This Russian Strike Fighter Would Spearhead Any Move on Ukraine: Su-34 Hellducks Over Kiev?

The Su-34 heavyweight strike fighter first joined the Russian Air Force in 2014 after over 25 years of protracted development, and has since been ordered in larger numbers by the Russian Defence Ministry than any other combat aircraft with over 130 currently in service and dozens more scheduled for delivery. The aircraft is the only dedicated strike fighter to have entered service in three decades, with shrinking defence budgets after the Cold War’s end leading the U.S. to focus more on multirole aircraft such as the F-15E and F-35 for air to ground missions while retiring the F-111 and F-117 strike jets and cancelling plans for an FB-22 radar evading strike fighter. In Russian service the Su-34 provided a long awaited successor to the Su-24M strike platform which ended production in 1992, with over double the endurance, a fraction of the radar cross section, lower maintenance requirements, a far superior flight performance and a defensive air to air capability being among its major advantages over the older aircraft. The Su-34, like all fighters the Russian Air Force has acquired since the Cold War’s end in any meaningful numbers, is derived from the Su-27 Flanker airframe which first entered service in the Soviet Air Force in 1985. The Flanker’s high performance and extremely long range, with an endurance unmatched anywhere in the world, led it to be used as the basis for developing a strike aircraft under the Su-27IB program, which was later renamed Su-34. Commonality with the Su-27 has logistical benefits for the Su-34 fleet with the strike fighter using a much improved variant of the Flanker's AL-31F engine the AL-31F M2. 

The Su-34 is expected to play a central role to Russian military operations in the European theatre in the event of conflict either with Ukraine or with the wider NATO alliance, with its high endurance placing all targets in Europe within range. The fighter will likely carry out the large majority of initial strikes on high value targets, with less capable Su-30SM multirole fighters and older Su-24Ms allocated lower priority targets. Among priority targets will be airfields, command centres, military bases and air defence sites. Should Ukraine alone be the target, the Su-34 could potentially operate with few escorts or support due to the very limited capabilities of the country’s defences. The Ukrainian Air Force lacks post-1980s assets for air defence, relying on ageing Soviet variants of the S-300 and BuK-M1 systems which will likely be priority targets for suppression by Su-34s in conjunction with low flying Ka-52 attack helicopters. Russia’s familiarity with these systems which it inherited from the Soviet Union will make developing electronic warfare means for surprising them considerably easier, with the Su-34’s electronic warfare capabilities and defensive countermeasures against missile attacks being decades ahead in sophistication of anything in the Ukrainian arsenal. 

The Su-34’s low radar cross section, reportedly comparable to that of a medium sized cruise missile, and its access to radar evading low flying cruise missiles for standoff strikes, means attacks by the aircraft could be launched with little warning. Operations in Ukraine would require the aircraft to operate at a small fraction of their full range, much as they did over Syria, allowing them to carry a very full munitions payloads. Despite being designed for strike roles, the aircraft are also highly capable in air to air combat inheriting the Su-27’s design’s high flight performance and combining it with far superior weaponry and sensors. The fighters can carry up to eight active radar guided R-77-1 air to air missiles, which provide a significant advantage over Ukrainian Air Force's Su-27s and MiG-29s armed with Soviet era semi active radar guided munitions with much older electronic warfare countermeasures. 

While Ukraine inherited a fleet of several hundred fourth generation combat jets from the Soviet Union, an inability to afford sustainment costs means the fleet size today remains too small to overwhelm even a small contingent of Su-34s even if the Russian strike jets are not accompanied by air superiority fighters such as the Su-35 as escorts. For any potential Russian military action against Ukraine speed will be of the essence, to minimise the time for Kiev and supporting NATO member states to respond, meaning a strike fighter spearhead capable of quickly neutralising defences and paving the way for any advances by ground forces will be vital. The Su-34 will thus likely play a more central role than any other Russian combat jet in the campaign should it break out. While Western sources have repeatedly expressed certainty at a Russian intention to invade Ukraine, however, whether Moscow could actually seek to benefit from such action remains questionable considering the state of the Ukrainian economy, its large population and the paucity of natural resources that could lessen the burden on the Russian treasury.

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