Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian Ministry of Defence had announced in January that its air force was relocating Su-35 multirole fighters to Belarus as part of a review of the Union State’s reaction forces. Russia has been using these fighters against Ukraine since February-end and now President Vladimir Putin has announced that it will add two deadly missiles to the already formidable fighter aircraft's arsenal. Russia touts Su-35 as the "most powerful" fighter jet in the world.
Russia began the invasion using its Air Force on a limited scale. It deployed mainly its tanks and artillery units to advance the attack prompting Western analysts to speculate about Moscow’s strategy. However, the situation has changed in the past few days as Russia has enhanced the role of its Air Force to conduct strikes on Ukraine.
Initial deployment of Su-35
In March, Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E fighter jets of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) began performing suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) missions against Ukraine in an attempt to neutralise the attacked country’s ground-based air defence network, Janes Defence Weekly had reported.
SEAD refers to military actions aimed at suppressing enemy surface-based air defence. These include not only surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), but also interconnected systems like early-warning radar and command, control, and communication (C3) functions, as well as identifying other targets for airstrikes.
That very month, Russia deployed Su-35 fighters with Kh-31PM and Kh-31P anti-radiation missiles to suppress Ukrainian air defences. The Su-35 successfully neutralised Ukrainian fighters, shooting down four Ukrainian Su-27s over western Ukraine near the city of Zhytomyr on 5 March, but the extent to which Russia relied on the elite fighter jet for air defence suppression missions remained uncertain.
The Su-35 arsenal
Su-35 deployments for air defence suppression missions notably saw the jets equipped with R-77 and R-73 air-to-air missiles. The deployment came at a stage when Russian control of the skies had not yet been fully secured. The Su-35 entered service in 2014 with over 100 currently in service and operated from bases in Belarus as well as those in Russia.
The Kh-31 is a Mach 3 missile well suited to evading interception and striking from safe distances. It represents an ideal asset for neutralising targets such as S-300 and BuK-M1 air defence systems by homing in on their radar emissions. The missiles are not well suited, however, to countering Ukraine’s lower-end air defence systems, namely handheld Igla and Stinger platforms which use infrared rather than radar guidance. These systems pose the primary threat to Russian aircraft and can be integrated into infantry units making them very difficult to detect.
What does the jet primarily do?
The Russians have designed the Su-35 primarily as an air superiority fighter for air-to-air combat against the elite of an enemy air force. While capable in other roles and compatible with a very wide range of standoff missiles, it is arguably less well-suited in air defence than some less costly aircraft that are fielded in similarly large numbers such as the Su-34 or Su-30SM.
Rate of success and failure
On 3 April, a Russian Su-35S crashed in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces claimed to have shot it down. The pilot ejected and was captured. On 18 April 2022, a British newspaper, Daily Express. claimed that the Ukrainian Air Force was able to recover parts from the wreckage and notify British intelligence. The systems were reportedly then taken to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in Porton Down, Wiltshire, where British scientists and two US Air Force specialists spent 10 days analysing them. After the preliminary evaluation, the systems were reportedly transported to Nevada, the US, for further forensic analysis.
On 9 May, Ukraine Defence Ministry confirmed that Colonel Ihor Bedzay, the deputy head of the Ukrainian Navy Aviation Office, was killed in action. A Russian Su-35 had shot down his Mi-14PS.
On 19 July, an unidentified aircraft was shot down near Kakhovka. The Ukrainian Air Force command claimed that the plane was apparently a Russian Su-35 that they had shot down but provided no evidence. As of August 2022, Ukraine has claimed to have destroyed a total of two squadrons of the Su-35s (approximately 24 aircraft).
But as far as offence is concerned, there is no doubt about the efficacy of Su-35. The deadly Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters are annihilating Ukrainian defence systems. This is Russia’s preferred air superiority tool until the fifth-generation Su-57 is developed.
GSH-30-1 30MM autocannon (150 rounds); 17,630 pounds of payload on 12 external points. Su-35 has been armed with R-73 air-to-air missiles and Kh-31 anti-radiation missiles. The R-73 missile engages air targets in a dogfight from any direction, day or night. The Kh-31 neutralises radar, communication assets and other radio frequency sources.
Its potential in the global arms market
It remains a significant possibility that with the Ukrainian Air Force effectively neutralised, the single-seat, twin-engine, supermaneuverable Su-35 will be relieved of its air defence suppression role. Thereafter, the Russians will rely on a twin-seat aircraft that is less specialised in air-to-air combat such as the Su-30SM.
Russia thought that the United Arab Emirates, India, Turkey, Algeria, Brazil and Indonesia will be the potential buyers of the Su-35. But India did not consider it for the MMRCA deal that went to the French Rafale. a 4.5G fighter aircraft, as India, which already has the Russian Su-30 MKI, needed a medium version to fill the gap in its squadrons that were depleting due to the ageing MiG series planes. The Su-35's bid in Brazil and Indonesia failed too.