Thursday 26 August 2021

Tankovy Busters: Su-25TK Attack Aircraft In Ethiopian Service

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Su-25 has earned its stripes as a rugged close air support aircraft capable of delivering a wide variety of ordnance while withstanding a significant beating from AA guns and MANPADS. From the onset designed with a limited guided weaponry capability in mind, Soviet designers would eventually expand on these capabilities through the development of the Su-25T dedicated anti-tank hunter version. Although offering a number of highly advanced features for its time, its inception during the final years of the USSR ultimately prevented the aircraft from entering into service.
While Russia would later deploy several of the experimental Su-25Ts that were produced with some success during the Chechen Wars, arguably its most interesting combat deployment didn't take place in the skies over the northern Caucasus, but rather under the heat of the sub-Saharan African sun. Just two Su-25Ts were exported to Ethiopia in a deal that remains largely unknown to many seasoned military analysts to this day. This article will attempt to set the record straight and salvage the Su-25s from their tomb of obscurity. This is the story of Ethiopia's elusive Su-25TK 'Tankovy Busters'.
Before going into detail on the history and specifications of the Su-25TK deal itself, it is insightful to consider the background behind Ethiopia's decision to acquire the Su-25TK. Engaged in a number of wars and border skirmishes with Eritrea throughout the 1990s, unsolved border disputes led to the Eritrean–Ethiopian War that took place from May 1998 to June 2000. The Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) was heavily engaged in the conflict, intercepting Eritrean MiG-29s with Su-27s and striking Eritrean ground positions using MiG-21bis and MiG-23BN fighter-bombers. Although the latter type was capable of using the Kh-23M air-to-surface missile, the ETAF was looking for more advanced weaponry to enable the breakthrough it had been looking for.

Interestingly, rather than settling on the MiG-27 or Su-24, both of which capable of deploying a wide assortment of guided weaponry and readily available in Ukraine and Russia at relatively low costs, Ethiopia instead purchased two Su-25T (serial: 2252 and unknown) along with two Su-25UB trainers (serial: 2201 and 2202) from Russian Air Force stocks. Ordered in late 1999, the second-hand aircraft arrived to Ethiopia in January 2000 after undergoing revision at the 121st Aircraft Repair Plant in Kubinka, which warranted a new (export) designation: Su-25TK (Tankovy Kommercheskiy).
The experimental Su-25Ts were acquired to give Ethiopia the ability to conduct night-time precision strikes against high-value strikes such as command posts and supply depots. The aircraft entered service with No. 4 Squadron (or No.4 Flight) staffed by former MiG-23BN pilots and were foremost engaged in precision-bombings against high-value strikes such as command posts and supply depots. [1] [2] Following brief service during the war, during which one Su-25T was involved in an incident and decommissioned, the other three aircraft (i.e. including the two Su-25UBs) were withdrawn from service and placed in storage after just one year of service. [1] [2] This likely had as much to do with the swift loss of one aircraft as with the considerable costs associated with maintaining the Su-25T's specialised systems.

Rather than designing a completely new aircraft, the Su-25T uses the airframe of the Su-25UB dual-seater as its basis. The space formerly occupied by the rear seat was used to install additional avionics while the nose was enlarged to house the Shkval electro-optical targeting system equipped with the Prichal laser-rangefinder/designator (the Shkval was also installed on the Ka-50 attack helicopter). For night-time operations, a Merkuriy navigation pod could be carried under the fuselage. Its night-time abilities are what leant the aircraft the distinctive camouflage seen in the header image: two all-seeing eyes observing the battlefield for potential prey.
The most impressive feature of the Su-25T is undoubtedly its armament. In addition to the double-barreled 30mm cannon installed under the fuselage, the Su-25T is capable of using sixteen 9K121 Vikhr laser-guided anti-tank missiles for tank hunting missions. Unfortunately, it is unknown if the Vikhr was ever delivered to Ethiopia, and available evidence suggests that KAB-500Kr TV-guided bombs, Kh-29T TV-guided missiles and laser-guided Kh-25MLs in addition to unguided weaponry such as the massive S-25 unguided rocket, KMGU munition dispensers, unguided bombs and B-8 rocket pods made up the type's primary armament in Ethiopian service.

After languishing in storage at Bishoftu for about a dozen years, a decision was made for their reactivation somewhere around the turn of the last decade. Their subsequent overhaul must have proven difficult even for the experienced engineers of DAVI, as the aircraft were only in active service for roughly a year. The few technicians that serviced the Su-25s during this period might well already have been retired, making even less of the required expertise available. The specialised systems installed on the Su-25TK such as the Shkval targeting system must have proven a particular headache, with limited spare parts and expertise available for their maintenance and repair. Still, the Su-25s were sighted again for the first time in 2013, when all three aircraft were shown on the tarmac of Bishoftu. In the following years, usually one aircraft was visible on the tarmac until 2020, when the three aircraft were regularly sighted together on satellite imagery.
As Ethiopia currently finds itself at war with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is making steady gains as government forces so far appear unable to stem their advance, the country is now anxiously on the lookout for anything to change its fortunes. As the only aircraft currently known to employ precision-guided munitions in Ethiopian service, the Su-25T (and also the Su-25UBs) can be expected to have seen action already, for example by neutralising the ballistic missile and guided rocket systems that were captured by the TPLF from the Ethiopian Army and then used to strike Bahir Dar air base, the home of Ethiopia's MiG-23BN fleet. Curiously they have not been sighted on satellite imagery of airbases located closer to frontline so far. Still, as even the air force's Su-27s have been seen carrying dumb bombs, the combat debut of the Su-25s in the Tigray War might happen sooner rather than later if they haven't seen action over the breakaway region already.

The three remaining Su-25s along with numerous Su-27s at Bishoftu air base

The fate of the single Su-25TK that was involved in an accident was even less glamorous than that of its brethens placed in long-time storage. Soon after the accident in May 2000, the damaged aircraft was retired to a quiet corner of Bishoftu air base and subsequently used as a source for spare parts, a role it likely continues to fullfil today. The location where the aircraft was dumped couldn't have been more symbolic, as the adjacent tarmac is used by the air force's fleet of Grob G 120TP training aircraft. Stripped of parts and dignity, in its new role it has found a purpose in reminding aspirant pilots of the dangers they'll face in their future career.

Though they are perhaps some of the most interesting aircraft to have graced the skies of Africa, Ethiopia's Su-25Ts were retired almost as quickly as they were acquired. The fact that one aircraft was damaged beyond repair quickly after the delivery, effectively cutting the Su-25TK fleet in half, probably did much to cut its inglorious carreer short. The subsequent retirement marked the end of operations involving guided weaponry by the Ethiopian Air Force, which would only be reinstated after their reactivation as well as the acquisition of Mohajer-6s from Iran during the ongoing Tigray War.
Whether this limited reintroduction of precision-guided capabilities is enough to turn the tide is unknown, but seems unlikely. The purchase of Mohajer-6s could therefore soon be followed by further procurements of UCAVs. Unlike the acquisition of Su-25Ts two decades ago however, these are likely to be cheap, functional and less experimental in nature. Though this is the simple nature of today's warfare, hopefully the saga of Ethiopia's 'Tankovy Busters' will now not soon be forgotten.