Three aircraft in one

In late February, Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Sukhoi Company General Director Igor Ozar signed a contract to deliver 92 Su-34 frontline fighter-bombers to the Air Force. This is quite a remarkable event not only because of its sheer scope (according to unofficial sources, the contract is worth an estimated 100 billion roubles), but also because of the high technologies used in producing the domestic aircraft procured.

In late February, Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Sukhoi Company General Director Igor Ozar signed a contract to deliver 92 Su-34 frontline fighter-bombers to the Air Force. This is quite a remarkable event not only because of its sheer scope (according to unofficial sources, the contract is worth an estimated 100 billion roubles), but also because of the high technologies used in producing the domestic aircraft procured.

“The first deliveries of these aircraft are scheduled for 2015”, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force Colonel-General Alexander Zelin told the author. “Given the previous contract for delivery of 32 Su-34 machines, there will be 124 Su-34 frontline fighter-bombers in the Air Force by 2020, and then the figure will increase to 140 fighting machines.” Ten Su-34 have been supplied to the Russian AF Lipetsk Centre for Combat Use and Flight Training and ten more will be delivered by late 2012. The Su-34 will be produced, as before, by the Novosibirsk Aircraft Production Association (NAPA) named after Chkalov.

“The Su-34 is a unique machine, designed as a bomber to deliver strikes to both ground and naval targets, as a fighter to gain air supremacy and as a reconnaissance aircraft. It has a broad lineup of armaments, including air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. The Su-34 is equipped with advanced avionics, a multi-purpose long-range radar unit and an integrated electronic warfare suite. Furthermore, the machine has an in-flight refuelling capability and can carry additional fuel tanks, which increases its range markedly. The new fighter-bomber has certain other distinct features: for instance, it carries precious munitions with in-flight guidance systems capable of hitting subscale targets.”

According to the Commander-in-Chief, the Su-34 is capable of engaging multiple targets at a time, and its excellent aerodynamics, large fuel tanks and highly efficient double-flow engines with digital controls, in-flight refuelling capability and ability to carry additional fuel tanks effectively increase its flight range almost to match that of long-range strategic bombers. In addition, it is planned to enhance the combat strength of the aircraft currently in production by increasing its air-delivered ordnance, which might include a long-range missile.

The export cost of the Su-34 frontline fighter-bomber is said to be at least $50 million, but this is not exactly the truth. The Su-34 has not been exported yet, and will not be at least until Sukhoi fulfils the contracts with the Russian Armed Forces, although the Russian Defence Ministry will enjoy a much lower Su-34 price than that already set for the international arms market.

The author has been familiar with the Su-34 frontline fighter-bomber for almost 20 years now, although back when he first wrote about this plane, it was named the Su-30MK. Then the name was changed to the Su-32MF and it was only ten years later that the plane got its current name. The author first familiarised himself with the plane on the eve of the International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget in 1993.

The creator of the Su-27 and all of its modifications, legendary general constructor of the Sukhoi design bureau Mikhail Simonov (now deceased) invited the author to the design office for a media presentation of the new Sukhoi product, which Defence Ministry officials did not want to accept for service, most probably for financial reasons. The general constructor clearly wanted to take the wraps off the innovation, draw the attention of the government and the Kremlin and get the green light to take the machine to France for an international show, so he needed support from a reporter. Mikhail Petrovich did not share his plans with me, though. He only spoke about the unquestionable advantages of his new project.

“Our new plane is an upgrade of the Su-27 series, including the Su-47, and is capable of doing everything that the Su-24 can”, the Sukhoi design bureau general constructor said back then. The new machine is, however, much more powerful; it performs the same tasks as the Su-27, but with double its range and two and a half times its combat effectiveness. The Su-30MK (which is what Simonov called the current Su-34 then – V.L.) also has formidable characteristics as a frontline and offshore fighter aircraft, like the Su-17 fighter-bomber but with 8 tonnes of combat load.

According to the specialists, compared with American peers, the Su-30MK has, on its own, the combined capability of several individual aircraft – the E-111 bomber, the F-15 fighter, the F-15E fighter-bomber and the A-10 strike-fighter. But the most outstanding feature of the new two-seat attack fighter is that, unlike its counterparts, it can remain airborne for up to 10-16 hours, which is essential for a plane supporting mobile forces that can be deployed fast in any part of the country.

 

The endurance of the plane is only limited by the physiological capability of the combat pilots. Considering how hard it is even for a passenger of a contemporary comfortable airliner to endure a flight of many hours, how robust must the pilots of a supersonic machine be not only to pilot the plane at extreme altitudes, but also manoeuvre, sharply changing air echelons, perform sophisticated aerobatics and engage in intense battles with a perfectly armed and trained adversary. Also, they must be ready for in-flight refuelling from an Il-78 tanker or another Su-27 series plane.

The integrated fuel tanks of the Su-30MK (its designers were never in favour of external tanks, citing poorer aerodynamics) are very capacious, though, according to Mikhail Simonov. The fighter-bomber was refuelled four times during a 14,000-kilometre experimental nonstop Komsomolsk-on-Amur – Moscow – Komsomolsk-on-Amur flight. For comparison: the F-18 requires eleven refuels to make the same flight, say, from the United States to Australia.

Besides the excellent aerodynamics, which is a traditional feature of all Sukhoi aircraft, the Su-30MK carries up-to-date armaments. Its navigation and target acquisition system allows guided high-precision weapons to be used to hit any air, ground or sea targets even at great distances inaccessible to even the Su-27 fighter interceptor.

For example, the Kh-59M TV-guided missile, once launched and remaining beyond line-of-sight range at a distance of more than 100 kilometres from the carrier, transmits the picture from its target-seeking device to the cockpit screen and scores a direct hit following a radio command from the pilot.

Simonov recalled the CNN reports from the First Gulf War, when two U.S. test missiles launched from two different planes exploded inside a building (the first one made a gap in the wall of an Iraqi power plant and then the second one flew into the gap). Both missiles transmitted to TV receivers. “You know what? The stock Kh-59M missiles that a single Su-30MK is armed with are capable of doing exactly the same as missiles from several U.S. aircraft were doing there”, Mikhail Simonov said.

The plane also features the Kh-29T fully-automatic TV-guided missile. They call it a fire-and-forget missile. As soon as the pilot gets the target into the crosshairs and presses the memory button, the smart weapon no longer requires guidance when the missile is fired.

The Su-30MK is also armed with Kh-29L and S-29L laser-guided missiles. Launched from an aircraft, the missiles are guided using information from a target-pointing laser station, which can be carried in a backpack. The soldier only has to lock the laser tracking system on to the target…

A single article cannot hold all the information about the Su-34’s armaments; however, we should also mention the Kh-31P antiradar missile, which is capable of engaging all types of radar system of medium- and long-range air defence missile systems, with the carrier remaining well outside of the counter-fire range.

This range is 35 kilometres for the Patriot system and 70 kilometres for the Hawk system, but the onboard complex of the missile will indentify the location of the radar well beyond this range, enter its coordinates into its own computer, report them to the pilot and wait for the command to engage the target. Unlike them, the Kh-31P is a fire-and-forget device.

This frontline bomber has naturally passed several stages of state tests since Mikhail Simonov introduced me to the machine. The plane has been upgraded to the present level of armaments and equipped with a new onboard avionics system. It was delivered to the Air Force as soon as the country was able to spend the requisite money.

In 2011, the Su-34 was engaged in the Tsentr manoeuvres and prior to that, in the Vostok operative and strategic exercises. An Su-34 squadron made a flight from the Moscow Region to the Far East with several in-flight refuellings, where it “engaged tracked targets” and then returned home, again, being refuelled in the air. No other bomber of the same class is currently capable of doing this.

A brief note. The Su-34 has a side-by-side seating configuration, unlike traditional tandems. There is sufficient space between the seats to put a mattress, so while one pilot navigates the plane, monitoring the horizon and processing information from the automatic control system, the other pilot can take a nap.

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