The Su-35 takes that title by a long shot. It’s marketed as ‘world-beating’ – something it doesn’t come close to.
Despite being marketed as 4++ gen, Su-35 has the least capable avionics suite among its competitors. It’s the only major 4th gen. aircraft without an AESA radar or any form of Sensor Fusion. The Irbis-E is marketed as having a 350 km range against a 3 m^2 targets while in reality that’s only in cued-search in a tiny field of view (FoV). What’s rarely stated is that in normal volume search that range shrinks down to 200 km.
More importantly, Su-35’s radar has a maximum targeting range of 250 km – even for a target of B-52 size.
We also see this in Irbis-E’s flight test video where it allegedly detected a single target from 268 km but wasn’t able to get a track until 100 km – all the while having just a single target to track.
This shows just how misleading the 350 km range figure is in the real world. In air-ground, Su-35’s radar can’t engage a Destroyer beyond 100 km and an aircraft carrier beyond 200 km. This is in an era when you’ve F-16V’s APG-83 radar having a 370 km range just for creating high-resolution SAR maps.
Not to mention that Irbis-E has comparable Synthetic Aperture resolution (3 meters) as F-15E’s APG-70 radar from the 1980s. The OLS-35 marketed as ‘anti-stealth’ is the least capable IRST on any modern Fighter as OLS-35 uses a non-imaging IR sensor, which you can tell from the number of targets it can track – 4.
An Imaging IR sensor allows you to track in double or triple digits. Typhoon’s Pirate for instance can track 500 targets.
The Su-35 is marketed as having superior performance in the visual range – what’s often ignored is that Su-35’s R-73M/R-74 lacks an Imaging IR seeker – being restricted to 60° off-boresight compared to Western counterparts (AIM-9x, ASRAAM, Python-4) having >90° off-boresight angle along with much better IRCMs & clutter rejection.
Off-boresight missiles play a far bigger role than raw kinematic performance in today’s visual combat. It’s a similar story for BVR missiles, AIM-120D and Meteor have over 90% greater threat envelope and significantly better ECCMs than R-77–1.
This is before you realise that most Su-35 fly with older IR and semi-active variants of R-27 because R-77 is in short supply. The lack of competent armament puts Su-35 at a significant disadvantage. The R-77 was the main reason Indian Air Force lost the Kashmir conflict against the Pakistani F-16C. Russia used older generation Su-24 and Su-25 in Syria and Ukraine because the newly built Su-35 lacks precision strike capability using GLONASS guidance.
Russian pilots have to fly their aircraft at a low altitude because Russia lacks a targeting pod, and Irbis-E radar has limited high-resolution SAR mapping capability. The low flying mission is excellent by advanced trainers, ground-attack aircraft, transports and helicopters, but not for fighter jets entering contested airspace. Flying low creates a risk for the pilot and aircraft being shot down by an adversary air defense system. The high number of Russian losses in Ukraine indicates that Russian pilots were forced to fly low to identify targets and release dump bombs.
The Su-35 is definitely the most capable Fighter in the Russian Air Force and there is no doubt that it presents some threat to any 4th gen aircraft out there. But to say that Su-35 is not on the same level as today’s F-15EX, F-16V, F/A-18E, Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen E or Rafale, and Su-35 is definitely an inferior aircraft by modern standards.
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.
There are many 4th generation 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 Russian propaganda and they really don’t excel anywhere outside maybe Moscow air shows.
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