Russian Air Losses in the Five-Day War Against Georgia
The extent of Russian air losses was one of the biggest surprises of the Five Day War with Georgia, in August 2008. The loss of the several Russian aircraft during such a short conflict with a much less powerful adversary suggests that Georgia’s air defense proved exceptionally effective. However, a closer analysis of the circumstances leading to the downing of the Russian warplanes paints a different picture.
Official Georgian statements on Russian air casualties conflict with official Russian data. According to deputy chief of the General Staff Colonel General Antatoly Nagovitsyn, Russia lost four aircraft: three Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft and one Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bomber. Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said on August 12 that 21 Russian planes were destroyed. Meanwhile, Georgian media showed footage of the wreckage of just one Russian plane.
Russian MoD officials have not provided any further information concerning the downed planes. Moreover, they have never officially acknowledged the loss of two Su-24 tactical bombers. However, media and unofficial reports since the war provide enough information to fill in most of the blank spots.
The first Russian air loss was a Su-25 ground-attack aircraft flown by Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Terebunsky of the 368th Attack Aviation Regiment (Budyonovsk Air Base), shot down over the territory of South Ossetia near the Zarsk pass, between Dzhava and Tskhinvali. He was hit by a MANPAD missile fired by South Ossetian militia near 6.00 P.M on August, 8. The wreckage of the plane was filmed by a crew from the Russian state television channel Vesti and shown on television as a «downed Georgian plane»1. The plane was probably mistakenly identified and brought down by «friendly fire» because it was one of the very first Russian sorties, and the wreckage was found before South Ossetia was informed that Russian aviation was involved in the conflict. Moreover, five Georgian Su-25 had bombed the area nearby just a few hours earlier, so the Ossetians had grounds to suppose they might return. 2 In any case, Lieutenant Colonel Terebunsky managed to eject himself in time and was quickly located and evacuated by Russian forces.
The first and greatest success of the Georgian air defense system occurred one day after hostilities broke out. In the morning of August 9, they shot down a Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bomber from the 52nd Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment (Shaikovko Air Base) over the village of Karbauli in the Sachkhersk region of Georgia (about 50 km to the north-west from Gori). During a second bombing raid on the base of a Georgian infantry brigades, a group of Tu-22M3 bombers were following the same route to their target as on a previous run and, according to unofficial sources, decreased their altitude for some unknown reason from 12,000 m to 4,000 m. According to an anonymous Russian military source, the aircraft was shot by a Georgian Osa-AK/AKM (SA-8B) low-altitude self-propelled SAM system. The missile took out key systems of the aircraft, and it lost power. One of the crewmen, second pilot Major Vyacheslav Malkov, catapulted and was taken prisoner by the Georgians. Upon landing, he suffered injuries to three vertebrae and a broken arm. He was brought to a village hospital and then transferred to the Tbilisi hospital. On August 19 Malkov was exchanged for Georgian prisoners of war. The commander of the Tu-22M3, Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Koventsov, catapulted after Malkov and disappeared without a trace. The remains of his ejection chair were found, but his body was never found. 3 A few weeks after the war, a search party found the wreckage of the plane and the bodies of the remaining crew in South Ossetia near the border with Georgia: Major Viktor Priadkin (navigator) and Igor Nesterov (weapon systems operator). It is perhaps worth noting that contrary to several mistaken media reports, the downed Tu-22M3 was not a Tu-22MR reconnaissance aircraft.
That same morning, at 10:20 A.M. on August 9, Georgian air defense forces shot down a Su-24M Fencer front-line bomber from the 929th State Aviation Testing Center (Akhtubinsk Air Base). 4 It was flying in a formation of three front-line bombers, tasked with striking Georgian artillery positions in area of Shindisi village (between Gori and Tskhinvali). After the completion of the first approach, the plane was shot down in view of several Georgian eyewitnesses. Mobile phone camera’s recorded the strike on the plane and its fiery descent, and the footage was soon distributed on the internet. 5,6 According to an eyewitness, 7 two surface-to-air missiles with infra-red guidance (probably Python 4 missiles from the Israeli-made Spyder-SR low-altitude SAM system) missed the plane, but a third missile hit the target. The strike caused a powerful fire. The crew ejected, but the wreckage damaged the parachute of navigator Colonel Igor Rzhavitin, who died when he hit the ground. The crew commander, Colonel Igor Zinov, was burned and suffered from a severely damaged spine. He was taken prisoner and sent first to the Gori military hospital, and then to Tbilisi together with Major Malkov. On 19 August the two were exchanged for Georgian prisoners of war. The Su-24M has fallen in the yard of a home in the village of Dzerevi, without causing any further casualties or damage. The wreckage was filmed and shown on Georgian television. 8 Photographs were later published in the Georgian military magazine Arsenal, and in foreign media. 9
Just a few minutes later, at 10:30 A.M. on August 9, a newest upgraded Su-25SM ground-attack aircraft was shot down, piloted by Colonel Sergey Kobylash, Commander of the 368th Attack Aviation Regiment (Budyonovsk Air Base). A pair of Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, in which he was the lead, was attacking a Georgian troops column to the south of Tskhinvali, on the Gori-Tskhinvali road. At the conclusion of his first approach, Kolybash was hit by an air defense missile to his left engine, which ceased to function. Kolybash had to break off the attack and headed towards base. A short while later, flying over the southern edge of Tskhinvali at an altitude of 1000 m, a MANPAD missile hit his right engine, leaving the plane without thrust. The pilot tried to take the plane as far as possible from the front line. He ejected north of Tskhinvali and landed on the territory of South Ossetia, in one of the villages of the Georgian enclave of in the Great Liakh gorge, where he was quickly picked up by a Russian combat search and rescue group in a Mi-8 Hip helicopter from the 487th Helicopter Regiment (Budyonovsk Airbase). Kobylash was not injured during the ejection or landing. 10
It is not known who shot down Colonel Kobylash’s Su-25SM. There were no Georgian forces in Tskhinvali at the time when he was hit for the second time. On the other hand, one half hour after his plane was downed, the South Ossetians announced that they had shot down one of two Georgian ground-attack aircraft that were trying to attack Tskhinvali. 11 According to the Georgians, however, they had ceased air attacks by August 9, 12 so seems likely that Kobylash’s plane was mistaken for a Georgian Su-25.
August 9th was the worst day of the campaign for Russian aviation, with a total loss of four planes. The fourth loss that day, and the fifth since the start of the operation, was a Su-25 ground-attack aircraft piloted by Major Vladimir Edamenko of the 368th Assault Aviation Regiment (Budyonovsk Air Base). His wingman, Captain Sergey Sapilin, described the circumstances of this flight to Russian REN-TV channel. 13 Their pair of Su-25 ground-attack aircraft was assigned to provide close air support to Russian troops columns traveling from Dzhava to Tskhinvali. Right after they passed the Caucasian Ridge and entered the airspace of South Ossetia, the crew saw pair of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters approach. Unable to determine whether the approaching MiG-29s were Russian, they took evasive maneuvers as a precaution. As it turned out, the MiG-29s were Russian, and turned away once they had visually identified the ground-attack aircraft. Almost immediately after that, in the Dzhava region, over territory controlled by Russian forces, Major Edamenko’s wingman aircraft’s SRO PWR detected the radar emission of his aircraft off the ground and at once has seen the burning Su-25 of his leader, pointing towards the ground. 14 Edamenko did not respond to his radio, nor did he make any attempt to eject from the plane, which suggests that he was severely injured or killed. The aircraft hit ground and exploded near Itrapis village, and Major Edamenko died. The Russian MoD later announced that a «Georgian Su-25» was destroyed by a Russian Osa-AKM (SA-8B) SAM system. It is possible this was in fact probably Edamenko’s ground-attack aircraft, since Georgia had ceased flights into South Ossetia before Russia brought air defense systems into the theater. According to other assumption, Edamenko’s aircraft may be has been brought down by «friendly fire» of Russian ZSU-23-4 Shilka quad 23 mm self-propelled ani-aricraft gun, guarding the Gufta bridge.
The sixth and last downed aircraft of the Russian air force was lost at the end of the active phase of the conflict, during the day of August 11. It was a Su-24M front-line bomber. According to unofficial information available in aviation circles, it was from the 968th Test & Training Aviation Regiment of the 4th Lipetsk Air Center. 15 A column of Russian ground forces, moving from Tskhinvali towards Gori, mistakenly identified the Su-24M as enemy aircraft, and fired several MANPAD missiles at it, downing the plane several kilometers west of Tskhinvali, in the territory of South Ossetia. The pilots ejected and were evacuated, while the wreckage landed in the inaccessible mountain heights. 16
After the conclusion of the active phase of combat, during the night from August 16-17, a Mi-8MTV transport helicopter belonging to the Border Guards of the Russian Federal Security Service had an accident. During a night landing at a temporary helicopter forward operation base near Dzhava, it made collision with another helicopter on the ground, flipped around and burned. As a result of the fire and subsequent explosion of ammunition, one Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter was seriously and several other helicopters lightly damaged. The on-board mechanic, Senior Warrant Officer Aleksandr Burlachko died, and three other members of the crew were severely burned. 17
In total, then, four Russian air crewmen died in combat: Major Vladimir Edamenko, Major Igor Nesterov, Major Viktor Priadkin and Colonel Igor Rzhavatin. After the conclusion of combat, Senior Warrant Officer Aleksandr Burlachko died in the helicopter accident. Colonel Igor Zinov and Major Vyachelavl Malkov were downed and taken prisoner, and later exchanged for Georgian prisoners of war. Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Koventsov went missing in action.
Russia lost a total of six aircraft in combat during the Five Day War: one Su-25SM and two Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, two Su-24M front-line bomber and one Tu-22M3 long-range bomber. Of these, two aircraft were certainly downed by enemy fire, three were probably hit by «friendly fire» and it remains difficult to determine who downed the last. The wreckage of five aircraft fell within the borders of South Ossetia and just one, the Su-24M from the 929th State Aviation Training Centre, fell in Georgia.
Aside from the downed aircraft, a few more Su-25 ground-attack aircraft were seriously damaged, though they managed to return to base. Damage to three upgraded Su-25SM was officially confirmed by Chief-designer of the Sukhoy Design Bureau Vladimir Babak, 18 and Director of the 121th Aviation Repair Plant (Kubinka) Yakov Kazhdan. 19 Unofficial reports suggest that no fewer than four Su-25 were damaged, three from 368th Attack Aviation Regiment and one from 461th Attack Aviation Regiment (Krasnodar Air Base), all by MANPAD missiles. There were no reports of serious damage to any other airplanes or helicopters.
Thus, with six downed or damaged Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, the Budyonnovsk 368th Attack Aviation Regiment suffered the worst losses of equipment - that is, at least one fourth of its aircraft, including the recently upgraded Su-25SM, with its best-trained pilots, including the Regiment’s Commander.
Clearly, the effectiveness of Georgia’s air defense system should not be overestimated. Even though Georgia’s air defense forces possessed such effective SAM systems as the Buk-M1 (SA-11), the Osa-AK/AKM (SA-8B) and the Spyder-SR, as well as a significant number of MANPADs, 20 they was not able to provide reliable protection for Georgian forces or territory. During the first day of combat before August 9, Georgia’s air defense forces failed to down a single Russian aircraft, even though its air defense systems were not yet under pressure and its radar system covered all of Georgian territory, the separatist regions, and the surrounding areas. In one day, Russia’s military aviation completed several dozen air strikes, not only in the combat zone but deep into Georgian territory, using almost exclusively unguided weapons. For example, Marneuli, the main Air Force Base of Georgia located one hundred kilometers from the conflict zone or the border with Russia, close to Tbilisi and the borders of Georgia and Armenia, was bombarded three times unhindered on August 8 by small groups of Su-25 and Su-24M aircraft. 21 Both (or in the best case, all three) aircraft downed by Georgia’s air defenses were hit on August 9th, during the first half of the day. Thus, from noon, August 9, to the end of the conflict, Georgian forces were unable to destroy a single Russian aircraft.
Of course, it is little consolation that at least half of Russian air losses were attributed to friendly fire. This demonstrates the serious problems facing the Russian Armed Forces with respect to the command and control of forces in battle. The absence of cooperation between the Russian Army and Air Force led to them conduct completely separate campaigns. Pilots were not fully apprised of the situation on the ground, received inexact and late intelligence, and at the start of hostilities, according to the Commander of the 368th Attack Aviation Regiment Colonel Kobylash, they did not even have exact information on the structure and strength of the Georgian Air Defense Forces. 22
Russian Ground Forces also lacked information about the situation in the air, and were not sure until the end of combat whether Russia’s aviation had achieved air superiority. In spite of the fact that Georgian Su-25 ground-attack aircraft conducted just one combat flight in the early morning of August 8 and did not take to the air again, 23 Russian aircraft were frequently taken by Russian and Ossetian forces as Georgian aircraft, and they were fired upon without identification and in the absence of any aggressive action on their part (although there is some evidence of «friendly fire» from aviation as well. 24). As a result, Russian aircraft were fired at by Russian forces and Ossetian militiamen, with no less than ten MANPAD missiles fired, and fired from infantry combat vehicles cannons, anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on tanks, and light automatic weapons. There are also reports of problems with the functioning of the «Friend or Foe» combat identification systems and their haphazard application when firing MANPADs. All these factors contributed to such a high rate of Russian air losses to friendly fire.
1 Shown on Vesti television on August 8 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLIiOp_tv30)].
2 Interfax (http://www.interfax.ru/politics/news.asp?id=25736).
3 «Nedelia s Mariannoy Maksimovskoy,» 21.02.2009 - REN-TV [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s50BabE2B9Q].
4 RIA Novy region [http://www.nr2.ru/center/190689.html].
7 Georgian weekly «Kviris palitra» N38/2008.
8 Rustavi-2, 9.08.08 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcT3FYrFIuc].
9 Photographs of Su-24M wreckage in Dzeveri [http://www.milkavkaz.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=29218#29218].
10 Interview with S. Kobylash, REN-TV «Voennaya tayna» [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTl3RoFl5Hc)].
13 Interview with S. Sapilina, REN-TV, «Voyennaya tayna» [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ3E-J4Y5dM].
14 Stavropolskaya pravda [http://www.stapravda.ru/20080926/Avtokross_v_Budennovske_IX_etap_chempionata_Stavropolskogo_kraya_33128.html].
15 Forum Waronline.org [http://www.waronline.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=401966&sid=fbfa66ccdb197ad9797ec85aad5d6cd8#40196].
16 Documentary film «Kouti tis Pandoras» by Greek telejournalist Kostas Vaxevani [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVQMoPQLt_c].
17 Decorated posthumously - Stavropol TV [http://www.atvmedia.ru/index.php?report=14775].
18 «Grach» vozmezdia – Krasnaya zvezda [http://www.redstar.ru/2008/09/10_09/3_01.html].
20 Georgia’s Air Defense in the War with South Ossetia – Moscow Defense Brief [http://mdb.cast.ru/mdb/3-2008/item3/article3/].
21 Official Chronology of Georgia’s MFA [http://www.mfa.gov.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=461&info_id=7289]
22 Interview with S. Kobylash, REN-TV [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTl3RoFl5Hc].
23 Georgian magazine Arsenal (translation at http://d-avaliani.livejournal.com/13526.html).
24 Forum Airforce.ru [http://forums.airforce.ru/showpost.php?p=38299&postcount=649].