “Smoky Bandit” among Malaysian pilots.

MiG-29’s hot engine fume is an invitation to shoot it with IR-guided missiles.

Indian Auditor General audited Hindustan Aeronautics and reported 17 design issues with Russian-origin engines and 21 engine-related design flaws in the Russian MiG-29K and Su-30MKI, which led to multiple aircraft crashes in India.

Number 7: High maintenance

Perhaps the most significant drawback of the Su-35 relative to competing fighters are its high maintenance requirements and operational costs. This makes the aircraft more difficult to keep at high levels of operational readiness and means that no matter how cost-effectively it can be manufactured, it will still set any defence ministry that funds it back significantly in funds over its lifetime.

High maintenance and operational costs also have implications in wartime since fighters can generate fewer sorties over a more extended period and be more vulnerable to enemy interdiction efforts targeting fuel supplies and spare parts.

Number 8: Sub-standard and inadequate training

The Russian Air Force has reportedly struggled with adequate funding for pilot training for years. Russian fighter pilots accumulate just 120 total flight hours per year after unit assignment, and American pilots, at the same point in their career, are closer to 924 hours per year.

Most VKS frontline training sorties involve comparatively sterile environments and simple tasks such as navigation flights, unguided weapon deliveries at open ranges, and target simulation flying in cooperation with the ground-based air defence system. Russia lacks access to a training and exercise architecture to rival that available to NATO air forces.

Number 9: Russia lacks Earling Waring Aircraft Operation Experience  

The downing of two A-50 early warning aircraft was devastating for the battered Russian air force. The air arm has lost, primarily to Ukrainian long-range surface-to-air missiles—American-made Patriot PAC-2s, in particular—Eight of its best planes in just a month, including an A-50 that the Ukrainians hit over the Sea of Azov in Trudovaya Armenia, Krasnodar Krai, Russia in January.

A-50 aircraft.

Before that earlier shoot-down, the Russian air force had just Eight modernised A-50MU. Now it’s down to six, just a few active at any time. One A-50 was destroyed in Belarus by Belarusian partisans using small kamikaze drones.


The Su-27 was introduced on May 20, 1977, more than a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia never upgraded airframes, avionics, electronics and armament of any aircraft since 1980s.

Russia never designated their aircraft with block upgrades rather Russia renamed their aircraft to new name for foreign military sale, however, in this information-era, it has been extremely difficult for Russia to conceal deficiencies of their aircraft.

Su-35 and its derivatives have been a deal-breaker for many export customers, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Algeria, who want something cheap, but not Russian dud.

Many Russian aircraft have some aspect of them hyped up to a degree, but none comes close to the extent of hype with the Su-35 and the Flanker family. Look beneath the propaganda; they don’t excel outside the Moscow air shows.

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