A Ukrainian Drone Strike May Have Destroyed A Russian Stealth Fighter

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The Ukrainian intelligence directorate claimed one of its drones badly damaged, if not destroyed, a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter at Akhtubinsk airfield, in southern Russia 365 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border.

If true, it’s a startling blow to Russian air power. The Russian air force has acquired just two dozen or so copies of the twin-engine, supersonic Su-57—Russia’s answer to America’s Lockheed Martin F-22 stealth fighter.

The Su-57s are unproven—and have never actually flown in combat. If Ukraine really did destroy an Su-57 during the Saturday drone raid, it’s not only humiliating for the Russians—it could be a harbinger of more humiliations to come.

That the Ukrainians may have hit a stealth fighter nearly 400 miles from the front line of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine strongly implies that Russia’s air defenses are spread so thin by Ukraine’s escalating drone campaign that they can’t protect all of the Kremlin’s most valuable assets.

It’s worth noting that, around the same time a Ukrainian drone was purportedly barreling toward that parked Su-57, a different Ukrainian drone was taking aim at a Russian air force Tupolev Tu-22M bomber at Mozdok air base, in southern Russia 450 miles from the front line.

It’s difficult to confirm the Ukrainian intelligence directorate’s claim that it hit a stealth fighter. Yes, the agency offered up what it insisted were before and after satellite images of the strike. “The pictures show that on June 7th, the Su-57 was standing intact,” the directorate stated, “and on the 8th, there were ruptures from the explosion and characteristic spots of fire caused by fire damage near it.”

The imagery is grainy, however—and could be doctored. Bear in mind that officials in Kyiv routinely exaggerate the damage Ukrainian forces inflict on the Russian air force. The Ukrainian defense ministry claims it has destroyed more than 350 Russian aircraft in the 28 months of the wider war, but independent analysts have verified just 80 or so wrecked planes.

The best reason to believe the Ukrainian agency’s claim might be that Russia’s unofficial Fighterbomber channel on Telegram admitted there was shrapnel damage to an Su-57.

If the Ukrainians aren’t lying or exaggerating and they really did plink an Su-57, the loss would represent only the second stealth warplane any country has lost in combat in the four decades since the U.S. Air Force deployed the very first stealth plane—the Lockheed Martin F-117.

In 1999, an enterprising Serbian air-defense battery anticipated an F-117’s flight path and shot down the jet as it was flying a mission in support of NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo war. The F-117’s pilot ejected.

If the Ukrainians didn’t hit an Su-57 this weekend, they might get their chance in the near future. Ukraine is building new long-range strike drones faster than Russia can field additional air-defense systems to protect the growing list of targets the drones can hold at risk.

With too few radars and surface-to-air missile batteries to defend every headquarters, factory, oil refinery and air base, the Russians have to make hard choices. Ukrainian drone attacks “force a Russian reassessment of their air-defense resources,” noted Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army general.

It’s possible this reassessment left that Su-57 unprotected just long enough for an explosive drone to strike. And it’s possible additional stealth fighters, as well as other expensive weapons, are also exposed.

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