October 9, 2012:
Recently a Russian judge issued an order forbidding the Russian Air Force to operate its Su-24 bombers near five residential areas in the city of Chelyabinsk (just east of the Ural Mountains on the border between Asia and Europe). The Su-24s moved to the Shagol Air Base outside Chelyabinsk two years ago, and people living near the base soon became aware of the large (43 tons) and loud (it uses its afterburner while taking off) Su-24s.
The air force is appealing the order, insisting that the ban is too restrictive for efficient flight operations. Besides, the elderly Su-24s are being replaced with somewhat quieter aircraft. The problem with that is the Su-24s are not being replaced quickly enough. That's especially important because these elderly aircraft are crashing more often, usually when landing or taking off. This problem also made an impression on the judge in Chelyabinsk. One Su-24 went down last February 13th, and the next day all Russian Su-24s were grounded until the cause of the crash could be determined. This sort of thing is becoming increasingly common. In the last 12 years Russia has lost sixteen Su-24s to accidents. Many more have been retired because of old age. This is one of the reasons Russia is hustling to replace the Su-24s with Su-34s.
It was only four years ago that Russia began building the first (of 20) Su-34 fighter-bombers. These are now replacing the 43 ton Su-24s. The 45 ton Su-34 is yet another variant of the 33 ton Su-27 and is very similar to the 36 ton U.S. F-15E (a two seat fighter-bomber version of the 31 ton F-15C). But Russia still has about 400 Su-24s in service and only twenty Su-34s. It appears that the new Su-34s will not arrive quickly enough to replace most of the elderly Su-24s.
The Su-34 has a full set of defensive and offensive sensors (radars, targeting cameras, laser designators) and electronic warfare gear. It also can carry eight tons of missiles and smart bombs. Russia is currently planning to get 58 Su-34s to replace 300 older Su-24s (most of these are not fit for service). Russia is building the first 24 Su-34s at a cost of $36 million each (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 built are over 25 years old and many have been grounded several times recently because of age related problems. The Su-34 has been in the works for several years and earlier versions of two-seater Su-27 bombers were known as the Su-32.
It may be a decade or more before the last Su-24 is retired, and that might just happen at the Shagol air base. Meanwhile Russian Air Force commanders are learning how to deal with something they never encountered during the 70 years of Soviet rule. Over the last two decades of democracy many Russians, both citizens and judges, have learned that people can use the courts for dealing with government abuse. Despite the revival of police state government powers in Russia, the courts technically have the power to stop the air force from making life miserable for voters living near an air base and some judges are willing to make rulings that were, before 1991, unthinkable.