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Su-27 Flanker: The Spine of Russia’s Air Force (And A Legend)

Su-27
Su-27 serving in the Ukrainian Air Force. Image: Creative Commons/Pavel Vanka.

As one of the most numerous aircraft in the Russian Aerospace Forces and foreign air forces from around the world, the Su-27 Flanker, as it is called by its NATO designation, will likely remain in service for years to come.

Despite its status as a solidly 4th generation aircraft, many of the air forces which employ the Flanker are heavily reliant on the plane today. The Su-27 has itself become a true family of aircraft itself, with several direct variants in service in Russia and elsewhere, including Ukraine.

Su-27, Explained

The Flanker is a fighter aircraft designed for air superiority missions. While different variants of the aircraft sometimes include updated or different equipment and systems, there are several traits that are largely constant.

With a single seat for one pilot, the Su-27 is propelled by two turbofan AL-31F engines, which help give the Flanker a range of more than 2,200 miles.

Its 10 external hardpoints give the Su-27 the capability to carrying a variety of air-to-air missiles, rockets, and unguided bombs, in addition to its 30mm autocannon.

While the fighter’s thrust-vectoring engines make it a particularly maneuverable aircraft (with a max speed of 2.35), the distinct lack of any radar-evading coating or technologies on the aircraft hampers its overall performance in combat with fighters of a similar or newer era.

Su-27 History and Derivatives 

While the development of the Su-27 originally began in 1969 as a counter to the United States’ F-15 Eagle and strategic bomber fleet, it has yet to shoot down an American-made fighter or bomber of a similar era and role.

However, by the time it entered service in 1985, the Flanker’s chief designer Mikhail Simonov had expanded the capabilities of the Su-27 to make it a remarkably capable air superiority and interceptor of its generation.

After first entering the Soviet Air Force in 1985, the Su-27 has been further tweaked into several related variants. These include the Su-27K, which was designed for naval use on an aircraft carrier like Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov, and the Su-27M variants, which improved the ground attack capabilities of the Flanker and upgraded its countermeasures.

The Su-27M was subsequently redesignated as the Su-35.

Another derivative of the Flanker is the Su-34 Fullback, which features a much-expanded capacity to carry fuel, which allows the aircraft to operate at a much greater range. Additionally, the Fullback includes several tweaks that reorient it towards a dedicated attack role instead of the air superiority role of the standard Su-27.

Su-27 Goes to War 

Combat usage of the Su-27 by both Russia and Ukraine over the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen some of the aircraft’s most significant combat usage across its service life to date.

While the Russian Aerospace Forces has primarily relied on newer aircraft and derivatives of the Su-27 to support its invasion, Ukraine has made expert use of its Flankers to down Russian jets and otherwise deny Moscow air superiority of Ukraine.

Ukraine has domestically upgraded some of its Su-27s, including its examples of the two-seater Su-27UB versions of the Flanker. China operates its own version of the Su-27, which is known as the Shenyang J-11. China reportedly possesses more than 400 J-11s of all variants, the newest of which often include a significant amount of Chinese components. Su-27s are also in use in a wide variety of countries in Africa, Central Asia, and the Indo-Pacific.

Su-27 Has a Future 

While the Su-27 continues to age in comparison to newer fighter and multirole aircraft, its performance in Ukrainian hands in Russia’s invasion alone shows that the Flanker still has some fight left in it. The Su-27 and its many derivatives are clearly here to stay and will likely see significant further service on both sides of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and in other conflicts in the future.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ashli Babbitt deserved that bullet

    May 25, 2022 at 9:06 am

    Too slow to keep up with the F-15 and can’t maintain Mach 2 as long as a Raptor.

  2. Zahid

    May 25, 2022 at 6:50 pm

    Fully agree with your comments though most Russian 4++ generation are no match to western air or ground power.
    Russian properganda had made Russian hardware more compatative but what we see in Ukraine war is that it was lies and cutting corners yet I see see people asking how they match vs F-35 or even F-22

    To see read that Russian aircraft GPS so slow, that at mach2, pilot cant tell his position so opting to strapping on commercial bought GPS to the plane. This days it all about the technology and the lag

    One point people miss is that Russians only built defence equipment, which in offensive mode is a disaster for the operators, be it a plane, tank or a sea going vessel

    The show and tell from Ukraine war will damage Russian arms sale for sure

    Some countries that can switch like India, Egypt will do so fast and others will have to accept defeat and look for peace as there hardware will not be a match vs F-35 for example

    What it tells us is that technology is moving so rapidly that every country needs to be aware of the challenges and tactics else they are on the losing side.

    Answear is silicon and advancements both at semiconductor and software …both area here Russians did not invest and now having to pay the price

  3. Michael Nunez

    May 25, 2022 at 8:17 pm

    LOL , a legend without a Reality is more like it .

  4. Fluffy Dog

    May 26, 2022 at 9:05 am

    Let’s put this in perspective. Trust to weight ratio is about the same for F-15 and SU-27; speed is also about the same; having vectored thrust, SU-27 is more maneuverable than F-15; wing loading is also close. To sum up, the airframe and the engines are comparable in performance (we will leave maintenance out of it).

    Where SU-27 lags is in electronics and avionics, which is not surprising. Ukrainians updated SU-27 in the areas of radar, mission computer, and some other items. That made SU-27 considerably better.

    It’s not the F-15, but it’s not a POS either.

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