Russia’s Su-34 “fighter-bomber” mix presents unique and potentially unparalleled threats as the aircraft is both somewhat modern and aligned with cutting-edge 4th-generation fighter jet upgrades.
In terms of external appearance, the Su-34 very much resembles its similar fighter jet variants such as the Su-27 and Su-35.
However, it is massive size is, by comparison, capable of operating with eight tons of precision bombs and cruise missiles, according to an interesting 2017 write up on the aircraft from Russia Beyond.
The aircraft has room for a kitchen, large enough crew space to sleep two airmen, and can travel as far as 7,000 km without needing to refuel. The Russia Beyond report identifies the Su-34 as a “duckbill” aircraft, as its nose is flattened into a horizontal, flat configuration.
Although a larger aircraft, the Su-34 does resemble the slightly stealthy 4th-generation Russian airframes such as the Su-27 and Su-35. However, the Su-34s empty weight is listed at nearly 50,000 pounds compared with the Su-27s 36,000-pound empty weight.
The largest difference is perhaps found in its payload capacity as the Su-34’s maximum take-off weight is just about 100,000 pounds, something which represents an ability to operate with a massive amount of weapons. The Su-27 max take-off weight, by comparison, is only 67,000 pounds. To add perspective, a max take-off weight of 99,000 pounds does give new mission options to the Su-34, it is still less than four times the 414,000-pound max takeoff weight of large Russian bombers such as the well-known Tupolev Tu-95.
Su-34 bomber & fighter
Apart from an ability to carry and deliver a large bomber-like arsenal of precision weaponry, what distinguishes the Su-34 would seem to be its ability to simultaneously operate in a maneuverable, air-to-air, and air-to-ground fighter jet capacity. The aircraft would be more vulnerable than its much faster, lighter, and more maneuverable counterparts such as the Su-27, as its speed is listed as only Mach 1.8. Yet, it nonetheless does seem to introduce air combat capabilities not typically associated with bombers.
A dual-mission scope of this kind clearly opens up operational possibilities as the Su-34 could shift from air-to-ground attacks to higher-altitude precision-bombing campaigns, therefore reducing the overall number of airframes needed for a given attack mission. This widens and streamlines the mission envelope, particularly in situations where Russia might have an air superiority edge and not need as many Su-27s. In this kind of scenario, an Su-34 could both perform air-combat and ground attack missions while also introducing glide and precision-bombing options to a larger degree.
Interestingly, the U.S. does not seem to have an equivalent in certain respects, as the B1-B bomber does not operate with fighter-jet-like capabilities and the B-2 and B-52 are pure bombing platforms. U.S. 4th-and-5th-generation fighter jets, such as the F-35 and F-15, are able to perform impactful “bombing” missions with precision weapons as well, just to a lesser extent.
This raises the question that Russia’s Su-34, while introducing potentially unparalleled versatility, could be an aircraft “stuck” between missions. Meaning it is too large and heavy to truly be effective as a fighter yet far too small to be sufficiently impactful as a bomber.
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Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University