“What is this?” I hear you cry. “How dare I despoil the purity of this noble duel of falcons with vulgar commercial gossip?”
The reason is very simple. The PAK-FA will only prove a significant opponent to the F-22 if it is produced in meaningful numbers.
Which is to say: more than the twelve which are currently on order for delivery by 2020.
It’s not as if the F-22 is particularly numerous—at 178 operational aircraft, a somewhat slender-thread on which to rest the United States’ hopes for air superiority in the next twenty years.
However, because the PAK-FA and Raptor are close enough in capability, a small number of T-50s will not suffice to radically challenge the Raptor’s reign—or even the F-35’s.
So why has the PAK-FA order been so radically downsized? It’s because it’s proving extremely difficult to deliver on all the design specifications, particularly the engines. The development costs keep on mounting, while the Russian economy has been in a recession for the last few years, decreasing the appetite for such an expensive offering.
This leads to another important caveat regarding the T-50: many of its capabilities are planned-for rather than extant. The AESA radar is still undergoing testing. The current crop of PAK FAs is equipped AL-41F1 turbofans which are fuel inefficient and produce insufficient thrust, so the plan is to replace them with superior Izdeliye 30 turbofans once they finish development—which may take as long as 2027.
In short, the PAK FA is a work in progress, its final capabilities unclear. And it’s very expensive work, leaving large question marks on how many will actually be produced.
This leads to another major issue: India, an investor in the PAK FA program, is complaining quite publically about cost and quality issues in the program; quality-control failings such as misaligned fittings may potentially increase the PAK FA’s radar cross-section. Indian FGFAs would potentially be more sophisticated than the Russian versions—but if India withdraws its order for over hundred aircraft, that project may prove even more difficult to finance.
Nonetheless, Russia’s defense policies and economic fortunes may well change in the future and additional orders will likely be forthcoming one day as more of the stealth fighter’s systems are refined. It’s hard to imagine the project ending with just twelve produced after so much money was put into it.
For the time being, however, the evidence suggests that only a small quantity of PAK FAs will enter Russian service this decade—too few to alter the balance of air power in the near term.
Verdict: As the quote goes, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.”
The Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E is the top Russian air-superiority fighter in service today, and represents the pinnacle of fourth-generation jet fighter design. It will remain so until Russia succeeds in bringing its fifth-generation PAK-FA stealth fighter into production.
Distinguished by its unrivaled maneuverability, most of the Su-35’s electronics and weapons capabilities have caught up with those of Western equivalents, like the F-15 Eagle. But while it may be a deadly adversary to F-15s, Eurofighters and Rafales, the big question mark remains how effectively it can contend with fifth-generation stealth fighters such as the F-22 and F-35.
The Su-35 is an evolution of the Su-27 Flanker, a late Cold War design intended to match the F-15 in concept: a heavy twin-engine multirole fighter combining excellent speed and weapons loadout with dogfighting agility.
An Su-27 stunned the audience of the Paris Air Show in 1989 when it demonstrated Pugachev’s Cobra, a maneuver in which the fighter rears its nose up to 120-degree vertical—but continues to soar forward along the plane’s original attitude.
Widely exported, the Flanker has yet to clash with Western fighters, but did see air-to-air combat in Ethiopian service during a border war with Eritrea, scoring four kills against MiG-29s for no loss. It has also been employed on ground attack missions.
The development history of the Su-35 is a bit complicated. An upgraded Flanker with canards (additional small wings on the forward fuselage) called the Su-35 first appeared way back in 1989, but is not the same plane as the current model; only fifteen were produced. Another upgraded Flanker, the two-seat Su-30, has been produced in significant quantities, and its variants exported to nearly a dozen countries.
The current model in question, without canards, is properly called the Su-35S and is the most advanced type of the Flanker family. It began development in 2003 under the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association (KnAAPO), a subcontractor of Sukhoi. The first prototypes rolled out in 2007 and production began in 2009.
Airframe and Engines
The Flanker family of aircraft is supermaneuverable—meaning it is engineered to perform controlled maneuvers that are impossible through regular aerodynamic mechanisms. In the Su-35, this is in part achieved through use of thrust-vectoring engines: the nozzles of its Saturn AL-41F1S turbofans can independently point in different directions in flight to assist the aircraft in rolling and yawing. Only one operational Western fighter, the F-22 Raptor, has similar technology.
This also allows the Su-35 to achieve very high angles-of-attack—in other words, the plane can be moving in one direction while its nose is pointed in another. A high angle of attack allows an aircraft to more easily train its weapons on an evading target and execute tight maneuvers.
This video of a Su-35 at the 2013 Paris Air Show demonstrates its remarkable maneuverability.
Highlights at 1:30, 3:43, 4:07 and 5:15.
Such maneuvers may be useful for evading missiles or dogfighting at close ranges—though they leave any aircraft in a low-energy state.
The Flanker-E can achieve a maximum speed of Mach 2.25 at high altitude (equal to the F-22 and faster than the F-35 or F-16) and has excellent acceleration. However, contrary to initial reports, it appears it may not be able to supercruise—perform sustained supersonic flight without using afterburners—while loaded for combat. Its service ceiling is sixty thousand feet, on par with F-15s and F-22s, and ten thousand feet higher than Super Hornets, Rafales and F-35s.
The Su-35 has expanded fuel capacity, giving it a range of 2,200 miles on internal fuel, or 2,800 miles with two external fuel tanks. Both the lighter titanium airframe and the engines have significantly longer life expectancies than their predecessors, at six thousand and 4,500 flight hours, respectively. (For comparison, the F-22 and F-35 are rated at eight thousand hours).
The Flanker airframe is not particularly stealthy. However, adjustments to the engine inlets and canopy, and the use of radar-absorbent material, supposedly halve the Su-35’s radar cross-section; one article claims it may be down to between one and three meters. This could reduce the range it can be detected and targeted, but the Su-35 is still not a “stealth fighter.”
The Su-35 has twelve to fourteen weapons hardpoints, giving it an excellent loadout compared to the eight hardpoints on the F-15C and F-22, or the four internally stowed missiles on the F-35.
At long range, the Su-35 can use K-77M radar-guided missiles (known by NATO as the AA-12 Adder), which are claimed to have range of over 120 miles.
For shorter-range engagements, the R-74 (NATO designation: AA-11 Archer) infrared-guided missile is capable of targeting “off boresight”—simply by looking through a helmet-mounted optical sight, the pilot can target an enemy plane up sixty degrees away from where his plane is pointed. The R-74 has a range of over twenty-five miles, and also uses thrust-vectoring technology.
The medium-range R-27 missile and the extra long-range R-37 (aka the AA-13 Arrow, for use against AWACs, EW and tanker aircraft) complete the Su-35’s air-to-air missile selection.
Additionally, the Su-35 is armed with a thirty-millimeter cannon with 150 rounds for strafing or dogfighting.
The Flanker-E can also carry up to seventeen thousand pounds of air-to-ground munitions. Historically, Russia has made only limited use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) compared to Western air forces. However, the capability for large-scale use of such weapons is there, if doctrine and munition stocks accommodate it.
Sensors and Avionics
The Su-35’s most critical improvements over its predecessors may be in hardware. It is equipped with a powerful L175M Khibiny electronic countermeasure system intended to distort radar waves and misdirect hostile missiles. This could significantly degrade attempts to target and hit the Flanker-E.
The Su-35’s IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar is hoped to provide better performance against stealth aircraft. It is claimed to able to track up to thirty airborne targets with a Radar-cross section of three meters up to 250 miles away—and targets with cross-sections as small 0.1 meters over fifty miles away. However, PESA radars are easier to detect and to jam than the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars now used by Western fighters. The IRBIS also has an air-to ground mode that can designate up to four surface targets at time for PGMs.
Supplementing the radar is an OLS-35 targeting system that includes an Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) system said to have a fifty-mile range—potentially a significant threat to stealth fighters.
More mundane but vital systems—such as pilot multi-function displays and fly-by-wire avionics—have also been significantly updated.
Operational Units and Future Customers
Currently, the Russian Air Force operates only forty-eight Su-35s. Another fifty were ordered in January 2016, and will be produced at a rate of ten per year. Four Su-35s were deployed to Syria this January after a Russian Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish F-16. Prominently armed with air-to-air missiles, the Su-35s were intended to send a message that the Russians could pose an aerial threat if attacked.