David Axe Forbes Staff
I write about ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles and satellites.Follow
Nov 1, 2022, 08:42pm EDT
For supporters of Ukraine’s war-weary air force, it was a beautiful sight: four of the air force’s swing-wing Su-24 bombers flying in formation over Ukraine on or around Oct. 30.
It was the biggest formation of the two-seat, supersonic bombers that anyone had seen in Ukraine in many years—and certainly the biggest to appear over Ukraine since Russia widened its war on the country starting in late February.
What’s amazing about the sighting is that Ukraine has lost more of the four-decade-old Su-24s to Russian air-defenses and bombardment than it may have had in its inventory before the war. The October four-ship is yet more evidence that Kyiv’s technicians are working hard to restore to flightworthiness many, or all, of the bombers Ukraine had in storage.
To recap: the Ukrainian air force went to war with around 125 combat aircraft, mostly MiG-29 fighters but also including between a dozen and 16 Su-24s, all belonging to the 7th Bomber Regiment at Starokostiantyniv air base in western Ukraine.
The higher estimate comes from Patrick Roegies, Paul Gross and Hans Looijmans, writing for Aviation Photography Digest back in 2015, the second year of Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and eastern Donbas region.
The Russians have shot down 11 Ukrainian Su-24s that independent analysts can confirm and also destroyed a 12th bomber on the ground. Without a source of fresh airframes, the 7th Bomber Regiment by now would be incapable of sustaining combat sorties.
But Roegies, Gross and Looijmans in their reporting also counted another nine or 17 nearly-airworthy Su-24s at Starokostiantyniv plus around 30 additional bombers “stored in relatively good condition.” They did not count scores of derelict Su-24 airframes in open storage at bases across Ukraine, in particular the aircraft boneyard in Bila Tserkva, near Kyiv.
In 1991, the Ukrainian air force inherited from the disintegrating Soviet air force no fewer than 200 Su-24s. Most of the bombers wound up in open storage. Probably none of these airframes have any value except as sources of simple airframe components that the active bomber force might use as spares.
The air force in short had as many as 63 Su-24s that, with some effort, it could bring to active status as of late February. Subtract the dozen it’s lost. That leaves 51 Su-24s.
That’s … a lot of bombers. Potentially more bombers than the air force has crews for, even after bringing retired pilots and co-pilots back into active service. The 7th Bomber Regiment has buried at least 14 of its crew, after all. And training new pilots is difficult as long as Ukraine’s air space remains even somewhat contested.
Still, the relative abundance of flyable bombers helps to explain why it’s still possible to glimpse as many as four of them in flight at the same time as late as October. It’s safe to assume that if four Su-24s are in the air, another eight or so are on the ground undergoing routine maintenance.
In other words, the 7th Bomber Regiment might have as nearly flightworthy Su-24s now as it did eight months ago. And if the loss rate of the last eight months continues, the 7th Bomber Regiment won’t run out of Su-24s until November 2025.Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Send me a secure tip.
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.