Russia’s SU-35: Mystery Fighter No More
As one of our readers noted, DID’s articles from 2005-2007 seem to describe 2 different SU-35s. One is a mid-life modernized SU-27 Flanker, but there’s also much more re-engineered “SU-35” variant with canards, thrust vectoring, etc. has been confused with (and possibly redesignated between) the SU-37. So… what do we mean by “SU-35”?
This article explains the sources of the widespread confusion regarding the SU-35’s layout and key characteristics, reviews what is now known about the platform, and tracks its development. Those developments are likely to have broad consequences. The aircraft has a home customer in the Russian Air Force, and the SU-35 is being positioned to succeed most SU-30MK variants as Russia’s fighter export of choice within the coming decade.
The latest news involves additional details regarding the SU-35’s initial multi-year Russian production order, and discussion of the aircraft’s export prospects…
Which Sukhoi? The SU-35 Platform
Until very recently, only KnAAPO has listed the SU-35 as a product on its site; Sukhoi now does so as well, but Irkut does not. If this seems confusing, it’s because Sukhoi subcontracts production to affiliate firms – IAIA (Irkut) and KnAAPO (Komsomolosk un Amur). Each has their own intellectual property, and their own interests. In addition, the designation “SU-35” has been used in several different contexts over the years. It has been referred to, and even photographed, in ways that referred to both mid-life Flanker upgrades and canard-equipped next-generation aircraft. KnAAPO’s site added the confusion by showing SU-35 pictures on its type page and gallery that display the aircraft both with and without canard foreplanes. The Rosoboronexport catalog picture was unclear.
The current “SU-35”, which has been definitively described by Sukhoi, appears to be something of a compromise between the upgrade and full redesign visions. Reader assistance and sources from Sukhoi and various media offer an outline of its key systems and characteristics:
”...(known as Su-35BM by some sources- ie. T-10BM to the original Su-27s internal T-10S designation). Differences and features largely speak for themselves in the video, but a short summary follows as related in various other sources follows:
1 – N035 Irbis-E PESA Radar, a follow-on to the Bars-M.
2 – No canards
3 – Rear-looking self-defence radar in shorter tail sting
4 – AL-37FU/ 117S thrust-vectoring turbofan engines rated at 142-147kN
5 – Extended high-lift devices with large flaperon occuping the full trailing edge of the wing
6 – L175M Khibiny-M electronic-warfare self-defence system
7 – Reduced-area empennage
8 – Larger Air Intakes
9 – New and lighter systems, including quadruple digital fly-by-wire flight-control system.
10- New man-machine interface with fully-glass cockpit with two large LCD screens and helmet mounted display.”
Pictures and promotional materials show full 360 degree thrust vectoring capabilities for the engines, and the radar is also worthy of note. It couples an electronically-scanned array with a 2-step electro-hydraulic drive unit , which creates a maximum radar beam deflection angle of 120 degrees. The Irbis-E radar can reportedly detect and tracks up to 30 air targets, simultaneously engaging up to 8. It can also reportedly detect, choose and track up to 4 ground targets at a range of up to 400 km, but resolutions are unspecified.
Sukhoi says that the fighter’s structures have been reinforced because of the increased takeoff and landing weight of the aircraft, and the front bearing has 2 wheels for the same reason.
The SU-30 family has never been an especially stealthy aircraft, and its overall airframe design limits what one can accomplish in this area. Nevertheless, Sukhoi cites an unspecified amount of “reduced reflectance” for the SU-35 in the X-band, which is a popular choice for modern radars, and in the angle range of plus or minus 60 degrees.
SU-35: Export Prospects
The SU27/30 Flanker family was designed and built after American had completed its “teen series” (F-14/15/16/18) fighters, and uses lessons from those designs as well as Russia’s own approaches. The result was a very extensible design that boasted impressive performance, and quickly became the global fighter reference point among global military planners. Exports followed, and Flanker variants quickly surpassed the MiG-29 as Russia’s most popular export fighter.
The SU-35 aims to build on that legacy, as a final bridge to the 5th generation PAK-FA. Three key changes to Sukhoi’s circumstances may make a similar level of export success much more difficult.
1. A globalized market.
When it was first introduced, the S-27 family was the main global competitor to any western offerings, and was sold to countries whose ties and access to western technologies were weak. An array of SU-27s gifted to breakaway Soviet satellites by virtue of being located on their territory, but India and China were its real anchor export customers. Now, SU-35 exports can expect to compete on 2 fronts. On the one hand, a less ballkanized global market means that it must compete globally with western offerings that include upgraded American “teen series” fighters; and matured 4+ generation European designs that include Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen, France’s Rafale, and EADS’ Eurofighter. On the other end, it will be competing with Chinese offerings, including the J-11 that Russia correctly accuses China of copying/deriving from the SU-27, the smaller and less expensive 4+ generation J-10, and even the joint Chinese/Pakistani FC-17.
2. The China factor
China has a large inventory of SU-30MKKs, and is also pressing ahead with its J-11, which substitutes Chinese electronics, radars, and engines in an SU-27 family airframe. Russia is very upset by this theft of its intellectual property, which has reportedly hindered sales of its carrier-capable SU-33 variant into the Chinese market. The J-11 is likely to serve as a similar but less capable international export competitor, while serving as a barrier to further Chinese sales on both sides of the table. Prospects may improve if Russia fields the PAK-FA and China has difficulty with its J-XX project, but the J-11 experience can be expected to have lasting effects.
China qustionable status among the roster of future SU-35 customers, and its certain presence as an export competitor, both create more difficult dynamics for SU-35 export success.
3. Other decisions by key markets.
With Eastern European countries no longer buying Russian equipment, the Flanker family’s key export markets likely closed, and key emerging markets that have decided to go in different directions, the SU-35’s export potential is likely to be much more limited than its predecessors.
India has fielded, and continues to field, the SU-30MKI, a design that includes locally-built electronics, canard foreplanes, and full thrust vectoring. Malaysia has ordered a less customized SU-30MKM variant that uses Russian and French technologies instead. Both of these designs are highly capable, and comparable to the SU-35. India in particular is unlikely to upgrade, as it continues to produce the SU-30MKI and expects to do so for several more years. That removes a major potential market.
On a similar note, Algeria and Venezuela are inducting less advanced SU-30MK2s, which means that future spending is likely to focus on other military areas – unless SU-35s eventually become the replacement for Algeria’s canceled MiG-29 order.
Elsewhere, South Korea has opted for American F-15Ks instead of the SU-35 or European fighters for its F-X buy, and is taking bids from American and European firms for a future fighter. Saudi Arabia, which has become more receptive to purchases from Russia, bought Eurofighters as the future of their air force. Brazil, which could have significantly expanded Russia’s Latin American penetration, did not shortlist the SU-35 for the final round of its F-X2 future fighter competition.
The Middle East offers limited opportunities for Russian fighters these days, with some potential among long-standing clients in Libya, Syria, and possibly Iran, but competition from France’s Rafale in particular must be expected in Libya. The SU-35 could be useful to other countries in the region, but most are already committed to other suppliers. Success is possible, and it would be important to the platform, but any such win would require a breakthrough. The newly oil-rich countries around Africa’s Gulf of Guinea offer easier opportunities, but sales will face competition from China as well as from the west. Emerging South Asian markets like Indonesia and Vietnam also offer promise, and are less inclined to buy either Chinese or western fighters, but orders from that quarter are likely to be limited.
Overall, the numbers add up far less favorably for the SU-35 than they did for its earlier cousins.
Russia’s SU-35: Mystery Fighter No More