Russia’s Saki Air Base in the Crimean territory, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, was rocked by explosions on August 9. Several fighter jets, including the Soviet-era Su-24 Fencers and the widely fielded Su-30, were destroyed in the blasts.
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The newly obtained satellite images have revealed that several aircraft revetments (parking area surrounded by blast walls on three sides) and other structures were damaged besides the aircraft. However, the central air base infrastructure somehow remained intact. The explosions left behind several craters seen in the images.
The Air Base is home to the 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment of the Black Sea fleet, operating Su-30SM, Su-24M, and Su-24MR fighter aircraft. Experts and military observers with satellite imagery have estimated that at least 5 Su-24 Fencers and 3 Su-30 fighter jets have been destroyed in the explosions.
At least 8⃣ Russia aircraft are indicated to be destroyed or heavily damaged:
🟡 5 x Su-24 Fencer
🔵 3 x Su-30 Flanker
Remaining 3 shown may be less visibly damaged.
Not all aircraft may have been operational.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) August 10, 2022
OSINT and Naval Analyst H.I. Sutton shared a before and after image of the Su-24 fighters of the Black Sea Fleet on Twitter.
One of the images is a BBC screenshot of these fighters from 2021 buzzing British HMS Defender over the Black Sea, while the other image is a visual of a damaged Su-24 aircraft at the Saki Air Base.
Black Sea Sukhoi Su-24 FENCERs pic.twitter.com/asI7uVjuWo
— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) August 10, 2022
The Ukrainian Air Force had alleged that at least 10 of the total aircraft had been damaged, but the latest imagery hints at a bigger tally.
Besides the Fencer fighter jet, other aircraft like the Su-30, the Su-23, Il-76, and the Tu-134UBL were affected by the explosion to varying degrees and shifted to other locations.
There are widespread speculations that Ukraine carried out the attack, a responsibility it has taken. However, a Ukrainian government official told The Washington Post that the Ukrainian Special forces conducted the attack. The Ukrainian authorities, however, have not owned the attack.
— Brady Africk (@bradyafr) August 10, 2022
To the northeast of the revetment area and the south of the apron (ramp or tarmac), the satellite picture depicts what appears to be the aftermath of a massive fire that is blazing through open grassy areas. Images and videos from neighboring areas also showed a sizable amount of dark smoke from the facility following the initial explosions.
If verified, the losses would be the greatest suffered by the Russian air force in a single day since the conflict began in February. It would be a massive shock to Russia as an attack on Crimean territory was considered a far-fetched danger until it finally happened. Russia has not given the number of jets destroyed in the explosions.
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The main apron and parking spaces are visible in satellite images taken by Planet Lab around 0810z on August 9, 2022, or roughly four hours before the attack. Helicopters were also visibly parked at the replica Kuznetsov deck/landing area in the southwest corner of the facility.
Satellite images of the Saky airfield in Crimea, made yesterday at 11.10 am, show that more than 30 planes and helicopters were there before the explosion – worth more than $1 billion in total.
It would take over 18 months to replace them even without the sanctions. pic.twitter.com/qMTXJ2ba0G
— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) August 10, 2022
No other planes except the Su-24 and the Su-30 were destroyed while parked on the main flight line. This is clear from viewing every “parking square” and the absence of burned regions in the satellite imagery.
Ironically, revetments, which are meant to safeguard aircraft from situations like these, are where most aircraft destruction has occurred.
The area around the parking revetments is dotted with small explosive craters. Intriguingly, these explosions did not target the airbase’s central ammunition depots and fuel storage facility.
Footage has emerged from Novofedorivka showing a completely destroyed Russian Su-24 pic.twitter.com/D4U6V9B2zO
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) August 9, 2022
It’s also important to note that what initially appears to be a sizable facility destroyed is the wreckage of a sizable hangar that was either demolished or broke apart due to neglect starting around 2020. However, the cause behind these unprovoked explosions in Crimea remains clad in mystery.
There have been speculations that armed drones were used in this incident, possibly ones that were piloted nearby and carried improvised explosive devices. However, the presence of explosive craters in the air base indicates that the explosive used was heavier than a local drone could carry.
Whether Ukrainian forces, possibly armed with a small stockpile of homemade short-range ballistic missiles, may have used a stand-off strike capability that was not previously known to them is still being debated.
Ukraine does not have a missile with the range to reach Crimea unless it recently received one in secrecy. Ukraine’s only long-range weapons are the US-supplied HIMARS and the M270 MLRS given to it by the UK, but neither could reach as far as Crimea. It also has a long-range missile, Harpoon, but even that is an anti-ship weapon.
While Russia had been preparing for an attack on Crimea, most experts believed that Ukraine would not strike anywhere near the Crimean territory. Russia had earlier deployed countermeasures like smokescreens and radar reflectors on the Kerch Bridge to protect against attacks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes in April that he would not let Russia officially recognize Crimea as its territory. The explosion, whether carried out by Ukraine or not, could have a bearing on Russian operations against Ukraine.