Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
As days became weeks and weeks became months, one thing is clear. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a complete mess. The so-called lightning “special operation”, meant for a quick take-over degraded into a slow and bloody war of attrition that took a toll on both sides. And to the world’s amazement, Ukraine seems to be putting up a good fight. So much so that Russia revised its plan and chose to go for Eastern Ukraine, and the destruction of its massive armored convoy, not to mention the retreat from Kyiv tells a lot on how much Russia messed up. Russia did manage to take several territories in the east, but at what cost?
The Russian soldiers themselves seem to be feeling the whole ravages of this poorly planned battle, with some simply refusing to fight. And up in the air, the same situation unfolds. Make no mistake about it, Russian fighter jets are no steel turkeys. They are formidable and competent flying menace that proved its worth in various conflicts. One of which is the super maneuverable SU-35. Just look at how it flies in air shows! This master of the cobra maneuver could accomplish sharp turns. But fighter jets are only as good as the battle plan, and the Russians are yet to establish air superiority in Ukraine. And in one case, a pilot refused to engage the Ukrainians in a dog fight.
Once, the Soviet Russia unleashed their formidable combat jet Mig-25. Flying at thrice the speed of sound, it gave the western powers a serious scare. So much so that they developed an even more powerful fighter jet, the F-15. With the F-16 complementing the twin engine air superiority fighter, the table was turned and it was now the Soviet Russia who was worried. As an answer, the MiG 29 was developed, together with the supermaneuverable SU-27. Years later, the SU-27 will be upgraded to its more advanced derivative, the SU-35.
The SU-27 was already known for its sharp turns, but the SU-35 has better maneuverability thanks to improvements on its aerodynamics. Weapons control also received an upgrade, as well as the engines and materials for its structure. The Su-35 is a heavy aircraft for a fighter, and the extra weight of the radar required the needs of canards. But progress on technology lightened the extra load, and the addition of thrust vectoring engine eliminated the needs for canards.
During the Syrian Civil War, Russia sent four SU-35M where it bombed ground targets and performed interceptions. The said fighter is also deployed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, yet the results is not exactly impressive. In fact, it made headlines for the wrong reasons.
There were claims by both Ukrainian and Russian sides of kills made on each other. On the Russian side, reports were circulated of heavy losses to Ukrainian air force caused by the SU-35. The Ukrainians on the other hand cited that SU-35 were getting shot down both by their fighter jets, and ground-based fire. Nevertheless, there was a confirmed report of real SU-35 loss, like what happened in April 2, 2022 when one crashed and its pilot was captured by Ukranian forces. The problem here was that intact components of the wreckage were retrieved by British and U.S. scientists for analysis. The cause of the crash was attributed to Ukrainian air defense, and it was the first SU-35 loss. Th Russian SU-35 did score a kill, when it shot down an Mi-14PS, killing the deputy head of the Ukrainian navy Colonel Ihor Bedzay. Yet, Ukraine also reported that its MiG 29 fighters were actively engaging the SU-35 in an aerial combat, with another Russian combat jet going down (date was May 27, 2022).
Others may dispute the Ukrainian claims, but it became clear that Russia never established an effective air superiority in Ukraine. In fact, together with the destroyed SU-35, it lost more than 90 aircrafts.
And that might be the reason why unverified reports of Russian planes retreating surfaced.
A report surfaced in July 7, 2022 about a certain event in the skies of Ukraine. Th story was published by Newsweek, though it was made clear that the claim was unverified. Russia refused to comment on such issue. But as what was mentioned before, the article described how Russians planes were forced to retreat, and refusing to engage the Ukrainians in a dog fight.
It goes like this.
The settlement in Odessa was the target of Russian missile strikes and Ukraine responded by sending its own fighters. The missile strikes involved an SU-35 fighter jet, and it then fired at the Ukrainian planes. However, the missile failed to bring down the Ukrainian fighters, and the SU-35 was forced to retreat. In addition, Kyiv’s forces also successfully intercepted a missile going to the Black Sea port.
During those times, Russian positions were also coming under attack from Ukrainian rockets and aircrafts. If true, the Ukraine just achieved a successful intercept. But the U.S. think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that for the first time in 133 days, the Russians were not gloating. Missing was the reports of territorial gain made by Russian forces, indicating that they were on operational pause for some reasons.
Whether or not that claim was real, what is true here is the mounting cost and difficulties Russia is facing in its attempt to take Ukraine. Going back to the pause made by the Russians, it could be an indication that those were the result of those expensive victories. Yes, Russia was able to take territories, but what cost? The messy operation initiated by Russia not only leveled Ukrainian cities, but also inflicted casualties on their side. Soldiers get killed, generals were lost and equipment were destroyed, all for small territories gained. With those pyrrhic victories, Russia may slow down its advances, or even take operational breaks to recover and regroup.
Then, there is the question of they could hold those territories they took. What if Ukraine mounted a counter offensive?
Nevertheless, that claim made by Ukraine of a Russian SU-35 turning back is the Russian invasion in a nutshell. That Russia is misusing its advanced hardware.
1. Williams, Mel, ed. (2002). "Sukhoi 'Super Flankers'". Superfighters: The Next Generation of Combat Aircraft. Norwalk, Connecticut: AIRtime Publishing.
2. Mizokami, Ukrayinska (07 April, 2022). "Ukraine Shot Down One of Russia’s Most Advanced Fighter Jets". Popular Mechanics.
3. Pravda, Kylw (09 May, 2022). "Legendary pilot dies in Ukrainian skies". Yahoo news.
4. Cole, Brendan (07 July, 2022). "Russian Su-35 Jet Retreats From Dogfight With Ukraine Aircraft, Kyiv Says". Newsweek.