In the past few weeks, Ukraine’s allies have finally agreed to give it tanks like those used by NATO. Now that the tanks are on their way, Kyiv has turned its attention to what it says is its next most important need: new fighter jets.
When Ukrainian officials ask for extra F-16s from the U.S., Europe, or even ex-French Mirages, it makes you wonder how important the request is.
Analysts from outside Russia have confirmed that in the first 11 months of Russia’s wider war against Ukraine, at least 52 Ukrainian fighters and attack planes were shot down. But how many tactical planes did the Ukrainians have to start with, and how many broken planes have they made flyable again to make up for losses in battle?
People outside of Kyiv don’t know for sure, but they can guess. But the Sukhoi Su-27 is hard to count because it has so many different parts.
The Ukrainian air force seems to have gone into this war with about 50 Mikoyan MiG-29s. So far, at least 16 of them have been sent home. At least 16 of these supersonic light fighters have been taken out of service, but it looks like at least as many MiGs as it has lost have been found or bought abroad.
A year ago, the air force had about two dozen Sukhoi Su-24 supersonic bombers and reconnaissance plans. The Russians have destroyed at least 13 Ukrainian Su-24s, but there were so many old Su-24s in storage, maybe even dozens, that engineers in Kyiv have had no trouble replacing the lost airframes.
Before the war, Ukraine had about thirty Sukhoi Su-25s in its fleet. Since February 2022, 15 people have died. The losses from the war were more than made up for by the 18 Su-25s from NATO countries.
Before the Russian attack, it looked like the Ukrainians had about 105 MiG-29s, Su-24s, and Su-25s. A year later, they still have about 105 of these types.
Only the Su-27 supersonic interceptors, which are a big fleet of fighters, are left. Heavy warplanes may be the hardest to count, and there’s a good reason for that. The Su-27 could be the most useful fighter for Ukraine because it is fast, maneuverable, and versatile.
They go on high-risk bombing missions and fire anti-radar missiles made in the US at Russian air defenses. They also patrol for Russian plans.
The Russians want the Su-27 to be destroyed. The Ukrainians want them to stay. Because Ukraine’s allies don’t have any Su-27s, each one is very valuable. There is no easy way to get replacement airframes from somewhere else.
How many Su-27s the Ukrainian air force had before the war is a hotly contested topic. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine got 74 new Su-27s. After 23 years, only 24 were still in the service. In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Kyiv grew its Su-27 fleet.
There could have been as many as 30 airframes that couldn’t be used. And at least one analyst counted 57 Ukrainian Su-27s with “bort” numbers on their sides in 2016. If all 57 could fly, it would mean that Kyiv had fixed up every single plane that could be fixed.
In the last 11 months, the Ukrainian air force has lost at least seven Su-27s and at least five pilots. One of the first losses for the Ukrainian people was also the worst.
On February 25, a Su-27 blew up over Kyiv while it was on patrol. They may have used a long-range surface-to-air missile to shoot it down. It’s also possible that the air defense in Ukraine thought it was a Russian plane.
In any case, Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko was killed in the shootdown. He was a famous airshow pilot. If he was flying his usual plane, the Bort 58, then Ukraine also lost what was probably its most famous individual warplane.
In theory, the Ukrainians still have up to 50 Su-27s, but it’s getting harder to know how big their fleet is. The best way to find a specific Su-27 is to look at its bort number and camouflage pattern together. Air forces know this and have started painting over the bort numbers.
Sometimes, we can still see individual Su-27s, like the Bort 23 and Bort 24, in official photos or smartphone videos are taken from the front.
During a training flight, the pilot of the 24 flew so low that he hit a traffic light. On the first day of this war, when Russian missiles hit his airstrip while he was on patrol, the 23rd’s pilot had no choice but to make an unplanned stop in Romania.
There is no way to know for sure how many Ukrainian Su-27s there are. If Kyiv has tried everything, 50 of these strong fighters might still be able to fly.
But for every Su-27 Ukraine loses, it can’t get another one. And that might be why getting new fighters is now Kyiv’s top priority when it comes to weapons. At the end of the day, there’s no reason to think that the war will end soon.