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Su-30SM: This Warplane Is the Backbone of the Russian Air Force in Ukraine

Su-30SM. Image: Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

Although Moscow’s aerial strategy over Ukraine has remained largely underwhelming, one fighter persists as a core element of the Russian Aerospace Forces. Since the outbreak of the invasion over a year ago, the Kremlin has deployed its Su-30SM fighters to strike Ukrainian ground targets and air defense systems.

The impact these jets have had in furthering Russia’s offensive war efforts, however, appears lackluster. Ukrainian Forces have claimed to shoot down many Su-30s throughout the war, including by its air defense systems.

Regardless of the variant’s success in Ukraine, the Flanker family of fighters will likely continue to serve as the backbone of the country’s aerial abilities. 

A brief history of the Su-30SM:

The Su-30SM fighter is a descendant of the Soviet-origin Sukhoi-27 supermaneuverable airframe. Designated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as Flanker, the Su-27 was designed to go head-to-head against its American fourth-generation counterparts the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.

While the Flanker’s solid range made it quite the fighter, it still was not serving the needs of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. Since the former USSR was vast, the Air Force desired a fighter with top-of-the-line range. By the mid-1980s, an improved Flanker variant dubbed the Su-27PU was conceptualized. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the improved airframe was renamed the S-30 by the Russian Defense Ministry. 

The Su-30SM is meant to “sync up” with the Su-35 fighter

Moscow expects the development of indigenous variants of the Su-30, including the Su-30SM, to ultimately “unify” with its more sophisticated Su-35 fighter in terms of armament and onboard equipment. According to the TASS Russian-state media outlet, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov has confirmed that “After the completion of the modernization of the Su-30SM, the change in the appearance of the on-board radio-electronic equipment, which made the Su-35 and Su-30SM more unified among themselves, which reduces the cost, unified aviation weapons, this may be the second life of the aircraft.”

An advanced derivative of the Su-30MK aircraft family, the Sukhoi Su-30SM was designed for the Russian Ministry of Defense. Since its first flight back in 2012, the fighter has become a favorite for the country’s Air Force.

In addition to being capable of carrying out electronic countermeasures and early morning tasks, the jet can operate in counter-air strikes, counter-land, and counter-sea missions. The jet achieves high maneuverability thanks to its integral aerodynamic form and thrust vectoring capabilities. Weapons-wise, the Su-30SM variant can sport bombs, munitions, machine guns, and even supersonic anti-ship and land-attack missiles, according to Air Force Technology.

Have the Su-30SMs been successful in Ukraine?

In October, an Su-30SM fighter carrying a Kh-29 air-to-air missile and flying at low altitudes was observed over the skies of Ukraine. This short-range weapon features a 320-kilogram warhead and is launched by a solid-fuel rocket engine. The same fighter was viewed firing a medium-range air-to-air missile toward a Ukrainian aircraft a few moments later.

More recently, Moscow deployed Su-30Sm fighters alongside its Su-35s to operate in sync over Ukraine. State-run media outlets claim that Russia’s Air Force received its first deliveries of the Su-30SM2 – an improved version of its predecessor that possesses the same engine as the Su-35. Clearly, Moscow is following through on its unification plans between the two fighter variants.

The jury is still out, however, on whether the newly enhanced Su-30SMs will deliver the punch the Kremlin needs to further its war objectives. 

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Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.