The Sukhoi Su-35 is probably the most advanced non-stealth fighter in the world
Originally appeared at Russia Beyond the Headlines
China is the only country in the world that has not one but two stealth fighter programs. The Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 fifth generation jets are being built by separate – and competing – aircraft bureaus, which bespeaks a high state of engineering skill in the country.
China also has around 400 units of the fourth generation J-11 jet – reversed engineered from the highly potent Russian Su-27 – giving it plenty of firepower in a conflict involving Taiwan, Japan or the US. So when Beijing decided to acquire 24 Russian Su-35 Super Flankers for $2 billion, the big question was, “Why?”
The chief reason is both current and future Chinese fighter jets are experiencing turbulence. This has forced the Chinese military to go for the Su-35 – considered the most advanced non-stealth fighter jet in the world today – as a stopgap measure and also as a source of advanced technology.
Because the Chinese stealth programs are ‘inspired’ by US prototypes, the defects inherent in unproven American technology have apparently become embedded in the J-20 and J-31. The J-20 bears a striking resemblance to the troubled American F-35 and the larger J-31 seems to be based on the equally proportioned F-22 Raptor.
In 2012 Russian officials revealed the J-31 was powered by the Klimov RD-93 engine supplied by Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG. China has since then reverse engineered the RD-93, but its efforts to provide the J-31 with an improved variant appear to have stalled.
The engine fiasco was a repeat of what had happened during the 1990s. Knockoffs of the fourth generation Su-27 switched back to Russian powerplants because Chinese engines routinely conked out after 30 hours whereas the Russian engines would need refurbishing only after 400 hours. It is clear that despite decades of copying Russian engines, Chinese engines continue to “suffer from poor quality and compatibility problems”.
Engines account for a hefty chunk of all Russian aerospace exports to China, with Moscow contracted to supply as many as 500 aircraft powerplants for Chinese jets. In fact, the Pakistanis, who regularly buy Made in China jets, insist their fighters be equipped with Russian engines rather than Chinese ones.
Will China reverse engineer the Su-35? Does a panda love bamboo shoots? Beijing is clearly interested in the Su-35’s AL-41 engines, which have a life of 4000 hours compared with the 1500 hours of the AL-31 engines on the Su-27 and Su-30. The Irbis radar, which can scan an enemy aircraft at a distance of 400 km, is also on China’s wishlist.
Moscow is understandably cautious about the sale of its crown jewels ever since the Chinese illegally copied the Su-27 Flanker and then pitched it on the international market as the Shenyang J-11. To this day the Chinese insist the jet is not a copy although every aviation expert in the world has declared it as such.
But the complexity of advanced Russian aircraft engines has proved to be the biggest constraint on Beijing’s copycat industry. This – along with the inking of stronger intellectual property protection agreements – has reassured Moscow about proceeding with the sale of advanced weaponry.
That the Super Flanker deal has gone through is nothing less than a geopolitical landmark. The sale comes shortly after President Vladimir Putin personally gave the green light for the sale of the feared S-400 missile defense system to China. These are a pointer to the increasingly close defense and strategic ties between the two giants who have been driven together because of western meddling in their internal affairs and that of their allies.
What can the Su-35 do?
To be sure, 24 jets might just be an initial order and Beijing could opt for more Su-35s as its air force retires antiquated aircraft. The Su-35 fits in well with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s primary goals of dominating the airspace close to its shores and the secondary goal of keeping away the US Navy’s carrier battle groups in deeper waters.
According to Yang Cheng-wei, a Taiwanese expert on Russian weapons systems, amid the territorial disputes over the East China Sea and South China Sea islets, China is seeking the Su-35's advanced capabilities to reinforce control.
“Although China has more advanced jet fighters such as J-11Bs and J-10A/B, these 4th-generation combat jets can at best compete with F-15s and F-16s deployed by neighbouring countries. Considering the potential customers for the F-35 in the region and the US' deployment of F-22s in Japan, China has seen the need to respond to the situation and gain an edge,” says Yang, who studied physics at St. Petersburg State University.
Yang describes the Su-35 is a “fifth generation jet without the appearance of a stealth fighter.” The aircraft's Irbis-E passive electronically scanned array radar system is designed to detect jet fighters at ranges of 400 km and to track stealth objects within 90 km, which even exceeds the capability of Russia's most advanced T-50 stealth fighters.
Yang may have a point. Shortly after wowing the crowds at the 2013 Paris Air Show in his Su-35, Russian test pilot Sergei Bogdan repeated a claim made in 1989 when the Sukhoi Flanker first performed the cobra maneuver. “The rapid change in velocity can cause a Doppler fire-control radar to break lock,” he told Aviation Week. In plain English it means the Su-35 can become invisible to radar.
While the Flanker’s maneuverability is legendary, its range also comes into play in aerial combat. Long range is typical of high-performance Russian jets that are designed to cater for a uniquely Russian problem – patrolling millions of square kilometers of land with a limited number of aircraft.
The Su-35 with its long legs (nearly 4000 km range) and high speed (Mach 2.5) easily outruns every western fighter. This allows it to perform repeated probes and U-turns – a Cold War Russian tactic – that can leave its opponent disoriented, exhausted and vulnerable in a dogfight.
In a simulation subcontracted by the RAND Corporation in 2008, the F-35 incurred a loss exchange ratio of 2.4-to-1 against (Chinese air force) Su-35s. That is, more than two F-35s were lost for each Su-35 shot down. In 2009, US Air Force and Lockheed Martin analysts indicated the F-35 could be expected to achieve only a 3-to-1 kill ratio against the decades-old Su-27.
Sukhois stalk the seas
Not only can the Su-35 take on US stealth fighters, it can take the fight to the enemy’s camp, that is the carrier battle groups. Whether US Navy aircraft carriers operate close to Chinese shores or the deeper waters of the Pacific, the Su-35s can launch supersonic anti-ship missiles at them from safe standoff distances.
Russian anti-ship missiles – costing under $1 million each – are designed to evade ship-based defenses and slam into these $10 billion vessels from multiple angles. If Russia supplies China with the Onyx, it could be game over the US Navy's carrier battle groups. When a volley of Onyx missiles are launched, like wolves in a pack, they themselves decide which one of them is the main attacker and which missile must take the role of the decoy to lure the enemy’s aircraft and air defense systems away. In tests, smaller ships have been cut in half by these missiles.
To be sure, there is no need to completely sink a carrier, although it would be a desirable outcome from China’s point of view. This is because even minor damage can put these large floating airfields out of commission for months. With the main element of its sea power projection gone, the US would be forced to capitulate early on in a conflict.
The Sukhoi can turn into a fighter on steroids if China employs it in a layered system that includes the S-400 missiles. With the S-400 providing virtually impregnable air defense, the Su-35 would find it easier to pick off enemy jets without having to watch its back.