Su-34 Fullback: the Russian attack plane sent to war in Ukraine

The Russian Su-34 Fullback attack aircraft had a decent reputation – until it went to war in Ukraine. Wesley Culp, a Russian military technology expert, explains the trials and tribulations of the Su-34 and what the future of this aircraft in the Russian Air Force could look like: While most derivative variants of the Su-27 aircraft are air superiority aircraft that fulfill a similar role to their precursor, the Su-34 is designed to fulfill a very different role. Instead, the Fullback (as it is known by its NATO designation) is designed to act as an attack aircraft and features many design changes that make it different from its cousins ​​such as the Su-30 and the Su-35. This unique configuration allows the Fullback to occupy a remarkable role within the Russian Aerospace Forces.

Development of the Su-34

To understand the Su-34 as an aircraft, one must have a basic understanding of how the Fullback came to be.

Originally dubbed the Su-27IB, development of the Su-34 began in earnest in 1986, and a prototype of the aircraft developed from a trainer model of the Flanker first flew in 1990, the day before of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Development continued after the Soviet collapse and after major redesigns to meet new requirements issued by the Russian Air Force.

The Su-34 saw combat trials in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, before finally entering service with the Russian Air Force in 2014.

Technical details of the Su-34 Fullback

The Fullback remained largely faithful to the overall Su-27 design in terms of layout and structure, particularly towards the tail of the aircraft.

However, its main difference from the Flanker is in its nose, forward fuselage and cockpit. The Su-34 cockpit can accommodate two pilots side by side, unlike the default Su-27 single pilot, and is more heavily armored than the Flanker.

In its default configuration, the Su-34 is equipped with two AL-31F afterburner turbofan engines that allow the aircraft to reach a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 at altitude. When using its internal fuel tanks and maximum three drop tanks, the Su-34 is estimated capable of carrying over 40,000 pounds of fuel, giving it a maximum range of 2,485 miles.

In keeping with its role as an attack aircraft, the Su-34 is equipped with ten hardpoints that allow it to carry a variety of air-to-surface missiles, guided and unguided bombs, anti-ship missiles, rockets , anti-radiation missiles, and air-to-air missiles, as well as a GSh-301 30mm cannon.

The suboptimal performance of the Su-34 in Ukraine

Despite its capabilities on paper, the Fullback’s performance has been less than optimal in Ukraine. According to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, basic civilian GPS receivers have been found in the cockpits of downed Su-34s, raising questions about the effectiveness of the Fullback’s on-board navigation systems. The aircraft appears to have suffered sizable losses against the Ukrainian Air Force and Ukrainian Air Defences, 10 Su-34 aircraft have reportedly been shot down so far during the Russian invasion of Ukraine according to the Oryx blog .

It is possible that Russian military leaders used the Su-34 with too much confidence due to its strong performance in Syria. However, it is entirely foreseeable that an attack aircraft such as the Su-34 would have greater success in Syria (where it would have faced little or no real air defense threats from armed groups). Syrian insurgents he has engaged there) from Ukraine, where Russian planes are facing active Ukrainian air defenses and interceptors.

Infographic Sukhoi Su-34

The Russian Su-33

Sukhoi Su-34

Despite its poor performance during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Su-34 is likely to remain in service for some time, as it was partly designed and produced to help phase out older Tu-23M bombers and Su-24 attack aircraft. Further combat use will also help determine if the Su-34 Fullback is just an effective aircraft misused in Ukraine, or if it has undeniable drawbacks on today’s battlefield.

Wesley Culp is a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He writes regularly on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as the Diplomatic Courier. It can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

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