Flanker: The Russian Jet That Spawned Many New Versions (And Lots of Dread)
Four decades, Flanker jets have served as Russia’s top fourth-generation fighter—and also that of the world’s two most populous nations, China and India. The large twin-engine fighter is the Russian counterpart to the F-15 Eagle—boasting long range, high speed, heavy weapons loads, advanced avionics and superior maneuverability.
But telling apart the literally dozens of different Flanker models that have been built can be confusing—a problem worsened by the fact that creative marketing has led different Flanker models to be assigned more than one name (the Su-33 was formerly the Su-27K) and treated as distinct aircraft types. And then there are multiple Chinese knockoffs of the Flanker!
This guide should clarify the capabilities of the most important Flanker derivatives, which countries fly them and the nature of their operational career.
The Su-27 ‘Flanker A and B’: The Soviet Answer to the F-15 Eagle
In the 1970s, the United States deployed its first fourth-generation jets—the F-14, F-15 and F-16. These could carry heavy weapon loads and cutting-edge electronics (look down–shoot down capable doppler radars, heads-up displays, fly-by-wire avionics, digitized instruments) but still execute tight air combat maneuvers necessary to prevail in a short-range dogfight. In the late 1960, the Soviet Union began developing a long-range ‘heavy fighter’ that, unlike the interceptors of the day, could still take on such agile opponents.
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The Soviet ‘F-15 killer’ was intended to escort bombers on long range missions, as well as intercept NATO aircraft before they penetrated Soviet airspace. Meanwhile, shorter-range MiG-29 fighters would provide tactical air support for Soviet ground forces. Sukhoi tested two different T-10 prototypes in the 1970s and 80s, dubbed the ‘Flanker-A’ after they were spotted by NATO recon satellites. Finally, the production-model Su-27S ‘Flanker B’ entered service in 1985 and soon began performing intercepts of NATO aircraft.
The large, twenty-two-meter long fighter carried enough fuel for a combat-radius of 900 miles and was powered by two AL-31F Saturn turbofans which could propel it over twice the speed of sound. The Su-27 boasted N001 Mech (Sword) doppler radar with a maximum range of eighty miles, eight weapons hardpoints, fly-by-wire controls and a heads up display (HUD). It also added an Infrared Search and Track system and a helmet mounted sight which allowed the pilot to target enemy aircraft with highly-maneuverable R-73 heat-seeking missiles—even if the targets were not directly in front of his plane’s nose. A GSh-301 30mm cannon served as a backup weapon and was retained on later Flanker models.
The Flanker, furthermore, was supermaneuverable—capable of executing maneuvers beyond usual aerodynamic principles. When Moscow publicly unveiled the Flanker in the Paris Air Show of 1989, Soviet Viktor Pugachev stunned the audience by performance the now famous Cobra maneuver: he reared up his Flanker’s nose like a striking serpent to a ninety-degree angle—then further to 120 degrees!—while continuing to coast forward on his original vector, showcasing the design’s ability to achieve incredibly high angles of attack. You can see it here.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, an impoverished Russia sold Su-27s to China in exchange for food. Beijing then arranged to license-manufacture their own clone, the Shenyang J-11. However, China cut the licensing agreement early and to Russia’s fury produced more advanced derivatives including the J-11B and J-11D.