For all its profound faults, the Russian air force has a lot of new and highly sophisticated fighter jets. They have better sensors, weapons and defensive gear than the Ukrainian air force’s own, less numerous, fighters do.
And yet, Ukrainian pilots in their older, cruder jets fought Russian pilots to a standstill in the early weeks of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine. They did it by flying low and being more aggressive.
Russia’s roughly 200 Sukhoi Su-30SM and Su-35S fighters, none older than a few years, “completely outclass Ukrainian air force fighter aircraft on a technical level,” Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling from the London-based Royal United Services Institute wrote in their definitive study of the Ukraine air war.
The Su-30 and Su-35 both are derivatives of the classic, twin-engine Sukhoi Su-27, but with improved electronics and weaponry. The big difference between the two is that the Su-30 seats two. The Su-35 is a single-seat plane.
The Russian air force around five years ago began acquiring the Su-30SM and Su-35S to replace hundreds of Soviet-vintage Su-27s and buy time for Sukhoi to continue developing and producing the new—and troubled—Su-57 stealth fighter.
The Russian air force has deployed most of its Su-30s and Su-35s for the war in Ukraine, staging them at air bases in southwestern Russia, Belarus and occupied Crimea. At the start of the wider war in late February, the Su-30 and Su-35 regiments—along with regiments flying Sukhoi Su-34 bombers—surged their jets into the air, racking up around 140 sorties per day, according to Bronk, Reynolds and Watling.
“Su-35S and Su-30SM fighters flew numerous high-altitude [combat air patrols] at around 30,000 feet in support of the medium-altitude Russian strike aircraft operating widely during the first three days,” the RUSI analysts explained.
They outmatched—and also outnumbered—the Ukrainian air force’s 30-year-old Su-27s and MiG-29s. The Russian jets’ Vympel R-77-1 air-to-air missiles were a key advantage. The R-77-1 boasts active radar guidance. A pilot briefly turns on his radar, designates a target, fires a missile then switches off his radar and takes evasive action. The missile then uses its own internal radar to guide it to its target.
By contrast, the Ukrainians’ older Vympal R-27R/ER missiles are semi-active, meaning a pilot must continuously illuminate a target as the missile closes in. He can’t go silent. He can’t turn away. What’s more, the R-77-1 ranges as far as 60 miles. The R-27’s own range usually maxes out at 50 miles.
So Russian pilots were shooting at Ukrainian pilots from farther away than the Ukrainian pilots could shoot back—and were also capable of much more effective evasive maneuvers than the Ukrainians could pull off.
As a result, Russian regiments quickly shot down several Ukrainian Su-27s and MiG-29s. Each loss eating away at the Ukrainian air force’s pre-war inventory of around 30 Su-27s and 50 or so MiG-29s.
Yes, the Ukrainians eventually would replace many of these losses by restoring old, once-unflyable airframes and recalling pilots from retirement. In those heady early weeks, however, it might’ve seemed like the Russian air force was going to drive the Ukrainian air force to extinction.
But that’s not how it turned out. Ukrainian pilots adopted new tactics—and held their own, Bronk, Reynolds and Watling wrote. “Deeply unequal radar and missile performance compared with Russian fighters, as well as being tactically outnumbered by up to 15 to two in some cases, forced Ukrainian pilots to fly extremely low to try to exploit ground clutter and terrain-masking to get close enough to fire before being engaged.”
Ukrainian MiGs and Sukhois, flying at treetop level, would sneak up on Russian Sukhois, blending in with the landscape before—at the last moment—popping up to fire their missiles. “Aggressive Ukrainian tactics and good use of the low-level terrain during the first days of the invasion led to multiple claims and several likely kills against Russian aircraft, although Ukrainian fighters were often shot down or damaged in the process,” the analysts added.
Ukrainian pilots downed just enough Russian pilots to spook the Kremlin. “After three days of skirmishing in which both sides lost aircraft, there was a notable pause in Russian strike and fighter sorties venturing deep behind Ukrainian lines, which lasted for several days,” Bronk, Reynolds and Watling explained.
After that, the Russians changed their tactics. Attack pilots flew extremely low, just like the Ukrainian crews had been doing. Fighter pilots conducting air-to-air patrols meanwhile flew higher and stayed on the Russian side of the front line.
That of course risked putting the air-superiority patrols too far from the front to intercept Ukrainian planes. It’s not for no reason that, by this summer, the Russian air force was heavily leaning on its 90 or so Mikoyan MiG-31BM interceptors for combat air patrols. The MiG-31’s Vympel R-37M missile can strike targets as far as 200 miles away.
“The long range of the R-37M, in conjunction with the very high performance and high operating altitude of the MiG-31BM also allows it significant freedom to menace Ukrainian aircraft near the front lines from outside the range of Ukrainian defenses,” the RUSI team wrote.
It’s telling that, of the 60 fixed-wing planes the Russians have lost in the war, just one was a MiG-31—and it accidentally crashed. But the R-37M isn’t foolproof, and not every missile hits. The MiG-31s are bleeding the Ukrainian air force, but—so far—not fatally.
The Ukrainian air force since February has written off 51 fixed-wing planes. Proportionally, Ukraine’s losses are much steeper than Russia’s are. But the Ukrainian air force still is flying and fighting—making up with aggression and creativity what it lacks in numbers and high technology.