* Although the Russian aerospace industry fell on hard times after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Su-27 has proven to be a promising success story for the Sukhoi organization. New variants of the Flanker are being developed and the type promises to stay in service for decades into the 21st century.
* The fact that the Sukhoi organization referred to the Su-27K naval Flanker as the "Su-33" reflected changes in Russian society since the end of the USSR. The Sukhoi OKB pursued new variants of the Su-27 family and gave them a bewildering range of new designations, partly as marketing ploys, and they weren't taken too seriously. One Western observer commented on the Sukhoi OKB in 1995: "They produced more new designations than airframes this year."
Given the difficult economic and political environment of the new Russia, unsurprisingly many of these new variants did not go farther than prototypes, or even just models and mockups. However, Sukhoi was healthier than its competitors, apparently largely due to the political skills and influence of Director General Mikhail Simonov, who succeeded Pavel Sukhoi after his death in 1975, and the organization would demonstrate a surprising ability to rise in the face of adversity.
* While the original Su-27 had good range, it still did not have enough range for certain air-defense tasks required by the PVO, and so prototypes were built of Su-27s featuring a retractable inflight refueling probe, similar to that fitted on the Su-27K. The probe was offset to the left side of the nose, and to accommodate it the IRST was offset to the right. One single-seat prototype was built and designated "Su-27P", and one twin-seat prototype was built and designated "Su-27PU".
The two-seat Su-27PU was felt to offer more promise, since long-range missions really require two crewmen, and so two improved Su-27PU prototypes were built with dual controls; long-range navigation avionics and improved communications; and an updated N001 radar, providing some air-to-ground attack capability and the ability to track and engage multiple aerial targets at one time. The first of these two prototypes flew at the end of December 1989.
Sukhoi offered an option to allow an Su-27PU to be used as a "fighter controller", sort of a mini-AWACS, with the back-seater using the radar and data links to control other fighters. However, the PVO wasn't buying. The service was in a difficult financial situation and preferred to stay with the proven MiG-31 for the long-range interception role. Five Su-27PUs, glorified with the designation of "Su-30", ended up in PVO service in the training role, though some sources suggest the only advanced equipment they had were the inflight refueling probes.
* The Sukhoi OKB did not give up on the idea and began to market variations on the concept. An "Su-30M" two-seat multirole variant was proposed for Russian use, and a few may have been built in the mid-1990s for evaluation, though details are very unclear. More significantly, the Sukhoi organization proposed an export variant, the "Su-30MK", where "MK" stood for "Modernizirovannyi Kommercheskiy / Modernized Commercial".
An Su-27UB dressed up as a demonstrator for the Su-30MK was displayed at the Paris Air Salon in 1993. It featured twelve stores attachments, including wingtip AAM launch rails, three pylons under each wing, a pylon under each engine nacelle, and two pylons in tandem in the "tunnel" between the engines. It was advertised as being able to carry 8 tonnes (8.8 tons) of external stores. Along with conventional dumb high-explosive and fuel-air explosive bombs, cluster munitions, and unguided rocket pods, it was to be able to carry:
Typical warloads would be four Kh-29, Kh-31, or KAB-500 class munitions; or a single KAB-1500 class munition.
A much more optimized Su-30MK demonstrator, rebuilt from the first production Su-27PU, was displayed in 1994, sporting a snazzy desert camouflage paint scheme. Some Western observers shrugged it all off as an attempt to sell "old wine in new bottles", but Sukhoi's marketing blitz would pay off handsomely.BACK_TO_TOP
* In 1996 the Indian Air Force (IAF) ordered 40 "Su-30MKI" fighters at a cost of $1.8 billion USD. The Su-30MKI was to be based on the Su-30MK demonstrators, but with major enhancements, such as further updated avionics, including a much improved radar and a high proportion of non-Russian kit; canard fins; and thrust-vectored engines. The Su-30MKI would definitely be "new wine in new bottles", amounting to a true next-generation Su-27. The deal also included the latest Russian missiles for the new fighters.
The sales agreement was complicated in form and implementation. The full-specification Su-30MKI did not even exist at the time the deal was cut, and so the 40 aircraft were delivered in what amounted to "blocks" of increasing capability, with early aircraft to be upgraded to full specification later. The initial block was punctually delivered in 1997 and consisted of eight "Su-30K" machines, which were basically similar to the Russian Su-27PU and no relation to the navalized Russian Navy Su-27K carrier fighter. The Su-30Ks were brought in by Antonov An-124 jumbo jet cargolifters, with each flight carrying two Su-30Ks in knocked-down form. The IAF accepted the first Su-30K into formal service on 11 July 1997.
While these deliveries were in progress, the Sukhoi organization was putting together the first Su-30MKI prototype, a conversion of an Su-27PU, with this aircraft performing its first flight on 1 July 1997. It was essentially an airframe demonstrator, featuring:
The original Su-27 was agile for its size, but these improvements took the agility to a new level. Test pilot Vyacheslav Averyanov flew the prototype at an airshow in Bangalore in December 1998, wowing the crowd with its thrust-vectored maneuverability, but the demonstrator was lost in an accident in June 1999 in an appearance at the Paris Air Salon. Averyanov got a little confused in his maneuvers and bounced the aircraft off the turf. It went back into the sky, but not for long; Averyanov and his back-seater, Vladimir Shendrick, ejected safely before the aircraft fell back down and was destroyed. However, a second Su-30MKI prototype, another conversion of an Su-27PU, had performed its first flight on 23 March 1998, and the loss of the first prototype did not delay the program. Averyanov performed a magnificent display in the machine at the Moscow MAKS airshow in August 1999.
Delays were accumulating on the Indian side, however, since the IAF was slow to determine the exact configuration of the avionics suite for the Su-30MKI. The avionics specification was finalized in March 1998, with the primary elements including:
The rest of the avionics was Russian, and overall integration of the avionics suite was to be performed by a Russian subcontractor, RPKB Ramenskoye.
There was also a change in the delivery plan. Instead of moving through successively improved blocks of machines, the IAF wanted to go straight from deliveries of the Su-30K configuration to deliveries of the full Su-30MKI configuration. Since the full configuration wasn't ready at that time, in the fall of 1998 India ordered another ten Su-30Ks, similar or identical to the original batch of eight, with the new batch delivered in 1999. That meant India acquired 18 Su-30Ks as a stepping stone to obtaining 32 Su-30MKIs.
The first preproduction Su-30MKI performed its initial flight on 26 November 2000, with three more preproduction machines completed in 2001, with all four used in test, trials, and evaluation. A fifth preproduction machine was built but only used for ground tests. The first full production Su-30MKI performed its initial flight in late 2001, and the first batch of ten was delivered by An-124 in the summer of 2002. Deliveries of all 32 Su-30MKIs are now complete. It wasn't entirely clear from reports what happened to the Su-30Ks for some time; as it turned out, instead of being upgraded to Su-30MKI spec, they were returned to Russia in 2007, to be refurbished and sold to Angola in 2013.
On 28 December 2000, well before the delivery of the first Su-30MKI to India, the Russians signed an agreement with India giving Hindustan Aircraft LTD (HAL) the right to license-build up to 140 Su-30MKIs. Initial production will be from kits provided by the Russians, but HAL intends to eventually handle complete fabrication of the aircraft. By 2020, ignoring attrition, the IAF will have 190 Su-30MKIs in service, giving India a formidable air combat capability, based on first-class combat aircraft that combine excellent performance with tactical flexibility and, with inflight refueling, long range.
The deal, which also included 200 T-90 main battle tanks, was worth $3.3 billion USD, and was the biggest single arms agreement ever signed between Russia and India. By 2010, India had about 100 Su-30MKIs in service, and in that year awarded a contract to Sukhoi to update the oldest machines to a more modern spec, with the latest radar and support for advanced weapons like the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.
* There have been other export successes for the modernized Su-27s. The ten Su-30MKK / J-11 machines obtained by China in 2000 were mentioned earlier. These machines are not actually all that similar to the Indian Su-30MKI, amounting to something of a separate and more conservative branch from the original Su-30MK demonstrators.
The Su-30MKK is a two-seater multirole aircraft with inflight refueling, twelve stores attachments, and the capability of carrying the latest Russian AAMs and smart weapons, but it does not have the canards or vectored-thrust engines of the IAF Su-30MKI. The Su-30MKK has a modernized Russian-built avionics suite, including:
The avionics are linked together with considerable processing power using a digital databus scheme, with the aircraft's fire-control system integrating the radar, optical sensor system, helmet-mounted sight, and IFF interrogator. The Su-30MKK also has slightly increased internal fuel tankage, as well as stronger landing gear and airframe reinforcement to handle increased takeoff weight.
Following the flight in March 1999 of a modified Su-27PU prototype to evaluate the new avionics suite, the first production Su-30MKK performed its initial flight on 19 May 1999, with Averyanov at the controls. The first ten machines were delivered in a block on 20 December 2000, being ferried to China and greeted with considerable fanfare. The remaining 28 in the order were delivered through 2001. The Chinese were very impressed with the fact that the contract had been fulfilled so well and quickly, and a year later China ordered 38 more Su-30MKKs, which were delivered during 2002 and 2003,
These 76 Su-30MKKs were for the Chinese air force. In January 2003, the Chinese navy ordered 28 more, with a modified radar and fire-control system for launching the Kh-31A antiship missile. These machines were given the designation of "Su-30MK2". Deliveries may have begun in 2003 and more may have been ordered. All the Chinese Su-30MK derivatives are candidates for upgrades, such as improved radar or engines.
Other foreign sales include:
* Many of the sophisticated features of the Su-30MKI were to be derived from another advanced Su-27 variant, the single-seat "Su-27M", designed by a team under Nikolai Nikitin of the Sukhoi OKB beginning in the early 1980s. The idea was to build a single-seat multirole fighter that could excel as an interceptor, an air-superiority fighter, and a strike aircraft, to complement or replace the first-generation Su-27S in VVS service.
That was a demanding requirement, particularly because in many cases aircraft designed for multiple roles don't necessarily excel at any one of them. The Su-27M needed to carry avionics for air combat, strike navigation, and targeting of laser or TV guided smart munitions, and was to have an advanced FBW system for high agility. It was also to be fitted with canards and "wet" tailfins for additional fuel. The new kit meant an increase in empty weight and a corresponding degradation in performance. The Sukhoi OKB felt the weight increase could be dealt with though improved AL-31FM or AL-35 engines, and through reductions in weight using composite materials and lithium-aluminum alloys.
In reality, the Su-27M ended up to be not so much a particular variant of Su-27 as a series of increasingly refined demonstrators. The first in the series, a conversion from an Su-27S, flew on 28 June 1988 with Oleg Tsoi at the controls. This machine, the "T10M-1", was apparently was little different from a standard Su-27 except for addition of a refueling probe derived from the Su-27P, plus a new "glass cockpit".
It was followed by four more conversions and six preproduction Su-27Ms, with these machines designated "T10M-2" through "T10M-12", the designation "T10M-11" being skipped in the sequence. They added features such as twin-wheel nose gear; a new wing with eight stores pylons plus increased fuel capacity; canards; square-topped larger tailfins like those of the Su-30MKK; and the Bars N011 radar. The type was designated "Su-35" for the export market. In 1992, the T10M-3 aircraft was publicly flown at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK, where OKB chief Mikhail Simonov claimed it would be production by 1995. Apparently other Sukhoi OKB officials present at this announcement went pale. It couldn't happen.
The Sukhoi OKB further modified the T10M-11 machine, consolidating the various improvements of the Su-27M, most particularly AL-31FU engines with two-dimensional thrust vectoring. This demonstrator, given the designation of "Su-37", also featured an advanced glass cockpit, with three multifunction displays, a sidestick controller, and a nonmoving, pressure-sensitive throttle. Initial flight was on 2 April 1996 with Yevgeny Frilov at the controls. Frilov flew the Su-37 at Farnborough in September 1996, performing maneuvers that dazzled the crowd.
The thrust vectored engines were prototypes with a limited operational life, and the T10M-11 was then refitted with conventional engines, plus new avionics and a new FBW system that made it as maneuverable as had been with the AL-31FU powerplants. The "Su-37" designation was abandoned -- there were still some limits to the willingness of the Sukhoi organization to making up new designations -- the aircraft being described once again as an "Su-35". This machine was lost in an accident on 19 December 2002, pilot Yuriy Vaschuk ejecting safely. A two-seater "Su-35UB" demonstrator, which was essentially an Su-30MKK with some modifications, was flown in August 2000.
Mockups of more advanced Su-35 concepts have more recently been displayed, featuring the latest glass cockpits, with large color flat-panel displays, a wide-angle HUD, "hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS)" controls, and a complete avionics system upgrade.
* The Su-35 and Su-35UB seemed to be basically similar to the Su-30KI and Su-30MKK with various differences in avionics kit, and sorting between the two closely parallel lines of development is confusing.
The Su-35 line did pave the way for an upgrade program for Russian Su-27s. About 700 Su-27s of all types had been built up to the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dust took some time to settle, the process including the dissolution of the PVO and its absorption into the VVS in 1998. The Su-27 remains the first-line fighter of the VVS, serving in roughly a dozen air regiments. The VVS is proud of the Su-27, and brightly colored "Cranes" are internationally prominent in Russian aerobatic demonstration teams such as the Russian Knights.
The Su-27 promises to remain good for many more years of effective service, particularly because financial constraints have cut their flight hours, extending their airframe lives. However, to remain effective weapons, they have to be upgraded. The Flanker upgrade program remained murky for some time, with the VVS considering at least seven different upgrade paths and the Sukhoi organization flying a confusing set of "Su-30KN" test configurations. Initial concepts proved too ambitious, and it wasn't until 2002 that a consensus began to emerge on a "Su-27SM" upgrade.
The prototype Su-27SM, upgraded from a late-production Su-27S, performed its initial flight on 27 December 2002 and made its public debut at the MAKS airshow in Moscow in August 2003. The full-specification Su-27SM upgrade features:
A midair refueling probe is not part of the upgrade, since the VVS didn't specify that as part of the requirement. Apparently not all Su-27s will be upgraded for air-to-ground capabilities.
The first 24 Su-27SM upgrades were complete by late 2006, with another batch of twelve aircraft in the pipeline and orders for more upgrades expected. A less ambitious upgrade program is also being implemented for the naval Su-27K machines. The initial phase only involves fit of improved avionics, with no glass cockpit installation. A second phase would involve a radar upgrade to support long-range AAMs and antiship missiles.
As a follow-on to the Su-27SM upgrades, the Sukhoi organization proposed the "Su-35S", AKA "Su-27M2", to the VVS, with a demonstrator built with company funds flying in 2007. The Su-35S is a single-seater with NPO Saturn 117S engines with thrust vectoring and a new, fully digital avionics system. The thrust vectoring system improves agility and allows deletion of the canards, reducing weight and drag, thereby improving performance. The VVS was impressed, obtaining 48, with initial deliveries in 2011 and final deliveries scheduled for 2015.
In 2012, the VVS also announced order of a batch of 30 "Su-30SM" two-seaters, this variant being a domestic equivalent of the export Su-30MKI. Initial deliveries were before the end of the year, with an order for a second batch of 30 following.BACK_TO_TOP
* One of the most unusual Su-27 derivatives is the "Su-34", a dedicated strike variant with a completely redesigned front fuselage that provides side-by-side seating. Development of the "T-10V", as the Sukhoi OKB originally designated it, began in the early 1980s. The first prototype flew in April 1990, with the designation of "Su-27IB", but curiously it was kept a secret for several years.
The end result of the secrecy was a bit of confusion over the type. Mikhail Simonov originally claimed it was an "operational trainer for carrier landing", with this story reinforced by a picture of the Su-27IB coming in for a landing on the KUZNETZOV, though sharp-eyed observers noted that the aircraft did not have an arresting hook extended and was likely only making a "touch and go" for the cameraman.
When details finally became available, the story about the carrier trainer evaporated, though as discussed below it doesn't appear that Simonov was lying. The Su-27IB was revealed instead to be a strike aircraft, with the "IB" standing for "Istrebitel Bomardirvoschik / Fighter Bomber". It was intended to replace the Su-24M "Fencer". Sukhoi OKB officials referred to the type originally as the "Su-32" and then the "Su-34". VVS brass originally stuck to the Su-27IB designation, but eventually came around to the Su-34 designation since it was, after all, visibly a different aircraft from the classic Su-27.
The initial prototype was an SU-27UB mated with the new forward fuselage for aerodynamic validation, with a full-specification prototype flying in 1993. Su-27 wings, tail, and engines are retrained, though canards have been added. The Su-34 has fixed-geometry engine inlets, meaning it is not capable of high supersonic speeds, but that was apparently not regarded as important for the strike role. A retractable inflight refueling probe was added, while the dorsal airbrake was deleted.
The aircrew fly the aircraft using a modern glass cockpit with wide-angle HUD and color flat-panel cockpit displays. The seats have a massage function to reduce crew discomfort and fatigue on long flights. The new side-by-side cockpit is said to be roomy and comfortable, giving enough headroom to allow a crewperson to stand up. It even has a toilet and a galley, though it is also said that its cockpit visibility is unsurprisingly inferior to that of fighter Su-27 variants. The cockpit is protected from ground fire by a titanium "bathtub", and titanium armor is also used to protect fuel tanks. Entry to the cockpit is through a ladder in the nosegear well.
The total weight of added armor is estimated at about 1.5 tonnes (1.65 tons). The SU-34 has the twelve stores attachments of the SU-30MK series and a total warload capacity of up to 8,000 kilograms (17,635 pounds), including unguided bombs and rockets plus the latest Russian smart air-to-ground munitions. The GSh-301 cannon is retained, and the Su-34 can carry short range and long range AAMs, allowing it to take care of itself if attacked by adversary fighters.
The maximum takeoff weight has increased by 50% compared to the Su-27UB. The airframe has been reinforced, and the undercarriage has been accordingly changed completely, with the main gear having tandem wheels on longer struts, and a two-wheel nosegear that retracts backwards. Other features include:
The appearance of the Su-34 is clearly different from that of any other Su-27 variant, even to the untrained eye. Some find its appearance exotic and science-fictional, others find it hideously ugly, but all agree that it has a very unusual appearance.
The Sukhoi organization also considered two specialized derivatives of the Su-27IB during the early years of development:
It does not appear that prototypes were built of either variant, though it is plausible that subsystems were flight evaluated. They were to follow the bomber variant into production, but the Su-34 has been slow to enter service. The program remained generally stalled through the late 1990s, when it was originally supposed to go into service. By the beginning of 2003, only two prototypes and four preproduction machines had been completed.
The Russian Air Force ordered a batch of 32 production machines in 2008; by the time first deliveries took place, the program had dragged on so long that the design had to be upgraded with a more satisfactory radar system before putting it into production. The first aircraft did not reach formal service until late 2011. Final deliveries of that batch were in late 2013; a second batch of 92 was ordered in 2012, with deliveries to 2020.
The Sukhoi organization has also tried to promote the Su-34 on the export market. A preproduction machine was displayed at the Paris air show in 1995 dressed up as the "Su-32FN", where "FN" stood for "Fighter Navy". This was to be a ground-based maritime strike aircraft, built around the Sea Dragon mission system, which incorporates a sea-search radar, electro-optic system, magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear, and sonobuoys. External stores would include antiship and antisubmarine munitions. Similarly, in 1999 another preproduction aircraft was displayed at the Moscow MAKS air show as the "Su-32MF" multirole aircraft, where "MF" stands of course for "Multi-Function (MnogoFunktsionalniy)". There has been some interest but so far no export orders.
* As far as the tale about the carrier-based trainer went, the Sukhoi organization had considered a two-seat Su-27 trainer with side-by-side seating, beginning work on the "T-10KM2" in the late 1980s. This variant actually emerged a decade later as a prototype for the "Su-27KUB" two seat trainer, which is essentially an Su-27K / Su-33 carrier-based fighter -- with folding wings, arresting hook, and so on -- mated to a side-by-side cockpit. The initial prototype was a conversion of an Su-27K / Su-33 and performed its first flight on 29 April 1999, with Pugachev and Sergey Melnikov at the controls. It went on to perform trials on a ground-based ski-jump beginning in September. The prototype featured slightly enlarged wings and tail surfaces.
A side-by-side cockpit arrangement was regarded as more effective for carrier operations training, since it gives the instructor a better view than he would have as a back-seater, an important consideration for "hairy" carrier landings. As the initial Su-27IB / Su-34 prototype was basically a modified Su-27UB with a side-by-side cockpit with few other optimizations, in a sense it could be regarded as having been a demonstrator for the Su-27KUB as well, and Simonov was probably just sounding out interest in the concept, or at the very least trying to keep the T-10KM2 effort alive.
In side profile, the Su-27KUB looks deceptively like a single-seater Su-27, since it retains the standard large radome and the IRST in front of the canopy, through in top profile it more resembles the Su-34 with the side-by-side cockpit. Prospects for production are actually fair, with the type showing potential not merely for training, but in strike, reconnaissance, countermeasures, and tanker roles as well. It has even been considered as a possible airborne early warning aircraft, carrying an electronically steered radar antenna in a spine canoe fairing.
Development of the Su-27KUB has continued, with a second prototype built and both machines being used to evaluate improved avionics and other kit. There has also been talk of developing an "Su-30K2" variant that features the same two-seat aircraft configuration but with a ground based airframe lacking folding wings, arresting gear, and so on.BACK_TO_TOP
* Despite the difficulties of conducting business in Russia in the post-Soviet era, the Sukhoi organization has been able to maintain forward momentum on the Su-27, working with the VVS on upgrades and energetically pursuing an aggressive program of foreign sales. The Indian Air Force deal was a particular coup, and the IAF's possession of such powerful long-range fighters has been a worry to other nations in the region, such as Pakistan and Australia.
The actual combat effectiveness of the Su-27 is hotly debated. In the absence of much in the way of actual combat experience for the type, at least in terms of confronting Western combat aircraft that could be presumed to be its peers, such arguments tend to be legalistic and tedious, with both sides simply gathering up, or sometimes inventing, facts to justify their prejudices and ignoring any facts that don't fit the premise. Oddly enough, in some cases Western analysts have taken an optimistic view of the Su-27's capabilities, in order to support new Western aircraft programs to counter the threat.
The comparison game is also played with other Russian aircraft. Many analysts believe that advanced versions of the MiG-29 are a better value for the Russian state at this time, particularly in light of its lower cost, and that the political influence of the Sukhoi OKB has led the country to adopt the wrong solution. A well-conducted and thorough comparative flight evaluation of the Su-27 versus, say, the F-15 and F-16 would provide much more substantial information on the strengths and weaknesses of the Sukhoi fighter.
Apparently USAF pilots in F-15Cs took on Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs in cooperative training exercises in early 2004; the two aircraft detected each other at about the same range and time, but the IAF pilots were quicker on the draw with their AA-10 Alamo AAMs and got an edge in simulated "kills". That may have been due simply to superior training, as it turned out the IAF pilots got about 300 hours of flight time per year compared to 250 for their USAF adversaries. Either way, the Americans were embarrassed. Su-27 pilots wouldn't be too surprised: they love the machine.BACK_TO_TOP
* Soviet-era Su-27 variants and derivatives include:
Post-Soviet era Su-27 variants and derivatives include:
Su-30 / Su-34 series variants include:
* I'm not really a great Su-27 fan myself. It's a little on the big side to be particularly attractive as a fighter, and I much prefer the MiG-29. However, it is an impressive aircraft and Russia's premier fighter.
* Sources include:
* Revision history:
v1.0 / 01 aug 00 v1.0.1 / 01 feb 02 / Minor corrections. v1.0.2 / 01 jun 02 / Added comments about Sukhoi win of PAK-FA. v1.1.0 / 01 feb 04 / Split into chapters, interim general rewrite. v1.2.0 / 01 mar 04 / Final general rewrite. v1.2.1 / 01 aug 06 / Review & polish. v1.2.2 / 01 jul 09 / Review & polish. v1.2.3 / 01 may 10 / Review & polish. v1.3.0 / 01 apr 12 / Removed Berkut & T-50 for discussion elsewhere. v1.4.0 / 01 mar 14 / Su-30Ks sold to Angola.BACK_TO_TOP