The Buzz

Russia's Deadly Su-27: The Plane That Terrifies NATO (and Buzzes Its Fighter Jets)

The original version of the Flanker has enjoyed tremendous export success, and still flies in eleven air forces around the world. The bulk of aircraft fly in Russian (359) and Chinese (fifty-nine) service. In some smoldering conflicts (Russia-Ukraine, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Vietnam-China) both sides fly Su-27s. Overall, 809 Flankers have entered service, plus large production orders for several variants.

To the West, most of the legendary Soviet aircraft of the Cold War came from the design bureau Mikoyan Gurevitch, which spawned such aircraft as the MiG-15 “Fagot,” MiG-21 “Fishbed,” MiG-25 “Foxbat” and MiG-29 “Fulcrum.” The single best Soviet fighter of the Cold War, however, was Sukhoi’s Su-27 “Flanker.” Intended both to defeat U.S. fighters over central Europe in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict and to patrol the airspace of the Soviet Union against U.S. bomber incursions, the Su-27 survived the end of the Cold War to become one of the world’s premier export fighters.

Origins

The Flanker emerged as part of the high part of the high-low fighter mix that both the United States and the Soviet Union adopted in the 1970s and 1980s. In the U.S. Air Force this manifested in the F-15 and F-16; in the U.S. Navy, the F-14 and F/A-18. The MiG-29 “Fulcrum” played the light role in the Soviet partnership.

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Sukhoi designed the Flanker with the capabilities of the F-15 Eagle firmly in mind, and the aircraft that emerged resembles the fast, heavily armed, long-ranged Eagle in many ways. Whereas the Eagle looks healthy and well-fed, the Flanker has a gaunt, hungry appearance. Although designed as an air superiority aircraft, the Su-27 (much like the Eagle) has proven flexible enough to adapt to interceptor and ground strike roles. Sukhoi has also developed a wide family of variants, specialized for particular missions but retaining overall multirole capabilities.

The Su-27 entered service more slowly than its fourth-generation counterparts in the United States (or the MiG-29, for that matter). A series of disastrous tests bedeviled the program’s early years, with several pilots dying in early versions of the Flanker. As it entered service in the mid-1980s, production problems slowed its transition to front-line status. And of course, the end of the Cold War curtailed the overall production run of the aircraft.

The Su-27’s capabilities are formidable. The Flanker can reach Mach 2.35 with a thrust-to-weight ratio above one (depending on fuel load). It can carry up to eight air-to-air missiles (generally of short to medium range; other variants specialize in Beyond Visual Range combat) or an array of bombs and missiles. In the hands of an experienced pilot, the Su-27 can carry out a bewildering array of maneuvers, many of which have delighted air show audiences across Russia and Europe.

The basic Su-27 frame has proven remarkably flexible. The Russian Air Force has modified most of its existing Flanker fleet with a variety of advanced avionics, improving its air-to-air capacity and also giving it an effective ground attack capability. Several Flanker variants have acquired their own designations, especially on the export side.

Export

The original version of the Flanker has enjoyed tremendous export success, and still flies in eleven air forces around the world. The bulk of aircraft fly in Russian (359) and Chinese (fifty-nine) service. In some smoldering conflicts (Russia-Ukraine, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Vietnam-China) both sides fly Su-27s. Overall, 809 Flankers have entered service, plus large production orders for several variants.

The transfer of Su-27s to China caused a surprising amount of friction between Moscow and Beijing. China purchased some Flankers off the shelf, agreed to coproduce another batch, and acquired a license for production of additional aircraft. However, Russia soon accused China of violating the terms of the agreement by installing its own avionics on the J-11 (as the Chinese designated their own Flankers), appropriating Russian intellectual property and developing a carrier variant (eventually the J-16). The dispute cooled Russian enthusiasm for arms exports to China, a situation that persists today.

Combat

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