Su-57 Felon Struck Deep Inside Russia, Ukraine’s Spy Agency Claims (Updated)

At least one and maybe two Su-57 Felon fighters, Moscow’s most advanced warplanes, were struck by drones at an airbase deep inside Russia, the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) claimed. GUR posted satellite images on social media it says show one of the aircraft was damaged. The extent of that damage is unclear at the moment, but it would be the first known instance of these aircraft being damaged or destroyed as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“On June 8, 2024, a Su-57 multi-purpose fighter of the aggressor state was hit on the territory of the Akhtubinsk airfield in the Astrakhan region of the Russian Federation, located 589 kilometers (365 miles) from the line of combat,” GUR wrote on its Telegram channel Sunday. “The pictures show that on the seventh of June the Su-57 was standing intact, and on the eighth, there were ruptures from the explosion and characteristic spots of the fire caused by the fire damage near it.”

Both Ukrainian and Russian sources say an Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter was struck for the first time.
Before and after satellite images published by the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) of a strike on a Russian Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter. GUR

The imagery shows an Su-57 sitting under a framework for a shelter without any covering and what appears to be at least one major blotch on the tarmac right next to it. This, along with what may be a small crater, could be indicative of a strike. Another possible impact area is seen just above and to the right of the first, although this area was partially discolored prior to the supposed strike. The Su-57 also has large white blotches on its upper fuselage near where the primary blast would have occurred. It isn’t clear what this is, but it appears unusual. Tarps covering damage are a possible explanation. While the aircraft appears intact, the blast and especially the shrapnel from such a nearby detonation would have very likely riddled it with holes and caused other damage.

A satellite image from Planet Labs taken June 7, shows a Felon parked on the apron, which you can see at the bottom right below. Also note the silhouettes of aircraft painted on the apron that are intended to confuse enemy targeting, although outside of initial target planning, they are useless against GPS guided drones. TWZ was the first to report on the reemergence of this old tactic at Russian airbases.

An Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter was observed in a June 7 Planet Labs satellite image parked on the apron at Akhtubinsk airfield in Russia. PHOTO © 2024 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION.

GUR commander, Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, told The War Zone that a second Felon may have been hit as well. The attack was carried out by drones, he told us, but would not say whether they were launched from inside Ukraine or Russia.

Andrii Yusov, a GUR spokesman, stated the attack may have injured Russian troops as well.

“Moreover, reports suggest that there have been casualties and injuries among Russian military personnel,” Yusov said on national TV, according to Euromaidan Press.

The pro-Russian Fighterbomber Telegram channel, which often writes about aviation losses and has deep connections to Russian Aerospace Forces, confirmed one Felon was hit and said the attack was carried out by three Ukrainian drones.

“The Su-57 was damaged by shrapnel; it is now being determined whether it can be restored or not,” Fighterbomber wrote. “If not, then this will be the first combat loss of the Su-57 in history.”

GUR said that there are a “few units” of the Felon “in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces.” The number of production configuration Su-57s in Russia’s inventory is notoriously limited. As of early 2023, there were just around nine full-up Su-57s in Russia’s stable, along with less than a dozen pre-production Su-57/T-10 prototype aircraft that are not fully equipped for combat operations. The number of production Su-57s has expanded since then, but not on a grand scale as Russia prioritizes production of 4th generation fighters, namely the Su-35, over the more complex and expensive Su-57.

Russia’s newest fighter’s involvement in the war in Ukraine has been murky. As we reported back in January, the U.K. Defense Ministry (MoD) stated that the Su-57s were being used in Ukraine since “at least June 2022.” Prior to the MoD’s statement, there had been on and off claims of the aircraft being used to launch standoff strikes, but not actually operating in highly contested airspace over the country, since not long after Russia’s all out invasion kicked-off and quickly became bogged down. What conclusions can be drawn by this is debatable, but considering Russia lacks air superiority, not using its best asset that is supposedly capable of penetrating into contested airspace certainly is peculiar. The Su-57 has stealthy features and is reduced signature design, but it isn’t not on par with 5th generation American fighters in this regard, which is by design. You can read more about its design influences here.

A Russian Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter. (Russian MoD)

The aircraft has dangerous stand-off air-to-air capabilities.

It is armed with 124-mile-range R-37M (AA-13 Axehead) air-to-air missile, a weapon that one Ukrainian fighter pilot describes as “fucking dangerous” and which apparently first began to appear in combat in the summer of 2022. Additionally, it has R-77-1 (AA-12 Adder) air-to-air missiles, with a range of 68 miles, which are also capable of engaging Ukrainian aircraft ‘over the border’ in some scenarios. Images of an R-37M can be seen on a Russian Su-35S Flanker fighter below.

Felon also possesses long-range air-to-surface strike capabilities. As we reported in February, it is armed with Kh-69 stealthy cruise missile, intended to destroy small, hardened targets at distances of over 180 miles. It also carries Kh-58UShK anti-radiation missile with a maximum range of around 150 miles, depending on launch parameters.

Another view of a mockup of the Kh-69 missile in its definitive form. Boevaya mashina/Wikimedia Commons

The fighters have been operating out of Akhtubinsk since at least Dec, 25, 2022, the U.K. MoD claimed in a January 2023 Tweet. Accompanying information notes that the base is home to the 929th Flight Test Center and that “this is the only known Felon base,” meaning that “these aircraft have likely been involved in operations against Ukraine.”

However that’s not the only airbase that accommodates Su-57s. As The War Zone has noted in the past, Lipetsk has also received examples of the jet.

The attack on Akhtubinsk is the latest in an ongoing Ukrainian campaign to strike at airbases deep inside Russia. On June 7, Ukrainian drones attacked Mozdok Air Base in North Ossetia, more than 530 miles from the front lines. The base is home to Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bombers which have been heavily engaged in Ukraine, primarily launching Kh-22/Kh-32 series (AS-4 Kitchen) supersonic standoff cruise missiles. It also houses MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors.

It is unclear how much damage was caused at Mozdok, the first time Ukraine has hit a target in North Ossetia. The Kremlin-connected Rybar Telegram channel says that imagery emerging on social media shows “debris and six engines, presumably from the Ukrainian-made Lyuty UAV. Authorities also claim that only minor damage and fires were recorded on the ground as a result of the attack.”

You can see images and video from that attack below.

These attacks raise questions about the ability of Russia’s widely dispersed and heavily targeted air defenses to counter Ukrainian drone incursions and the ability to protect aircraft, almost all of which sit in the open without any sort of shelter, let alone hardened ones.

In its report on the damaged Felon, the Russian Fighterbomber Telegram channel complained bitterly about the lack of protection from drone attacks.

“I’ll tell you again. For the price of this Su-57 alone, shelters from UAVs could be built for all PTA aircraft in the country,” the channel wrote. “Of course, if you don’t bully them along the way and don’t give out kickbacks.”

It is worth noting that in this case, the Su-57 was under the framework for a shelter, although its cavas covering or metal cladding is not installed. Even a soft covering can help protect from low-yield drone strikes and make targeting much more challenging.

The targeting of an Su-57 by Ukraine is a logical one. While the aircraft may not be a critical component of Russia’s war effort, it is a highly symbolic and high-value target. Not only are these aircraft precious and very few in number, but they also represent Russia’s the apex of military technology. Striking one hundreds of miles away from Ukrainian territory while it sits idle on the ground certainly is a statement. Getting satellite imagery showing the results of the operation is clearly a cherry on top that Ukrainian intelligence was elated to share with the masses.

Update: June 10, 3:01 PM Eastern –

We obtained new satellite images from Maxar Technologies that show a clearer view of the Felon Ukraine claims was damaged in a drone strike. The images also show three Felons present at the base before and after the June 8 attack. Most importantly, the images posted Sunday by Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) were tightly focused on the one Felon they claimed was damaged, but these wider before and after views offer much more context and opportunity for comparative analysis.

You can see them in our story here.

Contact the author:

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.