Why Doesn’t Sukhoi Name Fighters With Block Upgrades?

While the Su-35 grabs the headlines as Russia’s most advanced fighter, the majority of its air force consists of older types. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) “The Military Balance 2018,” Russia operates around 359 “legacy” Flankers to seventy Su-35S, nearly triple the number. The “legacy” Flankers consist of a mix of original Su-27s, various SM upgrades of this type and twin-seat Su-30s.

But how effective are these older Flankers? Are some versions near the capability of the Su-35S?

The first type that Russia operates is listed by IISS as fifty airframes of “Su-27 Flanker.” Presumably, this is referring to the basic Su-27S that entered service in 1985. Also listed are ten airframes of the Su-27UB, which is simply a dual-seat version of this aircraft. This basic variant of the Flanker lacks serious capability relative to modern fighters at range as it has only an ancient radar.

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Russian Air Force operates 359 Su-27 aircraft, including 225 Su-27s, 70 Su-27SMs, 12 Su-27SM3s, and 52 Su-27UBs in service as of January 2014.

The Su-27S is only capable of launching semi-active radar homing missiles, specifically the R-27, that require the fighter to point its nose at the target during the entire duration in which the missile is in flight.

The R-27ER does bring a lot of range and some midpoint guidance functionality to the Su-27S, but it is still a legacy technology that can’t take advantage of modern air-to-air combat tactics that utilize active-radar homing missiles.

It remains a potent force in close-range dogfights with the natural manoeuvrability of the Su- airframe but lacks the helmet-mounted cueing and off-boresight capability of the R-73 missile.

However, while this off-boresight IR missile locking functionality was fairly revolutionary when it came out, newer American craft with AIM-9X and IRIS-T with Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) have unmatched capability against any other missiles in the market, being capable of locking up and shooting at greater angles than any Russian missiles.

The air-to-ground capability of the Su-27S is very basic, being able to only employ unguided weapons. The fighter is listed as a pure “fighter” in “The Military Balance” for this reason; all other Flankers are listed as multirole.

The first Flanker in the multirole category is the Su-27SM, clocking in at forty-seven types. This was a basic modernization of the type, completed in 2003. The modernization mostly improved engines and the existing equipment on the Flanker with an avionics upgrade.

A ground-mapping mode was added to the radar and guided air-to-ground weapons, including the KAB laser-guided bombs and the Kh-29 series of missiles. The new semi-active radar homing R-77 missile was also integrated into the Su-27SM. New engines were also added to Su-27SMs modernized after 2007.

While the Su-27SM upgrade made the Su-27 into a true multirole aircraft, it was very much a “Band-Aid” upgrade done at low cost. A more comprehensive modernization is the Su-27SM3, fourteen of which are in service. The Su-27SM3 is not only a modernization but new Flankers are also being built to the SM3 standard, though some sources state that these were built out of aircraft originally destined for the People’s Republic of China as Su-30MKK.

The Su-27SM3 rolls together a lot of technology that was only seen on export Flankers prior. The Su-30MKI was supposed to be an advanced fighter, but the combination of poor engine performance and NIIP BARS radar make Su-30MKI nothing but a flying dud.

Sukhoi Spin-off of Flankers

The Su-27SM3 mounts Irbis-E PESA radar, which is also used on the Su-35S. New engines are added, which give additional power and range. Additional hardpoints for weapons are also added, bringing the total number to twelve. To accommodate all these new features, the airframe is reinforced to allow for three more tons of armament to be hung from the aircraft.

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In addition to already poor performance, Irbis-E is vulnerable to jamming by modern EW suites owing to a smaller bandwidth, which you can tell from inferior SAR resolution. Combined with substantially short-ranged missiles put Su-35 was at a significant disadvantage in BVR combat. Especially against an adversary with a capable AESA radar offering not only the superior range but also being highly resistant to DRFM jamming from Su-35’s L-175V Khibiny.

Year BuiltRussian NameExport Name
1985Su-27S, Su-27P
1998Su-27SK, Su-27UB, Su-27PU
2002Su-27SMSu-30MKK
2008Su-27SMSu-30MKV
2010Su-27SMSu-30MK2
2011Su-27SM2Su-30MKI, Su-30MKK
2013Su-27SKSu-27SK, Su-27UBK, J-11, J-16
2014Su-27SM2Su-30MKM
2014Su-27MSu-35s
2015Su-27SMSu-30MKA
2016Su-27SM2Su-30MK2
2019Su-27SM3 Su-27SM2Su-30MKA, Su-30Ks, Su-30SME

The cockpit also undergoes some modernization in the Su-27SM3, utilizing four multi-functional displays in place of the old school dials present in earlier Su-27 variants, and integrates a new radio complex to allow for more secure communications.

Developed by NIIR Phazotron for multi-role combat aircraft such as the MiG-29 and the Su-27. The PESA versions were also known as the Sokol. Phazotron’s first PESA radar Zhuk-F for original MIG-35.

The Su-27SM3 is the most advanced aircraft from the original Su-27 single-seater line. But Russia also fields significant numbers of variants of the dual-seat Su-30: The Su-30M2 and Su-30SM.

These advanced Su-30s are broadly similar to the SM3: they have integration with air-to-ground weapons, MFDs in the cockpit and improved engines. The primary advantage they have is the addition of thrust vectoring to the engines, making the aircraft even more manoeuvrable within certain flight envelopes. Su-30s also have twelve weapon hardpoints as standard. However, they don’t mount the powerful Irbis-E PESA radar, making them potentially worse at tracking and engaging targets at long range.

The Su-35S, of course, has the best aspects of all the three latest fighters. It has more powerful thrust-vectoring engines, the Irbis-E PESA radar, a modern cockpit and can shoot almost the full complement of Russian air-to-ground weapons.

Deal Breaker

But the latest modernization of Russia’s lesser fighters is no slouch and has its advantages too: The Su-27SM3 is significantly cheaper than the Su-35S and provides practically the same capability. The Su-30s are potentially better for strike missions given the distributed pilot workload.

The only catch is that the most modern designs; the Su-30M2, SM and the Su-27M3 only comprise about half of the legacy Flanker fleet. The other half is composed of Su-27S, SM and UB which possess greatly reduced capability in comparison. But it is expected that these will be slowly modernized, or be replaced by the new Su-57.

If Russia calls their fighter jet with block upgrades such as Block I, Block II, Block 50, Block 60 or MK1 or MK2, the Su-35s would be called Su-27 Block M (Su-27M). The Su-27 was introduced on 20 May 1977, more than a decade earlier the collapse of the Soviet Union. Su-27M (also known as Su-35s) would be a deal-breaker for many export customers who want something cheap –hence the customer contacted Rostec, but they certainly do not want to buy a 1970s fighter jet.

There are many Russian aircraft that have some aspect of them hyped up to a degree but none comes close to the extent of hype with Su-35 and Flanker family in general. Look beneath the propaganda and they really don’t excel anywhere outside the air shows.

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