The Su-35 airframe is a deep modernization of a late Cold War-era jet — but it’s still no stealth fighter.
Su-35: The Origin Story
The Su-35 designation has been used before. In the early 1990s, Sukhoi developed a prototype airframe, the Su-35, also known as the Su-27M, as a serious, comprehensive upgrade of the Cold War-era Su-27 airframe.
The Soviets designed the Su-27 as an air superiority platform, intended to take on the United States’ F-15 Eagle and F-14 Tomcat, and as an air defense interceptor to engage American B-1B Lancer and B-52 strategic bombers.
The Su-27M/Su-35 featured many upgrades, particularly its radar and weapons control system, extending engagement ranges. The airframe also featured canard wings near the nose, aiding maneuverability without requiring extensive airframe redesign.
That modified Su-27 airframe did not enter production, but the Su-35 designation was resurrected more than a decade later, however. This airframe outwardly resembles the earlier Su-27, lacking the canards of the Su-27M, but features thrust-vectoring engines for good maneuverability.
Su-35: The China Connection
China has proven to be the Su-35’s biggest and first importer, signing a purchase contract in 2015 with the Russian government for 24 Su-35 airframes.
A key concern over the sale from the Russian side had been Chinese reverse-engineering. China had previously copied the Su-27 and Su-33 to create their own domestically made versions of the airplanes. In addition, the Chinese were reportedly very much interested in the Su-35’s engines, as domestic Chinese engines have been less capable than those made by Russia or the United States.
There is an argument to be made that the Su-35 is the most advanced 4+ generation fighter in existence today. And it is indeed highly capable — super maneuverable with a high range and weapon load-out, capable of engaging other aircraft at extreme distances. Perhaps its only shortcoming is its stealth capabilities.
As a non-stealthy fighter, the Su-35 could be at a disadvantage against a stealthy aircraft. Still, studies by RAND Corporation and other defense analysts indicate that the Su-35 could more than hold its own in a fight against F-35 fighters, aided in large part by the aircraft’s powerful engines, which help to extend the aircraft’s engagement ranges dramatically.
Although the Su-35 isn’t a stealthy aircraft, it is perhaps one of the most capable 4+ generation non-stealthy airframes in existence. Thanks to highly capable and thrust-vectoring engines, the Su-35 combines high agility with an extended supercruise capability that could partly make up for lack of stealth.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.