Ukraine proves it can target the Russian air force's weakest link

  • Ukraine showed its drones can strike advanced aircraft at air bases inside Russia.

  • Ukraine appears to be systematically attacking airbases with drones.

  • Cheap drones may be one way to strike back at the Russian jets pummeling Ukraine with glide bombs.

A recent Ukrainian drone strike appears to have damaged one, possibly two, of Russia's rare stealth fighters in an airbase deep inside Russia, highlighting a problem for the Russian Air Force.

No matter how many aircraft it has, those planes have to be parked somewhere. And even hundreds of miles inside Russia, those airbases can be attacked by cheap drones.

"Kyiv appears to be pursuing a clear strategy to force the VKS to either vacate its bases within several hundred miles of Ukraine's borders or dedicate an inordinate quantity of air defense systems to defending them," wrote Justin Bronk, an airpower expert, in an essay for the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Where to base combat aircraft is always a dilemma. The closer they are to the front line, the more ordnance they can carry rather than fuel, and less time is wasted flying back and forth from base to battlefield. But this exposes them to rocket and drone attack, as Ukraine demonstrated in 2022 and 2023 with strikes against Russian jets and helicopters on the ground, many of which were parked on airfields that were close to the Ukrainian border, though others were deeper inside Russia.

But these were pinprick attacks designed to embarrass the Kremlin and demonstrate that nowhere in Russia is safe from Ukrainian attack. Now, Ukraine appears to be systematically attacking airbases with drones, much as it used long-range American-made HIMARS guided rockets in 2022 to dismantle Russian logistic and command networks.

Details are murky about what exactly happened to the Su-57 (NATO code name: "Felon") stealth fighters parked at the Akhtubinsk airbase in southern Russia, near the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and about 370 miles from Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian intelligence released images earlier this month that appeared to show a Su-57 —parked in the open — that was allegedly damaged by long-range Ukrainian drones, and a top official claimed a second may have been damaged in the same attack.

"It is unclear how much damage the Su-57 in question has sustained," Bronk noted. "The satellite photo appears to suggest that two relatively small explosions occurred within around 3–5 meters [10 to 16 feet] of the aircraft, which was parked on an outdoor concrete hardstand."

The aircraft didn't appear to catch on fire, suggesting the damage wasn't catastrophic, perhaps to be expected from small drones with small warheads. On the other hand, the plane did appear to have suffered damage to its nose and tail, which is no small matter for fragile high-performance aircraft.

"Shrapnel damage to the rear section might be relatively easy to repair with an engine change and replacement horizontal and vertical stabilizers, but shrapnel damage of any significance to the nose section would be much more serious," wrote Bronk. "It would likely cause damage to the radar array(s), Infra-Red Scan and Track sensor, and cockpit, as well as instruments and electronic systems critical to the functioning of the whole aircraft."

One interesting question is why the drones weren't neutralized by Russia's massive jamming capability, which has neutralized many GPS-guided rockets and glide bombs supplied by the West, and disabled numerous Ukrainian radio-controlled drones. Leveraging the Soviet Union's vast investment in electronic warfare, Russia has used mobile and fixed jammers to saturate the airwaves up and down the 600-mile-long front line. The Akhtubinsk attack suggests that Russian electronic warfare capacity has sufficient breadth to cover the front, but not depth to protect the Russian interior.

In itself, the recent Ukrainian strike was no more than a symbolic blow against a symbolic foe. Russia has perhaps a dozen Su-57s, which is Moscow's answer to the US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. Much like Russia's vaunted T-14 Armata, the Su-57 has been conspicuous by its absence from the Ukraine war. This probably reflects fear of embarrassment from losing an advanced weapon — and perhaps a lack of confidence that the capabilities of these weapons won't match the rhetoric.

What has been hurting Ukraine over the last six months are massive numbers of glide bombs dropped by older Su-34 and Su-35 jets. Stealth fighters aren't needed for Russia's un-stealthy strategy: obliterate Ukrainian defenses with glide bombs, then send in poorly trained convict-infantry to mop up. It's a crude, costly approach that nonetheless has enabled Russia to capture some small chunks of territory.

Even with American-made F-16 fighters arriving soon, Ukraine's air force probably can't drive off Russian jets lobbing glide bombs from 50 miles behind Russian lines, safe behind ground-based air defenses. Cheap one-way attack drones may be the next best thing.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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