While it might seem strange, both Kyiv and Moscow are using much of the same Soviet-era gear to fight each other. And that means they share many of the same fighter jets that are fighting, like the Su-27: Ukraine and Russia are going head to head with the same fighter. The Su-27 is seeing action from both sides. The version of the Su-27 that the Ukrainians are flying has not been upgraded or modernized as much as the Russian version. Ukrainian pilots must rely on their wits and skills to keep up with the Russian Su-27s.
Su-27 Versus Su-27
The Ukrainians are flying a version of the Su-27 that was initially seen after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Ukrainian Su-27 still has the same maneuverability and agility as the Russian Su-27, but its avionics, sensors, and weapons have seen better days.
Russian Su-27 Has Better Missiles
The Russians are using new R-37M missiles compared to the R-27 the Ukrainians employ on their Su-27. The R-37M has five times the range compared to the R-27. The R-37M also flies at MACH 6 and is one of the best air-to-air missiles deployed today.
Are Ukrainian Su-27s Obsolete?
The Ukrainian Su-27 has fallen behind in numerous other areas. Military Watch said the “use of active rather than semi-active radar guidance on missiles, thrust/weight ratio, endurance, electronic warfare systems and countermeasures, cockpit displays, and perhaps most importantly data links for network centric warfare, all provide the modern Russian Su-27 derivatives with a tremendous advantage.”
Ukrainian Su-27s Are Taking Losses
Ukrainian Su-27s have reportedly been shot down by friendly fire, Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles, and by Russian Su-35s. The Su-27s are roughly three decades behind in technology. These airplanes require high levels of maintenance to keep them in the air. The Ukrainians have had difficulty getting spare parts from Sukhoi since 2009. Of course, now with the war those components are not available. Before the invasion only 19 Ukrainian Su-27s were airworthy.
The Airplane Still Flies Well
Retired Ukrainian Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko told Air and Space Magazine that the Su-27 is impressive in the air. “It’s powerful and accelerates well, especially on take-off. The Flanker is very sensitive in the rolling plane—you pull the stick to the side just a little, and it already wants to perform a barrel roll. When you pull up vertically, the Su-27 zooms across the sky, because of the great amount of available thrust,” he said.
The Human Factor
Ukrainian pilots will have to fly like Oksanchenko to survive Russian fighters and air defenses. Their Su-27s are inferior so that means the quality of the pilot matters more. Human error can lead to disaster. But Ukrainian fighter pilots have achieved their most important objective – airspace over Ukraine is still contested. The Russians may have more updated airplanes, but Ukraine’s pilots have courage and moxie.
Ukrainian pilots’ exploits have been a surprise to many analysts who believed that Russia would make quick work of the Ukrainian air force. But the Ukrainians have fought back. Inexperienced pilots have in some cases flown with high skill. They are making good use of countermeasures such as employing flares and chaff to confuse enemy missiles.
Flying With Little Warning
It has still been difficult for the Ukrainian pilots. They often receive little oral briefings to prep for missions and must jump in their airplanes and fly with little warning and not much rest. Many airstrips have been destroyed in the eastern part of the country, so they are taking off from runways that are shorter in the western portion of Ukraine.
Can the Ukrainians keep their underdog status and still take on Russia? The Su-27 will help as it is a quality airplane despite not being updated as much as the Russian version. Ukrainian pilots are motivated by their patriotism, high morale, and iron will. We’ll have to see how long they can survive in the skies.
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.