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Deadly Hellducks; How the Su-34 Became the World Leading Strike Fighter Russian Adversaries Fear Today

June 23rd - 2018

Entering service in 2014 alongside the supermaneouverable Su-35 air superiority fighter, the Su-34 elite strike fighter was the less prolific of the two new combat platforms but could well represent a more significant development for Russia’s armed forces. Both the Su-34 and the Su-35 are derived from the same Su-27 Flanker air superiority airframe, in service since 1985, and have been extensively modernised and modified to fulfil different roles. While the Su-35 follows on from the Su-30 in improving on the capabilities of the original Flanker, and has been dubbed a ‘4++ generation’ fighter designed primarily for export and to serve the Russian Air Force in the interim until the fifth generation Su-57 attains full operational capability, the Su-34 represents the first of an entirely new generation of Russian strike platforms. Following on from the third generation Su-22 which served alongside the MiG-23 in the 1970s and the fourth generation Su-24 which accompanied the Su-27 in long range offensive missions, the Su-34 is designed to fly with Russian fifth generation fighters and will remain the country’s foremost strike platform for many decades to come. With this in mind, the aircraft’s capabilities have been designed to be truly formidable while the airframe retains significant room for further modernisation.

While the Russian military is hardly alone in commissioning a strike fighter based on an air superiority platform, with China and the United States, the only other two developers of heavy air superiority aircraft, both commissioning the F-15E and J-16 strike aircraft based on the F-15C and J-11 respectively, the Su-34 represents the most radical modification. Dubbed ‘Hellduck’ by NATO, the strike fighter is the most visibly different of all flanker variants produced either by China or Russia, with its fuselage uniquely accommodating two pilots in side by side seats. Such seating eliminates the need for duplicate instruments. Other unique modifications made with a long range strike role in mind include a pressurisation system that allows operation up to 10km without oxygen masks and room for the fighter’s crew members to stand and move around the cabin - features normally found only on long range bombers which the Su-27 air superiority airframe has been modified to integrate. The Su-34 was based on the Su-27IB design which also incorporated a similarly unusual cockpit and was developed in the final days of the Soviet Union to replace the Su-24, though the collapse of the USSR led to the cancellation of this program. Upon entering service the Hellduck became the first Flanker variant to have been designed for a specialised air to ground strike role, with the six other major variants which entered service before it all specialising in air superiority. Unlike the Su-24, the platform retains formidable defensive air to air combat capabilities which reduces its reliance on a fighter escort - initially designed to defend the fighter from the Western Bloc’s F-15 heavy fighters and supporting F-16 light platforms deployed in Europe and near Russia’s Far East. This include a 30 mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 autocannon and pair of air to air missiles of a number of variants - including the R-27ER with a formidable engagement range of 130km. While they are not deployed in large numbers, the missiles are among the most lethal and longest ranged in the world, surpassing the 105km and 75km engagement ranges of the AIM-120C and B variants deployed by U.S. and European fighters, giving the Su-34 ample protection.

Alongside defensive armaments for air to air combat, the Su-34 also deploys advanced air to ground, anti radiation and anti ship munitions as well as highly sophisticated standoff weapons. While the Hellduck’s electronic warfare capabilities are formidable, and the aircraft’s high manoeuvrability, speed and operational altitude provide considerable survivability, the ability to deploy long range cruise missiles allow the aircraft to better carry out long range strikes in highly contested theatres where risks from enemy air defences and fighter jets remain high. These standoff capabilities can be key to launching a successful first strike to eliminate enemy air defences, which can be then be followed by further strikes using shorter ranged bombs and missiles once threats to friendly aircraft are neutralised. The Su-34 is capable of deploying a number of advanced cruise missile types, with the Kh-65Se and Kh-SD capable of striking targets at up to 600km away, well out of range of any air defence platform currently in service, making them ideal for neutralising such platforms in the early stages of a campaign. The heavy losses incurred by Russian aircraft to Georgian air defences during their brief war in 2008 is thought to have had a strong influence on the Russian Air Force’s emphasis on standoff capabilities for deployment in a war’s early stages.

Another highly capable cruise missile deployed by the Su-34, the Kh-38, was developed exclusively for Russia’s next generation aircraft including the Su-57, the MiG-35 and the Hellduck itself. The self guided missile can deploy cluster munitions, fragmentation warheads or armour piercing warheads and strikes targets at Mach 2.2. Other advanced standoff missiles specialised in anti ship operations, such as the Mach 3 Kh-41, the Mach 3.5 sea skimming Kh-31A and the 300km range Kh-35U and P-800. For short ranged engagements in theatres where threats to the aircraft are limited, or where electronic warfare systems and high altitude flights are deemed sufficient protection, fourteen different types of bomb, each specialised in a specific role, can be deployed by overflying Helducks. The integration of three state of the art electronic countermeasures systems, the Khibiny, SAP-14 and SAP-518, provide ample protection against most threats. These systems are key to suppressing radars on enemy surface to air missile systems and fighter jets and according to its manufacturers can even blind the massive radars carried by AWACS platforms such as the U.S. Air Force’s E-2 Hawkeye and E-3 Sentry. Russian sources claim that electronic warfare systems used by the Su-34 are so capable that jets would appear to “simply disappears from enemy radars” when these capabilities are activated - an invaluable asset occupying only a single hardpoint. Whether electronic warfare will fully live up to their manufacturers’ promises remains to be seen, but they should almost certainly be more than capable of countering basic threats to the Hellduck once enemy surface to air missile emplacements have been softened with long range standoff missiles.

The Su-34’s advanced capabilities and versatility make it perhaps the most advanced strike fighter in service today, with the Chinese J-16 and South Korean F-15K being close contenders. With a combat radius of over 1,100km, the aircraft is capable of striking deep into enemy territory. Hellducks deployed to Syria can strike targets across almost the entire Middle East, while those based in Russia's Kaliningrad will be well within their limits to neutralise enemy forces across Germany, the Baltic States, Scandinavia and much of France. Production of the Su-34 notably appears to have been prioritised over the Su-35, with approximately 120 Hellducks having entered service as of June 2018 where numbers of the air superiority platform which entered service the same year are only around 70. While the Su-35’s performance is comparable to its predecessor the Su-30, and is surpassed by the Su-57, the Su-34’s capabilities as a strike fighter remain without compare in the Russian military and no known future platforms are planned which will surpass it. This gives the Hellduck arguably a more critical role than the Su-35 for Russia's armed, and means it is highly likely to be produced in larger numbers than the air superiority platform which entered service alongside it. The Hellduck's considerably lower production cost than the supermaneuverable air superiority fighter is also a likely factor. The Russian Air Force is expected to deploy at least 300 of the strike fighters by 2025, and while the older Su-24 will continue to be modernised it is likely to be gradually phased out of frontline service. Twelve Su-34 strike fighters have been deployed to Syria for combat operations against Islamist insurgents in the country, and unlike the Su-24 and Su-25 which are also specialised in an air to ground role the Hellducks have suffered no losses. The aircraft have performed exceptionally during the Syrian conflict, and modifications have been applied based on combat experience.

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