Warplanes: Catching Up With Catching Up

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October 9, 2021: Russia finally got its upgraded Su-30SM2 (Super Sukhoi) fighter-bomber flying. The prototype was spotted in late September 2021 flying near an airbase. This upgrade is over a year late because the last report was that deliveries of Su-30SM2 aircraft would begin in 2020. Covid19 disrupted the SU-30SM1 work on the first prototype and flight tests. The upgrade consists of replacing the engines with more powerful versions and upgrading the radar and fire-control system to handle more types of smart bombs and missiles. The SM1 is an effort to merge the SM and SU-35 models so that they have nearly identical components and performance. The air force and navy have already received about 110 Su-30SMs with about 30 more on order. Once the SM2 testing is complete the Su-30SM under construction will be upgraded so that they leave the factory SM2s.

The Su-30SM is the Russian air force version of the earlier Su-30MKI built for export to India. The SM version has the non-Russian components added by India replaced by Russian components. The 38-ton SU-30MKI is most similar to the two seat American F-15E fighter-bomber. Even though equipped with Western electronics, the MKI costs about half as much as an equivalent F-15. The Su-30MKI can carry more than 8 tons of bombs and hit targets over 1,500 kilometers away. Like all Russian combat aircraft, they are not designed and built to last for decades, like Western aircraft. That is slowly changing and the latest version of the original Su-27; the single-seat Su-35, is good for 6,000 flight hours and has some stealth capabilities added. The Su-35 was an apparently successful effort to offer some competition, as a Generation 4.5 fighter, for the American F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, which set the standard for Generation 5 aircraft. Russia’s Su-57 effort to build a Gen 5 fighter failed but a lot of the tech worked and that was transferred to the SU-30s to produce the Su-35, Su-30MKI, Su-30SM and Su-30SMs.

The Su-30 is basically a fighter-bomber version of the earlier single-seat Su-27. The Su-27/30 was similar to the evolution of the American F-15, which started out in 1976 as a single-seat fighter and was joined in 1986 by a very successful two-seat F-15E fighter bomber version.

While 2,000 of the single-seat F-15s were produced, only about 700 Su-27s were built, most of them between 1984, when the first Su-27 entered service, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, in 1996, came the upgraded Su-27, the two-seat Su-30. With the Su-30, Su-27 production stopped and over 300 (including license built ones in China and India) Su-30 have been built with more on the way. About 520 F-15Es have been built so far.

The smaller, but not as successful MiG-29 entered service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with about 900 of them exported. The 22-ton aircraft is roughly comparable to the F-16 but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics but also making the airframe more robust.

The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time (early 80s), Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. Didn’t work out that way. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. Eventually Russia offered and upgrade to up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This has not been easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic) which indicates a flawed initial design.

Western warplanes are built to last longer. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air. But advances in engineering, materials, and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to these areas will fly over a thousand hours a year more than what they would fly in peacetime. The current planned refurbishment program will extend F-16C flight hours to 10,000 (10K) or more.

The U.S. Air Force will refurbish several hundred of its 22-ton F-16 fighters, because their replacement, the 31-ton F-35, did not arrive on time. Its F-16s are old, and by 2016, many were too old to operate. The average age of existing F-16s is over 20 years, and the average aircraft has over 5,000 flight hours on it. In 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest model (a Block 25) F-16s passed 7,000 hours. While older F-16s and F-15s are being retired for their age, they tend to have at least twice as many flight hours as their Russian counterparts. Because of greater durability and ease of maintenance, the seemingly more expensive Western fighters are actually cheaper in the lifetime of an aircraft because they last longer and are easier to maintain than equivalent Russian designs. China boasts that its versions (licensed or illegal) Russian aircraft are improvements in part because they are modified to come off the production line more like Western aircraft. China also adopted the Western practice of having combat pilots spend 150-200 hours in the air each year, in addition to use of realistic flight simulators.

 


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