Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, had some hot gossip to spill about 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 in 2015 arrived in operational condition due to unspecified defects in their “onboard systems” ie. avionics.
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 cancelling Su-35 exports.
Of course, there’s good reason to take the allegations with a grain of salt, as Russia has invaded Ukraine, 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 that 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 before 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 — 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.
To be fair, the Flanker-E can launch exotic R-37M Very-Long Range Air-to-Air missiles out to 250 miles for use against non-fighter aircraft like tankers and airborne early warning aircraft, a weapon type for which Western air forces lack an equivalent — yet. But that is a specialized capability.
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.
At least two likely Su-35 customers passed on the Russian jet in the winter of 2021-2022. Indonesia, which had dangled an order for 11 Su-35s since the mid-2010s ultimately decided to buy Rafale or F-15EX jets instead. And Algeria, long a dedicated customer for Russian arms, passed on the Su-35 in January, citing its radar.
These countries likely feared CAATSA sanctions from the US could have made the jets more trouble than they were worth, especially after US sanctions intensified in 2021 during Russia’s buildup for the invasion of Ukraine.
Sanctions and diplomatic pressure from Washington were also behind Egypt’s decision to cancel its order of 24-30 Su-35 jets from Russia (17 already built) in exchange for likely purchasing F-15s.
That said, as Moscow becomes more isolated, it may seem 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.
Sukhoi is also focusing current marketing efforts on the new still-unrealized Su-75 Checkmate fighter, though the type’s first flight has been pushed back a year to 2024.
Meanwhile, Russian Su-35s are seeing combat in air-superiority and air-defense suppression roles over Ukraine, inflicting some damage but failing to suppress neither Ukraine’s old fighters nor ground-based batteries.
China’s 24 Su-35s are flown operationally by the PLA Air Force’s 6th Aviation Brigade at Suixi airbase in Guangdong province (southeastern China). Reportedly, these retain Russian-language instrumentation and visibly differ only in the omission of a navigation antenna and the use of a novel electro-optical targeting pod.
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.
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.
However, due to its long range and powerful sensors, the Flanker-E is also well-suited to patrols over the South China Sea or circumnavigating Taiwan. Indeed, in May 2022 China began including Su-35s in large patrols inside Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone (ADIZ), alongside indigenously-built J-11 and J-16 Flanker-derived jets.
One-on-one, the Su-35 undermatches Taiwan’s F-16V with APG-83 AESA radar, as military aviation expert Ryan Smith at Global Defense Corp said: “The F-16V Block 70 fleet is certainly capable of meeting the Su-35S on anything like equal terms — Su-35 will be losing out to F-16V in sensors, weapons loadout and electronic warfare capabilities.”
These unverified stories suggest a mystique attributed to the Flanker-E. Still, they should be considered with scepticism, I’m always most careful in taking such reports for real. More often the true intention is not to inform about the topic, but to tell a different story.
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