Russia's Su-25: Moscow's 'A-10' Is a Virtual 'Flying Tank'
The Su-25’s armament has typically consisted of unguided 250 or 500 kilogram bombs, cluster bombs and rockets. The rockets come in forms ranging from pods containing dozens of smaller 57- or 80-millimeter rockets, to five-shot 130-millimeter S-13 system, to large singular 240- or 330-millimeter rockets. The Su-25 also has a Gsh-30-2 30-millimeter cannon under the nose with 260 rounds of ammunition, though it doesn’t have the absurd rate of fire of the GAU-8.
The lower tip of the Frogfoot’s nose holds a glass-enclosed laser designator. Su-25s did make occasional use of Kh-25ML and Kh-29 laser guided missiles in Afghanistan to take out Mujahideen fortified caves, striking targets as far as five miles away. KAB-250 laser-guided bombs began to see use in Chechnya as well. However, use of such weapons was relatively rare. For example, they made up only 2 percent of munitions expended by the Russian Air Force in Chechnya.
The Su-25 was still packing plenty of antipersonnel firepower—and that’s exactly what was called for when it first saw action in Afghanistan beginning in 1981. The Su-25 was the workhorse fixed-wing attack plane in the conflict, flying more than sixty thousand sorties in bombing raids on mujahedeen villages and mountain strongholds. They often teamed up with Mi-24 attack helicopters to provide air support for Soviet armored units.
However, as the Afghan rebels began to acquire Stinger missiles from the United States, Su-25s began to suffer losses and the Soviet pilots were forced to fly higher to avoid the man-portable surface-to-air missiles. In all, some fifteen Su-25s were shot down in Afghanistan before the Soviet withdrawal.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Su-25s were passed onto the air services of all the Soviet successor states. Those that didn’t use Su-25s in local wars—on both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for example—often exported them to countries that did. Frogfoots have seen action in the service of Macedonia (against Albanian rebels), Ethiopia (against Eritrea, with one shot down), Sudan (target: Darfur), and Georgia versus Abkhazian separatists that shot down several. And that list is not comprehensive.
In one notable episode, Cote d’Ivoire acquired several Su-25s and used them in its civil war. When the government of President Laurent Gbagbo was angered by the perceived partisanship of French peacekeepers, his mercenary-piloted Su-25s bombed the French camp, killing nine. Whoever ordered the attack didn’t consider that there was a French contingent stationed at the Yamoussoukro Airfield where the Frogfoots were based. The French used anti-tank missiles to destroy the fighter bombers on the ground in retaliation.
Russian Su-25 were back in action in the Chechnya campaign of 1994 to 1995, flying 5,300 strike sorties. Early on they helped wipe out Chechen aircraft on the ground and hit the Presidential Palace in Grozny with anti-concrete bombs. They then pursued a more general bombing campaign. Four were lost to missiles and flak. They were again prominent in the Second Chechen War in 1999, where only one was lost.
Of course, it’s important to note at this juncture that the Su-25 is one of a handful of Soviet aircraft that received its own American computer game in 1990.
In addition to the base model, the Frogfoot also came in an export variant, the Su-25K, and a variety of two-seat trainers with a hunchback canopy, including the combat-capable Su-25UBM.
There were a number of projects to modernize the Su-25, including small productions runs of Su-25T and Su-25TM tank busters. But the Russian Air Force finally selected the Su-25SM in the early 2000s for all future modernization.
The SM has a new BARS satellite navigation/attack system, which allows for more precise targeting, as well as a whole slew of improved avionics such as news heads-up displays (HUDS), Radar Warning Receivers and the like. The Su-25SM can use the excellent R-73 short-range air-to-air missile, and has improved targeting abilities for laser-guided bombs. Other improvements reduce maintenance requirements and lower aircraft weight.
The National Interest’s Dave Majumdar has written about the latest SM3 upgrade, which includes the capacity to fire Kh-58 anti-radar missiles, which could enable Su-25s to help suppress enemy air defenses, as well as a Vitebsk electronic-countermeasure system that could increase its survivability against both radar- and infarred-guided surface to air missiles.
Georgia and Ukraine also have limited numbers of their own domestically upgrade variants, the Su-25KM and the Su-25M1 respectively. You can check out the Su-25KM variant, produced with an Israeli firm, in this video full of unironic 1980s flair.