How Successful Has Russia’s Su-35 Been? Evaluating the Fighter as it Suffers its First Ever Crash

On July 31 a Russian Su-35 heavyweight ‘4++ generation’ fighter jet crashed into the Sea of Okhotsk in the Khabarovsk Territory of the country’s Far Eastern regions. 

The aircraft was on a training flight and reported crashed due to engine failure, with the pilot ejecting and landing safely. He was soon after found by a search and rescue team and safely transported to his military base. An investigation was subsequently launched into the incident. 

The Su-35 has had an overall positive safety record, with this being the first crash since the fighter’s first flight in 1988 - when it was under development for the Soviet Air Force under the Su-27M program. The change of name to 'Su-35' after the Soviet collapse is thought to have been largely for marketing reasons. 

The fighter has been in service in the Russian Air Force since 2014, with the sharp contraction of the Russian economy and defense sector delaying development by over a decade. 

The fighter was the only Soviet program for a new heavy combat jet to survive, largely due to its simplicity and low cost as an improved derivative of an already serving airframe, with the more ambitious Su-47, MiG 1.44, and MiG-31M programs all terminated. 

The Su-35 is based on the airframe of the Su-27 Flanker, which joined the Soviet Air Force in 1985 and was considered the top air superiority fighter fielded by any air force in the world at the time. The fighter benefits not only from improved engines, but also a much-reduced radar cross-section, a more durable and lower maintenance airframe using more composite materials, much higher endurance and weapons capacity, and extensively modernized sensors, avionics, and electronic warfare systems. 

An estimated 94 Su-35s were estimated to be in the Russian Air Force at the beginning of 2021, with 24 more having been delivered to China and 17 having been produced for Egypt - of which five have been delivered. 

Only a single production line is dedicated to the fighters, with other derivatives of the Su-27 including the Su-30SM/SM2 and Su-34 occupying other lines. The Su-35's twin-engine design provides the redundancy needed to make crashes rare - significantly more so than single-engine fighters either from crashes or from enemy attacks - while its AL-41 turbofan is not only one of the most powerful in the world but also benefits from improved reliability relative to the AL-31 used by its predecessors. 

The Su-35 is considered Russia’s most capable fighter in terms of air to air combat capabilities fielded at squadron level strength, although the performance gap between it and the cheaper Su-30 has narrowed as the latter has integrated the same AL-41 engines with the Su-30SM2 variant entering production. 

The fighter’s primacy is challenged at the higher end by the heavier and in many ways more capable MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor, and by the Su-57 of which just five will be in service by the end 2021, with numbers expected to grow at a much faster are from 2024. 

While the Su-35 initially saw significant foreign interest, particularly after it saw service in the Syrian theatre from early 2016, the growing availability of the Su-57 may well diminish its prospects for export as the new next-generation fighter is expected to be seen as a more cost-effective investment. 

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