By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Major Roman Filipov is dead. Last week in Syria he pulled the pin on a grenade, held it behind his head, let the firing lever go and shouted, “This is for our guys!”
And then he died.
Major Filipov was a combat pilot for the Russian air force. He flew the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. You can think of the Su-25 as the Russian equivalent of our A-10 Warthog. A flying tank. Both of these planes fly the dangerous close air support and strike mission. Low and slow in the smoke, anti-aircraft missiles and flak. Major Filipov’s job was the modern day aerial equivalent of fighting in the trenches with bayonets. Ugly, dangerous, demanding and unforgiving.
And last week, Major Filipov’s luck ran out. But not his valor.
Before we go much further I want to answer your question about me writing about a Russian pilot. If you read this in the United States, a part of our upbringing is to believe that Russia is our adversary- our enemy even.
There are times when we are at odds with Russia. Politically, ideologically, economically. But to blankly condemn Russia as an “evil empire” because of the gulags, human rights violations, their communist legacy and more, is to view history through a straw. A more balanced perspective today is that Russia is not an enemy, but a roughly analogous superpower struggling, as the United States is, to maintain a foothold on this earth. In the sometimes bloody and inexcusable conduct of a nation, Russia has their atrocities and the United States has theirs. This is not to forgive either, far from it.
The story of Roman Filipov, the man, and his heroism is not about a discussion of the morality of nations. It is about the courage and resolve of one man; Roman Filipov, and the iron spirit of the Russian fighting man.
Before you broadly condemn Russia’s actions in Syria, consider that if they weren’t there fighting any number of ruthless terrorist organizations, expelled largely from Iraq by previous U.S. incursions there, the U.S. would be in Syria, fighting ISIL and its spin-offs instead. In the case of Syria, it is not too much of an oversimplification to suggest Russia is doing our dirty work for us. And yes, I acknowledge that the current Syrian “leadership”, President Bashar al-Assad, is, on the best of days, a despot. But there is a time honored saying in the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy, is my friend.” And in this case, we may do well to consider Russia a friend for taking care of the Syrian mess, a mess the U.S. actively contributed to creating.
As they did in WWII, when Russia lost 14.2% of its population to the war (compared to 0.2% of the American population lost), the Russians have shouldered the burden of this war in the Syria. This has given the U.S. at least a partial reprieve from years of large scale wars in foreign countries that have helped to nearly bankrupt America.
Last week Major Roman Filipov was part of a recent Russian surge in daring low-altitude airstrikes around Idlib, Syria where a desperate band of terrorists aligned with ISIS is backed into a corner. Like anytime you corner a dangerous snake, it lashes out in one desperate attempt at survival. This is the Alamo for ISIS, their last stand of any substance in this region. And before their cancerous hate melts back into the dried blood red dirt and dusty ether of war-torn Syria to become malignant again elsewhere, they fight to the death. Major Roman Filipov’s job was to be sure the terrorists achieved their goal of martyrdom.
Filipov’s Su-25 operated at extreme low altitude, a daring tactic that the Russian air force has changed since his death. Video shot by insurgents on the ground show a hail of anti-aircraft shells streaking head-on into his Su-25 as though it were in a laser light show. But only every fifth shell had the phosphorus tracer, so for every shell you see, there are four more in between. But Major Filipov is determined to get his weapons on target, and that means flying low.
Filipov’s Sukhoi is hit. The right engine burns. It remains in level flight partially because the Sukhoi Su-25 is built like a flying tank with armor plating using simple, durable systems. Filipov ejects from his burning Sukhoi and parachutes to the ground, ISIS insurgent bullets cracking around him as he slowly descends into the seething cauldron of medieval street fighting that is Idlib, Syria. For a Russian pilot who just spent the last two days pounding lawless insurgents from the sky his chances for survival on the ground are precisely zero. Filipov knows this. They may behead him on video. They may burn him alive inside a cage. ISIS has done both of those things to unfortunate pilots they managed to capture alive. ISIS holds a particularly virulent hatred for combat pilots who rain death on them day after day with apparent impunity. They reserve the most grisly and agonizing executions for them.
One could suggest that rather than parachuting to the ground in a vain attempt at survival, Major Filipov is drifting downward toward the insurgents specifically to exact some final revenge on them for destroying his Sukhoi. That is how the Russian warrior-mind works. He is armed with a handgun, three ammunition magazines and a hand grenade. And he is ready to fight.
Before you discount the admittedly romantic notion that Filipov parachuted to the ground with the express motive of mortal combat with his enemy, let me tell you a few quick stories about the Russian combatant mindset.
Sometime after midnight, on June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies surged into the Soviet Union in what would become the most titanic land battle in human history, the German invasion of Russia. Streams of Nazi bombers blotted out the sun as they thundered east over Russia. The German planes were well engineered, durably built and heavily armed. Many were crewed by experienced combat pilots. The Russians met them with sturdy, but obsolete, sluggish fighters that were not equipped with radios. Coordinating a cohesive air defense was impossible.
So, the Russian pilots simply rammed the German bombers with their aircraft in midair.
The Russians considered that trading one Russian fighter and one Russian pilot for an entire Nazi bomber and its multi-man crew was a reasonable trade-off. This lethal arithmetic was repeated nine times by Russian pilots in the first hour of the invasion alone.
Nine times in one hour.
Russian Lieutenant Leonid Illarionovich Ivanov flew his barrel-shaped little Polikarpov I-16, a plane that looked more at home in a circus that a dogfight, into the tail of an advanced Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bomber. Lt. Ivanov did not survive his attack but knocked the Nazi Heinkel out of the sky. He was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union.
But it was not just the men who proved the national resolve of Mother Russia in the skies of WWII. Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina Ivanovna Zelenko dove her Sukhoi Su-2, an underpowered, sluggish, portly single-engine trainer aircraft into a vastly superior German Messerschmitt Bf-109. Neither Lt. Zelenko nor the German pilot survived, but Zelenko had traded an obsolete training aircraft for an advanced German fighter and its experienced combat pilot. Such is the bloody arithmetic of Russian air combat and its fearless pilots.
One of the first lessons I learned about Russian history was the story of the Siege of Stalingrad in 1942. A few tendrils of this horror have seeped into western media, including a popular Hollywood movie about Russia’s deadliest sniper, Vasily Zaytsev, nicknamed the “White Death” by the invading Germans. But from the same battle I learned of how hard Russians were willing to fight, especially on their own soil.
The Russian soldiers fighting for their nation’s survival on the outskirts of Stalingrad lived a hellish existence in freezing temperatures with no opportunity to get warm. Even a small fire would give away their position in the shattered ruins of their city to the Nazis. The fighting raged non-stop, day and night, with more soldiers succumbing to exposure, disease and starvation than enemy fire. Conditions were so horrific that surviving defenders resorted to cannibalism in a last, desperate attempt to remain alive long enough to kill one more Nazi on Russian homeland soil.
But here is the chilling part.
Some Russian infantry units on the outskirts of Stalingrad, isolated and alone against the advancing Nazis, ran completely out of grenades and ammunition. They had no radios to call for artillery support. One at a time the Russian soldiers, clad in tattered, long wool overcoats stolen off the corpses of dead Germans, would dart into the open long enough to convince the Germans they were an easy mark. Then they scurried back inside the toppled ruins of a bombed-out multi story building. The Nazis did not know the Russians had hacked holes in the upper floors of the buildings. When the Nazis took the bait, and stormed into the ruins in hopes of catching a Russian soldier, his comrades would drop huge chunks of concrete through the holes on top of the hapless Germans, crushing them to death. Then the Russians would take the dead German’s weapon and turn it back against them. Eventually the German invasion was repelled by the Russians, at a cost of, what one historian characterized as, “Rivers of blood”.
In any study of the Russian martial mindset, the stories about brutal resolve continue.
Consider further, and more recently, also in Syria, the case of Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko of Gorodki, Oblast, Russia.
Lt. Prokhorenko was a member of Russia’s elite Spetsnaz, roughly analogous to our U.S. Army Special Forces. His job on March 17, 2016 was to protect the priceless cultural and historical artifacts of Palmyra from destruction by ISIS. The ruins of Palmyra are an analogy for all of the Middle East. Built on and off again starting sometime around AD 32 (that is 1,986 years ago, or about 20 centuries) the city has been conquered, ruined, rebuilt and conquered again. Like much of the middle east the sediment around Palmyra holds not only the sands of time but the stratified blood of warriors from many nations who died there. Like Roman conquerors before him, Prokhorenko was there to make sure Palmyra did not fall one more time.
Calling in airstrikes on advancing ISIS insurgents, the short story is that Lt. Prokhorenko found himself encircled and isolated. He fought like a rabid wolf, down to the final yards, calling in airstrikes over his radio. Russian history, like all history, is a subjective craft. The account based on who is telling the tale. The official Russian version of what happened is that, when Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko realized his position was encircled by ISIS and there was no escape, he transmitted this message:
“I am surrounded, they are outside, I don’t want them to take me and parade me, conduct the airstrike, they will make a mockery of me and this uniform. I want to die with dignity and take all these bastards with me. Please my last wish, conduct the airstrike, they will kill me either way. This is the end commander, thank you, tell my family and my country I love them. Tell them I was brave and I fought until I could no longer. Please take care of my family, avenge my death, goodbye commander, tell my family I love them”
Whether this version of Lt. Prokhorenko’s last radio transmission is a verbatim transcript, a fortified dramatization or an outright fable will never be known, but given the Russian penchant for ferocious resistance against impossible odds, I don’t doubt at least its spirit, if not its authenticity. Never back a Russian into a corner.
So, the story of heroic conduct last week on the part of Major Roman Filipov is absolutely amazing, but not at all new for a Russian fighting man.
But as it glided, on fire, toward the ground last week there is another reason Major Roman Filipov’s Sukhoi remained in a slow, controlled descent just before he ejected, wings level, in its terminal plunge.
Our modern hero Roman Filipov grew up wanting to fly.
He was from Vladivostok, east Russia. His father was a decorated combat pilot. In casual photos of Filipov on holiday his face is deadpan. Serious. Stoic. Only one photo shows a smiling Filipov, when he is fishing. It is as if he were the perfect Russian character pilot Tom Clancy invented for one of his novels.
“The boy was fond of sports, he studied well. He dreamed of being a pilot,” his teacher Lyudmila Lazareva told reporters yesterday in Russia. “He was never childish, but adult, serious, reasonable and balanced. He was among the best.”
Miss Lazareva looks at the floor. “He had a sense of justice. That was how he behaved- he knew what was right.”
So, as I write this, I do not write exclusively about Russia, but also about a heroic pilot- an image that transcends nationalities and ideologies. Roman Filipov’s courage, determination and ferocity was greater than any one country, any one flag. His courage and heroism is the ideal of all combat fliers. Give the enemy hell from the air, die with your boots on.
There is an oft quoted Roman battle axiom by the great philosopher and sage Heraclitus:
“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”
Regardless of the flag he flew under, fighter pilot, Hero of Russia award winner, combatant and officer, Major Roman Filipov was that one.
Author Tom Demerly is a U.S. correspondent for one of the world’s most widely read military aviation blogs, David Cenciotti’s TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy. He is a former member of a Long Range Surveillance Team and writes full-time from his home in the United States.