The Russian Air Force operates a vast catalog of new and legacy fighters, some of which have seen little to no combat experience. The Su-25 Grach is not one of those fighters, having been tempered by over three decades of pitched conflict in the hottest Soviet and Russian war zones.
In the late 1960s, the Soviet security establishment resolved to address its lack of a viable close air support (CAS) aircraft: typically, armored strike fighters that carry out attack missions in conjunction with friendly units on the ground. As primarily a land power, the Soviet Union has always placed a premium on its ground forces— since the days of WWII, Soviet strategists were enamored by the battlefield prowess of “flying tanks” like the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik fighter. But, by then, the Shturmovik had been retired for over a decade; meanwhile, the more recent Soviet roster of attack-aircraft and fighter-bombers lacked sufficient armor and appropriate cruise capabilities to play a CAS role.
In 1969, the Soviet Air Force launched a competition for new CAS designs. Sukhoi, a major Soviet and now-Russian aircraft manufacturer won the tender with its T8 concept demonstrator. Relabeled as the Su-25, Russia’s new attack plane moved into serial production in the following decade and entered service in 1981.
The Su-25 “Grach” (NATO reporting name “Frogfoot”) is a single-seat CAS fighter, boasting a heavily armored airframe and armored fuel tanks within a conventional design. Relatively light on the advanced avionics of typical modern multirole fighters, the base Su-25 configuration does offer a basic navigation radar and standard chaff and flare countermeasures for limited protection against certain air-to-air and ground-launched missiles. Later Su-25 models boasted several layers of redundant controls to maximize chances of surviving a hit. In a similar fashion to the US A-10 Thunderbolt II CAS plane, the Su-25 pilot was encased in a protective, bathtub-style cockpit.
What the Frogfoot lacks in avionics and aerodynamic sophistication, it makes up for with a robust suite of air-to-surface weapons: a large breadth of Soviet S-series guided and unguided rockets, several types of Soviet heavy bombs, and a handful of short-range air-to-ground missiles designed against small ground targets.
As with other prolific Soviet aircraft, the Su-25 spawned numerous variants; among them, a Su-25K export version, Su-25UB trainer model, and Su-25T anti-tank variant with specialized heavy TV-guided bombs and laser-guided kh-25ML missiles.
The Su-25 carried out its first combat missions during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, flying tens of thousands of bombing sorties against Mujahideen positions. Also in the 1980s, the Iraqi Air Force employed Su-25’s to devastating effect during the Iran-Iraq war. Georgia used the Su-25s against Abkhazian separatists during the Abkhazian War, sustaining some losses to portable missile launchers. The Su-25 replicated much of its Afghan War-era success during the First Chechen War, wreaking havoc against Chechen separatist ground units and stationed aircraft while suffering negligible losses in return.
The four-decade-old Su-25 is seldom used for combat operations by the contemporary Russian Air Force but continues to be operated elsewhere across the second and third worlds. Most recently, Su-25’s were employed by the Armenian army during the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict— Azerbaijan, which operates a relatively sizable air defense contingent, claimed to have shot down three Armenian Su-25’s in the past four days.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.
Image/Wikipedia: This aircraft had just been reworked by the 121AOP at Kubinka and had not yet been returned to Air Force service. As part of the rework, it received the latest dark grey color scheme. c/n 25508110393. On static display at the Russian Air Force 100th Anniversary Airshow. Zhukovsky, Russia.