The Russian Defence Ministry reported on May 14 that the country’s armed forces shot down a single Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 Flanker fighter aircraft ear the settlement in the Donetsk region. The ministry issued the following statement: “Fighter jets of the Russian aerospace forces downed a Su-27 plane of the Ukrainian air force near the settlement of Novogrodovka in the Donetsk People’s Republic.” The development was significant due to the scarcity with which Su-27s have been deployed in the last six moths, as the limited numbers Ukraine fielded, and limited access to spare parts, has been a serious constraint on operations. The Su-27 is a heavyweight air superiority fighter and the most capable fighter in the Ukrainian fleet, and was inherited in signifiant numbers when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Widely considered the world’s top fighter in air to air combat when it entered service in 1984, the aircraft are today considered largely obsolete in the face of Russia’s much more sophisticated aerial warfare capabilities – reportedly resulting in overwhelming losses in the major air battles that characterised the war’s initial weeks.
The Su-27 notably has higher maintenance requirements than other combat aircraft in Ukrainian service due to its size, while requiring longer runways than the much more widely deployed and lighter MiG-29s. The fact that the MiG-29 is widely operated by NATO member states supporting Ukraine has also allowed spare parts, munitions and even entirely new airframes to be supplied in significant quantities, allowing the lower end fighter class to play a much greater role in the war effort. The fact that one of the scarce remaining Su-27s was deployed for operations near the frontlines has raised speculation that the fighter class was being employed for a special mission beyond a basic bombing run or use of unguided bombs – namely the use of newly supplied British Storm Shadow cruise missiles which are confirmed to have begun being employed by the Ukrainian Air Force. Deployment of the newly delivered missiles would do much to explain the Su-27’s return to the frontlines. An alternative explanation would be to help compensate for the rapid erosion of Ukraine’s air defence capabilities in frontline areas such as Donetsk, which both Ukrainian and Western sources have widely warned are approaching an extreme level of depletion.
The Storm Shadow’s long range would pair well with the Su-27’s high endurance to facilitate strikes deep into Russian territory, although Russian sources have expressed confidence that the country’s air defences can intercept the subsonic munitions. The missiles rely on guidance from NATO members’ vast collective satellite network, while has played a major role in supporting the Ukrainian war effort alongside deployments of Western personnel for advisory, logistics and combat roles on a very significant scale. These personnel from overseas have been key to supporting Ukrainian efforts to quickly integrate new generations of armaments into service, and since the war’s outbreak in February 2022 have integrated American missiles and other munition types onto Ukraine’s MIG-29 fighters.