The Ukrainian armed forces’ aggressive counterattacks in the south and east starting in late August have chewed up several of the Russian military’s most important formations. The elite 1st Guards Tanks Army and its supporting 144th Guards Motor Rifle Division, to name two. Also, the essential 3rd Army Corps—the Kremlin’s main reserve formation for the Ukraine war.
We may have to add to the list one of the Russian air force’s best fighter regiments. In seven months of intensive fighting, Ukrainian air-defenses reportedly have shot down a quarter of the crews of a unit believed to be the 559th Bomber Aviation Regiment, based in Morozovsk in western Russia near the border with Ukraine.
A Russian blogger on a popular aviation channel referred to the losses in an emotional post. “There is a bomber regiment where every fourth crews has already been shot down,” they wrote.
The 559th BAR is the bomber regiment that’s closest to Ukraine and the most active over the battlefield.
The unit had as many as 36 twin-engine, two-seat, supersonic Su-34 fighters in its inventory when Russia widened its war on Ukraine starting in late February. The Ukrainians since then have shot down 14 Su-34s that independent analysts can confirm, in addition to 43 other Russian fighters and attack planes.
It’s apparent most of the Su-34s Russia has lost belonged to the 559th BAR. It’s not apparent how many of the crews survived and returned to base to fly and fight again.
The Su-34 on paper is one of the most sophisticated fighters in the world. A highly-evolved variant of the Su-27 air-superiority fighter with side-by-side seating and special sensors for the ground-attack role, the Su-34 promised to usher in a new era of high-tech, precision bombing for the Russian air force.
Instead, the Su-34s have flown into Ukraine lugging the same old dumb bombs that every other Russian fighter type carries. A lack of precision-guided munitions—not to mention Russian doctrine that conceives of aircraft essentially as flying artillery—forces the $50-million Su-34s to fly low through the thickest Ukrainian air-defenses in order to have any chance of delivering their bombs with any degree of accuracy.
Thus the steep losses in the 559th BAR should come as no surprise. Russia is losing Su-34s far faster than it can replace them. The Russian air force ordered its first batch of 32 Su-34s back in 2008. A second batch of 92 followed in 2012. The Russians as of 2021 possessed around 122 Su-34s in several regiments including the 559th BAR. Now they’re down to no more than 108.
The 559th BAR—and the whole Russian air force—isn’t done bleeding. If anything, it’s losing more jets than ever before. The Ukrainian defense ministry on Saturday claimed its forces shot down four Russian warplanes in just 24 hours: an Su-34, two Su-30s and an Su-25.
The Russian air force was nowhere to be found in the first week or so of the Ukrainians’ twin counteroffensives in the south and east. Ukrainian units had close air support. Russian units … didn’t.
Analysts chalked up the Russian air force’s absence to the enduring strength of Ukrainian air-defenses, as well as to Russian air-warfare doctrine that assigns warplanes to bomb preplanned targets. The Russian air force doesn’t train its pilots to think and act independently—prerequisites for tracking down moving targets.
When the enemy is on the move, Russian air power struggles to keep up. Once the Russians retreated from Kharkiv Oblast in the east, the Ukrainian assault in the area slowed—and the Russian air force returned to the battlefield, bombing positions Russian troops recently had vacated and Ukrainian troops had seized.
On Sept. 15, a pair of Russian planes—at least one of them an Su-34—bombed Ukrainian positions outside the town of Spirne in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
No one shot back, perhaps indicating that Ukraine’s air-defenses had lagged behind the front-line battalions advancing into Spirne.
That quickly changed. On Friday, a video appeared online depicting a Ukrainian Strela surface-to-air missile vehicle, reportedly belonging to the 25th Airborne Brigade, rolling into Yatskivka, 40 miles northwest of Spirne in Donbas. The next day, the Russians reportedly lost two jets—an Su-25 and an Su-30—in the same area.
Two days later another video revealed one of the open secrets of the Ukrainians’ air-defense success. That video depicted one of the Ukrainian army’s new ex-German Gepard mobile anti-aircraft guns accompanying an Osa surface-to-air missile vehicle somewhere near Kharkiv.
The German government has pledged to Ukraine 50 1980s-vintage Gepards that the German army removed from service around 2010. The Gepard with its built-in radar can fire streams of 35-millimeter-diameter shells out to a distance of three miles.
Earlier this month Ukrainian officials singled out the Gepard as one of the key enablers of the counteroffensive. Longer-range SAMs take the first shots. Gepards fire next.
Conditions apparently are pretty good for the Gepards and other Ukrainian air-defenses right now. The Russian army is retreating. The Russian air force is flying more sorties in an effort to cover the withdrawal. And it’s flying them in close proximity to all those Ukrainian missiles and guns.
It’s not for no reason that the same blogger who lamented the 559th BAR’s heavy losses also anticipated more losses to come. “More will be shot down.”