Meet the Su-33: Russia’s doomed sole aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov is most recognized for the series of unfortunate events that comprise its short history. It is questionable whether the carrier will see service in the future. In addition to spending more time in drydock than in service, it has been the platform of crashes and loss of aircraft when it was in service.
Perhaps the ship’s most memorable tragedy occurred in 2016 when the Kuznetsov was operating off the coast of Syria in its first-ever deployment. Still reeling from the loss of a Mikoyan MiG-29K fighter during an attempted carrier landing a few weeks prior, the Kuznetsov suffered an additional crash.
An Su-33 airframe skidded off the carrier’s dock due to a faulty arresting device. Designed to ensure Russia’s carrier fleet had a formidable fighter jet to fly, the Su-33 was once branded as the country’s fighter of the future.
However, due to its lackluster performance history and negative connotations, the aging jet might be nearing its final days.
The origin story of the Su-33 fighter
Similar to many Russian fighters that fly today, the Su-33 is a descendent of the Su-27. Designed by Russia’s premiere defense giant Sukhoi, the carrier-based air superiority fighter began production in the mid-1980s.
Although only two dozen Su-33s exist today, this number seems high enough since Russia possesses only one aircraft carrier.
Moscow’s low stockpile of the jet is due in part to the Mikoyan MiG-29 multi-role fighter, which is a cheaper, carrier-friendly alternative.
In the early 2000s, Beijing expressed interest in purchasing the Su-33 fighter, and a deal ultimately was negotiated for nearly $2.5 billion.
However, the People’s Liberation Army managed to develop a copycat version of the jet – the Shenyang J-15 – by violating its intellectual property agreement during the negotiations. Similar export disasters have left Russia as the sole user of its Su-33 fighter.
An overview of the Su-33’s capabilities
While the Su-33 Flanker-D outwardly appears very similar to its Su-27 predecessor, the fighter sports some significant differences.
In addition to its advanced landing gear, wing canards, and reinforced undercarriage, the Su-33 is powered by a slightly more powerful Al-31F3 engine. The jet’s top speed is roughly 2,300 km/h at an altitude of 10 kilometers.
Sukhoi intentionally included a stronger structure and undercarriage on the Su-33 so that the jets could withstand the wear and tear that would inevitably result from frequent harsh landings on a carrier.
The Su-33’s avionics include a Doppler navigation radar, remote control system, fire control system, flight navigation system, radar warning receiver, and radio jamming transmitter.
The fighter also features two more external hardpoints than the Su-27, bringing the total to 12. Armament-wise, the Su-27 sports 30mm Gsh-30-1 cannons that can mount a wide range of ordnance including “R-27R1(ER1), R-27T1(ET1) and R-73E air-to-air missiles, S-8KOM, S-8OM, S-8BM S-13T, S-13OF and S-25-OFM-PU unguided missiles, Kh-25MP, Kh-31 and Kh-41 guided missiles, RBK-500 cluster bombs and electronic countermeasure pods.”
As explained by 19FortyFive analyst Alex Betley, the Su-33’s inability to carry significant munitions makes the fighter not deserving of the multirole fighter title.
The Su-33’s end time may be approaching
While it is true that Russia’s Air Force currently flies a variety of Soviet-origin aging airframes that still stand up arguably to newer fighters, the Su-33 is not one of them.
With essentially no combat history to vouch for, the lackluster airframe is recognized today for its connection to the doomed Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.
Perhaps it is time for Moscow to send its fleet of Su-33s to the grave.
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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.