Enhancing the Su-30SM: Russia’s Most Important Fighter is Getting Major Next Generation Upgrades

The Su-30SM has widely been seen to have played the most central role of any fighter in Russian military modernization efforts over the past decade, with the aircraft relied on to replace Cold War-era MiG-29s, Su-24Ms, and Su-27s in both the Air Force and the Navy. Although less capable in the air to air combat than the Su-35 air superiority fighter, or in strike roles than the Su-34 strike fighter, the Su-30SM is prized for its low manufacturing and operational costs, its ease of maintenance, and its very high versatility allowing it to effectively employ air to ground, anti-ship and air to air munitions at all ranges. 

The fighter has been Russia’s most popular heavyweight on export markets in recent years, rivaled only by the lighter medium weight MiG-29 for exports, and while the Su-35 has seen only two foreign sales and the Su-34 none at all, the Su-30SM has been ordered by Kazakhstan, Belarus, Myanmar, and Armenia. Algeria has also continued to place orders for the very similar Su-30MKA that is based on the same branch of the Su-30 program. 

India and Malaysia previously ordered less advanced aircraft based on the same basic design. 

Russia is reportedly planning to enhance its Su-30SM heavyweight fighters to a ‘4++ generation’ standard under an ambitious upgrade program, with Su-30 production lines, have already begun production of the much improved Su-30SM2 fighter instead of the Su-30SM. Russian media outlets have more recently reported plans for wide-ranging upgrades to existing Su-30SM squadrons to this standard, with these plans formally approved in early August. 

The Su-30SM2 largely bridges the performance gap in the air to air combat between the Su-30SM and Su-35 and is expected to replace both of these older classes in production as more of Russia’s fighter production lines are allocated to the production of the Su-57 next-generation fighter after 2027. 

The upgrade includes integration of the Irbis-E radar and AL-41 engine from the Su-35, with modifications to allow them to deploy new Kh-59MK2 and KAB-250 precision-guided missiles and bombs. 

The new Su-30 variant will also reportedly benefit from the latest integrated multi-channel communication, data exchange, navigation, and identification (OSNOD) system using next-generation technologies developed for the Su-57, which will provide a much improved network-centric warfare capability compared to the original Su-30SM.

It remains uncertain what portion of the Su-30SM fleet is expected to be upgraded to the Su-30SM2 standard, but it is a significant possibility that upgrades will cover the majority. 

Vadim Kozulin, a professor at the Russian Academy of Military Science, stated regarding the upgrades: “The life of the aircraft engine has doubled at once, up to four thousand hours, without increasing the weight and dimensions. Equipped with a plasma ignition system, the AL-41F-1C is more economical than the AL-31FP currently installed on the ‘thirty’ [Su-30]. With the same amount of fuel, the fighter will be able to stay in the air longer. 

In addition, the onboard electronics, radar, and optical-location stations have been improved. The updated propulsion system, firstly, reduces fuel consumption and, secondly, due to this, with the same fuel supply, the flight range increases. 

The improved radar enhances the ability to accurately determine and detect the enemy's range.” The Su-30SM is also expected to begin to deploy a more advanced class of anti-ship cruise missile - the Kh-32 - with each of the heavy fighters expected to carry a single missile due to the munition’s large size. It remains uncertain whether the Su-35 will gain any new export clients before it is phased out of production, or whether the Su-30SM2 will prove more successful considering that it integrates the same radar and engines as the Su-35. 

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