The Flanker Fleet -The PLA's 'Big Stick'
The PLA's acquisition, since 1991, of nearly 300 Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker long range fighter aircraft, represents the single greatest investment in modern fighter aircraft seen since the Soviet re-equipment with the Su-27 and MiG-29 during the 1980s.
With further growth in this fleet now inevitable, currently planned and deployed numbers are approaching 400 aircraft, making this fleet numerically competitive with the US Air Force fleet of 400 legacy F-15A-D fighters, and 200 F-15E strike fighters.
By any conventional metric, the Su-27 and Su-30 represent direct equivalents to the US F-15C and F-15E, and offer superior capabilities to the US fighters in several key areas. The latest variants include all of the avionic and systems refinements historically exclusive to US and EU combat aircraft.
KnAAPO Su-27SK Flanker B, Su-27UBK Flanker C and Shenyang J-11 Flanker B
China acquired its first Flankers very soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. Until then the Flanker was exclusive to Soviet Voyska-PVO and Frontovaya Aviatsia VVS units, and a jealously guarded asset in the Soviet fleet. Soviet Flankers were designed to fulfill the air superiority role in the European TVD, and provide long range air defense capability, to intercept SAC's B-52H and B-1B bombers performing SIOP sorties.
The first of these roles resulted in a design which was from the outset built to defeat the incumbent US Air Force F-15C. The Flanker B can match the speed, acceleration and climb performance of the F-15, exceed the instantaneous and sustained transonic turn performance of the F-15, exceed the radar detection range of the baseline APG-63 radar, and exceed the number of externally carried air-air missiles, compared to the F-15. The second of these roles resulted in the Flanker B carrying 22,000 lb of internal fuel, comparable to the fuel load of an F-15C or F-15E equipped with external Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT). The Flanker was also equipped with a Fly-By-Wire flight control system, an OLS-27 Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) / laser rangefinder package, to supplement the radar with a jam resistant fire control capability. The large pulse Doppler NIIP N-001/RPLK-27 Slot Back fire control radar, equipped with a 1 metre diameter Cassegrainian antenna – the largest used on any agile fighter, compared closely to the F-14's AWG-9, which was compromised by the supply of two Iranian F-14As after the collapse of the Pahlavi regime.
The weapons package included the then revolutionary thrust vectoring Vympel R-73/AA-11 Archer close in missile supported by the RLPK-27 Helmet Mounted Sight (HMS), semi-active radar homing, heatseeking and passive anti radiation variants of the Vympel R-27/AA-10 Alamo BVR missile, in long and short burn variants, with the newer Vympel R-77/AA-12 Adder or 'Amraamski' in development.
Wingtip mounted KNIRTI SPS-171/L005 Sorbtsiya phased array defensive ECM pods were developed, based on the internal jammer designed for the Backfire bomber.
In aerodynamic terms, the Flanker most closely resembles a fusion of features in the early fixed geometry wing VFX (F-14) proposals, but with the strake and fuselage blending of the F-16. The result is a design with tremendous vortex lift capability for tight maneuvering at high G loads. Low structural weight was achieved by the generous use of Titanium alloys, in quantities comparable to the later F-22A Raptor design.
Designed by the Sukhoi bureau, the single seat Flanker B was manufactured by the KnAAPO plant, sited at Komsomolsk na Amure, and the dual seat Flanker C by the IAPO plant, sited at Irkutsk.
The Soviets deployed three variants. The V-PVO Su-27, a dedicated air superiority fighter, the FA-VVS Su-27S, a fighter bomber with comparable strike capability to an F-15A/C, and the fully combat capable dual trainer, the Su-27UB, comparable to the F-15B/D.
China's initial order for a regiment sized package of Flanker B/C came as a surprise to most Western analysts. By the mid 1990s it was clear that the PLA-AF intended a larger fleet, with disclosures of negotiations to license assemble up to 200 Flanker Bs in China. These were to be designated the J-11.
By the late 1990s China's domestic build of Flanker Bs was well under way. Like the imported Su-27SK and Su-27UBK, the J-11 is the baseline configuration of the Flanker. It lacks the aerial refuelling probe of later variants, has a 'steamgauge' cockpit comparable to the F-15A, and uses legacy weapons pylons and stations, limiting it to 'dumb' air to ground munitions. In this respect the Flanker B/C is a direct analogue to the F-15A-D models, primarily an air superiority fighter with a secondary but limited strike role. The aircraft have been photographed carrying Sorbtsiya ECM pods.
At this time the PLA is estimated to be operating 76 imported Flanker B/C and around 100 domestically built J-11 Flanker B. Chinese sources identify six regiments operating the Flanker B/C, these assigned to the PLA-AF 2nd Division at Suixi, Guangdong, the 6th Division at Yinchuan, Ningxia, the 7th Division (J-11) at Zhangjiakou, Hebei, the 14th Division (J-11) at Zhangshu, Jiangxi, the 19th Division at Zhengzhou, Henan, and the 33rd Division at Baishiyi, Chongqing.
KnAAPO Su-30MKK/MK2 Flanker G
China's acquisition of the Flanker B/C triggered a series of 'tit for tat' buys of Flanker variants across Asia. The most important of these was a complex import and coproduction deal with India, for the IAPO/Irkut Su-30MKI Flanker H, a derivative of the IAPO SU-30 Flanker F, but incorporating the N-011M phased array radar, thrust vectoring AL-31FP engines, digital flight controls, aerial refuelling probe, canard foreplanes, glass cockpit, and numerous other developmental features used in the Russian Air Force Su-27M/Su-35 Flanker E and Russian Navy Su-27K/Su-33 Flanker D.
In response to the Indian buy, the PLA-AF ordered the unique Su-30MKK Flanker G variant, acquiring 38 aircraft in 2001 and another 38 in 2003. Chinese sources claim three operational regiments are now equipped, assigned to the PLA-AF 3rd Division at Wuhu, Anhui, the 18th Division at Datuopu, Changsha, Hunan and the 29th Division at Quzhou, Zhejiang.
The Flanker G is an analogue to the F-15E Strike Eagle, and is a derivative of the Su-30PU series of dual seat interceptors, adapted to the strike role. The aircraft is structurally strengthened, has heavier undercarriage, an aerial refuelling probe, a color glass cockpit, and a radar and weapon system intended to deliver guided munitions, while retaining the full air to air capabilities of the Flanker B/C. Chinese sources claim some of these aircraft are plumbed for external fuel tanks and rated for a maximum takeoff weight of 85,000 lb.
Other than structural changes, the principal distinction in the Su-30MKK is the weapon system. The newer N-001V series radar has extensive air to ground modes, and the digital fire control system has interfaces to support a range of guided weapons. These include the Kh-59M/AS-18 Kazoo series, analogous to the US AGM-142 Have Nap, the Kh-31P/AS-17 Krypton ramjet anti-radiation missile, the KAB-500L and KAB-1500L laser guided bombs, analogous to the US Paveway series, the KAB-500Kr and KAB-1500Kr TV guided bombs, analogous to the US GBU-8 HOBOS, and the KAB-1500TK, analogous to the US GBU-15 electro-optical weapon. The Russians are currently testing the KAB-500S-E and KAB-1500S-E with satellite aided inertial guidance, analogous to the US JDAM series. The PLA-AF fleet is expected to be equipped with the Russian Sapsan-E FLIR/laser targeting pod, analogous to the AAQ-13 LANTIRN targeting pod used initially on the F-15E.
The PLA-N Air Arm was evidently not satisfied with the domestically built JH-7 Flying Leopard strike fighter, and opted to expand its fleet by acquiring the Su-30MK2, a derivative of the Su-30MKK, with a rated maximum takeoff weight of 85,000 lb. The Su-30MK2 has an enhanced weapon system optimized for maritime strike, built around the N-001VEP radar. The radar will target the supersonic Kh-31A variant, equipped with an active radar seeker for anti-shipping strike. A radar guided derivative of the Kh-59M, the Kh-59Mk, was also developed for the PLA-N Flanker G. Chinese sources claim that 36 Su-30MK2 aircraft were ordered, with deployment as yet undisclosed.
The Russians were reported to be developing a third PLA variant of the Su-30, the Su-30MK3. This subtype was to incorporate the 'Panda' upgrade package for the N-001 radar, including a signal processor upgrade based on COTS software and a Ts-100 processor, and the new Pero phased array. The Pero, developed by NIIP and Ryazan GRPZ, is a reflective passive phased array antenna, replacing the legacy cassegrain design. It is lighter than the legacy design, but offers similar beamsteering agility to the latest Western AESAs. There have been no disclosed orders to date, and some reports suggest this program is no longer funded.
KnAAPO/Shenyang Su-27SKM/J-11 Flanker B
A recent renegotiation of the J-11 build has resulted in a configuration change to the latter 100 licence built J-11s, which will be delivered in the Su-27SKM (also reported as SMK) variant. The principal distinction is that the Su-27SKM incorporates all of the refinements of the multirole Su-30MK variants, and can thus support guided munitions, making it equivalent to proposed but never built single seat multirole derivatives of the F-15E. As such the Su-27SKM can carry the full suite of air – ground munitions now carried by the Su-30MKK series. The radar configuration has not been disclosed but may include the Pero passive phased array. Another possible alternative is a derivative of the developmental Phazotron AESA, reported to have been tested with a 0.7 metre array size on the MiG-29. This analyst interviewed Phazotron's chief designer during the 1990s and was satisfied that they understood the key design issues well.
There have also been persistent reports from Chinese sources claiming an effort is under way to 'indigenize' the J-11 by incorporating Chinese technology, specifically the Woshan-10A (WS-10A) engine replacing the AL-31F, the Shedian-10 radar replacing the N-001, and the PL-12 (SD-10) BVR missile replacing the R-77 and R-27, and a range of indigenous guided munitions replacing the Russian types. Given the time required to integrate, test and clear such a different derivative variant, it is likely that it could only be introduced after the last block of the SKM variant is built, thus suggesting an intent to continue J-11 production past 200 airframes.
KnAAPO Su-33/Su-33UB Flanker D
The PLA-N's decision to refurbish the Varyag and negotiate to acquire additional aircraft carriers raises the likely prospect of a buy of the Su-33 and Su-33UB Flanker D variants. The Flanker D subtypes are fully navalised variants with folding wings and stabilators, a tailhook for arrested recoveries, but equipped for ski-jump launches rather than catapult shots. The Flanker D was the first to introduce the canard foreplanes now used on the most advanced Flanker variants. The weapon system in the baseline Su-33/Su-33UB is derived from the Su-27SK, with some additional maritime strike modes.
The Su-33UB, formerly Su-27KUB, is a unique side by side cockpit variant, intended for use as strike and reconnaissance platform, carrier based tanker using the Sakhalin UPAZ-1A podded system, and a conversion trainer.
The Su-33 series best compares to the recently retired F-14 and qualifies as a maritime air superiority fighter with the capability to deliver anti-shipping missiles. Both the Kh-41 Sunburn and Kh-61 Yakhont have been displayed on the Su-33 Flanker D, as well as the Kh-31P anti-radiation missile. Any PLA-N variant would also be expected to carry the Kh-31A and Kh-59MK now deploying on the Su-30MK2. It is likely that a PLA-N buy would number enough aircraft to provide two carrier air wings and one shored based conversion training unit, with a mix of Su-33 and Su-33UB.
Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback
The Su-34 Fullback is a derivative of the Flanker series, but significantly larger and dedicated to strike roles. With a chined nose, side by side cockpit, large fuselage hump, tandem wheel main undercarriage, canards and extended tailcone, it is a unique design, unfortunately confused by some observers with the Su-27KUB/Su-33UB.
The Fullback entered Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) for the Russian AF last year and is intended to replace the swing wing Su-24 Fencer, a contemporary of the F-111. The LRIP aircraft were to be equipped with derated LRIP configurations of the Lyulka AL-41F engine, designed to be supercruise capable equivalents to the US P&W F119-PW-100 used in the F-22A. The Fullback weapon system is unique, and built around the large Leninets B-005 passive phased array multimode attack radar.
The Russians have been marketing the Fullback since the early 1990s, both as a strike fighter, in which role it outperforms the F-15E and approaches the F-111, as as a maritime strike fighter with ASW capability. In the latter role the Su-32FN Fullback was to provide a survivable ASW capability to operate in maritime bastions, contested by the US Navy. In the ASW role the aircraft would carry a sensor suite similar to the retired S-3B, and a centreline conformal pod loaded with sonobuoys. ASW armament would include depth charges and ASW torpedoes.
There has been repeated speculation since the 1990s that the Fullback would be acquired by the PLA, but to date this has not materialized, despite a visit by PRC officials to the plant. The Fullback would provide a credible replacement for the PLA's H-6 Badger in most key roles, but requiring some tanker support to cover the outer range envelope.
Strategic Impact of the PLA Flanker
The configuration of in service PLA Flankers should not be seen as the end state of fleet capability. With modest flying hours accrued, the fleet has a useful service life – driven by structural fatigue and corrosion – into the 2030-2040 period. The high fraction of titanium alloys will guarantee longevity. By 2015 a good fraction of the fleet will be due for mid life upgrades.
The Flanker is a large and robust airframe, with good internal volume, and considerable capacity for avionics power and cooling. As its history to date demonstrates, technology insertion upgrades incur little difficulty. Therefore a PLA Flanker in 2015-2020 is likely to be significantly different in engine and avionics technology to current variants.
There are a number of candidate upgrades which can be predicted with a high level of confidence, given known development activity in Russian industry:
1. Supersonic cruise 40,000 lbf class AL-41F engines replacing the AL-31F. A derated AL-41F was being trailed in a Russian Su-27 in 2004.
2. Thrust vectoring (TVC) engine nozzles with 2D or 3D capability. Indian Su-30MKI is equipped with a TVC nozzle.
3. Digital Flight Control System (DFCS). Trialled in the 1990s Su-37 and later supplied to India, this technology will become standard for late build Flankers. The Su-37 included redundant sidestick controls for the pilot.
4. Canard foreplanes for enhanced high alpha agility. Production hardware on Su-33 and Su-30MKI.
5. An active phased array (AESA) fire control radar replacing the N-001 series. Russian industry has supplied the hybrid array N-011M to India, built AESA prototypes, and given availability of GaAs MMIC technology globally, will have no difficulty in manufacturing an AESA over the next decade.
6. A two color band FLIR/IRST sensor replacing the OLS-30, using QWIP imaging array technology. Russian industry has been negotiating to licence EU QWIP technology, which is based on mass production GaAs MMIC technology.
7. COTS based computer hardware running COTS based software. Given the use of this technology in the current N-001VEP upgrade, we can expect its use to extend across all systems over the next decade.
8. A Helmet Mounted Display with FLIR projection capability. Such an upgrade was being discussed some years ago, and would be easily accommodated with a FLIR/IRST sensor.
9. Full glass cockpit based on digital technology. Given the current delivery of first generation glass cockpits in Su-30MK and Su-27SKM, this is a natural progression.
10. Heatseeking and anti radiation variants of the R-77 Amraamski, and extended range ramjet powered variants of the R-77. All are in advanced development and actively being marketed.
11. Advanced digital variants of the R-73/74 Archer close-in air to air missile. These have been actively marketed.
12. AWACS killer long range missiles in the 160 to 200 nautical mile range category. The R-37/AA-X-13 Arrow remains in development for the Su-35, the R-172 was recently reported as the subject of licence negotiations with India. Su-35 upgrade marketing literature depicts the use of such missiles.
13. Cruise missiles for standoff attacks. China acquired Kh-55SM/AS-15 Kent cruise missiles from the Ukraine, and is manufacturing indigenous designs.
14. Advanced jam resistant fighter to fighter and fighter to AWACS datalinks and networks. India used the Russian TKS-2 datalink to effect in the Cope India exercise against the F-15C. Further evolution of protocol software will see this technology grow to match current US capabilities.
15. Radar absorbent materials for radar observables reduction. Numerous Russian unclassified papers detail a range of technologies for surface wave suppression and edge signature reduction, with a specific aim of reducing legacy aircraft observables.
16. Aerial refuelling probes, pylon plumbing for drop tanks, and buddy refuelling stores. Production hardware available off the shelf.
These technologies will appear over the next decade on PLA Flankers, either as upgrades or as part of new build aircraft. It is a 'when' question rather than an 'if' question, and any analytical predictions which devalue the PLA Flanker on the basis of the limitations of the early build Su-27SK/J-11 deny the reality that Russian industry and the PLA are following the US pattern of ongoing continuous technology insertion.
It is illustrative to compare a notional 'Flanker-2015' configuration, equipped with these upgrades, against representative aircraft operated by the US or US aligned Pacrim nations.
A) Boeing F-15 Eagle variants (Air Force, Japan, South Korea, Singapore). All will be matched or incrementally outclassed by the 'Flanker-2015'. While the latest AESA equipped F-15SG currently outclasses in service Su-27/30 by virtue of the AESA and newer avionics, this gap vanishes. In range payload, supersonic and agility performance, the 'Flanker-2015' outclasses the F-15.
B) Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (Navy/Marines). The AESA equipped F/A-18E/F has 4,000 lb more internal fuel over the F/A-18C, more pylons and better avionics, but retains the basic agility and performance limitations of the F/A-18C. It will be outclassed by the 'Flanker-2015' in all cardinal parameters, especially payload range. The author flew an F/A-18F in 2001, the aircraft being equipped with the APG-73 radar and then latest block of the DFCS software. The aircraft exhibited excellent high alpha manoeuvre performance and handling, competitive against reported Su-27 capabilities. Principal limitations observed were in clean supersonic acceleration, limited by the wing design, and radar footprint, limited by power aperture performance.
C) LM Joint Strike Fighter (Australia). The JSF will be outclassed in all cardinal parameters by the 'Flanker-2015'. The only clear advantage the JSF will hold will be in observables, with the caveat that Flanker support by lower band AWACS and GCI radars, and good FLIR/IRST capabilities will significantly narrow any margin of survivability produced by the JSF's reduced observables. While the JSF is being marketed as a Very Low Observable (VLO) design, its actual design indicates that at best it has potential for VLO performance in the forward hemisphere, and at best Low Observable capability in the aft hemisphere. The serrated circular engine nozzle is band limited in effect, and the absence of canopy frame serrations suggests that VLO performance in the forward hemisphere is borderline at best.
D) LM F-22A Raptor (Air Force). The F-22A is the only US combat aircraft with a clear margin of superiority over the Sukhoi in all cardinal parameters, with the additional advantage of excellent wideband all aspect stealth capability, and sustained supersonic cruise capability.
Proponents of Network Centric Warfare (NCW) have argued that comparisons of cardinal fighter capabilities are irrelevant due to the advantages conferred by supporting Network Centric capabilities such as AWACS/AEW&C and 'smart tankers'. This is often presented as a straw man to dismiss the impact of the PLA's expanding Flanker fleet.
This argument is predicated on the US and its Pacrim allies maintaining a decisive asymmetric advantage over the PLA in the possession of AWACS/AEW&C and 'smart tankers'. The PLA-AF's investment in the KJ-2000 AESA AWACS and recent acquisition of its first Il-78MK Midas tankers indicates that the advantage conferred by NCW capabilities is transient at best. By 2015 the PLA will have an operational AWACS and tanker fleet, and supporting datalink/network capabilities, unless an unexpected funding calamity occurs.
Moreover, regardless of developing PLA AWACS, tanker and network capabilities, the possession of AWACS-killer missiles in the class of the R-37 and R-172 will allow the PLA to hold at risk or destroy opposing AWACS/AEW&C and tanker aircraft. Once this occurs, the respective capabilities of fighter aircraft become decisive in the contest for the control of airspace.
This presents some genuine strategic issues for the US and its allies in the Pacrim. The US Navy will not have the option of confronting the PLA-AF and PLA-N within the footprint of the air refueled Flanker fleet, as the E-2D AEW&C would be exposed to long range missile attack, and the F/A-18E/F will not be competitive against a 'Flanker-2015' configuration.
US allies operating variants of the F-15 or JSF will be presented with identical difficulties to the US Navy. If the AWACS/AEW&C and tankers are threatened or lost, the battle becomes a game of fighter numbers, where the PLA will hold a decisive advantage.
Only the US Air Force will have a credible capability, in the F-22A fleet, to defeat the PLA-AF in direct combat. The principal issue the US must confront over coming years will be the number of F-22As funded for operational use. At this time only two squadrons, of a total of seven which are funded, are allocated to PACAF and to be based at Hickam AFB and Elmendorf AFB. The current limit of 183 F-22As is simply not credible if the US is to cover the PLA's growing strength, and other global commitments.
The US has several strategic options it can play. The first is to fund the deployment of the originally planned for 380-433 F-22As for the Air Force. The second is for the Marine Corps to acquire several squadrons of F-22As for land based operation in the Pacrim, not unlike their land based use of fighters such as the F-4U during WW2 in the Pacific.
The third option is to actively encourage close Pacrim allies to acquire the F-22A. There are only two candidates, Japan and Australia.
Japan has had an ongoing interest in the F-22A and would not be difficult to convince, but technology leakage issues would need to be resolved in some areas. Japan was one of the earliest export customers for the F-15C and needs to replace an ageing fleet of 203 of these aircraft over the next decade.
Australia's intense official interest in the F-22A during the late 1990s vanished with a change of Royal Australian Air Force leadership in 2001, the new incumbents gambling instead on the JSF, supported by NCW capabilities. The issue of Australia acquiring the F-22A over the JSF remains the subject of intensive public argument in Australia and an ongoing parliamentary inquiry in Canberra.
In conclusion, China's acquisition of large numbers of Flanker variants, and supporting assets including AWACS and tankers, demonstrates an active shift in strategy and doctrine, emulating long established US thinking about air power. If the US is to maintain its strategic position in the Pacrim, it will have to actively invest in capabilities to defeat the Flanker.
Dr. Carlo Kopp is a Melbourne, Australia, based defense analyst and academic. His work has been published by the US Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, and a wide range of publications including the Journal of Electronic Defense. He is a Research Fellow in Regional Military Strategy at the Monash Asia Institute, dealing with regional military strategy issues, editor and co-founder of the Air Power Australia website, and lectures on infowar, computing and systems engineering topics at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. His doctoral work, nearly a decade ago, involved the adaptation of AESA technology for long range networking.
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