One of Russia's Most Lethal Fighter Jets Has a Strange New Role

December 1, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Su-30RussiaRussian MilitaryMilitaryTechnologyAir Force

One of Russia's Most Lethal Fighter Jets Has a Strange New Role

Airshow performer. 


The Russian Aerospace Forces are starting to convert their aerial demonstration team onto the powerful new Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-H.

The Russian Knights aerial demonstration team currently flies the original Su-27 version of the Flanker. But exactly why the Russians would allocate some of their best operational combat aircraft to an aerobatics team is somewhat puzzling. The Su-30SM is gross overkill for a mission that is mostly formation flying over the public at airshows. A cheaper, less sophisticated aircraft such as the Su-30M2 would have made more sense if the Russian military absolutely needed a new frontline fighter to showcase at such events.


“A second batch of Su-30sm have just arrived in Kubinka from the factory for the Russian Knights,” a Russian defense ministry spokesman told the Moscow-based TASS news agency.  “The air group is fully equipped with new fighters for the new training period. Starting on Dec. 1, the pilots will fly the new aircraft.”

However, while the Russian Knights aerial demonstration team will fly eight Su-30SM fighters, they will retain a number of Su-27s. Presumably with the addition of the thrust-vectoring Su-30SM into the mix, the unit will add new maneuvers to their routine that take advantage of the new jet’s capabilities.

The U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds, which are that service’s demonstration team, currently flies the Lockheed Martin F-16C Block 52D version of the Fighting Falcon. Indeed, the Thunderbirds are among the very few active duty Air Force units to fly the Pratt & Whitney F100-powered versions (the F100-PW-229 variant in this case) of the F-16.

There was a lot of grumbling among U.S. Air Force pilots about Thunderbirds operating some of the newest and most capable F-16s in the service’s inventory when the squadron traded in their older F-16 Block 32 jets. Even the unit’s then-commander agreed that the Thunderbirds did not need those newest frontline aircraft.

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, meanwhile, operate some of the oldest Boeing F/A-18 Hornets in the fleet. The team is currently in the middle of a transition from the oldest remaining F/A-18A-model jets to the somewhat newer F/A-18C. There are currently three single-seat F/A-18As, one two-seat F/A-18B, ten single-seat F/A-18Cs and a pair of two-seat F/A-18D in the squadron’s inventory.

It’s possible that the Navy might eventually convert the squadron over to the oldest F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in its inventory. But as a unit whose primary job is to perform at airshows, the Blue Angels are not the first in line to receive top-of-the-line hardware. Combat units always get the first dibs on the most modern hardware in the Navy—it’s a matter of priorities. “While the Super Hornet has more recent technology, the Hornet has been a reliable asset for 30 years, and its many capabilities continue to meet the needs for the demonstration,” as the Blue Angels state on their site.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons License.