Sukhoi Su-30: The story of Russia’s famous Flanker

The 1980s were golden times for the Soviet military. Several extremely potent weapon systems like the Su-27, MiG-29, S300 SAM, Admiral Kuznetsov class cruisers, Akula & Sierra class SSNs along with the mighty Kirovs and Typhoons entered service in this decade or within few years of it. Another gem of a weapon system developed in the late 1980s was the Su-30. A potent twin seat multirole jet fighter which took the best of the Su-27 and improved it further. The two man crew could share the workload thus allowing for sorties of much higher duration. The jet gave its operator a bird’s eye view of the battle field with its powerful radar and data links while providing the means to command friendly assets. Thus in this article, we will discuss the origins of the Su-30 along with the capabilities of some of its variants.

Origins

The Soviet air force had inducted the Su-27 in the mid 1980s. By the late 80s, it was clear that the new avionics suite was too much for a single pilot to handle. The jet had an impressive range of over 3200km which was under-used as it was well outside the endurance limits of a single pilot. On the other hand, the Soviet air space was massive and the Soviet air force was facing a hard time patrolling such a large area. A new interceptor with impressive endurance was needed to cover the massive air space. The Mikoyan bureau was building the MiG-31 which could scan large areas of the air space with its massive Zaslon PESA radar and Sukhoi, which had always played second fiddle to Mikoyan, wanted to develop an interceptor which suited the needs of the Soviet air force.

4The MiG-31 with its massive radar and impressive array of weapons is a very potent interceptor.

The Soviet air force didn’t need a conventional interceptor, they wanted a jet with limited command and control facilities to regulate the counter offensive against an aerial assault. The requirement was put up as conventional AEWACs were large, costly and couldn’t be deployed to far off bases as easily as  fighters. Sukhoi chose Su-27UB as the base of this new interceptor/command post as it had all the qualities for the role. It was the most agile fighter of that era, sported large internal fuel tanks and an impressive payload. The new variant received company designation of T-10PU which gave rise to the unofficial designation Su-27PU.

Two Su-27UBs were converted to serve as proof of concept models. Their cockpits were totally revamped. Both the pilots could fly the jet or control its weapons alternatively. This allowed the pilots to rest during a sortie by exchanging their responsibilities as and when needed. It also received new navigation suites along with data links which improved its command and control capabilities. The jet officially entered service as the Su-30, very few samples were completed before the Soviet Union collapsed and all orders were cancelled.

Su-27PUOne of the two Su-27PU prototypes.

4One of the older Su-30s in RuAF service, note the single wheel nose gear. (Credits-On the pic)

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Sukhoi developed a new variant of the Su-30 which was externally similar to the older one but had some minute changes. The internal fuel capacity was increased, number of hardpoints was increased to 12, avionics suite was upgraded while uprated engines were added to maintain the performance. The front landing gear was modified to have 2 wheels instead of 1 to handle the increased weight of the aircraft.

Revival & Sales

Sukhoi survived the last decade of the 20th century and the early 2000s due to the revival of the Su-30. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the domestic market had dried up. Both Sukhoi and Mikoyan offered advance variants of their jets to any country with the buck to buy them. During the Soviet rule, aircraft were heavily downgraded before export but Sukhoi now offered to customize the jet as per the requirements of the operator. They also allowed the operators to choose non-Russian systems for their jets, something no other country offered. For comparison, the Americans still don’t allow the operators of F-16s to modify them or use non-American systems (with some exceptions) on their jets.

Sukhoi thus survived the period after the collapse of the Soviet union by selling literally 100s of jets to several countries, most importantly by selling similar variants to two of the most populous countries on the planet ie India and China. India wanted a new fighter and had shortlisted Mirage 2000 and Su-30 for procurement. They had Mirages in their service and were happy with them but the Sukhoi was cheaper and the offer of customization made it attractive.

The Indians initially procured the basic Su-30K, a total 8 of them followed by 10 Su-30MK. These jets were bought to allow a smooth transition to the Su-30MKI and as a stop gap to make up for the delays in the MKI programme. This order also included 32 standard Su-30MKIs. India then signed a deal for manufacturing 140 Su-30MKIs domestically. This number first rose to 180 and then to 222. Meanwhile the older Su-30K and Su-30MK were withdrawn from service and returned to Russia. Angola bought these second hand jets whereas India bought 18 Su-30MKIs to replace them.

4SB-016 is one the 10 Su-30MKs which served the IAF.

On the other hand, the Chinese procurement of Flankers started with the Su-27SK, 100s of which have been procured either off the shelf or from local production. This deal helped keep the Sukhoi bureau alive during the 1990s as it marked the first export of Flanker to a non-CIS state. This was followed by deals for the Su-30MKK and its improved version Su-30MK2. The number of jets procured is around 80 and it cannot be confirmed as different sources show different numbers. The Chinese have started producing copies of the Su-30MKK designated J-16 which can be a potential replacement for the older JH-7s.

3Su-30MKK of the PLAAF with SAP-518 jamming pods, note the vertical stabilizer has horizontal top edge and the lack of canards.

Malaysia signed a contract for 18 Su-30MKMs with Irkut (the plant which produces Flankers derived from the Indian variant) in 2003. The Flanker had edged out Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to win the Malaysian competition. The Algerians also ordered the Su-30 and their variant was designated as the Su-30MKA. They placed an initial order for 28 jets in 2006, followed by 16 which were bought in exchange of MiG-29SMTs which Algeria had returned. They have recently placed another order for 15 jets from Irkut. The Chinese variant manufactured by KnAAPO has been exported to Vietnam which operates 24 Su-30MK2Vs and has ordered 12 more. Venezuela also operates 12 Su-30MKVs while Uganda and Indonesia operate small numbers of the Chinese derivatives.

4Su-30MKA of the Algerian air force.

The Russians have ordered Su-30s from both Irkut and KnAAPO ie Su-30SM and Su-30M2 respectively. They have ordered 60 Su-30SM (derivative of the Indian Flanker) for their air force and a further 20 for their naval aviation. The air force jets have been deployed to Syria and provide escort to the Russian bombers. They have ordered 24 Su-30M2s which are said to be the derivative of the Chinese Su-30. Kazakhstan joined the band wagon by ordering 4 Su-30SMs, the order will be followed by a much larger one.

Russian Su-30SMs returning from a sortie at the Russian base in Latakia, Syria.
© Dmitriy Vinogradov

The Customized Variants

Su-30MKI (India)

The Indians wanted a heavily customized variant of the Flanker and hence Israeli, French and Indian avionics supplemented the Russian ones already present. The radar is N011M, a very capable PESA radar which allows the fighter to act as a pseudo AEWAC. It can track ship sized targets as far as 400km while fighter sized targets can be tracked around 150km. Canards were added to increase lift and balance the heavier radar in the nose. They also increased the aircraft’s performance in pitch. The performance was further boosted by 2x Al-31FP engines with TVC nozzles. These engines made this massive fighter very nimble in the air. It also has OLS-30 IRST which can track aerial and surface targets, it can also be used as a laser range finder. Su-30MKIs can also carry SAP-518 and SAP-14 jamming pods. The French systems include MFDs and HUD while the Israelis supplied EL/M-8222 active jamming system, Litening targeting pod and the mission computer. The Indians added a domestic RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) named Tarang mk1 , MAWS (Missile Approach Warning System) and the communications suite. The jet initially sported the Sura HMS which has been replaced by the Israeli Top Sight HMS. Over the time, several systems have been replaced by similar ones of Indian origin, whereas the rest have been continuously upgraded. It sports an open architecture which allows easy addition of new systems during upgrades and overhaul. The jet can carry several advanced missiles like R-77, R-73, Kh-31, Kh-59, R-27 etc. the latest additions being BrahMos and the Astra, India’s indigenous AAM.

4Su-30MKI taking off for Red Flag ’08. (Credits – On the pic)

The Indian Flanker has been further modified to suite requirements. Countries like Malaysia, Algeria and the Russians themselves operate variants developed from the Su-30MKI.

Su-30MKM (Malaysia) & Su-30MKA (Algeria)

The Malaysian variant reportedly gave the famed F-22 hard time during the joint exercise Cope Taifun. This variant retained the N011M Bars radar, OLS-30 IRST, Al-31FP engines with TVC nozzles while the Indian and Israeli systems were replaced by equivalent systems from France, South Africa and Russia. These jets carry the Damocles targeting pod instead of the Litening. The South Africans provided the self defense suite, while the Indian RWR and the MAWS were replaced by Russian equivalents. The variant operated by Algeria retains the same avionics suite of the Su-30MKM.

4Su-30MKM of the Royal Malaysian Air Force.

Su-30SM (Russia & Kazakhstan)

This is one of the few instances of Russia ordering systems designed for export for domestic use. This variant sports an improved version of the N011M Bars radar, AL-31FP TVC engines, OLS-30 while all the Indian and the Israeli systems have been replaced with Russian equivalents. It can carry the SAP-518 and SAP-14 EW pods and is routinely flying with them on the Syrian deployment. The French HUD is replaced by a domestic wide angle HUD while some other French systems have probably been retained.

4Second Su-30SM of the Kazakh air force.

Su-30MKK (China, Indonesia) & Su-30MKV (Venezuela)

The Chinese chose the N001VE radar which was older and lighter compared to the N011M. The radar could detect fighter sized targets at roughly 100km. Lighter radar meant that they didn’t need the extra lift generated by canards and they were dropped. The jet is powered by Al-31F engine which lacks the TVC nozzles of the Al-31FP. This made the Su-30MKK slightly inferior to the Su-30MKI which India was buying. The jet sported open architecture just like the MKI along with the same set of weapons minus the Indian ones. An improved variant of the OLS-30 was added to the jet along with Russian jammers. Initial variants sported the same HMS as the early variants of the MKI did ie Sura. Most of the avionics suite is of Russian origin. China procured around 80 of these while the Indonesians procured around 11 of these for their air force. The Venezuelans procured a derivative designated Su-30MKV. The Chinese variant can be differentiated from the Indian variant by the lack of canards and flat top edge of the vertical stabilizer.

4Venezuelan Su-30MKV

Su-30MK2, Su-30MK3 (China) & Su-30MK2V (Vietnam)

The Chinese developed incremental variants designated Su-30MK2 and Su-30MK3 for their air force. The MK2 added anti-ship capability along with upgraded avionics. A new radar, most probably the Zhuk-ME is rumored to have been added either from the MK2 or the MK3. Vietnam procured a slightly modified variant designated Su-30MK2V.

4Vietnamese Su-30MK2V (Credits-On the pic)

The Su-30 is surely one of the most capable jets in service today. Several 100s of these have been sold and the order books still have jets to keep the production lines busy. Variants and copies of the Su-30 are being produced in 3 countries as of now. The Indian Flankers might get an advanced AESA radar thus increasing their capabilities further. The Chinese have already developed an AESA for their J-11D, the unofficial copy of the Su-27 and it might soon find its way onto the J-16. This variant of the famed Flanker will surely have a bright future and will be in service for decades to come.

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