Su-24 Fencer Is Ukraine’s Storm Shadow Missile Carrier

A photo released by the Ukrainian government depicts a Ukrainian Air Force Su-24 Fencer combat jet armed with a Storm Shadow conventionally armed cruise missile supplied by the United Kingdom. The image goes a long way to confirm the use of the Su-24 as the launch platform for those missiles. The Su-24 is one of just two Ukrainian Air Force types that we have, in the past, highlighted as readily feasible launch platforms for this weapon.

The photo in question appears in a tweet from Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s minister of defense, relating to the visit to Kyiv today by his U.K. counterpart Ben Wallace. Against a background of Ukrainian and British flags, there is an official photo of Reznikov shaking hands with Wallace, another of the British minister of defense giving the thumbs-up, and finally, a photo that appears to have been presented to Reznikov for Wallace to sign.

This photo shows a Su-24 with a Storm Shadow carried under the fixed wing ‘glove’ pylon, on the right-hand side of the jet. The photo has been signed by Wallace and carries the words: “To all the brave ‘few’ who risk all for the glory of Ukraine.”

A higher-resolution version of the same photo obtained by the Ukraine Weapons Tracker account on Twitter reveals more details, including the identity of the aircraft pictured: a Su-24MR Fencer-E reconnaissance version, rather than a Su-24M strike aircraft, assigned to the 7th Tactical Aviation Brigade.

It’s not clear if the photo is a genuine capture of a Su-24 launching for a mission with a Storm Shadow, although it’s notable that the landing gear appears to have been retracted very quickly if that is the case, so it could also be a low-level flyby. On the other hand, even if the image was digitally manipulated to show a Storm Shadow, it would appear to confirm that the Su-24 is the launch aircraft for this missile. It’s possible the Su-27 could be outfitted with it, as well, but having two types carry it at the beginning of its introduction to service would be less likely.

Subsequently, the same composite image was posted by the Ukrainian Air Force, on its Twitter page, with the message: “What a picture.” It was then swiftly removed, with a screencap provided below:

via Twitter

In the past, we have discussed how the Su-24 and perhaps also the Su-27 Flanker jet would be the likely candidates as Storm Shadow shooters. We have since learned that the missile has already been used in combat, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense, but no more details were provided at that time. In the meantime, however, the Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed Ukraine has used Storm Shadows to attack the city of Luhansk. Photos purporting to show debris from at least one of the missiles have been circulating online.

The Ukrainian Air Force’s MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets and Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets would be a poor fit to carry the Storm Shadow, each of which weighs almost 2,900 pounds. The heaviest weapons routinely carried by the MiG-29 and Su-25 are only around 1,100 pounds each. The heaviest-lifting stores pylons on the Frogfoot can only accommodate weapons of 1,100 pounds, and heavier weapons are rarely ever seen on any early-model MiG-29s.

The larger Fencer and Flanker have much greater payload capacities and the Su-24, in particular, can routinely carry weapons of over 3,300 pounds each.

A Ukrainian Su-24M lands during the Clear Sky 2018 exercise at Starokostyantyniv. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Interestingly, the Su-24MR reconnaissance jet seen in the photo does not otherwise carry offensive weaponry and actually lacks the Orion attack radar or Kayra laser/TV system used in conjunction with Soviet-era air-to-ground missiles.

However, it’s possible that the smaller number of Su-24MR airframes are in less demand for reconnaissance work, which could make them more available for conversion to carry Storm Shadows. That would leave the hard-worked fleet of Su-24Ms to continue their usual offensive missions with Soviet-era ordnance, such as the Kh-25ML (AS-10 Karen) air-to-ground missile, seen below.

It could also be the case that the urgency of the Storm Shadow integration has seen both Su-24M and Su-24MR aircraft adapted, based on their availability. After all, open-source intelligence indicates that Ukraine has lost at least 17 Su-24s (the vast majority of them strike versions) since the full-scale Russian invasion, although it has also managed to return some previously-stored aircraft to operational status.

As to what kinds of modifications have been conducted to integrate the Storm Shadow on the Su-24, this remains unclear. In theory, however, the process shouldn’t be too complicated, with the Storm Shadow missile being preprogrammed with target coordinates before flight, meaning there is no need for an interface allowing the aircraft to feed new targeting data in before launch. This would also mean that the missile could be launched by a Su-24MR, too, since the attack radar and laser/TV system wouldn’t be required.

What we do know is that Ukraine has already successfully introduced to combat other modern Western air-launched weapons launched from its Soviet-era aircraft. In particular, the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) has been integrated on the MiG-29 and Su-27, while the Joint Direct Attack Munition-Extended Range (JDAM-ER) has also been integrated, on a still-unconfirmed platform or platforms.

A Ukrainian Air Force video showing its MiG-29s carrying and firing AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, or HARMs:

As far as we know, the Storm Shadow is the longest-range standoff weapon to be delivered to Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. In the past, we have looked at the significant capability boost that the Storm Shadow provides Ukraine. You can read that in-depth analysis here.

However, the Storm Shadows have apparently been supplied with Kyiv’s assurance that they won’t be used against targets in the Russian Federation. The United Kingdom has said that the weapons will be used only within Ukraine’s sovereign territory — although that would not rule out strikes against Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, also including Crimea.

The range of the Storm Shadow is just at the edge of the distance between Ukrainian-controlled territory and Sevastopol, in Crimea. But launching from optimum altitude would require flying directly into Russian air defenses that spill deeply into Ukrainian-controlled territory. The strategically vital Kerch Strait Bridge is well beyond the range of Storm Shadow fired from the front lines, but a counteroffensive could change all this. ISW

But there is also a possibility that even longer-range weapons could reach the Ukrainian Air Force in the future. Following France’s pledge to deliver the SCALP-EG, which is very similar to Storm Shadow, it emerged today that Germany could follow suit and provide Ukraine with conventionally armed cruise missiles, in the form of the air-launched Taurus KEPD 350. This weapon will be discussed in a forthcoming article.

In the meantime, we look forward to more details emerging of Ukraine’s combat use of the Storm Shadow.

Contact the author: