A Russian Su-34 Fullback fighter jet was shot down on March 3 in the Donbas region in east Ukraine. While both sides agree that the Fullback was shot down, there is a dispute on how exactly the aircraft went down.
The images and videos of the Russian strike aircraft crashing to the ground have been doing the rounds on social media. An air defense missile shot down the fighter.
Ukraine has claimed it shot down the Fullback, whereas OSINT experts suggest the aircraft was shot down by Russian friendly fire.
“On March 3, 2023, in the Yenakiieve (Yenakiyevo) region, around 1:30 p.m., anti-aircraft gunners of the Nikopol anti-aircraft missile regiment of the “East” air command destroyed a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber,” said the Ukrainian Air Force on its Telegram channel.
“One of the pilots died, and the second is preparing to keep him company. It’s been a long time since the anti-aircraft fighters of the Air Force were pleased with such a shot-down target!”
Also, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Colonel Yuri Ignat said a Ukrainian S-300 air defense system shot down the Russian fighter.
However, an OSINT Twitter handle called ‘Ukraine Weapons Tracker’ that tracks the war in Ukraine stated that as per “preliminary information, the jet was shot down in a friendly fire incident.”
The Russian Defense Ministry is yet to comment on the incident. However, the Rybar Telegram channel reported that both pilots survived and suggested that based on the location of the incident, the fighter may have been shot down by friendly fire from Russian air defense crews.
“Yenakiyevo is located in the rear, and the nearest possible positions of Ukrainian air defense systems are at least 35 km away,” Rybar wrote. “Therefore, with considerable probability, the board became another victim of the ‘friendly fire’ of the Russian air defense.”
However, later Rybar suggested that the cause of the crash could have been a “piloting error” as well.
The S-300 system can fire various types of interceptor missiles, but the primary type available to Ukraine is the 5V55R missile, which is equipped with a semi-active radar homing terminal guidance and has a stated maximum range of around 90 kilometers with the capability to hit targets at high altitudes.
Considering Rybar’s observation that the nearest possible positions of Ukrainian air defense systems are at least 35 kilometers away, and assuming it is an S-300 system, the Fullback may have been shot down by Ukrainian forces.
There is also a video of the aftermath of the crash, which is doing the rounds on social media, showing the Russian warplane’s debris in the field.
Su-34 Fullback: A PR Disaster For Russia?
Irrespective of the exact cause behind the crash of the Fullback, it is a big PR win for Ukraine as the Su-34 is one of Russia’s most advanced fighter bombers.
However, the biggest PR victory for the Ukrainians, also against a Fullback, was achieved in March 2022 when a Ukrainian citizen from Chernihiv named Valeriy Fedorovych reportedly brought down a Russian Su-34 fighter using a ‘rifle.’
Fedorovych was awarded a medal for his act and branded a “hero” by the Ukrainian armed forces in August 2022.
A video purportedly shows the moment when Fedorovych successfully hit the Su-34 jet, and the aircraft starts descending with smoke emerging from it. Cheering and clapping can be heard in the background as the plane plunges.
The latest crash brings the total number of documented losses of the Russian Su-34 fleet up to 20, according to the figures compiled by the military tracking blog Oryx based on visual confirmations.
According to Oryx, this is only second to the losses suffered by the Russian Su-25 fleet, whose casualties are around 28.
Most of the Su-34 losses can be attributed to low-flying tactics employed by the fighter. While the Fullback is highly equipped to conduct precision air-to-surface strikes from stand-off ranges, the aircraft has been employed for old-fashioned seek-and-destroy missions.
The severe depletion of precision-guided munitions has prompted the Russian military to rely heavily on unguided bombs. The Russian fighters must fly low to deliver these, making them vulnerable to the MANPADS.
Furthermore, there have also been reports of Su-34 Pilots using rudimentary GPS equipment for navigation.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace claimed in May that downed Russian Su-34 was found with primary GPS receivers taped to the dashboards, suggesting the poor quality of their in-built navigation systems.
There is also evidence from the past that substantiates Secretary Wallace’s assertion. The images of the Su-34’s cockpit during combat operations in Syria, allegedly taken in 2016, show a US-made civilian GPS receiver, the Garmin eTrex Venture HC, taped to the dashboard.