What’s the problem with Russia’s once-formidable Su-34 fighter-bomber? One of these airplanes was just blasted out of the sky by a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile. It happened June 12 over Izyum, a city in Kharkiv Oblast, a place of heavy combat on the ground and in the air.
The Ukrainian Air Force said in a statement that “The Russian aircraft operated in pairs, attacking the positions of the Ukrainian defenders. After entering the defense zone, one of the hostile aircraft changed course, while the other pilots decided to try their share.” The SAM’s tracking mechanism then placed the Su-34 in its sights and the air defense system shot the Su-34 down.
Background on the Su-34
The Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback’s performance in the skies over Ukraine has been disappointing. The airplane is a multi-role fighter-bomber akin to the American F-15E. It engaged in come combat trials in Russia’s brief war in Georgia in 2008 and it entered full service with the Russian fleet in 2014. They were also deployed in Syria. Before the war in Ukraine, there were 122 Fullbacks available to the Russian forces.
The Su-34 has two aviators sitting side-by-side. Two AL-31F turbofan engines pump out a speed of MACH 1.6. Its range is almost 2,500 miles with three external fuel tanks. The Su-34 can conduct aerial refueling.
It Can Be Heavily Armed
The Fullback is loaded with arms. It has ten hardpoints for an assortment of guided and unguided bombs, air-to-air missiles, anti-ship munitions, cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles, and rocket pods. That’s 9,000 pounds of weapons. The airplane also comes with a 30mm GSh-301 cannon. The airplane can also carry reconnaissance and electronic warfare pods.
The elongated, flattened nose houses a powerful multi-mode phased array radar. Electronic countermeasures are considered a strength, but the system obviously failed during the June 12th shootdown.
Civilian GPS On Board?
The Su-34 is also notorious for having a surprising contraption. The British military reported in May that the Russians were inexplicably affixing civilian GPS receivers inside the cockpit for navigation. This was indeed surprising rigging for such a modern airplane. The GPS units were crudely taped to the airplane’s dashboards, the British Defense Ministry said.
No Domination Here
The Su-34 is a $50 million warplane that was supposed to lead to Russian air dominance. The airplane’s speed and maneuverability plus the precision-guided munitions that it featured would be no match for Ukrainian fighter planes and air defenses. But David Axe of Forbes wrote in March that the Su-34 was only dropping dumb bombs and that it has to fly low to avoid radar contact. As a non-stealthy airplane, the Su-34 has endured several losses. Four Su-34s are believed to have been destroyed in March alone. At least one was shot down by a Stinger missile.
Big Target Without Guided Missiles and Bombs
The biggest problem for the Su-34 has been the lack of precision-guided munitions. Dropping dumb bombs alone is not cutting it. Without radar-evading characteristics, it can be destroyed by Ukrainian SAM systems. The Russians would rather use the Su-34 as a missile truck and fire over-the-horizon-guided missiles, especially cruise missiles, at Ukrainian ground positions.
Is It Time For Russia to Panic?
Vladimir Putin’s air force has another head-scratching disappointment on its hands. The Su-34 does not move fast enough to evade Ukrainian air defenses. It must fly below the clouds where the enemy can get a visual on it. It is not accomplishing its mission to eliminate ground targets with ease as advertised. It’s using rigged, commercial-off-the-shelf GPS for navigation, which is another embarrassment. Thus, the Ukrainians are teaching Su-34 pilots deadly lessons on aerial combat. It’s going to be a long war, though Putin’s airplanes can still turn things around. In a bright spot for those in Moscow, Russia has enjoyed some success shooting down Ukrainian MiG-29s. It will need to build on those wins before the Kremlin can declare victory in the air.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.