Ukraine War Exposing Chinese Weaknesses: Only Nine Su-35 Operational In Chinese Inventory Due To Avionics Fault

Russia's Su-35 was shot down by Ukrainian man-portable missile. photo by Reuters.

The performance of Su-35 in the Ukraine war is a big concern for Peoples Liberation Army Air Force.

Dark clouds swirl over Russia’s Su-35S Flanker fighter. Russia lost more than two squadrons of its prized Su-35 aircraft in the Ukraine war loosing its status in fourth generation fighter jets market.

Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Gromov, a deputy chief attached to the Ukrainian General Staff, had some hot gossip to spill pertaining to the Russian aviation industry in a briefing to the Ukrainian Media Center on August 11.

Reporting that Russia was resorting to using older, retired Sukhoi Su-24M bombers due to combat losses of newer jets, Gromov threw more shade at manufacturer Sukhoi by claiming in passing that only nine of 24 Su-35S twin-engine fighter jets purchased by China for $2.5 billion are operational condition due to unspecified defects in their “onboard systems” ie. avionics.

Russian Su-35 fighter jet crash in Ukraine
A Russian Su-35 downed by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region, April 3, 2022. 

Gromov’s claims pile on to other troubling developments for the Su-35 (codenamed Flanker-E by NATO) over the last year, with no less than three clients refusing or canceling Su-35 exports.

Indonesia, Egypt, India and Algeria turned down Russia’s offer to buy Su-35 citing concern with its dated avionics, and phased array radar.

Of course, there’s good reason to take the allegations with a grain of salt, as Ukraine has been invaded by Russia, is being bombed by Sukhoi jets, and has every incentive to release embarrassing information that could impact arms deals being negotiated at Russia’s annual ARMY-2022 military expo.

The deputy further claimed 24 Su-35s had been downed in combat by Ukrainian forces. This figure is doubtful, however, as visual media confirm the loss of just one or possibly two Su-35s over Ukraine as of mid-August. Just over 100 Su-35s were in Russian service prior to the invasion.

However, Gromov’s initial claim is not entirely implausible. The Su-35S officially entered service in 2014, and its conceivable aircraft delivered to China in 2016-2018 exhibited teething issues.

Ukraine’s defense industry also has a significant relationship with China — both the PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier, and its J-15 Flying Shark carrier-based jets are based on hardware transferred from Ukraine. It’s, therefore, possible Ukraine’s industry learned some scuttlebutt about the Su-35’s condition through these connections.

Ukraine war is also hurting PLA Air Force and PLA Navy as Chinese aircraft and warships are fitted with Ukrainian propulsion.

The Su-35S is a twin-engine ‘heavy fighter’ designed to carry large fuel and weapons loads, attain high maximum speeds and operate over long distances.

Furthermore, Su-35 is fitted with Soviet-era Irbis-E passive electronically scanned array (PESA) multi-mode radar with an maximum range of around 268 km.

But most modern Western non-stealth fighters, including upgraded F-15s and F-16s, retain one big advantage over the Su-35—frequency-hopping actively scanned array radars (AESA) which not only boast higher fidelity but are highly resistant to jamming and in some cases, much stealthier (a capability known as Low Probability of Intercept).

Furthermore, Western beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles have greater range and reliability than the 68-mile R-77-1 BVR missile used on Su-35s.

Overall, the lack of AESA radar leaves the Su-35S at a disadvantage in confronting newer Western fighters in BVR combat.

This was highlighted in an air-to-air faceoff in 2021 arranged by the Egyptian Air Force, which operates French-built Rafale jets and had begun receiving Su-35s from Russia. The attacking Su-35’s radar was reportedly rendered useless by defensive jamming from the Rafale’s F3R’s SPECTRA electronic warfare suite — admittedly, one of the most formidable of its kind.

The Rafale proceeded to acquire and mock shoot down the Su-35, the Rafale’s RBE2-AA AESA radar undeterred by the Su-35’s L175M Khibiny self-defense jammer.

That said, as Moscow becomes more isolated, it may see less to lose in selling Su-35s to Iran, which has long pressed for them — perhaps in a swap for drones Iran has sold to Russia for combat use in Ukraine.

Thus, it’s widely believed Beijing was primarily motivated to study Su-35 technology — particularly its thrust-vector control engines. Since the Su-35 acquisition, China has tested indigenous thrust-vectoring engines for possible use on its indigenous J-10 and J-20 jets.

China initially wanted to purchase only a few Su-35s, but Moscow — likely recalling China’s history of reverse-engineering earlier Flanker aircraft — insisted on the minimum buy of 24.

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