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Hellducks Over Manilla; Why the Su-34 is the ideal fighter for the Philippines to Protect its Territorial Claims in the South China Sea

August 07th - 2018

Amid reports that the Philippines is considering acquiring new fighter jets for its air force, with the U.S. F-16C Fighting Falcon and Swedish Gripen E single engine light fighters currently leading contenders, one highly formidable platform which could well be a game changer ideally suited to the country’s defence needs which has largely been looked over by defence analysts has been the Russian Su-34 Hellduck strike fighter. Coming at a comparable price to the F-16C, and a fraction of the cost of Sweden’s Gripen E, the fighter is specialised air to ground and anti shipping roles and is considerably heavier and better armed than its Western counterparts. While the F-16 and Gripen pose little threat to the capabilities of Chinese warships and fighter jets in the South China Sea, and these single engine multirole jets lack sophisticated anti ship capabilities or the ability to engage China’s far more modern surface to air missile systems and fighter jets, the Hellduck may well be the idea platform for the Philippines’ defence needs due to its heavily specialised design and superior capabilities across the spectrum.

While the Su-34 is primarily designated as a strike fighter, its air to air combat capabilities are in many ways superior to those of the single engine Western jets and a far better match for those fielded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The Hellduck is capable of deploying R-27ER and R-77 air to air missiles, which provide 130km and 110km engagement ranges respectively - superior to the latest AIM-120C developed for America’s elite F-35 and F-22 next generation jets restricted to a 105km engagement range. The Gripen and F-16C jets are restricted to a relatively short 75km engagement ranged using the older AIM-120B, which considering fighters’ lack of stealth, and the far longer ranges of Chinese air to air missiles such as the 100km range PL-12, means the Western made jets can be easily detected and neutralised long before they reach a range at which they can retaliate. Alongside its advanced munitions, the Su-34 inherits advanced air to air combat capabilities from the Su-27 Flanker air superiority from which its airframe is derived. The Hellduck’s advanced electronic warfare capabilities and high manoeuvrability and speed make it extremely survivable in beyond visual range engagements and strike missions. The Khibiny, SAP-14 and SAP-518 electronic warfare systems reportedly allow the Hellduck to “disappear from enemy radars,” a valuable asset allowing it to engaging Chinese fighters or the multi layered air defence networks deployed by its warships should Manilla need to deploy force to protect its claims in the South China Sea.

While highly capable in air to air combat, this remains a secondary defensive function of the Hellduck and the fighter is considerably more capable in long range strike roles - either against ground targets or in a maritime strike role. With the capabilities of the country’s existing Korean built Kai T-50 light jets having proven more than sufficient to counter insurgent groups, and with these jets being considerably easier and cheaper to operate than those planned for future acquisitions, it is likely that the Su-34’s main function in Filipino hands will be as a maritime strike platform. With a combat radius of over 1,100km - over double that of the F-16 - the Hellduck can protect Filipino interests far out at sea well beyond the reaches of the Fighting Falcon and Gripen. Unique modifications to further the platform’s effectiveness in a maritime strike role include a pressurisation system that allows operation at altitudes of 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. These specialisations are well suited to precise the role the Philippines’ armed forces require.

The Su-34 further stands out in the nature of its standoff anti ship munitions, which allow it to target enemy warships at sea far beyond the retaliation range of their air defences - including the latest surface to air missiles deployed by China's Type 055 destroyers. The Hellduck’s specialised anti ship systems have few peers in the world, and are a potentially game changing asset for the balance of power in parts of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. While anti ship missiles deployed by Western aircraft are mostly subsonic and lack the survivability of Russian made systems, the Su-34 can deploy the Mach 3 Kh-41, the Mach 3.5 sea skimming Kh-31A and the 300km range Kh-35U and P-800 Oniks. The ramjet powered P-800 and subsonic Kh-35 would allow the Philippines to target enemy warships up to 1,400km away from its coasts - more than enough to strike warships across much of the South China Sea beyond Taiwan and as far as Shanghai. These would thus provide the small Southeast Asian state with a lethal and highly asymmetric asset against the PLA Navy and ensure an unprecedented level of maritime security. While the Su-34’s maintenance costs are slightly higher than those of the F-16 or Gripen, its far lower acquisition cost than the Swedish fighter and its considerably superior combat performance make it an ideal platform to modernise the country’s currently negligible aerial warfare and maritime strike capabilities. Should the Philippines seek a lethal and highly cost effective new platform ideally suited to its current defence needs vis a vis its territorial dispute with China - the Su-34 appears to be the perfect fit.

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