Russia is losing some of its fleet of “fighter-bomber” Su-34s in Ukraine, as many have been shot down by Ukrainian air defenses.
While the Su-34 does appear to be a uniquely threatening and capable aircraft, its size and relative lack of stealth may make it vulnerable to ground-based anti-aircraft weapons.
Russia’s Su-34 “fighter-bomber” mix presents unique and potentially unparalleled threats as the aircraft is somewhat modern and aligned with cutting-edge 4th-generation fighter jet upgrades.
In terms of external appearance, the Su-34 resembles Russia’s similar fighter jets such as the Su-27 – from which the Su-34 is derived – and the Su-35.
However, its much larger size makes it capable of operating with eight tons of precision bombs and cruise missiles, according to a 2017 article on the aircraft from Russia Beyond. The largest difference is perhaps found in its payload capacity as the Su-34’s maximum take-off weight is 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 Fighter-Bomber Hybrid
Apart from its 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 both 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.
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.