Russian air-defense troops just shot down one of the most sophisticated warplanes involved in Russia’s wider war in Ukraine.
One problem. It was a Russian warplane. A brand-new Sukhoi Su-34M fighter-bomber.
Russian propagandist Yevgeny Poddubny apparently captured on video the Sunday shoot-down over the city of Alchevsk in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. “Last night, the air-defense crew of the allied forces destroyed a target in the sky over Alchevsk,” Poddubny wrote Monday. “The nature of the target is not clear. The burning ball fell to the ground for more than a minute.”
A video of the wreckage confirmed the plane’s identity: it’s the Su-34M with the registry RF-95890, one of just 10 or so Su-34Ms that Sukhoi so far has delivered to the Russian air force.
The Kremlin in May 2020 cut a contract with United Aircraft Corporation’s Sukhoi division to build 76 Su-34Ms at a rate of eight to 14 planes annually through 2027, at a cost of around $50 million per copy.
The 76 Su-34s should be enough to equip two regiments and finally replace the Russian air force’s last few aging Su-24 bombers. The first Su-34M unit, the 277th Bomber Aviation Regiment, became operational earlier this month.
Russian state media has confirmed that part of the 277th has staged near Ukraine.
The baseline Su-34 borrows the airframe of the Su-27 fighter but adds a two-person cockpit with side-by-side seating. The Su-34 can strike targets as far as 600 miles away while carrying 12 tons of bombs and missiles, including air-to-air missiles.
The supersonic Su-34 is armed with a 30-millimeter cannon. It boasts a multi-mode radar and a Khibiny electronic-countermeasures suite. The plane, which costs around $40 million, is roughly analogous to the U.S. Air Force’s F-15E.
The new Su-34s are upgraded Su-34M variants with a dedicated interface for a new pod that can carry three different sensors. The UKR-RT pod carries electronic search measures. The UKR-OE is a camera pod. The UKR-RL packs a synthetic-aperture radar for spotting targets in bad weather.
UAC director general Yuri Slyusar told state media the Su-34M has double the combat capability of the basic Su-34. Unless and until Sukhoi finally finishes developing the Su-57 stealth fighter, the Su-34M arguably is the most sophisticated warplane in Russian service.
All that sophistication didn’t prevent the Russians from accidentally shooting down the Su-34M. RF-95890 is the 11th Su-34 the Russians have lost over Ukraine since widening their war in the country on Feb. 23. That’s nearly a tenth of all the Su-34s Sukhoi has built.
The Su-34 was supposed to change the Russian air force—and the Su-34M, even more so. The twin-engine, twin-seat, supersonic fighter-bomber—a highly-evolved variant of the Su-27 air-superiority fighter—promised to usher in a new era of high-tech, precision bombing.
Instead, the Su-34s mostly have flown into Ukraine lugging the same old unguided “dumb” bombs that older Russian planes carry.
A military-wide shortage of precision-guided munitions—not to mention doctrine that conceives of aircraft essentially as flying artillery—forces Russian warplanes to fly low through the thickest Ukrainian air-defenses in order to have any chance of delivering their bombs with any degree of accuracy.
Russia’s own air-defenses obviously also pose a threat. Modern warplanes carry special radio beacons called “identification friend or foe”—or IFF—that alert friendly air-defenses to their presence.
But IFF doesn’t always work. It’s not clear what went wrong over Alchevsk on Sunday. The failure might have been mechanical: some IFF system malfunctioning. It might have been operator error.
In any event, something or someone screwed up and yet another Su-34—one of the newest and best Su-34s—fell from the sky.