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Ten weeks into Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, Kyiv’s tiny, aging air force is in much better shape than anyone should have expected prior to the invasion.
Videos that have circulated on social media in the last week depict each of the Ukrainian air force’s manned fighter and attack types, at least some of them while in action near the front line in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The videos underscore what U.S. defense department officials said in mid-April: that an influx of spare parts from Ukraine’s allies helped the air force to repair around 20 grounded jets. As a result, the air arm as of April 19 actually had more flyable planes than it did just two weeks earlier.
The videos also reveal the tactics Ukrainian pilots seem to be using to protect themselves against Russian fighters and air-defenses. For some, that means flying really low.
The Ukrainian air force began the war with around 125 operational fixed-wing warplanes, including around three dozen Su-27 interceptors, 50 or so MiG-29 fighters, perhaps 30 Su-25 attack jets and around a dozen Su-24 bombers.
All of the jets are Soviet models that Ukraine inherited from the USSR following its 1991 collapse. All are more than 30 years old and only a few have gotten significant upgrades. The Su-27s and MiG-29s lack modern fire-and-forget air-to-air missiles. The Su-24s and Su-25s carry only unguided rockets and bombs.
But the Russian air force, despite having hundreds of new fighters and, in theory, access to modern guided munitions, has failed to gain control of the air over Ukraine. Chalk it up in equal measures to Russian incompetence and heroic Ukrainian resistance.
The Americans helped, too, feeding the Ukrainians intelligence that allowed flying squadrons to relocate from one airfield to another in time to avoid Russian bombardment.
Since Feb. 23, the Russian air force has lost at least 24 fighters and attack jets that independent analysts can confirm—most of them to Ukraine’s ground-based air-defenses.
Proportionately, however, the Ukrainian air force has suffered greater loss. Russian fighters and surface-to-air missiles have downed no fewer than 16 Ukrainian jets: four Su-27s, five MiG-29s, four Su-25s and three Su-24s.
The single squadron flying the swing-wing Su-24s seems to have suffered the worst. The bombers played an important role in the Ukrainian armed forces’ defense of Kyiv in the first few days of the war. After losing several planes in quick succession, the squadron appeared to go idle: for weeks, there was no visual evidence of Ukrainian Su-24s in action.
That changed Thursday, when a video circulated on social media depicting a single Su-24 flying in close formation with an Su-27.
The pairing is notable. Ukrainian attack crews normally fly in pairs of like jets. It’s possible the threat of Russian interceptors has compelled Kyiv’s surviving Su-27s to begin closely escorting the remaining bombers.
What’s left of Ukraine’s single Su-25 brigade for its part appears to have doubled down on the ultra-low flying that it practiced before the war. Low flying, sometimes just a hundred feet over the ground, didn’t prevent the Russians from shooting down several Su-25s in the first few days of the war.
But it’s still safer than flying at altitude, where a jet is much more vulnerable to SAMs. A dramatic video that appeared online on Saturday depicts a solitary Ukrainian Su-25—four 122-millimeter rocket pods and a pair of drop tanks under its wings—blazing at treetop height over eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s MiG-29s in recent days featured in their own new video, too. That’s perhaps less surprising than the appearance of Su-27s, Su-24s and Su-25s is. The MiG always has been Kyiv’s most numerous manned warplane—and several NATO countries also operate the type and are in a position to donate spare parts to Ukraine. It’s a safe assumption that most of the 20 jets the air force fixed up in mid-April were MiGs.
The Ukrainian air force’s resurgence comes as the Ukrainian army also is on the move. Brigades around Kharkiv, just 25 miles from the border with Russia, a few days ago launched a counteroffensive that has pushed Russian battalions across the nearby Donets River. Kyiv’s ground forces also are attacking around Izium, south of Kharkiv, as well as near Russian-occupied Kherson on the Black Sea coast.
The army’s artillery is the decisive force in these offensives, but the air force’s fighters and attack jets apparently are capable of offering some support, as well.
All that said, the air force’s second wind probably won’t halt the service’s slow transformation into a drone force. The Ukrainian air force has managed, against the odds, to keep its dwindling manned fleet in the fight. But it so far hasn’t managed to acquire any additional airframes to make good its losses.
The air force and navy have however tapped a steady supply of Turkish-made TB-2 armed drones—and have deployed them to devastating effect. The TB-2s have dismantled Russian air-defenses, tracked down and struck headquarters and blown up supply convoys—and reportedly also helped to find and sink the Russian navy cruiser Moskva on April 13.
More recently, the TB-2s have swarmed Snake Island, in the western Black Sea 80 miles south of Odessa. The Russians captured the island on the first full day of fighting on Feb. 24, killing some of the Ukrainian defenders and capturing the survivors.
Now the Ukrainian drone crews are exacting their revenge. TB-2s in recent days have struck at least three air-defense systems belonging to the Russian garrison on the island, as well as two Russian navy patrol boats sailing nearby.
It’s telling that the Snake Island campaign doesn’t involve manned planes. Ukraine’s Sukhois and MiGs are in better shape than probably anyone expected after more than two months of bitter fighting. But Ukraine’s drones are in even better shape.