All of the Reasons Why America Should Fear Russia's Su-35 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.
China has ordered twenty-four Su-35s at a cost of $2 billion, but is thought unlikely to purchase more. Beijing’s interest is believed to lie mostly in copying the Su-35’s thrust-vector engines for use in its own designs. The Chinese PLAAF already operates the Shenyang J-11, a copy of the Su-27.
Attempts to market the Su-35 abroad, especially to India and Brazil, have mostly foundered. Recently, however, Indonesia has indicated it wishes to purchase eight this year, though the contract signing has been repeatedly delayed. Algeria is reportedly considering acquiring ten for $900 million. Egypt, Venezuela and Vietnam are also potential customers.
Cost estimates for the Su-35 have run between $40 million and $65 million; however, the exports contracts have been at prices above $80 million per unit.
Against the Fifth Generation
The Su-35 is at least equal—if not superior—to the very best Western fourth-generation fighters. The big question, is how well can it perform against a fifth-generation stealth plane such as the F-22 or F-35?
The maneuverability of the Su-35 makes it an unsurpassed dogfighter. However, future aerial clashes using the latest missiles (R-77s, Meteors, AIM-120s) could potentially take place over enormous ranges, while even short-range combat may involve all-aspect missiles like the AIM-9X and R-74 that don’t require pointing the aircraft at the target. Nonetheless, the Su-35’s speed (which contributes to a missile’s velocity) and large load-carrying abilities mean it can hold its own in beyond-visual-range combat. Meanwhile, the Flanker-E’s agility and electronic countermeasures may help it evade opposing missiles.
The more serious issue, though, is that we don’t know how effective stealth technology will be against a high-tech opponent. An F-35 stealth fighter that gets in a short-range duel with a Flanker-E will be in big trouble—but how good a chance does the faster, more-maneuverable Russian fighter have of detecting that F-35 and getting close to it in the first place?
As the U.S. Air Force would have it, stealth fighters will be able to unleash a hail of missiles up to one hundred miles away without the enemy having any way to return fire until they close to a (short) distance, where visual and IR scanning come into play. Proponents of the Russian fighter argue that it will be able to rely upon ground-based low-bandwidth radars, and on-board IRST sensors and PESA radar, to detect stealth planes. Keep in mind, however, that the former two technologies are imprecise and can’t be used to target weapons in most cases.