On March 13 the Russian Defence Ministry reported that a Ukrainian Air Force Su-24 strike fighter was shot down over the country, with 11 Ukrainian drones also neutralised that day. The variable swept wing aircraft is one of just 14 thought to be in service when hostilities between Russia and Ukraine began on February 24, and represents by far the country’s most capable aircraft for air to ground operations. Two Su-24s were reportedly shot down over Eastern Ukraine near Russia’s borders within the conflict’s first day under unclear circumstances. The reported Su-24 shootdown follows a string of losses in the Ukrainian fleet, mostly of drones and Su-27 heavyweight fighters, most notably the loss of four Su-27s over the city of Zhytomir in western Ukraine on March 5 in what was likely the largest air battle of the 21st century. While a Russian S-400 missile system based in Belarus was responsible for at least one Su-27 shootdown over Kiev, and Su-35 fighters likely also based in Belarus were thought to be responsible for victories over Zhytomir, the nature of the Su-24 shootdown or the recent losses of Ukrainian drones remains uncertain.
The Su-24 shootdown comes four days after a Russian report that 90 percent of Ukraine’s military airports had been neutralised, with prior footage showing Ukrainian MiG-29 fighters destroyed on their runway by a Russian cruise missile strike. Remaining Ukrainian air assets are strongly concentrated in the country’s far western regions, and prevailing trends indicate that the Su-24 was very likely also shot down over western Ukraine possibly also by an S-400 or in air to air combat. It remains uncertain how long Ukrainian air assets will continue to operate or how depleted its combat fleet has become, but there is a significant possibility that the Su-24 may be the last Ukrainian manned combat aircraft lost in the air during the conflict as prospects for a total grounding of the fleet continue to grow. The age of Ukraine’s air assets, relying on a 1980s inventory inherited from the Soviet Union and receiving little modernisation since, has resulted in a very one sided balance of power in the air with Ukrainian forces relying heavily on handheld short ranged surface to air missiles to counter Russian aircraft asymmetrically as a result.
Military watch magazine.