In the Russia-Ukraine War both sides are using so much Soviet-era equipment that the Russians have had visually distinguished their own vehicles with the now-famous “Z.” Among the best known aircraft to operate on both sides of the fight has been the Su-25 “Frogfoot” jet attack aircraft. The Frogfoot is a rough contemporary of the storied American A-10 “Warthog,” and as such we can begin to draw some tentative conclusions about the future of the Warthog from the experience of the Frogfoot.
Su-25 – The Soviets Have a Tank Killer
The Frogfoot began production in the USSR 1978, a few years after Congress forced the Air Force to follow through on its plans to develop and adopt its own tank-busting ground attack aircraft. The Frogfoot and the Warthog are hardly the same aircraft, even as they perform very similar missions.
The Frogfoot is smaller, lighter, and faster than the Warthog, although it has many of the same “flying tank” characteristics and was designed for essentially the same mission.
The Frogfoot uses different munitions and has a smaller gun, but like the Warthog it is designed to attack concentrations of vehicles and infantry, concentrations that have become extremely commonplace during the Russia-Ukraine War.
Like its American counterpart, the Su-25 carries a bewildering amount of ordnance, ordnance which has been upgraded substantially over the decades of the jet’s service.
Su-25s flew during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, flew in a variety of conflicts in Africa, flew in the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, flew during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, flew in the 2014 war between Russian and Ukraine, and have flown on both sides of the war that began with Russia’s invasion in February.
Unlike the A-10, the Frogfoot ended up in the air forces of a great many countries around the world. In part this was because the Soviet Union designed the plane for export, and in part because when the USSR disintegrated Frogfoots ended up in many different air forces, some of which subsequently exported them to their final destinations. This means that we have a substantial body of evidence regarding its performance in conflicts around the world.
There’s no question that the Frogfoot can be used to devastating effect, under certain conditions. This is why both the Russians and Ukrainians have used them extensively during this conflict. But throughout its history the Frogfoot has suffered losses considerably higher than its faster, higher flying cousins. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, numerous Frogfoots conducting low-altitude attack runs were lost to shoulder-launched SAMs. Russia lost several Frogfoots in its invasion of Georgia in 2008. In 2014, Ukraine lost a number of Frogfoots to the air defense systems that Russia supplied to separatists in the Donbas region (systems that were sometimes operated by Russians themselves). In the current war, Frogfoots currently lead total confirmed fixed-wing losses for BOTH Russia and Ukraine.
What it Means for the A-10
As most readers are aware, while the A-10 has performed effectively in numerous conflicts since its development in the early 1970s it has never been a favorite of the US Air Force. Early complaints about the A-10 revolved around doctrinal and inter service disputes between the Air Force and the Army over the importance of close air support (CAS). More recently, the Air Force has argued that Congress should allow the retirement of the A-10 because the Warthog cannot survive in environments contested by enemy SAMs and enemy fighters.
It cannot be denied that these losses tend to support the Air Force’s narrative that aircraft like the A-10 and Su-25 cannot contribute in a high intensity war without suffering excessive losses. There’s no doubt that the A-10 could have a devastating impact on a modern battlefield if unleashed; experience from 1991 and from the Wars on Terror is clear in this regard. However, the losses that the Su-25 has suffered over Ukraine and in other conflicts suggests that the Air Force may be more or less correct about the future of the A-10.
In a contested air environment, even one that is imperfectly contested as is the case with Ukraine, ground attack aircraft like the Warthog or the Frogfoot will suffer a degree of attrition that may quickly become unacceptable.
This does not mean that the aircraft are useless (again, Russia and Ukraine both persist in deploying the jets despite losses) but it does suggest that air forces will need to take extraordinary care to ensure that their close air support planes can perform in relatively safe conditions.
Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that UAVs such as the Turkish TB2 represent an important wedge into the long-standing debate over the importance and effectiveness of close air support.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).