Rostec, the Russian state-owned military hardware conglomerate, has long hyped the capabilities of its Sukhoi Su-35 (NATO reporting name “Flanker-E”), and the Kremlin has described the aircraft as one of its very best fighters. Such bolster is common for a country in wartime, but now Moscow will have to explain how it has lost two full squadrons – about 24 aircraft in total – in recent fighting in Ukraine.
“The Su-35 aircraft has also shown a low level of survivability. During the full-scale aggression, the occupiers have lost two squadrons of such aircraft, that’s about 24 planes,” Oleksii Hromov, deputy chief of the main operational department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said in a briefing to the public last week.
Of course, it goes without saying that 19FortyFive cannot independently confirm such a claim.
Nonetheless, assuming the claim is accurate, the losses are so great that there are reports that Russia may be forced to send in its outdated Su-24M bombers to replace its aircraft losses. If the “best” can’t get the job done, one can only feel sorry for the Russians piloting those antiquated planes.
One factor could be that the “best” didn’t exactly perform in combat as expected, especially as Russia has failed to achieve air superiority even as Ukraine continues to rely on the far older MiG-29.
Moreover, it has also been further noted that there have been reliability issues that continue to plague the fourth-generation plus plus aircraft – and not just those in Russian service. China had purchased some two dozen Su-35s from Moscow less than a decade ago, but apparently, just nine are still operational.
Confidence: Crash and Burn
Even as Russia may have to call up the outdated Su-24M, there has been word that Russia would be willing to trade the Su-35 to Iran for its Shaheds drones. Questions abound as to why a nation (Russia) that is lacking sufficient hardware would trade away what is arguably among its most advanced fighters for unmanned drones, yet, that may suggest the Kremlin has so little faith in the Su-35 that it would rather employ the drones in the skies over Ukraine.
Yet, for the Islamic Republic – which has relied on truly ancient aircraft that even includes third-generation U.S. fighters from the 1970s – the Su-35 would be a major boost. Already, Iranian pilots and technicians have been sent to Russia for training, while Moscow has apparently already dispatched teams to Tehran to be trained on the drones.
“During the last several weeks, Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement for UAV transfers from Iran to Russia,” a U.S. official told CNN.
Moscow’s need to rely on Tehran for help only serves to speak volumes about the Kremlin’s military capabilities, notably the Su-35.
The Su-35 is actually just a heavily upgraded derivative of the Su-27 aircraft. According to its designers, as a multirole fighter, the Su-35 can be used in a variety of missions and is capable of attacking ground and naval targets, including infrastructural facilities shielded by air defense systems, as well as those located at a considerable distance from home airfields.
The Russian fighter jet can deploy air-to-air missiles of up to 300 kilometers (190 miles), well beyond visual range, and it can also be armed with the heavy Oniks anti-ship cruise missile, as well as a multitude of air-to-ground weaponry. It can carry up to eight tons of the weapon payload (missiles and bombs of various types) on a dozen underwing hardpoints, while the fighter jet’s other armament includes a 30mm aircraft gun.
It may sound good on paper, but so far Russia’s best hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype. Perhaps Iran will have better luck with them.
What the Experts Told Us
“While it is impossible to know for sure how many Su-35s have been lost over Ukraine, one thing is clear: these planes are not as good as American or European fighters like the various versions of the F-15 and Eurofighter Typhoon,” explained a retired Senior U.S. Defense Department official in an interview with 19FortyFive. “Russia’s Su-35 does on paper seem like a decent fighter, but we are finding out now that many of our assumptions on how Moscow’s Air Force would operate in wartime were way off.”
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.