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Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer: The Warplane Fighting and Dying for Russia and Ukraine

Su-24. Image by Vitaly V. Kuzmin.
Su-24. Image by Vitaly V. Kuzmin.

Vladimir Putin’s seemingly perpetual “special military operation” in Ukraine is replete with weapons systems that are being heavily used on both sides of the conflict.

Small arms such as the AK-74 5.45x39mm rifle and Pistolet Makarovka (Makarov Pistol) 9x18mm semiauto handgun. Main battle tanks such as the T-72.

Fighter planes such as the Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker.” And ground attack planes such as the Sukhoi Su-25 “Frogfoot” and the subject of this article, the Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer.” 

The Fencer is back in the news, and unfortunately not in a good way for the Ukrainians (more on the specifics of this in a bit). For the pro-Putin contingent of our readership base, (yeah, we know you blokes are out there), I reckon you can break out your balalaikas and do a joyful folk dance to the tune of “Katyusha.” In any event, this is as good a time as any to discuss the Su-24, from both a historical and present-day standpoint. 

Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” Early History & Specifications 

To reiterate what I wrote in my November 2022 article for 19FortyFive article titled “Russian MiG-31 Downs Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-24: What Do We Know?“:

“The Sukhoi Su-24 (NATO reporting name: ‘Fencer’) is a long-range, low-level all-weather attack aircraft, roughly analogous to the British-German-Italian Panavia Tornado IDS… She made her maiden flight in May 1970 and entered frontline service in 1973…The Fencer was the replacement for the Yakovlev Yak-28, which in turn was manufactured from 1958 to 1968. The plane features a variable geometry swing wing and a side-by-side cockpit, which hosts the 2-person crew of pilot and WSO…The fuselage length is…74 feet 1 inch…with a wingspan of..57 feet 10 inches whilst spread…34 feet in swept mode, and a height of…20 feet 3 inches…Empty weight is 22.3 tons and the max takeoff weight is 36 tons. Max airspeed is Mach 1.0776 (1,320 kph/820.21 mph). Armament consists of: one 23mm cannon; Kh-23, Kh-25ML, Kh-29L/T, Kh-59 and Kh-59M air-to-surface missiles; Kh-25MP, Kh-31P, Kh-29MP and Kh-58 anti-radar missiles; Kh-31A, Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, R-60 air-to-air missiles; KAB-500Kr laser-guided bombs.”

Combat History 

The Fencer was first “blooded” in combat in 1984 during the Soviet-Afghan War. Most significantly for our purposes, the warbird is seeing extensive use in Ukraine, and more significant still is the upgrade in armament that the Ukrainian-owned Su-24s have received since that November 2022 article was published: the Anglo-French-made Storm Shadow land-attack air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) (or as the French call it,  SCALP-EG (“Système de Croisière Autonome à Longue Portée – Emploi Général;” “Long Range Autonomous Cruise Missile System – General Purpose”).  

The Storm Shadow’s biggest claim to fame (besides sharing its moniker with a G.I. Joe franchise character) is Bomb Royal Ordnance Augmented Charge (BROACH), developed by BAE Systems to enable cruise missiles to attain a degree of hard-target penetration (e.g. bunkers, hardened aircraft shelters [HAS]) on a par with laser-guided bombs (LGBs). In addition, the missile has a range of more than 155 miles – more than triple that of the much-ballyhooed HIMARS weapons system – and can evade detection from air defense systems by literally flying, if you’ll pardon the cliché here, “below the radar.” 

Well, naturally, the Ukrainian Air Force has been using the Storm Shadows to devastating effect. Among other things, Zelenskyy’s intrepid flyboys have used the weapon to target Russia’s so-called “gate to Crimea” as well as schwacking Russian Maj. Gen. Sergey Goryachev; both of these feats were pulled off last month. 

Alas, the fortunes of war have a way of abruptly turning, and no weapons systems, no matter how powerful or sophisticated, is infallible (just ask the U.S. Air Force pilot of the supposedly “invisible to radar” F-117 Nighthawk “stealth fighter” who was shot down by a Serbian surface-to-air-missile [SAM] battery operator during Operation Allied Force in 1999). The voluminous title of an 6 July 2023 article penned by Michael Loh for Business Insider (and re-shared on pretty much sums it up: “Russia says it’s snagged the intact parts of a Storm Shadow missile, and can now study the British-made munition that’s been devastating its operations in Ukraine from long range.” 

Longer-Term Implications?

Mr. Loh makes mention of the fact that the Ukrainian Air Force  is using the Fencer as the launching platform for the ALCMs, but gives no indication that the plane itself was shot down or damaged in this incident. That may be some partial consolation to the Ukrainians (especially the individual pilot in question and his/her loved ones), but then again, a downed Su-24, though it would’ve been a minor propaganda victory for Putin and his generals, simply wouldn’t provide the intelligence boon for Russia’s forces as the captured parts of a new-on-the-scene weapon like Storm Shadow would.  

As far as the veracity of Russia’s claims, Mr. Loh writes that “On Thursday, Rogozin’s Telegram channel released a video of Russian troops loading a vehicle with munition parts that resemble those of a Storm Shadow missile… While the missile was clearly damaged, its components appeared to be largely intact. Insider could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.” The Russian propaganda machine is already bragging that their “trophy” will enable their R&D people to study the weapon and from there, conceive countermeasures against it. Just how successful the Russkies will be in these efforts remains to be seen. Stay tuned, folks.                                     

Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. 

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Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).