Flanker: The Russian Jet That Spawned Many New Versions (And Lots of Dread)

Flanker: The Russian Jet That Spawned Many New Versions (And Lots of Dread)

And it can take on the world's best. 

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.

Ethiopia also acquired export-model Su-27SKs, where the Flanker saw its only major air-to-air combat experience. Between 1999 and 200, Ethiopian Flankers shot down four Eritreans MiG-29s for no losses, nearly all the kills achieved with short-range R-73 missiles—as medium-range R-27s all missed. Flankers were also used in a ground attack role by Angola and Russia. An Su-27 also bears the tragic distinction as causing the deadliest air show accident in history when one plowed into a crowd at the 2002 Sknyliv airshow, killing seventy-seven.

Three or four hundred Su-27s remain in Russian service, many of which have been modernizing its older Flankers to the new Su-27SM 1–3 models by installing new avionics, radars and long-range missile support. The air forces of Angola, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Mongolia also still operate Su-27s.

The Su-30MKK ‘Flanker-G’: China’s Strike Eagle

The basic Su-27 can only carry a limited payload of unguided bombs and rockets. Beijing wanted a strike plane similar to the F-15E Strike Eagle that could employ precision-guided weapons while still holding its own in air-to-air combat. In the mid-1990s they commissioned Russian manufacturer KnAAPO to build them one called the Su-30MKK.

Attack planes benefit from having a Weapon Systems Officer in the backseat to operate precision-guided weapons, so the Su-30 was derived from the two-seat Su-27UB trainer (the Flanker-C). However, the MKK is distinguished by enlarged rear rudders and fuel tanks, improved N001VEP and later Zhuk-MSE radar with surface-search capability, and compatibility with Russian Kh-31 anti-radar missiles, Kh-29 ground-attack missiles, laser-guided bombs and Kh-59 cruise missiles.