Russia faces 'unsustainable' aircraft losses in Ukraine offensive push

Loss of third of radar surveillance planes means pilots fly blind on frontline sorties

A Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber, a number of which have been shot down in Ukraine in the past month. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

The Russian air force is facing “unsustainable” losses of fighters in Ukraine with 15 aircraft shot down in the past month, it can be disclosed.

The fleet suffered a significant setback last week when it lost another A-50 airborne early warning and control (AWACs) plane that was able to co-ordinate defence against Ukrainian attacks.

As a result of losing a third of the A-50 fleet, Russian fighter pilots are now forced to fly much closer to the front line, leading to increasing losses.

This has brought advanced western-supplied air-defence missiles into range that have accounted for a number of losses, including Nasams surface-to-air missile batteries that have a 40km range and Patriot systems with a range of 95km.

Russia has now lost an estimated 200 out of its 900 fighters since invading Ukraine in 2022.

“As the shoot-downs continue, the Russian air force soon could face a hard choice: fly less often or risk a downward spiral in readiness,” said David Axe, a military expert at Forbes magazine.

“The Russian air campaign in Ukraine is unsustainable and it becomes even less sustainable with every additional jet the Ukrainians shoot down.”

Following their success in taking the city of Avdiivka, Moscow has been pressing its attacks in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, to push home its advantage.

While they suffered high ground combat losses in taking Avdiivka – some estimates put it at 17,000 dead – the air force is now taking heavy casualties too.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian Air Force reported it had destroyed three Su-34 fight bombers that were launching glide-bomb strikes against their positions, bringing the number shot down since February 17 to 15.

Ukrainian officers said Russia had not deployed any of its remaining six A-50 aircraft for the past week, which meant its ground attack fighters had to fly closer to their positions to find targets.

The Russians were “being blinded and prevented from monitoring Ukrainian air space, one A-50 at a time”, said Canadian open-source intelligence researcher Steffan Watkins.

Russia-Ukraine war by the numbers, two years on

Russia-Ukraine war by the numbers, two years on

The A-50 is meant to fly beyond missile range to scan the horizon for enemy aircraft, missiles and drones.

But it is thought the most recent loss came about after Ukraine deployed one of its Soviet-era S-200 long-range missiles that struck the A-50 at a distance of 200km.

Another A-50 was damaged in a drone attack last year.

The Institute for the Study of War think tank reported that despite the loss of experienced pilots and aircraft it had “yet to prompt Russian forces to significantly decrease tactical aviation activity”.

Russia was instead attempting to press forward on the Avdiivka front, deciding continued “offensive operations with air support outweigh the risk of losing more aircraft”.

But ISW warned the recent loss of aircraft and “highly trained pilots” was “not negligible” for the Russians.

Two years of the Russia-Ukraine war - in pictures

Updated: March 04, 2024, 1:21 PM