Russia Shoots Down One of Ukraine’s Last Su-27 Fighters – Why Kiev’s Flankers Are Precious and Irreplaceable

On January 1 the Russian Defence Ministry reported that the country’s air defences had shot down one of the Ukrainian Air Force’s highly prized Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighters, which are considered by far the most capable combat jets in the country’s inventory. “Air defences downed a Su-27 aircraft of the Ukrainian Air Force near the Velikoalexandrovka settlement in the Dnepropetrovsk Region. Over the past day, 16 HIMARS rockets and six Uragan rockets were intercepted,” the ministry reported. It added that 46 Ukrainian drones were destroyed the Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk and Kherson Regions. The loss of a Su-27 follows multiple reports of serious losses for Ukraine’s fleet of lighter MiG-29 fighters in October – with ten days of intensive air engagements from October 13-23 seeing Russian forces shoot down 17 of the aircraft. While shootdowns of MiG-29s have been common, reports of Su-27s participating in combat in any capacity have been few and far between particularly after the initial months of 2022 when the participated in multiple air battles with Russian fighters. 

The Su-27 was developed as a much heavier and higher end counterpart to the MiG-29 which entered service two years later, and during the Soviet era was fielded only by the USSR and China due to its elite status. Thus while Ukraine has been able to receive dozens of MiG-29s from across the former Warsaw Pact, with former clients in the Cold War era now integrated into NATO and strongly backing Kiev’s war effort, the Su-27 by contrast is not fielded by Western-aligned states, which combined with its unique and far superior capabilities has made it a highly prized asset. Although using an obsolete N001E mechanically scanned array radar and ageing avionics from the 1980s, its situational awareness is still far superior both to the MiG-29 and to the F-16s set to be supplied by NATO member states later in the year. Su-27s have also proven useful as carriers for a range of new Western supplied cruise missiles such as the British Storm Shadow, which capitalises on the aircraft’s very high endurances. With the Su-27 overwhelmingly outmatched in all aspects of its air to air performance by modern Russian fighter classes, the ability to strike Russian ground targets using such missiles has allowed the Soviet built jets to continue to contribute to Ukrainian Air Force operations while minimising the risk of being engaged.