The Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E is the most potent fighter currently in operation with the Russian Air Force. The powerful twin-engine fighter, which is an advanced derivative of the original Soviet-era Su-27, is high flying, fast and carries an enormous payload. That, combined with its advanced suite of avionics, makes the Sukhoi Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. That is one of the reasons the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force is keen to acquire the new jet.
“It’s a great airplane and very dangerous, especially if they make a lot of them,” said one senior U.S. military official with extensive experience on fifth-generation fighters. “I think even an AESA [active electronically scanned array-radar equipped F-15C] Eagle and [Boeing F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet would both have their hands full.”
As an air-superiority fighter, its major advantages are its combination of high altitude capability and blistering speed—which allow the fighter to impart the maximum possible amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles.
The Sukhoi Su-35 would be launching its weapons from high supersonic speeds around Mach 1.5 at altitudes greater than 45,000 ft; the F-35 would primarily be operating in the 30,000-ft range at speeds around Mach 0.9.
The Sukhoi Su-35 builds on the already potent Flanker airframe, which in many respects already exceeded the aerodynamic performance of the Boeing F-15 Eagle. The Su-35 adds a lighter airframe, three-dimensional thrust vectoring, advanced avionics and a powerful jamming capability.
“Large powerful engines, the ability to supercruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform on paper,” said one highly experienced F-22 pilot. “It’s considered a fourth gen plus-plus, as in it has more inherent capability on the aircraft. It possesses a passive [electronically-scanned array and it] has a big off boresight capability and a very good jamming suite.”
The Su-35 also carries a potent infrared search and track capability that could pose a problem for Western fighters. “It also has non-EM [electro-magnetic] sensors to help it detect other aircraft, which could be useful in long-range detection,” the Super Hornet pilot said.
Another of the Su-35’s major advantages is that it carries an enormous payload of air-to-air missiles. “One thing I really like about the Su-35 is that it is a high-end truck: It can carry a ton of air-to-air ordnance into a fight,” the Navy pilot said.
On paper, that makes the Su-35 an extremely capable platform, but as one highly experienced F-22 pilot pointed out: “Whether they can translate that into valid tactics remain[s] to be seen.”