Warplanes: Sukhoi Sunset


October 26, 2022: In Ukraine, Russia has lost four of its Su-34 fighter-bombers so far. Since the Su-34 entered service in 2014, 17 have been lost, most of them to accidents. That’s 12 percent of the 140 Su-34s the Russians were able to purchase. The last loss was in October and left 14 civilians dead while the two pilots ejected safely. Russian jets have performed poorly over Ukraine this year, which has left Russian combat aircraft with a recent record of poor performance in combat and led to canceled export orders. This is not a sudden development but has been a problem for a long time, especially after the Cold War ended in 1991 and the Russian government was no longer able to purchase large numbers of combat aircraft. After 1991 many state-owned firms were privatized and a lot of defense manufacturers disappeared because they had nothing to sell that anyone wanted. Two exceptions were Sukhoi, which manufactured “Su” aircraft and MiG (Mikoyan and Gurevich) which only had one major product, the MiG-29 fighter, that was considered inferior to similar Sukhoi aircraft. For the last twenty years the government has been desperately trying to keep the MiG company viable but failed. Until the Ukraine debacle Sukhoi was still viable but now Sukhoi is headed for the same fate as MiG. The MiG-29 dates from the 1980s while Sukhoi has introduced two, the Su-24 and Su-35, in the last decade. Both performed poorly in combat over Ukraine. The Su-34 is a ground support fighter-bomber while Su-35 is an air-superiority fighter. Both have been built in small quantities (about 140 each) and depend on export orders to be financially viable. Same with the Su-57 stealth fighter, which is too expensive for the Russian air force and unable to find any export customers.

A year ago, Sukhoi introduced a new single engine stealth fighter called Su-75 Checkmate. Sukhoi displayed a mockup of the new single-engine Su-75 stealth fighter, which is apparently the Russian answer to the similar American F-35. Su-75 is being developed by the same team that designed the Su-57, the Russian answer to the American F-22. The Su-57 proved to be a failure as an F-22 competitor. The Su-75 appears to be a desperate move to salvage something from all the money spent on developing the Su-57.

The Su-75 won’t make its first flight until 2024 and might enter production before the end of the decade. There will be one and two seat versions. The two-seater will be used as a trainer or an electronic warfare aircraft. There were also plans for an unmanned version, without a cockpit, and thus cheaper to build. Russia already has the S-70, a UCAV (unmanned combat aircraft) in production. This stealthy, delta wing aircraft has already been tested accompanying manned fighters and production is underway. Because of the Ukraine fiasco, it is unlikely that the Su-75 will find any export customers and the Russian air force may not be willing to buy.

Problems with recent Sukhoi designs are common. An illuminating example of this is the Su-34. In 2020 the Russian Air Force received the last of 140 Su-34 fighter- bombers. Deliveries began in 2010 but the Su34 did not officially enter service until 2014. Four years of testing and modifying the aircraft were required to get all essential systems working. By 2014 about 60 Su-34s had been built since the first flight in 1990. Before that, in the 1980s, seven test and pre-production Su-34s had been built.

The Su-34 is based on the two-seat trainer version of the Su-27K, an aircraft carrier fighter for aircraft carriers that never got built. In the 1990s the design effort shifted to developing a more complex fighter-bomber to replace the Cold War era Su-24 light bomber. While most nations using Su-24s had retired them by 2014, that was not just because of age, but because they could not afford to operate and maintain them.

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 of only about 600 kilometers. 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. Few Su-24s were built after the 1990s so most still in use date from the late 1980s. Su-24s did not age well and many were retired because of that and the lack of upgrade options. Since 2000, over 20 Su-24s have been lost to accidents. This encouraged Russia and export customers to retire most of their Su-24s.

In 2008, Russia began building the first production model Su-34 fighter-bombers. The 45-ton Su-34 is deliberately similar to the 36-ton American F-15E. Both are two-seat fighter-bombers but F-15E is a variant of the 31-ton F-15C fighter. By 2015 Russia still had about 300 Su-24s in service and only about 60 Su-34s. The new Su-34s will not arrive quickly enough to replace most of the elderly Su-24s. By 2020 there were still about a hundred Su-24s in the Russian air force and about fifty operational with foreign air forces.

The Su-34 has a full set of defensive and offensive sensors (radars, targeting cameras, laser designators) and electronic warfare gear, and it also carries eight tons of missiles and smart bombs. Russia wanted to buy enough Su-34s to replace three-hundred older Su-24s but had to settle for 140. Russia built the first twenty-four Su-34s at a cost of $36 million each, which was 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 still in service are over 30 years old and many have been grounded several times because of age related problems.

The Su-34 was used a lot in Syria after 2015, where the Russians obtained useful data on how the new aircraft performed in a combat zone. Some have also shown up in Libya. In both these combat zones it was confirmed that the Su-34 was easier to maintain than the Su-24, in part because it does not use the swing-wing feature and does have modern engines and electronics that are designed and built to be more reliable and maintainable. There have been no export customers yet, in part because modern fighters can be equipped to carry out most of the tasks the Su-34 and F-15E perform. Moreover, the F-15E is still more fighter than bomber while the Su-34 is basically a well-equipped light bomber.

While the Su-34 saw lots of use in combat zones, it did not have to face modern air defense systems, especially hostile jet fighters. That changed in Ukraine where the Su-34 suffered heavy losses and was often unable to operate because of enemy air defenses, or because it was too difficult for the Russian air force to adequately maintain the Su-34s. After a few months Russia decided to use its combat aircraft mainly to launch air-to-ground missiles while still in Russia. This was because Russia had few combat aircraft to begin with and was unable to buy or even build replacements because of sanctions. Problems with the effectiveness and reliability of Russian warplanes is nothing new but the problems got worse as the Cold War continued and the decline didn’t stop with the Cold War ended. Export customers began to realize that the cheaper Russian warplanes were no bargain compared to more effective and reliable Western designs. Some of those Western designs are now coming from China, which was long a customer for Russian warplanes. That is no longer the case as China found it could build better versions of useful Russian fighters. These designs often copied the Russian originals too much and the Russians threatened repercussions, especially if China sought to export their upgraded Sukhoi’s. In the last decade China has turned to Western designs, often using tech plundered from the Western manufacturers.




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