Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback – Russia’s Supermaneuverable Bomber

The Sukhoi Su-34 is a multi-purpose aircraft that entered the services of the Russian Air Force in 2014, gradually replacing the Su-24 Fencer.

During a long process of development, the Su-34 received the most updated technology to match the requests of the recent operational environment. This was best proven during the Syrian civil war, where the Su-34 displayed exceptional performance against ISIS and rebel targets.

The performance during the Syrian civil war attracted the attention of other countries including Algeria, which expressed interest to purchase the aircraft.

Engines on afterburner.
The engines are crucial to the flight characteristics of the Su-34. Photo credit – Aleksandr Markin CC BY-SA 2.0.

This twin-seat aircraft is powered by 2 Saturn AL-31FM1 afterburning turbofan engines that enable it to reach 1.9 Mach of speed at high altitude. Equipped with rear-facing radar and air-to-air missiles that can be launched without turning, the aircraft becomes almost immune from being chased by enemy aircraft.

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With the modernised version in production, the aircraft is expected to stay in Russian Air Force service for many years to come, potentially joining the service of other nations too.

Contents

Su-34 Development

The development of the Su-34 is closely linked with the development of the Su-27 Flanker, which was selected as the most suitable vehicle to replace the Su-24 Fencer. After the Su-27, received a substantial number of changes, Sukhoi considered that the new design was worthy of receiving a different designation. This is why Su-34 is considered a derivative of the Su-27.

The Su-34 is based on the Su-27.
The Su-27 was a great platform to base the Su-34 on.

The development of the new aircraft to replace the Su-24 began in the mid-1980s, with the Sukhoi’s design being selected for the new multirole combat aircraft.

C-47 taking off from Upottery
C-47 taking off from Upottery

The Sukhoi Su-27, displayed great maneuverability and range, in addition to being able to carry a decent payload. However, as the political situation deteriorated in the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s, the new multi-role combat aircraft project was shelved for a short period of time.

On April 13th, 1990, the aircraft (labeled Su-27KU) took off to complete its first flight. The prototype would go through many more flight tests throughout 1990 and 1991. Only a year later, in 1992, Su-27IB (fighter bomber version) made a public appearance at the MosAeroshow – one of the biggest international air shows which took place in Moscow.

The Su-34 is agile enough to perform exciting displays at airshows.
The Su-34 frequently flies at the MAKS airshow, often with a combat load too. Photo credit – Dmitry Terrekhov CC BY-SA 2.0.

During this show, the aircraft would display its high maneuverability and air-refueling capabilities, aided by the Il-78 aerial refueling tanker. The official unveiling of the Su-27 would occur at the CIS- (Commonwealth of Independent States) summit in February 1992 in Belarus.

Nevertheless, more prototypes would be built with a series of changes before the aircraft entered production. The new prototype codenamed T10-V2, which would fly on December 1993, was significantly different from the original, with modified vertical stabilizers, a longer stinger that had the N012 rear-facing earning radar, and a drag chute among other changes.

On 28 December 1994, the updated version of the aircraft, destined for production, would complete its first flight. The aircraft was so different from the previous versions that it was redesignanted Su-34.

A Su-34 at Latakia.
The Su-34 is a thoroughly modern aircraft, first introduced into service in 2014. Photo credit – Mil.ru CC BY 4.0.

The plane would be equipped with a V-004 passive electronically scanned array radar that made the aircraft capable of completing multiple missions. However, the uncertainty with the aircraft designation and capabilities would continue in the years to follow.

At the Paris Air show in 1995, the plane would be designated Su-32FN, the latter letters indicating the use of the aircraft by the Russian Naval Aviation. In another instance, the plane was designated Su-34MF – multi-function/purpose.

Despite different designations, Su-34 would share similarities with other Sukhoi designs including wing and tail structure with Su-30, and canards with Su-33 and Su-35 for higher maneuverability. Same as Su-27SM, the Su-34 would be equipped with 2 Saturn AL-31FM1 turbofan engines which can provide a thrust of 132 kN (30,000 lbf).

Depending on the intented role of the individual aircraft, different camo schemes are used.
The canards help keep the Fullback agile.

The aircraft can exceed the speed of 1.8 Mach with a full load, in addition to being able to fly 4,000km without needing to be refueled. The design was made to perform maneuvers up to +9g, with three surface designs consisting of a canard foreplane, its main wings, and a tailplane at the rear. It also included twin tail fins in the rear.

Built for multi-functions including bombing, the Fullback has 12 hard points to carry up to 14,000 kg (30,850 lb) of ordnance. It can carry six R-77 and R-73 air-to-air missiles, which can destroy any chasing aircraft identified with the rear-facing radar. The aircraft also carries the 30 mm GSh-30-1 cannon and a Khibiny electronic countermeasures system for protection.

When it comes to the cockpit, the Su-34 is praised for being spacious and comfortable for its operators. The aircraft has two side-by-side seats for the pilot on the left and the navigator/weapons operator on the right.

KAB 500S bombs being fitted to the Su-34.
Guided bombs being fitted at Latakia. Photo credit – Mil.ru CC BY 4.0.

Seats are equipped with an ejection system for pilots in emergency situations. The cockpit has a pressurization system that does not require the use of oxygen masks until the aircraft reaches 10,000m (32,800ft) altitude.

Additionally, the cockpit has room for the operators to stand and lay on the floor and a hatchet on the floor to enter and exit the cockpit. It also offers protection to its operators as it has 17mm of armour.

The aircraft’s radars offer the Su-34 early warning against numerous threats. The V-004 radar has the terrain following and terrain avoidance modes integrated, with the capability of tracing 10 air targets simultaneously. It can also detect fighter aircraft up to 120km (75mi) away.

Su-34 can carry a deadly array of weapons.
The underside shows off the number of hardpoints that weapons can be attached to. Photo credit – Mil.ru CC BY 4.0.

While the rear-facing radar will allow the aircraft to fire the R-73 missiles at enemy chasing aircraft, without having to turn the Su-34. Sukhoi engineers also managed to reduce the radar cross-section of the aircraft significantly compared to previous Sukhoi aircraft.

Russian Air Force received the initial delivery of 8 planes, upon completion in 2004. 

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Operational History

Though the Su-34 is recorded to have entered the service of the Russian Air Force in 2014, it is suspected that some Su-34s have participated in combat in 2008 in the war against Georgia. It also performed several missions in 2010 and 2011 to test its capabilities, such as flights of over 6,000km from the European part of Russia to Far East Russia.

It was also reported that in contrast to Su-24Ms’ three aerial refuelings, Su-34s required only two refuelings to complete this long-range flight.

The Su-34 has greater range over the Su-24.
An Il-76 refueling a Su-34 and the older Su-24.

As per Russian sources, at least four Su-34s were lost in training incidents or non-combat incidents in Russia between 2015 and 2020.

However, the first official combat engagement of Su-34s happened during the Syrian civil war. The Su-34s were initially deployed in September 2015 in the Latakia airport to aid the Syrian president in his war against the rebel forces and ISIS.

The six Su-34s that were deployed to Syria began their air attacks by the end of September in the city of Raqqa, bombing several ISIS targets, including a training camp and command centers.

The remains of a Su-34.
Su-34s have been reportedly shot down in Ukraine. Photo credit – Dsns.gov.ua CC BY 4.0.

They used precise munitions for their missions. Paired with Su-25s, they would continue their combat missions in the Hama province where they used guided bombs (BETAB-500) to destroy ISIS bunkers. Several more targets, including ammunition depots, fortifications, and military equipment were destroyed in Maarrat al-Numan.

Su-34s were aided by the GLONASS system, which serves as a Russian alternative to the GPS system.

After the incident with the Turkish Air Force, which shot down a Su-24, the Su-34s began carrying air-to-air missiles for protection against potential Turkish aircraft.

The Su-34 at MAKS 2009.
As well as air-to-ground weapons, the Fullback can take anti-air missiles. Photo credit – Евгений Пурель CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Su-34 is regarded with several high-importance kills including the killing of 12 Al-Nusra field commanders and 50 other militants in 2017. Fullbacks would also conduct air strikes in Syria taking off from Iran.

Russian sources also claim that Su-34s forced 2 Israeli F-16s to retreat after they were intercepted over Lebanon in 2018. However, one of the most lethal incidents occurred in February 2020 during the Operation Dawn of Idlib 2, when Su-34s conducted an airstrike on Turkish units, killing 36 soldiers and injuring many more.

The airstrike was denied by Russia, nevertheless, Turkey would seek retaliation by launching Operation Spring Shield in Idlib. On October 2020, Su-34s conducted another airstrike on the Eastern bank of Euphrates, destroying underground bunkers and killing Abu Qatada, an ISIS commander.

The Su-34 is a worrying prospect to face in combat.
A Su-34 intercepted by RAF Typhoons as part of Quick Reaction Alert (QRA).

This was a retaliatory air strike for Abu Qatada’s involvement in terrorist attacks against Russian troops that lead to the assassination of a Russian two-star general.

Fullbacks were used on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. There are many reports of them flying over the Kharkiv region. As of September 2022, more than eight were reported lost, with the majority of them being shot down by Ukrainian troops.

The Su-34s were also used for non-combat purposes in 2016. They would strike ice dams in Vologda Oblast to prevent the ice from jamming and flooding other regions upstream.

With air superiority 4 Su-34s could wreak havoc on the battlefield.
Four Su-34s in flight. Photo credit – Aleksandr Markin CC BY-SA 2.0.

As of June 2022, there were 140 Su-34 built for the Russian Air Force in addition to 7 initial prototypes. The aircraft are distributed between 4 bomber aviation regiments and training and testing centers.

Future of the Fullback

The aircraft is in the process of modernisation, with the introduction of the Su-34M/Su-34NVO. This new aircraft will have upgrades in the majority of aircraft’s avionics including radar and communication systems. It will also receive new EW capabilities and armaments.

The air-to-air missles are just about visible.
A broadside view of the Fullback. Photo credit – Vitaly V. Kuzmin CC BY-SA 4.0.

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After many years of negotiations, Algeria is expected to receive an export variant of the modernized Su-34, designated Su-34ME. It will only differ in comms and “friend or foe” systems. Due to the war in Ukraine, it is very hard to establish whether and when the aircraft will be delivered to Algeria.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 23.34 m (76 ft 7 in)
  • Wingspan: 14.7 m (48 ft 3 in)
  • Height: 6.09 m (20 ft 0 in)
  • Empty weight: 22,500 kg (49,604 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 45,100 kg (99,428 lb)
  • Fuel capacity: 12,100 kg (26,676 lb) internals
  • Powerplant: 2 × Saturn AL-31FM1 afterburning turbofan engines, 132 kN (30,000 lbf) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: 1,900 km/h (1,200 mph, 1,000 kn) (Mach 1.8)
  • Service ceiling: 17,000 m (56,000 ft)
  • g limits: +9