The Russian Defence Ministry has ordered the decoration of pilots of Su-27 Flanker fighter aircraft which intercepted an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea on March 14. The incident saw Su-27s fly conduct aggressive manoeuvres very close to the Reaper, causing the unmanned aircraft to lose control and crash into international waters of the Black Sea. This was later confirmed by the drone’s live feed which was released by the Pentagon, with Russia expected to seek to salvage the aircraft for study. The ministry announced in a statement regarding the decoration of pilots involved: “Russian Defence Minister Army General Sergey Shoigu has issued an order to bestow state awards on the pilots of the Su-27 planes who did not allow the US MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle to violate the airspace restricted for use during the special military operation.” It further alleged that the drone had been flying towards Russian territory with its transponders switched off, and had intruded into the area covered “by the temporary regime for the airspace use established for the purposes of the special military operation and brought to the notice of all users of international airspace and published in accordance with international norms.” The incident comes as the tensions between the two countries remain high, with U.S. and other Western forces playing a major role in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War including in frontline combat operations.
The Su-27 is one of the oldest fighter classes in the Russian inventory, with the large majority of the aircraft ever to join the Russian Air Force having been built in the Soviet Union. The class was produced at rates of around 100 per year in the final years of the USSR, but negligible numbers entered production after the state’s disintegration in 1991 other than to meet export orders – the majority of which went to China in the 1990s and early 2000s. The fighters, alongside their lighter counterparts the MiG-29s, have been phased out of service quickly from the early 2010s as Russia began to acquire new fighter classes after an almost total two decade pause in acquisitions. Plans to replace the Su-27 with the fifth generation Su-57, however, did not materialise due to delays with the new program, resulting in the aircraft instead being replaced with newly built enhanced derivatives of the Su-27 itself – namely the Su-30SM and Su-35.
Almost all fighters built in post-Soviet Russia have been derivatives of the Su-27, which reflected the class’ success after its entry into service in 1985 when it was widely considered the most capable fighter in any air force in the world. Notable strengths included its unrivalled range and high speed manoeuvrability, very large and sophisticated radar, high weapons payload and sophisticated air to air missiles. The Su-27’s capabilities today are far less outstanding today, however, although units operating the fighters have been well known for particularly aggressive tactics – most notably those based in the enclave of Kaliningrad where they have repeatedly made close interception of NATO aircraft. The class was also responsible for intercepting, and possibly firing a warning shot next to, British reconnaissance aircraft in October. The last Su-27s are expected to be phased out of service in the mid-2020s as more Su-30SMs, Su-35s and Su-57s continue to be produced.