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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Russia’s Su-34 Fullback Fighter Bomber: A Threat or Paper Tiger?

Su-34 Russia Ukraine
Russia's Su-34 fighter-bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback: In American football, the position of fullback is a dying breed, an endangered species. In the NFL nowadays, you hardly ever see a fullback like Mike “You’re In Good Hands With” Allstott steamrolling through hapless defenders en route to helping the Tamp Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season.

In college ball, you rarely see the fullback lined up in the Power-I formation made famous by the USC Trojans national championship teams of the 1970s coached by the legendary John McKay (God rest his soul) and John Robinson, a program and position that positioned all-time greats like Mosi Tutupu (R.I.P.), Ricky Bell (R.I.P. again), and Heisman Trophy winner – and eventual Super Bowl XVIII champion – Marcus Allen.

In the world of military aviation, however, there is a “Fullback” that is still very viable, though even that viability may be somewhat in question (more on this later).

Say hello to Russia’s Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber, who has been assigned the NATO reporting name of “Fullback.”

Su-34 History and Specifications

 The Su-34 made her maiden flight in April 1990, a year and eight months before the collapse of the Soviet Union and resultant end of the Cold War.

However, the plane didn’t actually go into full-fledged production until 2006. It didn’t officially enter into service with the post-Soviet Russian Air Force (officially the Военно-воздушные силы России/Voenno-vozdushnye sily Rossii, or VVS for short) until 20 March 2014.

It was manufactured by the JSC Sukhoi Company, the same firm that produced the Su-25 “Frogfoot” ground-attack plane – the Russians’ equivalent of America’s A-10 Warthog – and the Su-27 “Flanker” fighter.

Indeed, the “Fullback” is based on the “Flanker” – the first prototype was designated Su-27IB, AKA “‘42 Blue” — and intended to replace another one of Sukhoi’s other products, that being the Su-24M “Fencer,” as well as the Tupolev Tu-22M “Backfire” bomber.

However, unlike the Backfire, which is a pure bomber, the Fullback has strike fighter and fighter-bomber capabilities.

The warbird has a two-person crew ensconced in a side-by-side cockpit and a distinct “platypus” nose.

Fuselage length is 76 feet 7 inches, wingspan is 48 feet 3 inches, height is an even 20 feet, empty weight is 49,604 pounds, max takeoff weight is 99,428 pounds, with a fuel capacity of 26,676 pounds.

Max airspeed is Mach 1.8 (1,000 knots/1,200 mph) at altitude, with a cruise speed of 700 knots (810 mph), a combat range of 590 nautical miles, a ferry range pf 2,400 nautical miles, and a service ceiling of 56,000 feet.

The Weapons

Armament-wise, the Su-34 wields a single 30mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1 automatic cannon with 180 rounds.

There are also 12 hardpoints on the wings and fuselage with a capacity of 13 to 15 tons of ordnance, either rocket pods of bombs such as the KAB-500L laser-guided bomb.

For air-to-air missions, the plane can carry 2 apiece of the Vympel R-27 (NATO codename: AA-10 “Alamo”), R-73 (AA-11 “Archer”), and Vympel NPO R-77 (AA-12 “Adder”) missiles.

Air-to-ground missile options included – but are not limited to – the Kh-25/Kh-25M/Х-25 (AS-10 “Karen”) and Kh-59 Ovod/Х-59 Овод “Gadfly” (AS-13 “Kingbolt”).

Su-34 Battle-Proven in the Skies Over Syria (and Georgia?)…

Allegedly the Su-34 received her baptism of fire during the 2008 Russo-Georgia War, but this hasn’t actually been confirmed yet.

The first known blooding of the Fullback took place in Syria in September 2015, when the warbird was used to target Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh and other anti-Assad rebels. By most accounts, the plane acquitted itself quite well during the Syria campaign, destroying multiple bunkers, command centers, and so forth.

Arguably, the plane’s crowning combat achievement took place on 4 October 2017, when, in tandem with Su-35 “Flanker-Es,” Su-34s were used to target a leadership gathering of the Al-Nusra Front – better known as Al Qaeda in Syria or Al Qaeda in the Levant – resulting in the deaths of 12 Al-Nusra field commanders and 50 of the terror group’s militants, including their security chief, Ahmad al-Ghizai.

…But Embarrassed in the Skies Over Ukraine

However, during the ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine, the Fullback’s battlefield performance has been considerably less auspicious.

The Russians themselves admit to losing at least 10 of their precious Su-34s, while independent research shows that the loss tally could be as high 16, which would equate to more than 10% of Moscow’s total Fullback fleet.

Perhaps the most embarrassing of Russia’s Fullback losses in Ukraine was their very first one, back in July 2022, wherein the plane was shot down by Russia’s own air defenses. Which adds credence to the witticism from Murphy’s Laws of Combat that “Friendly Fire Isn’t.”

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, Chris enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).