The Ukrainian air forces have armed their Sukhoi Su-24M bombers with British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles. A photo posted online on Friday shows one of the variable-wing supersonic bombers holding a pair of 1.5-tonne subsonic Storm Shadows under its wing bases.
An earlier photo had confirmed that Ukraine’s Su-24MR reconnaissance planes were carrying Storm Shadows. We now know that the two Su-24 variants in service in Ukraine have been modified to fire the stealthy 155-mile-range missile.
The question is: how many two-crew Su-24s does Ukraine have left? The answer could indicate the magnitude of the new deep attack capability of the Ukrainian air forces.
The number of Storm Shadows the Ukrainians can fire at Russian logistics targets depends not only on the number of missiles supplied by the UK but also on the number of active Su-24 aircraft in the only Ukrainian unit that flies such aircraft: the 7th Bomber Regiment from the Starokostiantyniv airbase in western Ukraine.
The Ukrainian air forces entered the war with 125 fighter jets, mostly Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters, and some two dozen Su-24M and Su-24MR.
In 15 months of heavy fighting, the Russians shot down 16 Ukrainian Su-24s, which independent analysts can confirm and destroyed a 17th bomber on the ground. Without a source of fresh airframes, the 7th Bomber Regiment would no longer be able to sustain daily combat sorties.
Patrick Roegies and Paul Gross of Aviation Photography counted a total of 25 Ukrainian Su-24s in service in 2015. Also, they counted nine or 17 near-airworthy Su-24s at Starokostiantyniv, plus some 30 additional bombers “stored in relatively good condition”.
They did not count the dozens of abandoned Su-24 airframes lying in open warehouses at bases across Ukraine, notably the Bila Tserkva aircraft graveyard near Kyiv.
In 1991, the Ukrainian air force inherited from the disintegrated Soviet air force no fewer than 200 Su-24s. Most of the bombers ended up in storage in the open. Probably none of these airframes is of any value except as a source of simple airframe components that the active bomber force could use as spare parts.
In short, the air forces had as many as 47 Su-24s at their disposal, which, with some effort, could be brought back into active status to make up for the losses of the 7th Bomber Regiment. Subtract the 17 aircraft that we know for sure the regiment has lost and add the eight or so pre-war Sukhois that remain. In theory, the 7th Bomber Regiment could operate up to 55 Su-24s.
In reality, the number is probably much, much lower. Not only is Ukraine likely to have lost more Su-24s to Russian missiles than analysts have confirmed with photos and video, but many of the Su-24s in storage are likely too dilapidated ever to fly again.
But tellingly, when the UK pledged to contribute Storm Shadows to the Ukrainian war effort in February, British and Ukrainian planners turned to the Su-24 force to transport the high-tech GPS-guided missiles.
They surely would not have assigned Ukraine’s only in-depth air strike mission to the 7th Bomber Regiment if it did not have enough airworthy Sukhois to fly daily sorties.