Russian Su-35 Fighter Lost in Action Over Donbas: How Many ‘Super Flankers’ Have Been Shot Down in Combat?

Multiple Russian sources have reported that the Russian Air Force has lost a Su-35 heavyweight fighter during hostilities over the strategically located Donbas town of Avdiivka, which was captured by Russian forces on February 17. Sources have conflicted over whether the loss was an incident of friendly fire, or whether the aircraft was brought down by Ukrainian forces. There has been a general consensus, however, that the pilot survived the incident. Ukrainian combat aircraft have posed a negligible threat to Russian aviation throughout the conflict, with its widely fielded MiG-29 and elite Su-27 fighters consistently losing overwhelmingly in air battles, which has reflected the considerable performance and technological discrepancies between their aircraft. Nevertheless, the Russian Air Force has taken significant losses, particularly in the war’s early stages, primarily to man portable infrared guided systems which emit no radar emissions and thus do not alert targets’ radar warning receivers, and which can be easily concealed among infantry.

The latest loss is the first confirmed shootdown of a Su-35 in almost two years, with a previous confirmed loss been brought down in early April 2022 – reportedly by Ukrainian S-125 air defence systems. The pilot in that incident ejected and was captured. Ukrainian forces have claimed to have shot down multiple Su-35s, including one in July 2022, two in May 2023, and one in a friendly fire incident in September 2023. The veracity of these claims nevertheless remains questionable, with two of the claimed kills having been by new U.S.-supplied Patriot missile batteries, which have seen many reports of their successes questioned as unrealistic by analysts. The Russian Air Force’s Su-35 fleet has expanded significantly since the outbreak of full scale hostilities with Ukraine in February 2022, with deliveries having continued at rates of over a dozen per year. The Su-35 was initially expected to be developed solely for export as a heavily enhanced variant of the Soviet Union’s top fourth generation fighter the Su-27, but was then considered for acquisition in limited numbers due to the cancellation of the MiG 1.42 fifth generation fighter program. Serious delays to the less ambitious Su-57 fifth generation fighter program of over a decade have led the Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ fighter to become a widely fielded fighter with approximately 120 estimated to be in service.