Russian air-defense troops apparently shot down a high-tech fighter-bomber over eastern Ukraine on Sunday.
Just one problem: it was a Russian fighter-bomber. One of just 10 or so new Sukhoi Su-34Ms in service with the 277th Bomber Aviation Regiment, which is based in Russia’s Far East but has deployed closer to Ukraine in order to support the Russian invasion.
It’s not clear which Russian air-defenses shot down the twin-engine, twin-seat, supersonic Su-34—there are rumors it was a long-range S-400 battery.
It’s also not clear what went wrong. The Su-34 like most modern warplanes carries an Identification Friend or Foe radio transponder that alerts friendly forces to its presence. It’s possible the Sukhoi’s IFF failed—or the air-defense crew didn’t properly interrogate it.
In any event, the Russian air force has lost one of its newest warplanes—and one of the few planes that’s equipped for precision strikes close to the front lines. Where most Russian warplanes—Su-25 attack jets, Su-30 fighters—usually carry unguided rockets and bombs, the Su-34s routinely fly into combat with Kh-29 T.V.-guided missiles.
All 120 or so Su-34s that were in Russian service before the war—110 baseline Su-34s and 10 upgraded M-models—are compatible with the Kh-29 and other guided weapons, and also possess radar and other sensors for locating targets.
That in theory makes the Su-34 more precise, and more useful to Russian commanders, than other jet types. It also makes the Su-34’s loss more painful for the Russians. In all, the air force has written off at least 11 of the $50-million Su-34s, including the Su-34M. Nearly a tenth of the force.
Russian air force strategic bombers including Tupolev Tu-95s, T-22Ms and Tu-160s usually fire long-range guided missiles at targets in Ukraine, including Kh-55 and Kh-101 cruise missiles as well as Kh-32 anti-ship missiles, which have a secondary land-attack role.
The bombers mostly shoot their missiles from inside Russian air space and target fixed installations whose locations in Ukraine are well-known. Even so, they often miss.
Fighter-bombers supporting front-line forces, by contrast, usually carry unguided weapons. The air force’s heavy reliance on dumb weaponry reflects both the limits of Russia’s munitions industry as well as the limits of the Kremlin’s air-war doctrine.
In Russian thinking, tactical warplanes in essence are flying artillery. Their crews don’t hunt and strike moving targets like their Western counterparts do. Instead, they drop bombs on coordinates forwarded to them by army commanders.
There might be enemy forces at those coordinates. There might not be. That’s the commander’s problem, not the crew’s.
An Su-34 armed with the Kh-29 is different. The 12-foot missile packs a 700-pound warhead and a TV seeker. After pinpointing a target using the plane’s built-in camera, the Sukhoi crew locks the Kh-29’s seeker onto the target and fires the missile—then flies away. The Kh-29 steers itself toward the locked-on image from as far as 19 miles.
With their Kh-29s, aircrews can detect and strike targets of opportunity. Which is not to say that’s what they always do. At the least, they’d need timely intelligence to direct them to the general vicinity of Ukrainian forces. Timely intelligence isn’t exactly a Russian strength.
Even if they’re striking preplanned targets, Su-34s firing Kh-29s should be more flexible and accurate than, say, Su-25s tossing unguided bombs. The Su-34/Kh-29 combo at least offers the option of dynamic, precision targeting.
But the Su-34s are precious assets. Sukhoi builds a dozen or so annually. The Russian air force in just four months of fighting has lost as many Su-34s as it might acquire in a whole year.