Ukraine has again bloodied the somewhat immaculate reputation of the Russian Air Force. This time around, the Ukrainian Air Force has reportedly shot down a Russian Su-24 M Fencer swing-wing bomber over the Black Sea.
A Su-30 SM Flanker escorted the Su-24M to carry out a military mission, and the buzzword is that Ukraine knocked off the bomber jet with a US-made Patriot surface-to-air missile.
So far, the pivotal Ukrainian commercial Odesa port was defended by the Soviet-vintage S-300 missiles, with a range of 50 km. However, the shooting of the ‘Fencer’ suggests that the Ukrainian forces have stationed at least one battery of the Patriot Air Defense System to defend the Odesa port.
This means Russian fighter jets flying near the Snake Island in the northwestern reach of the Black Sea are no longer safe from the Ukrainian missiles.
The shooting comes just weeks after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced at the International Summit on Food Security in Kyiv that Ukraine would be deploying “very powerful air defenses” to the area around Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic grain port. The Su-24 was on a mission to strike Ukraine’s bombarded Odesa region and was flying with a Su-30SM multirole fighter jet.
The Russian fighter jets have been conducting reprisal bombardments of the Odesa port after pulling out from the UN-led Black Sea Grain Initiative. The attacks resulted in the sinking of thousands of tonnes of food grains at the port.
One of the Russian tactics has been to launch a large number of drones and missiles to saturate the Ukrainian air defense system. Also, the war-ravaged country has a limited number of air defense systems, and some areas are not covered by them.
The Ukrainian military confirmed the shooting on social media. “I am glad to inform you about the destruction of the Russian Su-24M bomber in the area of Snake Island, which, under the cover of a Su-30SM fighter, tried to launch a missile attack on the south of Odesa,” the poster wrote.
A statement attributed to Commander of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine-Lieutenant General Nikolai Oleshchuk further quipped that the fighter jet had joined the Russian cruiser Moskva on the seafloor. Moskova sunk in 2022 in the Black Sea after being struck by multiple Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles. “It seems that the cruiser will soon become an aircraft carrier!” the post read.
Russia is yet to officially confirm the shooting and missile used to shoot it down. The Russian language social media is abuzz with the news. Ukrainian forces have claimed that an An-26 Russian search and rescue aircraft are searching for the crew of the Su-24M fighter jet that was downed by it in the Black Sea.
The Russian bomber was reportedly armed with Russian “dumb” bombs fitted with stand-off glide bomb kits, which Ukrainian Forces referred to as “rocket bombs.”
If the Ukrainian forces have indeed fortified Odesa with Patriot missile systems, they are taking a leaf out of their rule book. Ukraine heavily restricted the Russian Air Force from weighing in on the over 500 days old war by deploying the US Air Defense System in the Eastern part of the country close to the Russian border. Their Air Defense system shot down five Russian aircraft – three Mi-8s, a Su-34, and a Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jet, while they were flying over Russia’s western Bryansk region in May.
The Su-24M is a front-line Russian bomber manufactured by the Sukhoi Design Bureau Joint Stock Company, based in Moscow, and the Novosibirsk Aircraft Production Association, Novosibirsk, Russia. The Su-24M entered service in 1983 and is a development of the Su-24, known by the NATO codename ‘Fencer.’
In the ongoing war, the Russian Su-24Ms have deployed the Kh-31P medium-range supersonic anti-radiation missile designed to counter enemy air defenses.
So far, the Russian fighter jets have been conducting strikes on the Odesa port, located on Ukraine’s western Black Sea coastline, by remaining away from the known air defenses of Kyiv. But the shooting down by Patriot missiles means that the Russian war jets will have to rethink its strategy.
The Snake Island, near which the Su-24 went down, has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia. Located 35 kilometers from the mainland of Odesa, the Snake Island shot to fame when on February 24, 2022, at the onset of Russia’s invasion, a Ukrainian border guard responded to Russia’s call for surrender as: “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”
The Snake Island allowed Russian forces to block the Odesa port and brought Ukraine within the range of its missiles. However, on April 14, 2022, the Ukrainian forces sank ‘Moskva,’ the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Russians had to make a tactical retreat from the island, and President Zelensky visited the island earlier in 2023 and filmed a video on Snake Island, promising that Ukraine would reclaim every part of its territory currently occupied by Russia.
Russian Air Force Chooses Survival Over Efficacy?
The US military officials contend that even as the Russian Army suffered big losses in the war, its air force remains almost intact even after the war that has dragged on for over two years. The Russian Air Force revised its tactics in Ukraine to prioritize survival over efficacy.
The commander of the US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, General James B Hecker, said on September 13 that at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian warplanes flew into the thick of the Ukrainian air defenses and took serious losses. More than 75 Russian planes were shot down.
Hecker said in an interview with Air & Space Forces Magazine: “So they now don’t fly in those rings, or if they do, it is for low altitude for very quick moments, and then they go back out.” This has come at a cost. This change in tactic does save the aircraft but compromises the accuracy of strikes and the Russian Air Force’s goal to gain air superiority.
NATO has thrown its weight behind bulwarking Ukrainian air defenses. But, while the Russian Army has reportedly lost over 2,000 tanks and 4,000 armored fighting vehicles since the start of the war, the Russian air force remains as robust as it was at the beginning.
It began the war with about 900 fighters and other combat aircraft and is estimated to have lost only about 90 jets between February 2022 and September.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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