Su-35 Missile Loadouts: How Russia Equips its Top Fighter For All Kinds of Missions

Entering service in 2014, the Su-35S Flanker today remans the top Russian fighter fielded at squadron level strength in terms of air to air and overall multirole performance. The fighter is currently in production at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant in the country’s far east to continue to meed domestic orders. The Su-35 has been prized for a range of features, including the high performance of its Irbis-E electronically scanned array radar, its ability to fly for sustained periods supersonically without using afterburners, and its deployment of L band AESA radars embedded in its wings for electronic warfare and detection of stealth targets. The fighter’s flight performance is also considered among the most impressive in the world, with a higher endurance and greater manoeuvrability than any Western fighter facilitated by three dimensional thrust vectoring AL-41 engines. These provide 16 percent more thrust and require far less maintenance than the AL-31 that powered Soviet era Su-27 fighters. Although developed primarily as an air superiority fighter, the Su-35 remains a truly multirole aircraft and, unlike its American rival the F-22 Raptor or its Soviet predecessor the Su-27, is capable of deploying a wide range of standoff precision guided weapons for air to ground and anti shipping roles. A look at the fighter’s main loadouts for combat operations provides valuable insight into how versatile the Su-35 can be and the wide range of roles it can fulfil. 

The Su-35 deploys 12 external hardpoints including two on its wing tips and ten on its wings and fuselage for a total capacity of 8,000kg. The fighter is capable of deploying four classes of standoff air to air missiles, the oldest of which is the Soviet era R-27 which, due to limited budgets, remains the most widely used missile of its kind in Russian service. The missile relies on semi active radar guidance, meaning the launching aircraft will need to maintain a radar lock on the target throughout the missile’s flight, which also limits the number of missiles which can be fired simultaneously. The Su-35 can carry up to eight R-27 missiles simultaneously, which retain an impressive 130km range allowing it to outrange the majority of Western and Chinese fighters. Although the Su-35 has frequently been seen with these missiles, those marketed for export or deployed abroad to Syria have consistently used more modern munitions, namely the R-77. 

The R-77-1 remains the Su-35’s primary armament, and was the first active radar guided missile to be widely used by the Russian Air Force. The missile retains a 110km range, and its sensors allow more missiles to be fired simultaneously each fighter. Up to 12 can be carried. A successor to the missile, the K-77M, retains a much improved 200km range and reportedly also makes use of an AESA radar in its seeker to bridge the performance gap with the Chinese PL-15 and Japanese AAM-4 which perviously did so. The use of an AESA radar provides superior survivability against electronic warfare countermeasures, as well as more power and greater precision than older sensors which makes the missile better suited to neutralising stealth targets. The K-77M was designed primarily for the Su-57 stealth fighter to fit inside its internal weapons bays, but may be widely used by the Su-35 in future depending on whether funding is allocated. The improvements the missile provides to the fighter’s engagement range alone make it something of a game changer.

A fourth long range air to air missile fielded by the Su-35 is the R-37M, which was developed based on the R-37 used by Russia’s MiG-31 Foxhound heavy interceptors. The R-37 began development in the 1980s and was set to enter service around 1995, although the decline of the post-Soviet Russian economy and defence industry delayed this by close to two decades with some improvements being made to the design in the interim. The R-37M’s large size and weight means that only four missiles can be carried by each fighter. Nevertheless, the missile compensates with its high performance including a globally unrivalled Mach 6 speed, a high 60kg payload, and a very long 400km engagement range. The missile is not only capable of neutralising fighters, but also provides an effective means of bypassing enemy fighter units to engage high value assets under their protection such as bombers and airborne early warning aircraft.

To complement the R-37M and other standoff weapons, the Su-35 can also deploy up to 12 infrared guided short range missiles including the R-73E with a 30km range and its modernised derivative the R-74 which retains aa 40km range and can engage targets at more extreme angles. The Soviet Union was the world’s first country to deploy high off boresight short range missiles cued by helmet mounted sights, and while Russian improvements in the field have been relatively conservative since the Cold War’s end its short range missiles are still considered highly formidable. For short range engagements the Su-35 also deploys a single 30 mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 autocannon with 150 rounds.

For air to ground missions the Su-35 is capable of providing close air support using its simplest weapons, the S-25 and S-13 unguided rockets with ranges of 3km and 1-3km, allowing it to function essentially as an artillery piece to bombard hostile areas. The fighter can also deploy FAB-100, FAB-250 and FAB-500 relatively low cost unguided bombs. The Su-35 can deploy a much wider range of guided munitions the simplest of which are guided bombs for close range engagements. Each aircraft can deploy up to eight KAB-500 guided bombs, including TV, satellite and laser guided variants and the ‘fire and forget’ KAB-500OD variant. The KAB-500S-E satellite-guided variant can notably reach targets at much greater distances, and reportedly entered service only in 2015. To engage more heavily fortified targets the KAB-1500KR TV-guided bombs and KAB-1500L laser-guided bombs can also be deployed, although their much heavier weights and higher payloads restrict each fighter to carrying just three. Against surface targets the Su-35 can deploy relatively short ranged Kh-25 missiles with ranges of up to 60km depending on the variant, as well as Kh-29 missiles with ranges of 10-30 km, and can carry up to six each. For engagements at standoff ranges, it can deploy up to three of the much heavier 3M-14AE missiles with reported ranges of up to 2500km. These allow Su-35s to engage targets across most of Europe without leaving Russian airspace, and represent one of the most outstanding munitions in its arsenal. 

Although the Su-35 is not specialised in suppression of enemy air defences, with the most capable Soviet aircraft in this role the MiG-25BM having been retired without replacement, the fighter deploys a range of missiles for such roles. These include the Kh-25ML and Kh-25MP with short ranges, although the primary armament used by the Russian Air Force for such roles remains the Kh-31P/PD which boasts a Mach 3 speed and 110km range. Up to six of these can be carried by each fighter, allowing a squadron to overwhelm a target’s defences. The Su-35 can also deploy the Kh-58UShE which has 120-250km ranges and is a newer addition to the arsenal, and can carry up to five. The fighter is also capable of operating as a maritime strike fighter, with its anti shipping capabilities having expanded since it entered service as it gained compatibility with a wider range of armaments. 

The Su-35's primary anti ship missile remains the Kh-31A/AD, which has a 100km range and of which each fighter can carry six. These have the same Mach 3 speed of the anti-radiation variants, which not only makes them extremely difficult to intercept but also has the potential to disable warships with the sheer kinetic energy of their impacts. The fighters can also deploy the Kh-59MK with a 300km range and the 3M-54AE1 with a much longer 660km range. A number of reports also indicate that the fighter can deploy an air launched variant of the P-800 Oniks missile, albeit only one per fighter, with each having a 600km range, sea skimming trajectory and Mach 3 impact speed. Combined with the fighter’s endurance, the range of its anti ship missiles allow it to serve as an effective maritime strike fighter and engage targets far from the Russian coast - or the coasts of China or Syria where it is also deployed. The Su-35 is nevertheless unlikely to be frequently deployed for maritime strike operations, with its unique air superiority capabilities in high demand and with less costly aircraft such as the MiG-31K and Su-30SM in many ways being better suited to such roles role. These other aircraft have twin seat configurations, allowing them to accommodate weapons systems officers behind their pilots, and can deploy more capable high impact anti-ship weapons namely the Kh-47M2 ballistic missile for the MiG-31 and in future the Kh-32 cruise missile for the Su-30. In the event of a major war the positioning of various fighter units and the roles which they could be called on to fulfil are near impossible to predict, which makes the Su-35’s versatility remains highly valued despite the aircraft’s overall focus on air superiority.

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