How Capable is Russia’s Prized Su-30 Heavyweight Fighter? Ranking the Seven Operational Variants - Part One

Following the development of the Su-27 Flanker, which entered service in 1985 and was widely considered the most capable Cold War-era fighter in any world air force, the Soviet Union began development of a number of advanced derivatives including a more capable air superiority aircraft - the Su-27M which later became the Su-35 - and a longer range interceptor. 

The Su-30 began development as the Su-27PU from 1986, and saw its first flight in December 1989 two years before the Soviet collapse, after which economic crisis and a contracting defence budget significantly slowed progress with just five Su-27PUs delivered by 1996. 

The class entered service that year. The program nevertheless continued largely due to export orders, with India becoming the first client and ordering the very basic Su-30K model in 1996 - followed by China which acquired the heavily customized and much-improved Su-30MKK. The program would rely heavily on exports to subsidize further research and development costs until the Russian Air Force began to take an interest in the class from the early 2010s. 

The Su-30 is today fielded in larger numbers worldwide than any other Su-27 derivative and remains in production today both for the Russian military and for export with capabilities that have improved markedly since the 1990s. Approximately 135 are currently deployed by the Russian Air Force, the large majority of them Su-30SMs, with India, China, and Algeria being the largest foreign operators. 

The fighter is prized for pairing the advanced air superiority capabilities of the Su-27 with lower maintenance requirements, and higher endurance and avionics well suited to strike and anti-shipping missions, which make it much more versatile than the original. 

Su-30SM2 — Russia

The latest variant of the Su-30, and likely the last production variant intended for domestic use, the Su-30SM2 is expected to enter the Russian Air Force in considerable numbers represents a major improvement to the Su-30SM design using technologies more recently developed for the Su-35 and Su-57 fighters. 

The most notable improvements to are the integration of the Su-35’s Irbis-E radar and AL-41 engines. The integration of the Irbis-E radar allows the fighter to detect targets with a three square meter radar cross-section 350-400 km away, and against stealth targets, with a 0.01 square meter cross-section the range is 90 km. 

The AL-41 meanwhile not only reduces maintenance requirements but also has over 16% more power than the older AL-31 and is more fuel-efficient which improves endurance. An integrated multi-channel communication, data exchange, navigation, and identification (OSNOD) system using next-generation technologies developed for the Su-57 fighter will also provide a much-improved network-centric warfare capability. 

These upgrades will bring the aircraft to a ‘4++ generation’ standard comparable to the Su-35, with the two aircraft expected to be brought into a single production line after 2027 under Russia’s next State Armaments Plan. Much of the Russian Su-30SMs fleet is expected to be enhanced to the Su-30SM2 standard, while further units are produced in parallel. 

Su-30SM — Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Myanmar

The Su-30SM is one of the most widely fielded aircraft in Russian service, with an estimated 95 currently used by the country’s air force and a further 22 in the navy. 

The highly versatile heavyweight jet has been relied on two replace Cold War-era MiG-29s, Su-24Ms and Su-27s, and is overall considerably more capable than all of these in all roles while also being much more versatile. Following Russia’s development of the Su-30MKI heavyweight fighter to meet the requirements of the Indian Air Force, which represented the most capable Russian-built fighter at the time, the Su-30SM was developed based on it and provided the country with its first fighter with ‘4+ generation’ capabilities. 

Alongside thrust-vectoring engines for enhanced maneuverability, notable features which separated the Su-30SM from older Su-30 variants included the integration of the N-11M Bars radar with a 400km maximum detection range and 200km search range, a wide-angle heads up display, new identification friend or foe, and communications systems, and compatibility with the SAP-518 jamming pod. The fighter has a lower operational cost than the Su-27 and is considerably cheaper than the Su-35 and Su-57 which, when the Su-30SM entered service, were still under development and years away from entering service. 

The Su-30SM is notable for its compatibility with a range of advanced munitions including the R-37M Mach 6 long-range air to air missile, and reportedly in the future the Kh-32 more anti ship cruise missile.

Su-30MKI/MKA/MKM — India, Algeria, Malaysia

Developed from the late 1990s to meet the requirements of the Indian Air Force, the Su-30MKI was the first Su-30 variant with thrust vectoring engines and canards for added maneuverability and benefitted form technologies previously tested during the development of the Su-37 program which later also found their way onto the Su-35. 

The fighter would become the most produced variant of the Su-30, with India becoming by far the largest Su-30 operator with a considerably larger fleet than Russia itself - largely due to the fact that Russia and China operated multiple classes of a heavyweight fighter while India focused all its investment on the Su-30. 

Over 270 of the aircraft are thought to be in service, with the first having entered service in 2002 after beginning production two years prior, although prices would rise drastically as India began to produce the aircraft on less efficient domestic production lines and began to integrate more non-Russian technologies. 

By 2020 the aircraft built in India would cost almost twice as much as the newer and more capable Su-30SM. The Algerian Air Force and Royal Malaysian Air Force would subsequently order aircraft based on the Su-30MKI with relatively minor customizations — the Su-30MKA and Su-30MKM — with Algeria emerging as the third-largest foreign operator for the class and ordering over 70 airframes. 

Continued in Part Two

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