‘4 vs 24’ – Ukrainian Su-27 Pilot Narrates Harrowing Two-Year Air War with Russian Air Force  

Ukrainian Su-27
Main image shows a Ukrainian Air Force Su-27P Flanker in July 2018. (Image credit: Wikimedia commons). In the box, a screenshot of the illustrative video showing four Ukrainian Su-27s against 24 Russian fighters. (Image credit: United24 on YouTube)

A Ukrainian Air Force Flanker pilot recalls some of his missions against the Russian Air Force during the air war in Ukraine.

A young Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-27 pilot, fighting since the beginning of the war, has shared nail-biting instances of aerial combat and survival before a vastly superior RuAF (Russian Aerospace Forces), where the harrowing ordeals continue to this day.

Callsign “Saber” has narrated instances of Ukrainian tactical ingenuity and victories that have failed to spell the creeping Russian encroachment, before dwindling fighters in the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF). The news documentary quotes a Pentagon report that puts Ukraine’s current fleet at only “56 operational” operational combat aircraft.

Featured in a nine minute-long interview by United24 Saber describes successful Ukrainian victories in the air as well the ground – both shooting down Russian fighters and terrifying moments of being shot at by them.

Needless to say, these claims need to be taken with a grain of salt as they are part of a video by the Ukrainian government-run platform launched on May 5, 2022, to raise money for Ukraine following the Russian invasion. The interview includes footage that has nothing to do with the air war over Ukraine; some of the claims may have been exaggerated to support Kyiv’s cause and some of the accounts somewhat fictionalized to emphasize the pilot’s heroism and boost morale as happened in the past. However, while we can’t verify most of the details mentioned by Saber, his narration gives some interesting insights into the Ukrainian and Russian tactics and broader military thinking that has guided Moscow’s military campaign.

‘Cornered & Overwhelmed by Russian Jets’

Saber’s account comes just before the imminent arrival of the F-16s, where approximately 26 of the 85 jets promised by allies will be delivered. The report captures how, despite Russia’s overall “air dominance” which it will continue to “maintain,” Ukrainian pilots have managed to “hold the sky for two years” before excruciating odds. They have successfully ensured that the RuAF (Russian Aerospace Forces) “(do not fly) over the non-occupied territories.”

“I still remember when two of our planes confronted 13 Russian planes in the air and there were instances when it was four against 24. Yet we still engaged in air battles to prevent them from completing their missions,” Saber said. Continuing to fight the enemy despite being outnumbered also serves to keep the latter engaged, preventing him from smoothly executing the missions, even if he is not destroyed.

There were “moments” when, after Ukrainian fighters “maneuvered and dodged” a “missile”, they would hear the Russians say on the radio “oh a nimble one” – meaning they could not shoot him down. Initially, the Russians didn’t even have particular tactics, as they would just “turn” on the “jammers” and both sides “couldn’t see anything.” It was “pure chaos that probably saved” the Ukrainians, Saber adds.

Su-27 AASM
Ukrainian Su-27 drops an AASM bomb (Image composed using screenshot by WarbirdCrew Telegram Channel)


Both Air Forces Refined Tactics, Learnt on the Move

Later in the war, both Russian and Ukrainian pilots refined their game and learnt on the move, finalizing their respective tactics. RuAF pilots were observed to have successfully destroyed many Ukrainian AD (Air Defense) radars and fighter-bombers like the Su-24 by pairing the Su-35S and the Su-30SM in sync.

Likewise, UAF pilots too flew dangerous and “aggressive” low-level flying tactics, according to a Nov. 7, 2022 report by RUSI (Royal United Services Institute). The Ukrainians flew very close to the ground to mask themselves in the ground clutter, but later climbed, sneaked up on Russian fighters, and fired their missiles to score several victories. “Big mistakes” by the Russians initially “saved” a lot of Ukrainian lives, Saber commented.

Ukrainian Su-27
Ukrainian Su-27 prepares for take off from Bacau on Mar. 1, 2022. (Image credit: Lt. Madelina Burlacu)

In “two years,” the Ukrainian general staff recorded “over 350 Russian aircraft shot down” despite “using outdated equipment.” “The enemy can see us first and launch a missile from a distance several times greater. Russians also have an advantage in terms of modern air defense systems. Their air defense is quite layered and its really abundant everywhere S-400, S-300. We’re gradually destroying them but the quantity is still very large,” Saber added.

Russia’s massive stock of weapons – itself fuelled by a largely intact defense industry – was also touched upon an earlier report in The Aviationist, which featured the use of the AIM-9X Sidewinder AAM (Air-to-Air Missile) from the NASAMS (National/Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System).

That report too was based on a United24 news feature that itself noted how Moscow can afford to lose their AD systems or jets since their military factories can keep producing them. Ukraine however is entirely dependent upon Western military aid, with its own industry completely destroyed.

Russian Strategy – Keep Ukrainian Pilots Busy?

Meanwhile, the “fight” against “enemy aircraft and air defense systems is only (one) part,” as Ukrainian Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters also have to shoot down Russian “reconnaissance-strike drones,” and “missile strikes.” One pilot “intercepts specific air targets” but “also works against cruise missiles.” Saber recalled a video showing a cruise missile flying over Odessa that was shot down by an air-to-air missile (AAM).

But a particular feature of fighting against the Russians has been flying “endless marathons” of executing one mission after the other upon orders even just after landing at base and assuming the day’s action is over. Sometimes we’ll land at an Airfield and we’re told quickly to refuel (and take off) because missiles are coming.”

“We move to another airfield then fly from the second to a third airfield, (not always ending up) where we planned,” Saber said. Last week, he “changed three airfields in one day.” This hints a Russian strategy where after being aware of an airbase UkrAF planes would land at following a sortie, Russia undertakes standoff missile strikes at the airfields, tiring out its pilots and allowing them little respite.

Saber added how Russian pilots led in tactics and strategy that stunned the West, but were marred by poor planning and “overconfidence.” “Some tactics and maneuvers used by the Russians were puzzling for both NATO and us. (We) couldn’t understand their purpose. Their (Russian) training is quite high and they fly intensively. They could have completely destroyed Ukraine’s aviation and taken out our air defense but they failed due to incompetence, lack of proper planning and overconfidence.”

Screengrab of the illustrative video showing four Ukrainian Su-27s against 24 Russian fighters. (Image credit: United24 on YouTube)
About Parth Satam
Parth Satam's career spans a decade and a half between two dailies and two defense publications. He believes war, as a human activity, has causes and results that go far beyond which missile and jet flies the fastest. He therefore loves analyzing military affairs at their intersection with foreign policy, economics, technology, society and history. The body of his work spans the entire breadth from defense aerospace, tactics, military doctrine and theory, personnel issues, West Asian, Eurasian affairs, the energy sector and Space.