The Sukhoi Su-35 is considered as one of the most advanced and deadliest fighter aircraft currently in active service with the Russian Air Force. This aircraft has incorporated canards and a multi-function radar which gives it multi-role capabilities. The Su-35 is originally a Excellent Air Superiority Fighter and is comparable to the latest versions of F-15 Eagle of the USAF. This powerful fighter is currently used by the airforces of Russia and China, Egypt has also ordered 24 units of this aircraft. So as I already mentioned above that the Su-35 is one of the deadliest fighter aircraft of the Russian Air Force, but this so-called advanced, powerful, and deadliest fighter was not able to deliver expected good performance when fighting in the sky over Ukraine, several Su-35 fighters were also shot down in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. What are the reasons behind this poor and unexpected performance of this powerful fighter?
The Sukhoi Su-35 is a heavy, air superiority fighter, and the most capable aircraft in the active service of Russia, Russian Air Force operates a total number of 103 Su-35s distributed among seven aviation regiments. Russia ordered 30 more Su-35 aircrafts in 2020, increasing the total number of Su-35s to 133.
Like most other Russian front-line fighters, the Su-35 is derived from the Soviet-era Su-27 design, but significantly improved in capabilities with the more powerful Saturn AL-41F1S afterburning turbofan engines and the aircraft airframe uses more composite materials, and the avionics systems are also completely new.
The Su-35 is especially appreciated for its high maneuverability at all speeds and good durability as compared to other comparable western fighters. In addition, the Su-35 is also equipped with modern sensors, Khibny-M electronic warfare suite and long-range missiles.
However, the Su-35 fighter still has some limitations in terms of overall combat capabilities compared to other comparable western fighters. Below is an assessment of some of the Su-35’s top shortcomings that resulted in many being shot down in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine Conflict, as described by the Drive.
First of all, the radar cross-section of this aircraft is high. The most notable distinguishing feature of fourth-generation fighters such as the Su-35, with its advanced design, is its high radar cross-section, which significantly limits its stealth capabilities, flight and resistance to attack from the outside field of view.
The lack of stealth will limit the Su-35’s future usability as stealth designs are increasingly dominating the 21st-century battlefield, leaving the Su-35 fighter underpowered when it comes to stealth against other more advanced stealth aircrafts.
Second, the air-to-air missiles used by the Su-35 are relatively old. The Russian Air Force continues to inherit the Soviet R-27 medium-range air-to-air missile and the R-77 active radar homing air-to-air BVR missile, which is comparable to the early versions of the US AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.
However, the breaking of the Soviet Union significantly delayed both missile improvements programs and as a result, Russian fighters remained heavily dependent on the improved varients of the R-27 missile.
In addition, in the race to build air-to-air missiles for fighter aircrafts, Russia is focusing on producing K-77M with unique and improved active electronically-scanned array radar seeker and a new dual-pulse rocket motor. It can engage anti-aircraft missiles, including those coming from the rear. This new missile range is twice than the R-77, and has speed of Mach 6.
However, Russia’s Su-35 fighter squadrons are often equipped with older R-27 missiles, which are from the 1970s, so they are relatively old compared to today’s era modern air-to-air missiles.
Third, the main radar of the Su-35 is PESA. The lack of a Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar is a notable shortcoming of the Su-35. PESA radar operates on a fixed frequency range, so it is easy to detect and cause interference. It’s accuracy in detecting and catching targets is also not high.
Meanwhile, the Su-35SM version is currently in the advanced testing stage, this version of the Su-35 is expected to be integrated with a modern AESA radar, the type of radar developed for the Su-57 Stealth fighter.
Fourth, the maintenance cost of the Su-35 is high. Perhaps, the most significant drawback of the Su-35 compared to other comparable fighters is its high maintenance and operating costs.
This makes it very difficult for the Russian Air Force to maintain the entire fleet of the Su-35s at a higher level of operational readiness and means that the Russian Ministry of Defense has to finance it a large amount of money over its lifetime.
The above mentioned limitations make the Su-35 less capable of fighting in Ukraine. In addition, the overall performance of this fighter is not very great, which also cause difficulty in selling the aircraft in export market.