The top-of-the-line Sukhoi Su-34 (Fullback) fighter bomber – the Russian work horse in Syria – has captured the lion’s share of attention and rightly so.
It was also designated as Hellduck by NATO during the Syrian campaign. This is the most advanced ground attack aircraft Russia has committed to its Middle Eastern campaign – the jet’s first combat deployment outside Russia. The aircraft has become a real hero of the anti-terrorist war.
Aircraft performance characteristics:
- Crew – 2;
- Maximum speed – 1900 km/h;
- Maximum range – 4000 km;
- Operational ceiling – 17 km;
- Normal takeoff weight – 39 tons;
- Maximum takeoff weight – 44, 4 tons;
- Maximum operational load – 8 tons.
Being a multipurpose fighter-bomber capable of effectively targeting surface, sea and air objects in any geographic area, the jet is designed for the supersonic penetration of enemy airspace at treetop level. The two-pilot strike fighter is sometimes referred to as ‘a flying tank’ due to an armored cockpit and efficient standoff weapons, which enable it to survive not only missile fragments, but even direct hits from small caliber arms. The cockpit is a continuous capsule of armor (17 mm thick).
The bomber can fly below the radar and hit ground targets from low altitudes on solo and group missions in daytime and at night, under favorable and adverse weather conditions and in a hostile environment with counter-fire and EW counter-measures deployed, as well as for aerial reconnaissance. The plane possesses short take-off and landing capabilities to use small airfields. The equipment installed on the Su-34 allows for the use of weapons against several targets simultaneously.
It has a roughly 700-mile combat radius on internal fuel but is provisioned for aerial refueling with a probe and drogue system enabling the plane to carry out 10 hours long missions. The Su-34’s most distinctive feature is the unusually large flight deck. Because the jet is expected to remain aloft for hours at a time, it is provided for crew comfort. The pressurization system allows operation up to 10,000 metres (32,800 ft) without oxygen masks, which are available for emergencies and combat situations. The advantage of a side-by-side cockpit is that duplicate instruments are not required for each pilot. It is also comfortable on longer missions. The cabin has overhead space behind the ejection seats, which allows the pilots to stand up and even move around to an extent. The space between the seats allows them to lie down in the corridor, if necessary. A galley and toilet are located behind the crew seats. The Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) acts as a command center: precision target designation of all onboard weapons is tied to the movement of the pilot’s head and eyes.
The strike aircraft is provisioned with a formidable air-to-air self-defense capability in an emergency.
In addition to short-range R-73 high off-boresight dogfighting missiles, the Su-34 carries the long-range radar-guided R-77 air-to-air missile making the plane capable of “self-escorted” strike missions. The R-73 (NATO codename AA-11 Archer) short-range, air-to-air missile is supplied by the Vympel State Engineering Design Bureau in Moscow. The R-73 is an all-aspect missile capable of engaging targets in tail-chase or head-on mode. The missile has cooled infrared homing. The R-73 attacks the target within target designation angles of ±45° and with angular rates up to 60° a second. The missile can intercept targets at altitudes between 0.02 km and 20 km, target G-load to 12 g, and with target speeds to 2,500 km/h.
The RVV-AE long-range air-to-air missile, also known as the RR-77 or by NATO designation AA-12, is manufactured by Vympel. The missile can intercept targets at speeds up to 3,600 km/h and altitudes from 0.02 km to 25 km. The minimum range in the aft hemisphere is 300 m and the maximum vertical separation between the host aircraft and the target is 10 km. The RR-77 has inertial guidance with mid-course radio updates and terminal active guidance. A new, longer-range (150 km) version of the R-77, with solid fuel ram-jet propulsion, is being tested by Vympel.
The Fullback, which is powered by a pair of 27,500 lbs Saturn AL-31F turbofans and can carry about 17,600 lbs of ordnance on twelve hardpoints.
The jet carries a range of stand-off air-to-ground missiles including Kh-59ME, Kh-31A, Kh-31P, Kh-29T, Kh-29L and the S-25LD, which are designed to hit a variety of ground and maritime targets. It also carries a host of rockets, guided (laser, electro-optical and satellite) and unguided bombs – including RBK-500 and SPBE-D cluster bombs, which should be particularly effective against terrorist formations. The KAB-500S is the primary strike weapon.
This satellite-guided smart bomb is designed to engage reinforced concrete shelters, runways, railway and highway bridges, military industrial installations, warships, and transport vessels and has proved itself to be a highly effective weapon against terrorist groups fighting in Syria.
The accuracy of the KAB-500S is between 7 and 12 meters while laser-guided and TV-guided equivalents have a stated accuracy of 4 to 7 meters.
The Su-34 is armed with a 30 mm GSh-301 gun and 180 rounds of ammunition. The gun has a maximum rate of fire of 1,500 rounds a minute and the muzzle velocity is 860 m/s.
The core of the Fullback’s sensor suite is the Leninets B-004 passive electronically scanned array radar.
Maximum detection range for the passive electronically scanned array forward radar is 200–250 km. The main radar can simultaneously track four targets (in the air, on land or on the water). The Su-34 has a frontal radar cross-section that is an order of magnitude smaller than prior generation fighters.
To cover the rear, the second aft-facing radar is mounted. The unorthodox rearward facing radar can warn the crew about a threat approaching from behind and allow it to fire its R-73s against pursuers without needing to turn the aircraft.
The aircraft can also carry electronic warfare or reconnaissance pods.
The Su-34 is also equipped with an electro-optical fire control system and the Geofizika forward-looking infrared targeting pod.
This helps to delay aircraft detection, mask the true subject against false reflections, cause range finding difficulties, namely in speed and angular positions, degrade maintenance mode “on the aisle” when scanning antenna beam radar, increase the time and difficulty of capturing an object during real-time active scanning.
Meanwhile, the production of Russia’s domestic Su-34 continues at a steady pace of roughly eighteen aircraft per year until 2020. Ninety-two modified Su-34s will be delivered to the Russian Aerospace Forces before 2020. The jet has not yet reached its full potential. The Su-34 will continue to be improved based on combat experience and its capabilities will be expanded. These modifications could include additional electronic warfare (EW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities added via external pods.
Russia is on the verge of securing its first export order for the Su-34 Fullback bomber. Algeria – which is dealing with its own Islamic insurgencies – has asked Moscow to supply it with the export version of the new bomber.
Indonesia, India and Malaysia have expressed interest in buying Fullback jets.
Jordan is consulting with Moscow on buying a batch of Su-34s too.
The United States has refused to satisfy Jordan’s need for attack aircraft equipped to deliver high precision strikes. The Jordanian Air Force is still using dumb bombs against Islamic State lacking targeting pods for precise guidance. Jordan’s request is of particular interest as its Air Force has been dominated by Western aircraft so far. Jordan is seeking to diversify its military trade alliance and Russia has a lot to offer, for instance, the Su-34 cutting edge attack aircraft. Moving away from the US to Russia as a military trade partner is an emerging trend in the Middle East. For instance, Egypt has moved out of US orbit to import Russian aircraft like MiG-29 and Ka-52 helicopters. If Su-34 enters service with the Royal Jordanian Air Force, it would highlight Russia’s growing influence in the region with the US obviously ceding its position. The impressive performance in Syria makes the Su-34 bomber go global.