Footage has surfaced online showing a pair of Sukhoi Su-24 strike aircraft bombing targets in a forest east of Davydiv Brid, a town in Kherson region in the south of Ukraine.  

According to the video, published by the 61st Jager Infantry Brigade of Ukrainian Ground Forces, the attack was performed by Ukrainian Air Force jets and destroyed at least one Russian tank in close proximity to Ukrainian troops.  

The attack was filmed from a drone, with two Su-24s coming in from the West. The aircraft release what appears to be eight parachute retarded bombs which explode in the forest. The video then cuts to another angle showing the tank burning under the trees.  

A risky mission  

If the description is true, the footage is one of the few instances of military aircraft providing close air support (CAS). Such missions typically involve airplanes or helicopters attacking targets near friendly troops and are considered extremely difficult and dangerous owing to the risk of friendly fire and the chance of being targeted by anti-aircraft weapons.  

Much of the footage of both Ukrainian and Russian aircraft filmed during the war so far shows aircraft launching unguided rockets after suddenly pitching up, a maneuver that extends the range of the weapon but greatly reduces its accuracy.  

Videos of combat aircraft performing regular bombing runs are extremely rare, a testament to the fact that the airspace above Ukraine is heavily contested and both sides have struggled to find a breach in its opponent’s air defenses. Most of this footage originates from the East of the country, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the Russian Air Force seems to be able to operate with slightly more ease.  

However, in the south the situation seems to be more intense. As Ukraine’s offensive towards Kherson started in late August, reports of Russian pilots encountering heavy resistance there began to emerge.  

As the first line of Russian defenses was broken on August 29, some Russian soldiers reported that they were frequently being targeted by Ukrainian aircraft.  

After the advance slowed down in early September, Russians seemed to have regained their footing. At least one video showed a Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bomber attacking Bilohirka, a contested village on the frontline, in a low-level bombing run. 

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Contested territory  

The forest that appears in the latest video is situated just over three kilometers (two miles) north of Bilohirka, in a territory which has seen heavy fighting since the beginning of the war.  

According to Liveuamap.com, Ukraine recaptured the forest in late May 2022, in one of the shaping attacks preceding the start of the Kherson offensive. However, the frontline has remained in the vicinity ever since, and surrounding settlements have changed hands several times since then.  

As of September 28, Davydiv Brid remains contested, and it is possible that the forest to its west was used by Russian forces to stage a counteroffensive against the Ukrainians.  

It is the northern part of a sizeable incision Ukrainian Armed Forces managed to carve East of the Inhulets river, one of several such areas meant to break through Russian lines.   

Cutting the incision from the rest of Ukrainian territory may have been the objective of the attack which was ostensibly thwarted by the bombing run.  

However, this assumption can only be made if we are certain that the aircraft were Ukrainian and did indeed bomb the Russian forces.  

Problems with identification  

The quality of the video is not good enough to ascertain whether the aircraft are Ukrainian or Russian.  

The Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer – a strike aircraft, combining the features of a fighter jet and a bomber – was introduced in the 1970s and widely used across the Soviet and post-Soviet space.  

Scores of these aircraft were operated by both the Ukrainian and Russian air force when the full-scale war broke out in February 2022.  

Among some of earliest images of the war were photos of Ukrainian Su-24s carpet-bombing the runway of Hostomel airport, which was used by the Russians to stage early attacks on Kyiv.  

Su-24 in Hostomel
Image: Rob Lee / Twitter 

Flight Global’s 2022 Air Forces index shows that Ukraine had 12 operational Su-24s at the end of 2021. According to Oryx blog, which counts visually confirmed equipment losses of the war, there is evidence to suggest that 11 Ukrainian Su-24s have been lost since February.  

However, dozens more were retired and kept in various boneyards across the country. Some were destroyed during early Russian attacks, while others may have been restored to operational condition.  

Meanwhile, Russia operated 273 Su-24s at the outbreak of full-scale war, some of which were stationed in the occupied territory of Crimea. At least six were destroyed during an attack on Saki airbase in August 2022.   

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The paint schemes used by both countries are fairly similar, so it is almost impossible to say which aircraft was responsible for bombing the forest near Davydiv Brid.  

The fact that the attack was filmed by the Ukrainians lends credibility to the claim that the mission was performed by the Ukrainian forces. However, we cannot be certain.  

But we can be certain that Ukraine still operates some Su-24s. One of the jets can be seen in a recent video posted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, overflying some infantry and demonstrating its underside with Ukrainian roundels.  

So, despite Russia’s claim that it had managed to destroy the entire Ukrainian Air Force several times over, it is possible that a pair of Ukraine’s Fencers still operate near Kherson, flying under the radar and performing close air support to thwart Russian counteroffensives.  

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