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Su-35: Russia’s Best Fighter Jet Is Dying a Slow Death

Su-35: Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s Su-35 Program Continues to Struggle: Russia is downright struggling with the Su-35. It is performing poorly in combat. It is not selling overseas, and sanctions are taking a bite out of production.

What happened to one of Russia’s top fighters? Moscow’s defense industry has been keen to market the Su-35 to developing nations and non-aligned countries.

But the global distaste for Russia’s invasion has put the kibosh on sales and marketing efforts.

Can Russia Keep Building the Su-35?

For the international market, the Su-35 production lines remain open, but that could end any day as international sanctions put it in jeopardy.

Even sanctions before the invasion of Ukraine hurt Su-35 sales. The Counter America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) made developing nations turn up their noses at the Su-35. Egypt, Algeria, and Indonesia could have bought the Su-35, but CAATSA kept them from acting. Other countries canceled orders due to CAATSA. They went to altenate suppliers rather than cross swords with the United States’ effort to curtail Russian arms exports and profits.

Only Rogue States Are Customers

Twenty-four Su-35s have been sold to China, but Beijing complained about problems with the fighters.

Some Su-35s have been peddled to Iran in exchange for Iranian drones. So, it appears the Russians are using unmanned flight rather than depending on manned fighters to turn the tide over Ukraine. That is not a good look for the Russian air force, whose alleged highly-trained and skilled pilots were supposed to dominate the Ukrainians.

Su-35: Depending on the West for Certain Parts

To keep the production lines going for the Su-35, Moscow’s defense industry needs components and parts usually available overseas. Russia still needs the West to supply some of these inputs, and the Su-35 is falling victim to a lack of availability. It is not clear how long the manufacturing of the Su-35 can continue.

How Many Have Been Lost Over Ukraine?

Russia also needs to replace the Su-35s that have been destroyed by Ukrainian forces during the war.

The Su-35 is a key fighter-bomber, but its record over Ukraine has been poor. It is often the victim of surface-to-air missiles. The exact number of Su-35s that have been shot down during the war is debatable. The Ukrainians have said they have destroyed two squadrons – or 24 fighters. That is difficult to confirm as media accounts had only showcased a handful of Su-35s being destroyed.

So Much for the Bravery of Russian Pilots

But let’s say the Russian air force has lost somewhere in the middle – say, ten Su-35s. Moscow had around 100 fighters before the war started. Russian pilots are loath to fly over Ukraine due to the danger of being shot down. The Russian air force has just performed poorly overall, and the air war is rarely in the news.

Su-35S Flanker-E

Russia pilot behind the controls of a Su-35S. Image Credit: Twitter Video Screenshot.

Su-35 over Ukraine

Su-35 over Ukraine. Image Credit: TASS/Russian state media.

Maybe It Is Just Over-rated

The fourth-generation Su-35 can be compared to the F-15E Strike Eagle. It is a multi-role fighter with long-range and high-altitude attributes. It has no problem accelerating out of turns at supersonic speed. The avionics are strong, but its radar and sensors are behind the times. This keeps it from being a fourth-generation “plus-plus” fighter, as the Russian air force likes to brag. It first flew in 1988, so it is getting long in the tooth.

Next Generation Airplanes Delayed

If the Su-35 cannot be produced serially, there is little hope that the next generation Su-57 and Su-75s can be made in numbers. So, the fighter production capabilities of the Russian aerospace industrial base are in sad shape.

Putin is likely in denial that his vaunted air force and aerospace sector is in trouble. He seems to focus more on the army and allowing the air force and navy to be sidetracked. So much for the Russian way of expert joint operations to win wars.

The Su-35 is probably not going to do anything heroic to repair its reputation in the coming months.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.