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How Russia’s Su-30 and Su-35 Flanker Fighters Are Waging Putin’s Air War Over Ukraine

Su-30
Su-30. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Su-30 and Su-35 over Ukraine: An Asset or Problem? Two of Russia’s most modern multi-role fighters have spearheaded Moscow’s air war over Ukraine: the two-seat Sukhoi Su-30SM (code-named Flanker-H by NATO) and its successor, the single-seat Su-35S Flanker-E. Both share a common lineage with the large and powerful Soviet Su-27 jet that entered service late in the Cold War.

Russia’s second- and third-generation Flankers have dueled the Ukrainian Air Force’s MiG-29 and Su-27 jets for air superiority and have also spearheaded the unsuccessful campaign to suppress enemy ground-based air defenses (SEAD) alongside Su-34 bombers. Lastly, they’ve undertaken a tertiary duty as strike platforms releasing long-distance guided missiles and unguided bombs.

This article seeks to identify the various Flanker models and units committed by Russia to its invasion of Ukraine, kills and losses ascribed to them, and how they have performed these missions.

Su-35S units active in Ukraine

The Russian Air Force (VKS) is currently receiving the last of 128 Su-35s ordered, most now committed to the war in Ukraine.

– 159th Fighter Aviation Regiment (two squadrons; 24-30 aircraft; Besovets)

– 790th Fighter Aviation Regiment (one squadron, alongside two MiG-31 squadrons; 12 aircraft at Khotilovo)

– 23th Fighter Regiment (two squadrons; 24 aircraft; transferred from Eastern Military District, initially deployed in Belarus; also at Primorsko-Akhtarsk)

That leaves only one operational Su-35S squadron in the 22nd Fighter Aviation Regiment not deployed for the war in Ukraine, and another 25 aircraft in training and testing units. 

The VKS’s Su-35 inventory could be reinforced by 24 jets Russia built for Egypt, only for Cairo to cancel the order. However, recent statements suggest Moscow may sell or trade these to Iran in exchange for Iranian drones.

Su-30 and other Russian Flankers

The two-seat Su-30SM jet (Flanker-H) is visually distinguished by its canards, a second set of small wings by the nose, which enhance maneuverability. The Flanker-H’s backseat weapon systems officer can help manage weapons and sensors, particularly for ground attack missions.

Prior to hostilities, the VKS counted 91 Su-30SMs in service and 24 Su-27SM3s (out of roughly 100 Su-27s of all models). Russian Naval Aviation operated 22 Su-30SMs and has received at least four Su-30SM2 ‘Super Sukhois’ designed to ‘unify’ its engine, avionics and radar with the Su-35S.

A VKS squadron of older but upgraded Su-27SM3s single-seat fighters is also active, primarily in a defensive counter-air role. 

In Crimea, the Russian Navy also had a squadron of 19 Su-30M2 jets based on two-seat Su-30MK2 export strike jet, a less sophisticated, canard-less rival to the Su-30SM mostly used for training; and possibly Su-33 jets designed to fly off of Russia’s currently non-operational carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. These haven’t been reported to be active in Ukraine.

Russian Su-27 and Su-30 units active over/near Ukraine

– 3rd Composite Aviation Regiment (two Su-27SM3 squadron, one each Su-27 and Su-30 trainer squadrons, Ka-27 detachment) at Krymsk

– 14th Fighter Aviation Regiment (two squadrons; 24 aircraft; Kursk; active over Kharkiv region)

– 31st Fighter Aviation Regiment (two squadrons; 24 aircraft; Millerovo)

– 38th Fighter Regiment (Belbek, 5 reportedly deployed to Krymsk/Primorsko-Krai)

– 43rd Naval Attack Regiment (one squadron Su-30SMs (12 aircraft) as well as Su-24s; Saki Airbase, Crimea

Su-30 and Su-35 Air Superiority Challenges

The first weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw Russia’s Flankers engage in multiple air-to-air clashes over the Kyiv region and Ukrainian airbases in nearby Zhytomyr. As detailed in a companion article, Ukrainian sources confirm the loss of five MiG-29s and one L-39 jet trainer in air-to-air combat. Additionally, a Ukrainian Su-27 was downed by a ground-launched S-400 missile while dogfighting Russian jets. Reportedly, Su-30SMs were often assigned to escort attack aircraft, while Su-35s performed aggressive patrols.

Since March, accounts confirming additional air-to-air kills have grown scarce even as clashes evidently continue. This likely reflects both sides’ increased/improved emphasis on force protection, and reduced transparency in reporting aircraft losses. 

Russian Flankers also claimed responsibility for documented losses of Ukrainian ground attack aviation—possibly two supersonic Su-24Ms and at least one Su-25 attack jet. Russian planes also downed three Mi-8 helicopters near Chernihiv on March 8, according to the surviving crew. However, Russian fighters overall aren’t preventing Ukrainian ground attack sorties, which primarily suffer losses to ground-based defenses – as is true for Russian ground attack aviation too.

There is footage of just one close-range air battle resulting in a kill: an Su-35 shooting at a Ukrainian Mi-14 helicopter over Odesa Bay and missing. Afterward, the Flankers reportedly destroyed the helicopter with an R-73 missile.

As explained in a companion piece, due to superior radars and long-range missiles, Russia’s Flankers have big technical edges over Ukrainian fighters in beyond-visual-range warfare. However, Russian pilots appear unwilling to aggressively press the fight into Ukrainian-controlled airspace due to the threat posed by ground-based air defenses.

Air Defense Suppression and Strike Missions

Su-30SMs and especially Su-35Ss have waged Russia’s Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) campaign over Ukraine, typically armed with a Kh-31P and Kh-31PM missiles designed to home in on the signals of enemy radars from 70 and 155 miles away respectively. These accelerate to twice the speed of sound using a ramjet engine and are used to hunt Ukraine’s more powerful Buk and S-300P medium/long-range air defense systems. The Su-35 has also deployed the older Kh-58 anti-radiation missile.

Despite the formidable armament and some successes in the war’s opening days, Russia’s SEAD campaign failed to neutralize Ukraine’s extensive air defenses, which may include over 270 S-300 and Buk systems. 

Visually documented Ukrainian losses of medium and long-range air defense systems* per the Oryx database, early September 2022

– 10x 5P85-series launchers for mobile S-300PS long-range systems

– 12x 5P851A launchers for trailer-based S-300PT long-range systems

– 5x 5N63S Flaplid radars used by S-300PS systems

– 5x 9A31 and 93A39M1 transporters-erector-launchers for Buk-M1 medium-range system

– 2x IL22 Parol radars

– 2x 36D6 mobile tin shield radar

– 1x PRV-13 “Odd Pair” height-finder radar

– 2x P-series radars (P-19, P-35/37)

* List omits losses due to capture (ie. not due to SEAD)

This undoubtedly reflects Russia’s minimal experience with, and inadequate training for, SEAD operations. Furthermore, some Kh-31-armed Flankers have been downed by defenses.

British military aviation analyst Justin Bronk writes for RUSI early in the war “…the need to stay out of effective range of short- and medium-range SAMs has meant that [Kh-31] launches have a very low probability of kill (Pk), and generally only serve to temporarily force Ukrainian SAM operators to turn off their radars for a short period while the ARMs are in the air.”

In July and August, Russia repeatedly mounted large-scale SEAD operations as described by military aviation historian Tom Cooper:

“Big formations — 20+ aircraft — including Il-20M flying command posts, A-50 SRDLOs [airborne radar planes, like U.S. AWACS], Su-24MRs electronic reconnaissance aircraft, Su-34s equipped with SAP-14 [designed to provide area escort-jamming] and other electronic warfare pods, Su-35s armed with Kh-58s, and Su-34s armed with Kh-59Ms. Day by day.”

Cooper saw little evidence these raids had much success: “As far as I can say, the entire effort ended in a big failure: they hit next to nothing, and Ukrainian air defenses along the frontline remain perfectly intact.

Generally, Ukraine’s air defense operators have successfully kept on the move and performed “pop-up” ambushes on Russian fighters to maximize survivability. Russia evidently lacks enough longer-range/endurance surveillance and combat drones to hunt Ukrainian air defense assets through laborious optical scanning.

Flanker Strikes

The Su-30 and Su-35s have also been leveraged for ground attack roles, mainly using the Kh-59 subsonic air-to-surface missile with a range of 124 to 180 miles (model depending) — far enough for launch outside air defense range. Flanker-delivered Kh-59 attacks have struck airbases, grain silos, infrastructure, and apparently a public toilet. However, inbound Kh-59s also reportedly suffer attrition from Ukrainian air defenses.

Russian Flankers have also been used for ground attack missions using unguided bombs and rockets in the Sumy and Kharkiv sectors. They have leveraged their greater range/endurance for operations over Snake Island, trying to stiffen the beleaguered garrison’s air defense against harrying Ukrainian aircraft. Russia claims Flankers downed Ukrainian bombers, helicopters, and TB2 drones near the island, without evidence. 

After Snake Island was reclaimed by Ukrainian troops, two Su-30SMs (or possibly Su-24 bombers) bombed the island. Moscow claimed the strike caused massive casualties; a video released by Russia shows only one of three bombs hitting.

Russian Flanker Losses

Kyiv claims to have downed “two squadrons” of Su-35s, but there are only a couple corroborating wrecks. Russian reports almost never specify the causes of a loss in the so-called “special operation.” 

However, an Su-35S armed with R-77-1 and Kh-31P missiles underwing was confirmed destroyed on April 3 near Izium by ground-based air defense, with the pilot ejected. Components from the downed Su-35 were reportedly transferred to the UK and US for study by specialists.

Another Su-30 or Su-35 was filmed crashing in flames over southern Ukraine near Khakovka in July. Allegedly, it was downed either by Ukrainian or  Russian (friendly fire) ground-based air defenses, possibly confusing it with a HIMARS rocket.

Russia’s Su-30 fleet has seemingly been harder hit overall, with at least 3 downed by Ukrainian forces (two by air defense, one cause unclear) and at least 4-5 – possibly more – destroyed on the ground.

Confirmed Su-30S losses

– 2/25: At least one 31st regiment Su-30SM destroyed onthe  grouna d by Ukrainian Tochka missile at Millerovo

– 3/05: Russian Navy 43rd Naval Attack Regiment Su-30SM shot down near Bashtanka by air defense; pilot ejected and captured, claimed he was on a radio recon mission

– 3/05: second Su-30SM apparently lost under unclear circumstances per a Russian obituary

– 3/13: Su-30SM of 14th Fighter Regiment (Kursk) downed near Kramatorsk while flying 19,700 feet; pilot ejected and captured, allegedly after bombing town of Balaklia (Kharkiv) with OFAB-250 unguided bombs. Wrecked of fighter RF81771 located in August.

– 8/03: 3-4 Su-30SM and/or Su-30M2s destroyed by Ukrainian agents at Saki Airbase in Crimea; at least one more heavily damaged 

In summary, Russia’s modern Su-30 and Su-35 Flankers technically and quantitatively overmatch Ukraine’s old jets and possess, in theory, effective radar-homing weapons. However, the failure of the VKS’s parallel SEAD campaign to degrade Ukraine’s integrated air defenses has allowed Kyiv’s smaller air force to sustain operations from bases in Western Ukraine and impose costs on Russian forces, preventing VKS air superiority. Arguably, that is more a failure of planning and doctrine than technology and also reflects adroit Ukrainian air defense tactics.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC NewsForbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    September 9, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    Su-30s and Su-35s are expensive weapons of war (unless ya fightin’ half-starved 3rd world countries).

    For countries fortunate enough to not (yet) get embroiled in US-initiated wars, Ukraine conflict is a lesson from heaven to get ya to concentrate on acquiring massive missile and drone arsenals.

    Countries not yet ensnared or entrapped into ruinous wars by US presidents must now build up mount everest-size arsenals of rockets and drones, including hypersonic rockets and quadi-satellite super high flying drones.

    Apart from rockets & drones, countries must build up a highly dispersed cottage industry producing their parts plus containers (made from recycled material) to keep them and their finished assembly.

    Have thousands of places & workshops making such stuff and place millions of containers all over the place to confuse/dazzle hostile spy satellites.

    For countries that today possess space launching capabilities, they need to ramp up number of space launch companies with ability to quick launch small satellites and all types of recoverable satellites.

    The world needs to kick biden-type war initiators & war lovers a kick in their nuts !

  2. TheDon

    September 9, 2022 at 4:57 pm

    Russia could have easily improved their economy, security and friendships with its neighbors.
    Older Europeans have no ill will and recount much of jobs and building under the Russians. Younger people enjoy their freedoms. What Russia forgets is the deep pride of country citizens and its their country.
    No missile, no satellite will change it.

    Putin made a mistake.
    Instead of further expanding Gasprom, selling high tech goods, grain, and helping his citizens, he chose war to try to control an overwhelming number of people.

    Gorbechev had the vision.
    Tore down the wall, work toward open economy with the world.

    Putin will go down as a failed commander, always compared to Hitler.

    Hitler had overwhelming equipment superiority to for example Polish horseback, thus Blitzkrieg worked.
    Putin didnt understand how fast the world can now supply strategic defensive arms, and his thrust was repeled.
    In addition the majority of troops and even generals are not as brutal.

    Gorbechev will be a historic hero and Putin a case example of a paranoid leader.

    Putin is weakening Russia and the citizens should revolt. Shutting off fuel can go two ways. Its a bad position.

  3. Putin, runt of the litter

    September 9, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    The best Putin has to offer still can’t establish air superiority in Ukraine. The only thing that the diminutive sniveler has is saber rattling about nukes…and he is like ‘chicken little’ in that respect. LOL

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