Warplanes: Russia Chases India And China

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February 18, 2016: Despite the low oil prices and economic sanctions Russia has found the cash to buy desperately needed new fighters for its air force. As the years went by Russian air force generals pointed out that the Cold War era MiG-28s and Su-27s were falling further behind the regularly upgraded Western fighters. Finally new Russian fighters began arriving in 2013 when the first of 60 Su-30SM fighter bombers entered service. Before the first Su-30SM order Russia had only eleven Su-30s in service, far fewer than China and India. All Russia could afford until 2013 was the older Su-27. Russia has sent Su-30SMs to Syria where they are gaining valuable combat experience and are, so far, holding up well. The Su-35S, which spent two decades in development and was delayed by repeated problems with new technology (electronics and engines). This delayed delivery of aircraft reliable enough for regular combat until early 2016. Thus the Su-35S is now being put to the test with four recently arriving in.

The Su-30SM is a Russian Air Force version of the Su-30MKI that has been exported (to India, Algeria, and Malaysia) since 2002. It is a two-seat jet fighter-bomber similar to the American F-15E. Since the early 1990s Russian defense manufacturers have survived on exports. The Russian military halted most equipment purchases after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That collapse was largely due to financial and economic mismanagement by the communist government. The Soviet Union was, literally, bankrupt and it took most of the 1990s to sort it all out.

After 2000 the Russian military gradually resumed buying. Initially, the armed forces could not afford the best stuff (like the Su-30MKI). That gradually changed and now the Russian military is catching up. The Su-30SM is the first Su-30 model for the Russian Air Force that uses thrust vectoring (the ability of the engine to direct its exhaust a bit and enhance maneuverability).

The Su-30MKI, even though equipped with Western electronics, costs less than $50 million each, about half of what an equivalent F-15 costs. The Russian version will have Russian electronics and other Russian made gear but otherwise be nearly identical to the Su-30MKI. The Su-30MKI/SM each weigh about 38 tons and each can carry more than eight tons of bombs and hit targets over 1,500 kilometers away. The Su-30SM is able to use a large range of missiles and smart bombs.

The Su-35 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the original, 33 ton, Su-27, and has much better electronics. The Su-35 began in the late 1980s as a customized (for more maneuverability) version of the Su-27. Development continued the resulted in the Su-35, an aircraft that can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs at least fifty percent more than the Su-27. That would be some $60 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 has some stealth capabilities (or at least be less detectable to most fighter aircraft radars). Russia claims the Su-35 has a useful life of 6,000 flight hours and engines good for 4,000 hours. Russia provides world-class avionics, plus a very pilot-friendly cockpit. The use of many thrusters and fly-by-wire produced an aircraft even more maneuverable than Su-30s (which were Su-27s tweaked to be extremely agile). The Su-35 was in development for two decades before it was declared ready for production in 2005. But even then there were problems with the new engines that gave it its superior performance. Russia says the engine problems are solved, but only time will tell if that is true. The Su-35 is not meant to be a direct rival for the F-22 because the Russian aircraft is not nearly as stealthy.

The Su-35 carries a 30mm autocannon (with 150 rounds) and up to eight tons of munitions, hanging from 12 hard points. This reduces stealthiness, which the F-22 and F-35 get around by using an internal bay for bombs and missiles. But if the maneuverability and advanced electronics of the proposed Su-35 live up to the promises, the aircraft would be more than a match for every fighter out there except the F-22. Since the Su-35 is to sell for well under $100 million each, there should be a lot of buyers.

Russia still has a smaller force of modern fighters than China and India (who could afford the most modern Russian warplanes) and far behind the United States. Whether or not Russia catches up soon depends, as it did throughout the Cold War, money.

 


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