Ukraine Gains Historic Victory With First Ever Hit on Enemy Fifth Generation Fighter

The Ukrainian Armed Forces were on June 9 reported to have launched a successful long range strike on a Russian airbase in the Astrakhan region hosting a part of the country’s sole regiment of Su-57 fifth generation fighters, with satellite images indicating that this damaged to one of the aircraft. The extent of the damage, whether the Su-57 will again be flyable, and the possibility of disruption to operations by the remainder of the regiment, all remain uncertain. The attack is of considerable historic significance as the first military strike to ever damage a fifth generation fighter, with the Su-57 being one of four aircraft of its generation operational worldwide alongside the Chinese J-20 and the American F-22 and F-35. Su-57s have been deployed for operations in the Ukrainian theatre from early 2022, including to launch precision strikes, suppress enemy air defences and even to engage in air to air combat. This has made them by far the most throughly combat tested aircraft of their generation, but also exposed them to much greater risks than others.

The Russian Air Force fielded 22 Su-57 fighters at the beginning of 2024, with the expansion of deliveries of 12 aircraft in 2023 having more than doubled the size of the fleet. Further expansion of production is expected to result in the delivery of 20 more aircraft in 2024, completing the first regiment of two dozen aircraft and forming five-sixths of a second regiment at 20 strong. The expansion of Su-57 production limits the fallout for the program even if the aircraft targeted on the ground is confirmed as a loss, and the fact that was not destroyed while operational will minimise the reputational damage to the program and the Russian aviation industry caused by any loss. With U.S. and Chinese fifth generation fighters having far more limited capabilities to operate away from major airfields, and being more reliant on stealth coatings that require significant time on the ground to apply, the possibility of striking these aircraft and their bases has long been a focus for militaries which lack the ability to field fully peer level fighter fleets of their own. This has included not only Ukraine, but also Russia itself, as its Su-57 has entered service far more slowly than the American F-35 has across NATO member states, leading to a strong emphasis on the ability to strike airbases hosting F-35s across Europe and beyond.

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