David Axe


August 10, 2022

The Ukrainian attack on a Russian airfield in occupied Crimea on Tuesday apparently destroyed a lot of aircraft. It easily was the biggest single-day loss for Russian air power since Russia widened its war on Ukraine in late February. And it could shape Russian air operations moving forward.

The daylight attack, which triggered 10 or more explosions at Saki air base, home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment, burned to the ground as many as eight Su-27 fighters, four Su-30 fighter-bombers, five Su-24 bombers, six Mi-8 helicopters and a unique Il-20 telemetry aircraft, according to a Russian source.

A video from the tarmac in the hours following the attack depicts one destroyed Su-24. Commercial satellite imagery from Wednesday seems to confirm eight Su-24 losses plus five Su-27/30 losses. The Ukrainian defense ministry for its part claimed its destroyed nine Russian planes on Tuesday.

It’s likely none of these sources is comprehensive. Combining them, it’s possible the Russian navy wrote off as few as nine aircraft and as many as 27. It’s possible, even likely, the 43rd Regiment now is ineffective. The Black Sea Fleet will need to rebuild the unit.

We still don’t know exactly how the Ukrainians struck Saki, which lies 120 miles from the front line in southern Ukraine. Craters that are visible in satellite imagery point to ballistic missiles. It’s also possible the Ukrainians fired Neptune cruise missiles at the base or attacked with explosives-laden “suicide” drones. Officials in Kyiv were coy, saying only that the weapons that wrecked the Russian airfield were “exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture.”

After Tuesday’s strike, the Ukrainians have had much more success destroying Russian aircraft on the ground than the Russians have had striking Ukrainian aircraft. In the early hours of the wider war on Feb. 23, Russian rockets and missiles pummeled Ukrainian air bases. But Ukrainian commanders dispersed their planes and helicopters prior to the attacks–a practice they continued as the war ground on.

In five months of bitter fighting, the Russians have destroyed just three active Ukrainian aircraft at their bases–an Su-24, a MiG-29 fighter and an Il-76 airlifter. Most of the manned aircraft Ukraine has lost–47 planes and helicopters that outside analysts can confirm–were shot down by Russian air-defenses.

Most of Russia’s 85 confirmed manned aircraft losses–not counting Tuesday’s losses–also have been in the air. But between the Saki raid and a February missile strike on Millerovo air base in

Russia near the Ukrainian border, the Russians have lost potentially dozens of aircraft on the ground.

That Ukraine so easily can destroy Russian aircraft at their bases while Russia struggles to return the favor speaks volumes about the discipline of Ukrainian squadrons and the lack of discipline on the Russian side. The Ukrainian air force and navy move their planes, helicopters and TB-2 drones constantly–often counting on intelligence the Americans provide to plan their moves.

The Russian air force and navy despite their losses continue to park their aircraft in the same revetments at the same airfields, day after day. It’s an open question whether the Saki raid will change any minds in the Kremlin.

In the hours following the air base attack, thousands of Russian tourists who had been enjoying Crimea’s beaches packed into their cars and fled the peninsula, causing a days-long traffic jam along the bridge to Russia. It’s unclear whether that Black Sea Fleet’s air arm will follow the civilians out of Crimea.

It’s increasingly clear that Ukraine possesses the means–and the will–to strike any Russian facility within range of its expanding arsenal of deep-strike weapons, including cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones. Add in the danger from Ukrainian partisans and special operations forces and the Russian position appears even more perilous.

Russian squadrons would need to be hundreds of miles from Ukrainian territory in order to be reasonably safe from attack. While Russia isn’t hurting for air base infrastructure in this zone of relative safety, the added distance would weigh on the Kremlin’s air operations over Ukraine.

The farther a bomber has to fly to reach the front, the less time it can spend at the front–and the fewer sorties that single plane can fly in a day. By blasting a Russian airfield, the Ukrainians not only took out a significant number of Russia’s aircraft–it could make the surviving aircraft less effective.