The Russian air force lost another one of its best fighter planes over Ukraine on Tuesday. The shoot-down of what appears to be a Sukhoi Su-35 could be the result of a skillful, and lucky, long-range shot by a Ukrainian air-defense battery. It could also be yet another friendly-fire incident.
But it just might indicate that Ukrainian forces are closer than many analysts assume to Kherson, a southern port city that’s been under Russian control since early in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine—and which is the main focus of Ukraine’s so-far modest southern counteroffensive.
The Sukhoi was patrolling over Nova Kakhovka, 40 miles east of Russian-occupied Kherson on the southern bank of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine when it exploded on Tuesday evening.
Videos that circulated on social media depict the jet tumbling to the ground—and also depict the pilot, having ejected, slowly descending under his parachute.
It was the 36th fighter the Russian air force had lost over Ukraine, and the second or third Su-35, which is the latest single-seat version of the classic Su-27.
The Ukrainian air force quickly took credit for the kill. “Excellent work of the anti-aircraft missile forces,” the air force tweeted. “Ground air-defense of Ukraine ‘landed’ another fighter jet.”
By “ground air-defense,” the Ukrainian air force almost certainly is referring to its S-300PT/PS air-defense systems, dozens of batteries of which it and the Ukrainian army inherited from the Soviet Union on the latter’s dissolution in 1991.
Ukraine’s best S-300PS, which fights in batteries each with several wheeled launchers and associated command and radar vehicles, has a range of just 50 miles or so.
If it was an S-300PS that took down that Su-35, it might have done so at the edge of its range. It’s also possible the battery managed to creep to within comfortable firing distance of Nova Kakhova.
Nova Kakhovka is 50 miles east of the main territorial salient that, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, Ukrainian troops have carved out north of Kherson as they slowly advance toward that port city.
The months-old line of contact between Russian and Ukrainian forces along the Inhulets River is only slightly closer: 35 miles or so to the north of Nova Kakhovka.
Of course, an S-300 battery is too vulnerable, and too valuable, to set up at the line of contact. More likely, Ukrainian forces deploy their S-300s miles from known enemy positions.
That makes a kill over Nova Kakhovka even more impressive … or more telling. The Ukrainians had to detect the Su-35, perhaps using a 200-mile-range Tin Shield surveillance radar, then engage with—say—an 5V55R missile assisted by a Flap Lid tracking radar.
All of these systems have limitations. For that reason, an S-300PS/PT crew is happiest taking on targets closer than 50 miles away.
Maybe the S-300 crew in the Tuesday shoot-down was highly skilled and extremely lucky and scored its alleged kill from well inside established Ukrainian lines north of Kherson or to the east of the city along the Inhulets River.
Or maybe Ukrainian troops are closer to Kherson, or farther south of the Inhulets, than analysts currently believe.