Warplanes: Su-24 Does Not Age Gracefully


December 24, 2014: The Russian Air Force reported that it had recently received six more new Su-34 light bombers. This makes about 60 Su-34s built since the first flight in 1990 and the official entry into service in March 2014. The Su-34 is the long-overdue replacement for the Cold War era Su-24 light bomber. While most nations using Su-24s have retired them in the last decade because they could not afford to operate and maintain them Russia is both refurbishing some of its remaining Su-24s because of the delays in replacing the Su-24 with the new Su-34.

During the Cold War the Su-24 was the Russian answer to the American F-111 and European Tornado fighter-bombers. Introduced in the mid-1970s, it was a 43 ton swing-wing design with a crew of two and a short range (only about 600 kilometers). The original Su-24 carried eight tons of bombs and had good fire control and electronics for the time. Some 1,400 were built before production was halted in 1993. Since then most Su-24s have been retired because of old age and lack of upgrade options. Since 2000, Russia has lost sixteen Su-24s to accidents. Many more have been retired because of this tendency to become very dangerous to operate as they age. This is one of the reasons Russia is hustling to replace the Su-24s with Su-34s.

In 2008, Russia began building the first Su-34 fighter-bombers. The 45 ton Su-34 is yet another variant of the thirty-three ton Su-27 and is very similar to the thirty-six ton U.S. F-15E (a two seat fighter bomber version of the 31 ton F-15C). But Russia still has over 300 Su-24s in service and only about 60 Su-34s. It appears that the new Su-34s will not arrive quickly enough to replace most of the elderly Su-24s.

The Su-34 has a full set of defensive and offensive sensors (radars, targeting cameras, laser designators) and electronic warfare gear, it also can carry eight tons of missiles and smart bombs. Russia is currently buying up to a hundred Su-34s to replace three-hundred older Su-24s. Russia built the first twenty-four Su-34s at a cost of $36 million each (less than half the cost of an F-15E). Meanwhile, some of the more recently built Su-24s were upgraded as the Su-24M2 standard. Most of the Su-24s built are over twenty-five years old and many have been grounded several times recently because of age related problems. The Su-34 has been in the works since the 1980s years and earlier versions of two-seat Su-27 bombers were known as the Su-32. But Russia wanted a very new and capable Su-24 replacement and the success of the Su-27 and its even more capable upgrade, the Su-30, led to the Su-34.



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