Ukraine Says It Shot Down Three Russian Su-34 Fullbacks

The fixed-wing losses, if true, would be the worst in a single day for Russia in some time, and point to changing air defense tactics.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Ukrainian forces claim to have shot down a trio of Russian Su-34 Fullback combat jets, another sign of evolving air defense tactics.
Alex Beltyukov/Wikimedia Commons
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The Ukrainian Air Force claims it has shot down three Russian Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers. If true, this would represent one of the most significant single-day losses for Russia's Air Force in some time, and there is unconfirmed speculation that U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles may have been responsible. This would also be more evidence of a recent Ukraine push to upend Russian airstrikes, especially in the southern end of the country.

Posts on the Ukrainian Air Force's official social media accounts earlier today declared that the trio of Su-34Ms had been shot down. The Fullbacks were said to have been downed as they flew "in the south direction," but no information was provided as to what weapons might have been used to bring them down.

Russian authorities do not appear to have confirmed any of these losses and The War Zone is unable at this time to independently verify the Ukrainian claims. However, the Russian-language Fighterbomber channel on Telegram, which has close ties to that country's air force, said that there had been at least one "combat loss" and that search and rescue efforts were underway. Additional Russian-language sources on Telegram have suggested, without hard evidence, that the shootdowns occurred in Ukraine's southern Kherson region, which has been a major front in the conflict for months now.

Pictures are also now circulating on social media claiming to show at least one crash site, possibly taken by Russian personnel who raced to the scene in an Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip-series helicopter.

A machine translation of another post from the Fighterbomber Telegram channel after the one about the combat loss also says that "Everyone was taken. Living and dead." and that "The 'Patriot' air defense system has undergone preliminary testing." An unconfirmed image purporting to show Patriot missiles being launched at the three Su-34s is also circulating online.

Other observers have drawn comparisons between today's claims from Ukraine's Air Force and a single day back in May where Russian forces reportedly lost another Su-34, along with an Su-35 Flanker-E fighter, and three Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip helicopters. Ukrainian forces subsequently said that Patriots were responsible for bringing down all five of those aircraft and helicopters, which were inside Russian airspace at the time.

Ukraiian forces have received a number of Patriot batteries from the United States and other international partners this year, along with a variety of different interceptors to go with them. Still, there is no hard evidence yet that Patriots were used to bring any of the Su-34s down today. However, similar speculation followed the Ukrainian Air Force's claimed shootdown of a Russian Su-24M Fencer swing-wing combat jet over the western end of the Black Sea earlier this month.

The War Zone noted at that time that the downing of an Su-24M in that region pointed to a significant shift in effort to disrupt Russian airstrikes aimed at targets in southwestern Ukraine. This was true whether or not Patriot or some other type of surface-to-air missile system had been utilized.

Similarly, the Ukrainian Air Force's claims today point to a similar push to change the status quo in the air over regions like Kherson, no matter what weapons were employed. In Kherson, this could be particularly significant as Ukraine's forces are still struggling to make real headway in pushing across the Dnipro River.

In addition, Russian Su-34s have already been observed being increasingly armed with 'dumb' bombs fitted with stand-off glide bomb kits, which help keep them further away from Ukraine's defenses. You can read more about the Russian glide bombs, which first appeared in the context of this conflict earlier this year, in detail in this past War Zone feature.

Russia's introduction of the glide bombs speaks to the nature of the air defense threats Ukraine has already been able to amass in various places, including along the southern front. At the same time, these weapons have quickly come to present a huge problem for Ukrainian forces, which the deployment of long-range surface-to-air missile systems like Patriot could help reverse.

Ukraine's armed forces have similarly demonstrated an ability to change key calculi on and over the battlefield through its employment of U.S.-supplied Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles to disrupt Russian tactical helicopter operations. Russia's attack helicopters, especially Ka-52s, had been a major issue for Ukrainian units in the open phases of its counter-offensive earlier this year.

Furthermore, Su-34s have been workhorses for Russia in the conflict to date and are some of the country's most capable tactical combat jets, as you can read more about here. The Fullback can employ a range of other stand-off munitions, such as the Kh-31P supersonic anti-radiation missile, which is primarily intended to zero in on hostile air defense radars.

So, if the loss of a trio of Fullbacks is true, this would be significant in its own right. There is visual evidence that the Russians have lost 22 Su-34s since the start of the all-out invasion of Ukraine in combat and as a result of accidents. Prior to the invasion, Russia's Air Force reportedly had around 112 Su-34s, in total. New production examples are still being delivered, with the manufacturer, United Aircraft Corporation, announcing it had turned over another batch to the Russian military in November.

All of this also comes amid growing uncertainty about the future stream of military aid, including more Patriot surface-to-air missiles, to Ukraine from the United States. The U.S. government has reportedly been exploring other options to keep up deliveries of various materiel. This includes the announcement just today that Japan will transfer Patriot interceptors to the United States to help replenish U.S. military stocks. This deal could help free up additional U.S. Patriots to be transferred to Ukraine. President Joe Biden's administration still faces serious hurdles in Congress in getting more aid to Ukraine of any kind.

Other countries are still working to send additional military aid to Ukraine, as well. Just today, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said had confirmed to his Ukrainian counterpart President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that preparations are now being made for the transfer of 18 F-16 Viper fighters. The War Zone previously reported that a total of 18 ex-Dutch F-16s looked to be available to send to Ukraine and could be among the first to go. Efforts to get Vipers to Ukraine have been months in the making and their arrival could have significant new impacts on the nature of the air war over the country.

In the meantime, Ukrainian forces look to be continuing their efforts to find new ways to challenge Russian airpower, especially along the country's southern flank, with the air defense assets available to them now.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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