The Ukrainian Air Force Parked Six Su-27 Fighters In The Open 100 Miles From The Front Line. A Russian Missile Destroyed Two Of Them.

In 2019, a Russian surveillance drone infiltrated Ukrainian airspace and flew to the Mirgorod airbase, located approximately 100 miles from the northern border with Russia. At this base, the drone spotted six Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-27 supersonic fighters parked in the open, leading to a Russian Iskander missile attack that destroyed two of the Su-27s and damaged the remaining four. This incident resulted in significant losses for the Ukrainian air force, marking one of the costliest single days since the expansion of Russia’s war on Ukraine in February 2022.

Following the attack, Ukrainian bloggers accused air force officers of recklessly ordering the Su-27 crews to park their jets in an exposed location. The Mirgorod airbase raid was not an isolated incident; Russian Lancet drones had previously struck at least four Ukrainian jets at the Dolgintsevo airbase, near Kryvyi Rih, over the past few months.

The first two strikes, in the fall of 2021, took the Ukrainian air force by surprise, destroying a pair of Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters. A third strike in November appeared to target a decoy Sukhoi Su-25 attack jet, but a fourth drone raid later hit a flyable Su-25. The two Su-27s destroyed at Mirgorod bring the total number of Ukrainian warplanes destroyed on the ground by the Russians in the last nine months to at least five. These losses are particularly significant for the Ukrainian air force, which started the conflict with around 125 Su-27s, Su-25s, MiG-29s, and other jets.

In the 28 months of fighting since February 2022, the Ukrainians have lost around 90 jets, according to analysts at Oryx. To replenish their losses, the Ukrainians have acquired or restored numerous replacement MiGs and Sukhois from their allies or from long-term storage. These aircraft are expected to keep the air force operational until the delivery of ex-European fighters, such as 85 Lockheed Martin F-16s and perhaps a dozen Dassault Mirage 2000s.

However, these F-16s and Mirages would also be vulnerable to Russian drone and missile strikes, as long as they remain parked in the open during daylight hours. To protect their planes, Ukrainian commanders could take several measures, such as pulling operational jets away from bases close to the front line, utilizing the country’s numerous large air bases, smaller airfields, and highway airstrips, and maintaining unpredictability by not taking off from or landing at the same airfield. Additionally, the air force could construct reinforced shelters to protect parked jets and deploy more decoys.

Despite these precautions, the Ukrainians must act quickly to counter the ongoing Russian attacks, as “systemic negligence may get us all six feet under in this war,” according to Ukrainian journalist and author Illia Ponomarenko. It is also concerning that Russian jets are equally vulnerable at their own bases near Ukraine, but U.S. policy may prohibit the Ukrainians from striking those jets with American-made weapons.

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