The Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 is difficult to classify. Developed from the Soviet-era Su-27 “Flanker” to extend the range of intercept missions, the plane has by now gone through so many variants as to make it nearly impossible to describe one “single” Su-30.
The Su-27 the Su-30 was built on was considered one of the most capable fighters during the later periods of the Cold War and a great display of the best Soviet technologies of the day. It was meant to defend Soviet Russia’s vast airspace against both NATO bombers and air superiority fighters.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Su-27PU was renamed Su-30 and rebranded away from being just an interceptor and towards a more versatile multirole fighter.
The baseline Su-30 model is a double-seat craft with a standard set of late-Soviet arms such as R-73 short-range air-to-air missiles and a number of KAB-guided bombs.
Yet that is just about all that can safely be said is shared among the many Su-30 variants. The earliest rebranding efforts of the fighter were almost strictly geared towards export markets. Foremost among the Su-30’s customers has been India, which ordered 40 in 1996 and another ten in 1998. In addition, a special variant—the Su-30MKI—was licensed to be jointly produced between Sukhoi and the Indian manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
Other variants have included the Su-30MKK, designed in response to a Chinese request for a multirole fighter whose performance would be similar to the F-15E Strike Eagle, as well as the Su-30MKM, developed for Malaysia. The former has also been slotted for export to Vietnam, Indonesia, Uganda, and Venezuela.
The Su-30SM “Flanker-H”, however, is the most recent iteration of this long line of variants and is Sukhoi’s attempt to merge each into one dominant model built for the Russian Air Force. In addition to sporting new jamming pods and a revamped communications system, the Su-30SM is powered by two AL-31FP engines, making it supermaneuverable. It includes the avionics and thrust-vectoring upgrades of previous variants.
Its weapons consist of a wide range of air-to-air, air-to-surface, and guided and unguided bombs, as well as a standard 30-millimeter Gsh-301 cannon. This variant is the most common in service today, with roughly 100 operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Su-30, New and Improved?
The most recent technological breakthrough, however, is the Su-30SM2. The Russian Air Force received its first delivery earlier this year, providing a significant improvement over the Su-30SM, such as an improved engine and new radar. The engine is an AL-41F-1S, the same as the Su-35. Reports suggest that this new engine should drastically increase thrust-to-weight ratio, fuel efficiency, and the ability to take off with great weapons payloads.
In the long-term, Russia is expected to offer this upgrade to the many Su-30SMs operating within its own fleet and in the countries of others such as India, Algeria, and Malaysia, but also Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia. Russian plans are to bring all 100 of its Su-30SMs up to date with this upgrade, and both the Russian Navy and Air Force are expecting to operate the new jet.
Despite the fact that the Su-30SM has not performed as well as expected in Ukraine, the plane’s reach is now so great globally that it is likely to see continued use—both by Russia as well as its global partners.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review