Su-30SM2 Fighter: What To Make of this ‘New’ Russian Aircraft? On January 20, 2022 the Russian Navy inducted the first four of its brand-new Su-30SM2 Flanker-H multi-role fighters. Jets Blue 78 through 81 were delivered to the Baltic Fleet’s 4th Guard Naval Attack Regiment, based in Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, well away from the Kremlin’s calamitous invasion of Ukraine that would follow a month later.
Just prior to hostilities Blue 78 was spotted refueling over the Mediterranean, potentially undergoing limited combat testing in Syria. But there’s no evidence so far that they’ve seen action over Ukraine.
Su-30SM2 (Blue 78) is already at frontline tanking over Mediterranean escorting Tu-22M3. Its armed with new R-74 short and R-77-1 medium range missiles. Black is their naval airforce camouflage. These Flankers entered service this month. Incredible pic.twitter.com/kiM31Piir3
— ST (@aviation07101) February 19, 2022
Moscow first ordered four of the improved Su-30SM jets for the VKS in August 2019 (then dubbed the SM1), followed by 21 for Russia’s Naval Aviation Branch in 2020. Together these 25 jets reportedly cost “over 100 billion rubles” ($1.65 billion USD, or $66 million per jet).
The new fighters should eventually replace the Navy’s ageing Su-24M maritime attack bombers in service. Moscow also plans to upgrade its roughly 110 Su-30SMs in Aerospace Force and Navy service to the SM2 standard by 2027.
That Russia is ordering older Su-30 aircraft rather than newer Su-35 Flanker-E and Su-57 Felon stealth fighters may seem odd. But there’s a decent explanation: the Su-57 is far behind schedule, and the navy needs to replace ancient Su-27P and Su-24M aircraft now. The SM2 model thus retrofits the advanced engines and avionics of the single-seat Su-35S into the Su-30’s two-seat airframe.
The result shares a lot more in common with the Su-35S, easing training and logistics, while resulting in a better naval attack and drone control platform than its successor.
A Tale of Two Sukhois
The Su-30 originated as a successor to the Soviet Su-27 fighter—a counterpart to the U.S. F-15C—with improved capability to employ precision surface-attack weapons. Ultimately, though, it spawned two different fighters produced by rival factories.
The Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant (KnAAPO) built the more modestly upgraded Su-30MKK (Flanker-G). This and its improved successor the Su-30MK2, were exported to China, Indonesia, Uganda, Venezuela and Vietnam. Russia’s Navy also bought 22 of this model designated the Su-30M2.
Meanwhile, the Irkutsk Aviation Plant developed the more sophisticated Su-30MKI (Flanker-H) to meet requirements set by the Indian Air. This incorporated open-architecture avionics, and boosted maneuverability by incorporating a second set of small wings close to the nose called canards, and sophisticated thrust-vectoring engine nozzles. Besides 272 Su-30MKIs built for India, the type was exported with minor tweaks to Algeria (Su-30MKA) and Malaysia (Su-30MKM).
Russia’s military eventually procured its own Su-30MKI variant, the Su-30SM, which is playing a leading role alongside Su-35s in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This model is also operated by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and most recently, Myanmar.
Ordering and exporting Su-30SM2s thus keeps business flowing to the Irkutsk factory before it eventually transitions to Su-57 production (by which time Moscow hopes the design will have matured with better engines and radar.) The improvements to the Su-30SM might also allow KnAAPO to cease production of Su-35s sooner to focus on production of newer types like its new Su-75 export fighter.
Modernizing the Su-30: Su-30SM2 On the Way…
Two-seat jets are generally larger and heavier, with a corresponding downtick in kinematic performance. But the back-seat Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) does make two-seaters superior for employing sophisticated sensors and precision-guided ground-attack weapons, and even remote-controlling ‘buddy’ drones. That’s important for the Russian Navy, which uses Su-30SMs to sink ships from afar using Kh-32 and Kh-35 long-distance cruise missiles.
A two-seater can also double-duty as a trainer (with the instructor in the rear seat) while still being usable in combat roles, as is the case for the U.S. Air Force’s two-seat F-16D and F-15D jets. The SM2’s common avionics with the Su-35 would therefore make it a good two-seater trainer for the latter.
These considerations lie behind the rationale for building an “Su-35 but with two-seats.”
The upgrade replaces the Su-30SM’s two AL-31FP turbofans, which generate 13.8 tons of “wet” thrust using afterburners, with the Su-35’s lighter AL-41F1S Saturn engines that produce nearly 16 tons. The refit likely required expanding the Su-30’s intakes to suck in 20% more air. The resulting 16% thrust bump (and 14% increase of “dry” non-afterburning thrust) should improve the Su-30SM’s cruising speed and merely “ok” thrust-to-weight ratio.
Furthermore, while the AL-31FP could “only” adjust the pitch of the exhaust nozzles by +/- 15 degrees, the AL-41F1S also can tilt left or right +/- 20 degrees, enhancing yaw and roll performance, particularly while performing stunning post-stall maneuvers.
The AL-41’s plasma ignition system also improves fuel efficiency, thereby increasing endurance, range, and weapons-carrying capability. Finally, the new engine is rated for twice as many hours (4,000) between overhauls as the AL-31.
The Su-30SM’s N011M Bars radar is also replaced with the Flanker-E’s more powerful N035 Irbis-E radar, packed into an enlarged nose cone. This exceptionally powerful, mechanically-steered radar has a long scanning range of up to 240 miles for aerial targets when focused on a narrow field), though its emissions are conspicuous compared to those of advanced Western AESA radars. Nonetheless, the Irbis-E improves the Su-30’s ability to detect faraway aerial and naval adversaries—important for the type’s anti-ship role.
Likewise, the Su-30’s OLS-30 combined laser-targeter/infrared search and track system (IRST) is upgraded to the Su-35’s much lighter OLS-35, which has improved scanning arcs. The OLS-35 can track up to four aerial targets from 31 to 56 miles away and provide range estimates out to 12 miles.
The SM2 also incorporates the same instrumentation and flight computers as the Su-35S. In particular, components formerly sourced from France and Ukraine have been replaced with domestic systems, including the head’s up and cockpit displays, helmet-mounted sight, and inertial navigation system.
The SM2 also reportedly includes an OSNOD communication system developed for the single-seat Su-57 stealth fighter, theoretically allowing the WSO to remotely communicate with and control up to four of Russia’s forthcoming S-70 Okhotnik-B stealth combat drones. Reportedly, developing a two-seater Su-57 must be developed to fully exploit drone control capabilities, while Su-30SM2s will come out the gate with a back-seater.
The same report implies ODNOS is compatible with smaller and slower Forpost and Orlan-10 surveillance drones already employed by Russia’s Navy, the forthcoming high-altitude Altius combat drone, and various helicopter and ground-based platforms.
The SM-2 also integrate weapons heretofore exclusive to either the Su-30 or Su-35, such as the supersonic Kh-32 and shorter-range subsonic Kh-35 anti-ship missile, the Kh-59MK2 subsonic land-attack missile, and new variants of the modular KAB-250 laser or GPS-guided bomb.
One characteristic the Su-30SM2 won’t adopt from the Su-35 is the former’s reduced radar cross section of 1-3 square meters (compared to 4-5 meters), which modestly reduces detection range.
Su-30SM2: Export potential
In addition to Russian military orders, KnAAPO surely hopes the SM2 model will give its Flankers a new lease on life in the export market just as the prospects of the Su-35 have narrowed sharply by 2022.
In particular, existing operators of Su-30MKI lineage of aircraft—India, Malaysia and Algeria—might see the SM2 as a credible improvement to their fleets while remaining familiar and compatible with existing support structures.
Kazakhstan, Armenia and Belarus may also look into upgrading Su-30SM orders still in the process of being delivered. Vietnam, a longtime operator of Russian fighters, may be intrigued too, though it currently flies the less similar Su-30MK2 model. Upgrades or purchases might also enable these countries to access later-generation Russian missiles like the R-37M and K-77M.
However these buyers will to varying degrees be wary of the heat and potential penalties Russian arm sales generate due to U.S. and European sanctions placed in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine (and its buildup prior to that.) Pressure from Washington, for example, likely led to Cairo’s cancellation of Russia’s contract for 24 Su-35 fighters, though Iran may step in as a potential buyer.
While Algiers, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi do not like being cajoled by pressure from Washington, it will still factor into their cost-benefit assessments of buying the Russian jets versus alternative offers. Even purely from the standpoint of manufacturing, loss of access to Western microelectronics used extensively in Russian aircraft and munitions is likely to create delays and raise production costs as workarounds and replacements are devised.
A final factor may be the Russian aerospace force’s underwhelming performance over Ukraine. To be fair, Su-30SMs and Su-35Ss have achieved individual air-to-air victories over Ukraine’s less-capable jets, but they haven’t achieved air superiority nor suppressing Ukrainian air defense batteries. This stems more from doctrinal than technical flaws, but nonetheless highlights the appeal of stealth fighters which can operate more effectively in enemy airspace.
As Russia moves to adopt the Su-57 stealth fighter and Su-75 export jets, some posit the Su-30SM2 is likely the final Russian-built iteration of the sprawling family of Flanker heavy fighters. But if history is any guide, further stop-gap upgrades are far from inconceivable.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.