Former US Navy Operations Specialist explains why Russian Air Force pilots have the capability to defeat Ukrainian air defenses but they’re not good at it

Former US Navy Operations Specialist explains why Russian Air Force pilots have the capability to defeat Ukrainian air defenses but they’re not good at it

By Dario Leone
May 7 2022
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In April an Su-35 was shot down by an Air Defense missile while on a SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) mission.

As already reported, a sample of the highly advanced and capable Russian Air-Space Force Sukhoi Su-35 (NATO reporting name: Flanker-E) was shot down by Ukrainian defense forces on Apr. 3, 2022.

Photos showing the burning wreckage of the downed aircraft went viral on the internet.

Most probably the Su-35 was shot down while performing a SEAD mission against Ukrainian air defenses.

At this point one may ask if the Russian Air-Space Force (RuASF or VKS) has the capability to defeat the surface to air missile (SAM) systems deployed by Ukraine during the conflict.

‘Yes, they do, but the problem for Russia is they’re not very good at it,’ Eric Wicklund, Former Operations Specialist at United States Navy (USN) (1984–1992), explains on Quora.

‘Just recently an Su-35 was shot down by an Air Defense missile while on a SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) mission. It still had a ARM missile (Anti-Radiation Missile) under the wings, that it obviously hadn’t fired.

‘This wasn’t really the best pick of an aircraft to send on a SEAD mission. The Su-35 “can” do this, but it isn’t specifically designed for it. It’s really an air superiority fighter. Below is a Kh-31 Krypton missile, specifically designed for attacking air defense sites. Probably the missile the above Su-35 carried.

Kh-31 missile

‘Not many countries outside the USA and Israel are any good at this. It is extremely dangerous work, even if you have ARMs, even if you have trained hard for it. It’s probably the very best use for the F-35 which can get in much closer than other aircraft before being fired upon. The Russian Su-35 was probably picked up by radar before it could fire.

‘The problem for Russia when it comes to SEAD missions isn’t so much the hardware, it’s the amount of training the pilots get. Estimates are that Russian pilots fly just under 100 hours per year. That’s not enough to stay proficient at BFM, and certainly not enough for specialized missions. By comparison, American pilots fly up to 240 hours per year. So, it isn’t the fault of Russia’s planes, nor it’s pilots for that matter, that they struggle up against their own S-300. SEAD simply hasn’t been the focus of Russia.’

Wicklund concludes;

‘Additionally, the US has purpose built aircraft for flying SEAD missions like this one, the EA-18G Growler. You’re going to be better at a mission when you specifically build a platform for it. Russia doesn’t have one.

VAQ-130 EA-18G Print

‘Additionally, some American squadrons specialize in the SEAD mission. This is what they train at most, so naturally, they will be better at it than other units. Russia doesn’t do this. They aren’t built that way, and that is why they will struggle. It isn’t easy even for experts.’

Photo credit: Reuters and Panther (МАКС-2003) via Wikipedia

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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