Warplanes: Dancing With Thieves

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March 14, 2012: Russia is selling China 48 of its latest jet fighter, the Su-35, for $83 million each. This is unusual, as Russia had stopped selling China weapons in the last few years because of continued Chinese theft of Russian weapons technology. However, this deal has been in the works for over three years. The biggest stumbling block has been the Russian demand for binding guarantees that China would not steal any of the advanced technology found in the Su-35. The deal may yet fall apart if the Russians decide the Chinese can't be trusted, or the Chinese demand a last-minute change that weakens such guarantees.

Russia has been hustling to find export customers for its latest Su-30 model, the Su-35. The Russian Air Force received the first of these two years ago and export customers have been promised early delivery. There are few takers so far. There's just too much competition out there, from late model F-15s and F-16s, plus Rafale, Eurofighter, and Gripen. The U.S. F-35 is on the way as well.

That said, the Su-35 is an impressive piece of work. It’s pitched as more reliable and durable than past Russian fighters, good for 6,000 flight hours (compared to 2,500-4,000 hours for earlier models). The big selling points are the sensors. There is a phased array radar that can spot large targets (like B-52s or AWACS) at up to 400 kilometers and an infrared (heat sensing) passive radar with a range of 80 kilometers. The active radar can also track targets on the ground and the Su-35 can use smart bombs. The Su-35 is more maneuverable than earlier Su-30 types.

At one point, the Su-35 was touted as competition for the F-22. It isn't. That competition would be the PAK-FA, which had its first flight two years ago. Four years ago the Su-35 had its first flight. The Su-35 had been in development since the 1990s. At one point it was called the Su-37 but the name was changed back to Su-35. Since the 1990s, two different Su-35 prototypes were built. There were many disagreements over what direction the development should take, and by the late 1990s, the project was basically suspended for lack of funding.

The Su-35 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the original, 33 ton, Su-27 and has much better electronics. It can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs nearly twice as much as the Su-27. That would be some $80 million (for a barebones model), about what a top-of-the-line F-16 costs. The Su-27 was originally developed to match the F-15, which is larger than the single engine F-16. The larger size of the Su-27/35 allows designers to do a lot more with it in terms of modifications and enhancements. The Su-35 will carry a 30mm autocannon (with 150 rounds) and up to eight tons of munitions, hanging from 12 hard points.

The new engines being used in the Su-35 have suffered some development problems. The Russians have always had difficulties with their high end military engines and that tradition continues. Currently, the Russians say that problems with the new engine are fixed.

 


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