When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, most leaders around the world including Vladimir Putin thought that with the Might of the Russian military and airforce, the Russians would quickly take over the country and establish their own puppet regimen in less than a week.
The Russians have spent billions of dollars to improve their warplanes over the last 3 decades. Besides hundreds of fixed-wing aircraft, they have built thousands of drones. With this type of power, most military analysts felt that Russia would quickly demolish the enemy's airforce and use its air superiority to kill Ukraine's forces at will.
Well, we are 6 weeks into the war and a few things are clear: Ukraine has suffered enormous damage to its infrastructure with the loss of many lives. At the same time, the Russians appeared to have suffered enormous casualties and deaths including the loss of aircraft and tanks.
But the most glaring observation is that despite a superior air force, the Russians have not been able to dominate the Ukrainian skies.
So far Russia has failed to take out all of the Ukrainian air defenses which have serially thwarted its air superiority. This means the Russian jets cannot freely fly the Ukraine skies or ward off Ukrainian planes. With less air time, this means the ground troops are provided with less support and warnings.
The Russians have used helicopters and a variety of aircraft in Ukraine including the Sukhoi. Besides the Su 30, Su 57 and Su 34 bombers the aircraft most widely used has been the Su 35S. This particular Sukhoi has seen action in Syria and Libya but there was no air or land opposition to the Russians. But in Ukraine, the performance of the Su 35S has been underwhelming- questioning whether the jet is as good as the hype surrounding it.
Why the Su 35S has not seen significant action in Ukraine is a mystery. While Russians have not revealed the number of aircraft used and the frequency of sorties, most experts hint that the Russians are either holding back their full capabilities or their Sukhoi's are not as good as what is claimed. Perhaps another reason may be the widely dispersed Ukrainian air defense system which makes them difficult to find.
The Su 35
The world first got a glimpse at the SU 35S at the Paris air show and most military experts were astonished at its maneuverability, agility, and supersonic speed.
The SU 35 has two different beginnings and both jets look very different. The first SU 35 evolved after the Su 27M and this was the Russian's first attempt to convert an interceptor jet into a multirole fighter. The Su 27M went through numerous upgrades including a modified airframe, newer weapons control system, new airborne radar, and the ability to carry precision-guided missiles. But it was not until 2005 that production of the Su35 started and the first flight only took place in Feb 2008. It was subsequently only used for the export market.
Soon the Russian air force showed interest in a new model Sukhoi and the Su 35S emerged. Today it is considered to be a 4th generation fighter jet with only two deficiencies; its lack of active phased array radar and lack of stealth technology.
The Su 35S carries a 30 mm cannon and can track a target more than 400km away, while its radar can keep track of 30 targets simultaneously. Unlike the older generation Russian jet fighters, the Su 35S can travel 3500 km without refueling.
Besides state-of-the-art engines and avionics, there is a completely new system of electronics and navigation system onboard. All systems are integrated into a cohesive unit by a control and information processing system. It is stated that the radar system on the Su 35S is comparable to the best in the west and way ahead of its European and US competitors with their passive phased array radars, Most experts agree that the Su 35S was designed with the most advanced engineering concepts and is a solid jet fighter.
Reality vs Hype
Despite all the stuff that is written about the Su 35S, some military experts believe there is more hype than reality. The Russian jet fighter has never been battle-tested where the combatants also have a formidable air force and surface-to-air missiles. In both Syria and Libya, the Su 35S was only targeting fixed objects or humans who were defenseless.
Nevertheless, the Su 35S is often marketed as a world-beater but in reality, this is not true. Says aviation expert, Abhirup Sengupta, ‘Despite being marketed as 4++ gen, Su-35 has the least capable avionics suite among its competitors. It's the only major 4th gen. aircraft without an AESA radar or any form of Sensor Fusion.' He adds, ‘The Irbis-E is marketed as having a 350 km range against 3 m^2 targets while in reality that's only in cued-search in a tiny FoV. What's rarely stated is that in normal volume search that range shrinks down to 200 km. More importantly, Su-35's radar has a maximum targeting range of 250 km – even for a B-52 like target.'
While the Su 35S may have superior performance in the visual range it lacks the most basic IR seeker. And to worsen matters it is common to see the SU 35S fly with older IR and older variants of R27 because the R77 is in short supply. The lack of competent armaments places the Su 35S at a serious disadvantage.
Analysis of the Su 35S has revealed that it has overall poor performance and its Irbis E is susceptible to jamming by modern EW suites. Combining this with its ability to carry only short-range missiles puts it at a serious disadvantage in combat.
Current status in Ukraine
During the Ukraine war, Russia initially restricted the use of its air force and mainly employed artillery units and tanks. It is only in the last few days that Russians have employed greater use of their air force. But even then why has the SU 35 S seen less airtime in Ukraine? Several reasons may explain this including 1) the Russians did not anticipate a long war and have run out of ammunition 2) the start of the war was sudden and may have led to a lack of planning, competency, or experience 3) the robust air defense systems in Ukraine.
As to how many aircrafts Russia has lost is not fully known. The Russian government says they have lost 11 helicopters, 11 fixed-wing aircraft, and several drones; the Ukrainians state the losses are three times the numbers reported.
There is no question that the Su 35S is the most potent and competent jet fighter in the Russian air force and definitely presents a serious threat to any fourth-generation fighter. But Sengupta says it is definitely not on the same level as the F15E, Rafale, or even the Typhoon. So far, the Su 35S has not confirmed its potential as a jet fighter in the Ukraine war and it appears that outside of airshows, the Su35 is perhaps not a capable fighter.
S.Benji is a grad with an advanced degree in the sciences with an interest in avionics. He is a prolific writer with a wide range of publications. Opinions expressed are his own.
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