Warplanes: Su-34 To The Rescue

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December 18, 2020: At the end of 2020 the Russian Air Force received the last of 124 Su-34 light bombers. Deliveries began in 2010 but the Su-34 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. 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. Few Su-24s were built after 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, about 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, an aircraft 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 124. 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.

As a capable light-bomber role the Su-34 is also expected to assume many of missions the rapidly aging Tu-22 "Backfire" heavy bombers. This is a 126-ton, twin-engine, swing-wing aircraft with a crew of four including two pilots, a bombardier and defensive systems operator. It normally carries 12 tons of bombs and missiles (including cruise missiles) but can carry 24 tons over shorter distances. Max speed is 2,300 kilometers an hour and combat radius is 2,400 kilometers on internal fuel. The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the 45-ton American FB-111. Russia wanted to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging Tu-22M3Ms. That is not going to happen so the Tu-22M3Ms may need another refresh before retirement. That is also unlikely so the Su-34, which can handle inflight refueling, is seen as the solution.

A Russian program to refurbish and modernize its Cold War era Tu-22s keeps running into more problems. The Russian Air Force wanted to design a new heavy bomber but despite making a good case for that, the money wasn’t there and with the 2013 collapse in oil prices and 2014 economic sanctions, the defense budget problems were not going to change any time soon. In response to that a series of Tu-22 upgrades was undertaken. This seemed to work, except for one problem. Three times in the last three years one of these upgraded aircraft have crashed. The latest accident, at the end of 2019, involved an engine failure on takeoff. The pilot made a successful belly landing with minimal damage. The two other accidents were less successful and led to destruction of the aircraft and deaths of crew members.

Meanwhile the upgrades proceed. The Tu-22M3M is a major upgrade of the existing Tu-22M3 long-range bombers. The M3M version gets new engines and 80 percent of its electronic systems replaced, largely with more powerful systems. The M3M has all digital controls and added EW (electronic warfare) detection, defensive and offensive capabilities. There is an AESA radar and a new fire control system that can handle a larger variety of missiles and smart bombs. The Su-34 also has all of this. The upgrades and refurbishment extend the life of these heavy bombers to 45 years. The 30 late model Tu-22M3s selected for the M3M upgrade were built in the late-1980s and early 1990s. That means these would be able to serve into the 2030s. Most of them anyway. Upgraded Russian warplanes have more accidents than their Western counterparts. That’s another reason the Su-34 is seen as the only reasonable solution to the departing Tu-22s and possible a good enough reason to get a few more Su-34s built.

 


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