Claims Swirl Around Possible Friendly Fire Shoot-Down Of Russian Su-35 Near Tokmak

It appears that Russia lost another Su-35 Flanker-E multirole fighter Friday.

The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS)-connected Fighterbomber Telegram channel posted a brief, solemn message Friday with a photo of a Flanker.

“Eternal flight, brother…”

The loss of a Flanker has yet to be officially confirmed by either Russian or Ukrainian authorities. However, video emerged on social media purporting to be Russian air defenses activated near the occupied city of Tokmak in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and several Telegram channels have suggested without verification that the Flanker was accidentally downed by friendly fire.

“Video of the downing of a Russian Su-35 this night,” the Russian WarGonzo Telegram channel posted. “The Russian air defense tried their best, firing at friendly forces.”

“…Tokmak is restless,” the Ukrainian War Monitor Telegram channel wrote. “Very early – the shooting down of an enemy tactical aircraft. We are waiting for details in the morning.”

Later, War Monitor posted an update.

“The good news is minus the Su-35 by Russian air defense forces at night over Tokmak.”

Tokmak is a prime target of Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive through Zaporizhzhia Oblast and is about 20 miles from Ukrainian lines and within range of air defense systems like Ukraine’s SA-11 Buk.

Tokmak is about 20 miles from Ukraine’s front lines. (Google Earth image)

Flankers have served in several roles, such as counter-air and air-to-ground – including suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) sorties. With a powerful radar and long-range air-to-air weapons, as well as an advanced electronic warfare suite, the Su-35s are superior to Ukrainian fighters, and they have proven to have a significant edge.

“Interesting that this appears to still be happening periodically, despite the Russian Aerospace Forces employing very rigid command and control over fighter ops, which hampers effectiveness but should make deconfliction with the ground-based air defenses relatively simple,” military aviation expert Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Military Technology at RUSI, London and Professor II at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy, said in a Tweet about the incident.

Bronk appeared to be commenting hypothetically, without confirming a Flanker loss.

That a Flanker would operate so close to the front line is “unusual,” he added. “The VKS generally takes great care to remain outside known and suspected Ukrainian SAM coverage.” This is a tactic that has been omni-present since not long after Russia’s all-out invasion began and its air arm failed to achieve air superiority over Ukraine.

Such a loss would be “an excellent example of how much chaos a few longer range drone or missile strikes can cause by keeping an enemies air defense network at both high readiness and trigger happy,” Gary Bagwell, a former RAF Senior Commander, president of the UK Air & Space Power Association and RUSI Distinguished Fellow, said in response to Bronk. “Saturating or wearing out an enemy’s AD system is a relatively simple element of a [suppression of enemy air defenses] SEAD Campaign.”

Like Bronk, he appeared to be speaking hypothetically.

The assessment, however, matches the explanation provided to us by the commander of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate for why Kyiv has been carrying out attacks on Russian air defenses with drones and missiles.

One reason, said Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, is “that we’re making those holes in the overall air defense coverage. Those holes are exploited for other things. Also, we’re depleting their air defense missile stocks because those are not limitless.”

You can read more about Budanov’s insights in our exclusive interview from his D.C. hotel room last week here.

The open-source tracking group Oryx said that this is at least the fifth Su-35 Russia has lost since the all-out war began. That figure could be higher though because Oryx only counts losses it can visually verify. In this case, it based its assessment on the purported air defense video and the Fighterbomber statement we mentioned previously in this story.

Russia has lost about 90 fixed-wing aircraft in combat since the start of the war out of about 900 tactical aircraft it had before Feb. 24, 2022, according to the U.K. Defense Ministry.

If it turns out that the Flanker was indeed shot down by a Russian air defense system, it would not be the first time that’s happened in Ukraine.

In July, 2022, Russia apparently shot down one of its Su-34 Fullback strike fighters as it flew over the occupied Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine. You can read more about that incident, apparently captured in the video below, in our story here.

Ukraine too has lost fighters to its own air defenses. One of its MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters was shot down in January by a Ukrainian-Army operated Osa air defense system, according to the Key Aero aviation news site.

These things happen from time-to-time in highly contested airspace during a full-on war. However, given Budanov’s vow to continue taking out Russian air defenses and Bagwell’s suggestion that such a campaign creates an additional level of wartime confusion that could allow these incidents to occur, Russian combat aircraft could be facing increased dangers from their own side.

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Howard Altman Avatar

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.