Cold War, Modern Day

The Sukhoi Su-24 Earned the Nickname Flying Suitcase

Developed by the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, the Sukhoi Su-24 marked a significant advancement in the field of combat aircraft. It entered service in the early 1970s, designed primarily as a low-level, all-weather attack aircraft capable of delivering precision strikes under adverse conditions.

Over the decades, the Su-24 has undergone numerous upgrades, enhancing its avionics, armaments, and overall performance, which have extended its operational life well into the 21st century.


Development and Design

The development journey of the Sukhoi Su-24 commenced in the late 1960s, driven by the Soviet military’s demand for a supersonic, all-weather attack aircraft that could deliver precision strikes while flying at low altitudes to evade radar detection and enemy air defences.

This ambitious project aimed to blend speed, agility, and advanced technological capabilities into a single platform, a challenge that Sukhoi’s design team accepted with vigour.

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The design team focused on creating an aircraft with a variable-sweep wing mechanism, a feature that would endow the Su-24 with unparalleled versatility across a broad spectrum of speeds and operational altitudes.

This wing design allowed the aircraft to achieve high-speed performance at supersonic speeds while maintaining low-speed stability crucial for low-altitude penetration and attack missions. Engineers meticulously integrated hydraulic actuators to adjust the wing sweep angle dynamically, ensuring optimal aerodynamic efficiency in every phase of flight.

The first prototype was the T-6 and first flew in 1967.
The first prototype was the T-6 and first flew in 1967.

At the core of the Su-24’s technological marvel was its sophisticated navigation and attack system, initially known as “Puma”. This system represented a quantum leap in avionic capabilities, enabling the aircraft to execute precision strikes under the cloak of night or adverse weather conditions where previous generations of aircraft would falter.

The integration of advanced radar, onboard computers, and electronic countermeasures equipped the Su-24 with the ability to navigate challenging terrains, identify targets with precision, and deploy a wide array of munitions with devastating accuracy.

The aircraft’s robust electronic warfare suite further distinguished the Su-24, providing it with a significant edge on the battlefield. Designers equipped the Su-24 with state-of-the-art jamming equipment, capable of disrupting enemy radar and communications, thereby safeguarding not only itself but also allied forces operating within the theater.

This capability turned the Su-24 into a formidable foe against some of the most sophisticated air defence systems in the world.

Engineers also paid meticulous attention to the Su-24’s armament capacity, designing it to carry an extensive array of weapons, including guided missiles, bombs, and rockets. This versatility ensured that the aircraft could adapt to a multitude of mission profiles, from ground attack and tactical bombing to reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

The Su-24's primary role is an all weather tactical bomber. Photo credit - Alexander Mishin CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Su-24’s primary role is an all-weather tactical bomber. Photo credit – Alexander Mishin CC BY-SA 3.0.

Moreover, the design of the Su-24 emphasised survivability and pilot protection. The cockpit, armoured against ground fire and equipped with an advanced ejection system, provided the crew with a higher chance of survivability in case of emergency. The aircraft’s fuel system design incorporated measures to reduce the risk of fire, enhancing its resilience in combat situations.

Flying Suitcase?

The nickname “flying suitcase” for the Sukhoi Su-24 stems from its unique and robust design, particularly its large and boxy fuselage, which is somewhat atypical for a fighter jet.

This distinctive shape, when combined with its variable-sweep wings and substantial payload capacity, gives the Su-24 a somewhat bulky appearance, reminiscent of a suitcase. The moniker humorously reflects the aircraft’s ability to carry a wide array of weapons and equipment, much like a suitcase packed with various items.

Furthermore, the Su-24’s design prioritises functionality and versatility over sleekness, contributing to its suitcase-like appearance. Its considerable size and shape are directly related to its role as a tactical bomber, designed to deliver a diverse arsenal of weapons in all weather conditions, day or night.

The aircraft’s internal volume and structural design accommodate advanced avionics, electronic warfare systems, and fuel for long-range missions, all of which contribute to its effectiveness as a frontline bomber but also to its bulky physical profile.

A Ukrainian Air Force example. Photo crdit - Chris Lofting GFDL 1.2.
A Ukrainian Air Force example sporting a digital camo. Photo crdit – Chris Lofting GFDL 1.2.

Despite the playful nature of the nickname, it underscores the aircraft’s capability and reliability. The Su-24’s ability to “carry” a wide range of mission-critical “items” into combat, much like a well-packed suitcase, has made it a valuable asset to the air forces of several countries around the world.

Operational Use

The Sukhoi Su-24 has distinguished itself as a versatile and potent combat aircraft across numerous theatres of operation since its induction into service. This section delves into the aircraft’s diverse roles and the pivotal impact it has had on modern aerial warfare, showcasing its operational flexibility and strategic value.

Upon entering service, the Su-24 quickly became a key asset for conducting deep penetration strikes, a testament to its design that allowed it to excel in low-level, high-speed ingress to targets.

Pilots adeptly utilised the aircraft’s variable-sweep wing and advanced navigation systems to navigate complex terrains, such as mountainous regions or heavily defended airspace, to deliver precision strikes against high-value targets. The capability to operate in all weather conditions, day or night, significantly enhanced the strategic options available to commanders, allowing for unexpected and highly effective operations.

A Russian Su-24 buzzing the USS Donald Cook.
A Russian Su-24 buzzing the USS Donald Cook.

The Su-24’s arsenal allowed for a wide range of mission profiles. Equipped with laser-guided bombs, air-to-surface missiles, and conventional munitions, crews could tailor their load-outs to the specific requirements of each mission, whether it involved neutralising fortified positions, disrupting enemy supply lines, or providing close air support to ground forces. This adaptability made the Su-24 a formidable opponent and a valuable asset in achieving air superiority and supporting ground operations.

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Reconnaissance and electronic warfare also became significant roles for the Su-24, exploiting its sophisticated electronic countermeasures and sensors.

The aircraft conducted surveillance missions, gathering crucial intelligence on enemy movements and positions, which informed strategic decisions and battlefield tactics. In the realm of electronic warfare, the Su-24 could blind or confuse enemy radar and anti-aircraft systems, protecting allied aircraft and reducing the effectiveness of enemy defences.

The operational history of the Su-24 includes significant engagements in various conflicts around the globe. It saw action in the Soviet-Afghan War, where its capabilities for low-level flight and precision strikes proved invaluable in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.

In the conflicts that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Su-24 continued to play a critical role, supporting ground forces and conducting strategic bombing missions.

The Fencer has seen active combat on many occasions over its almost 50 year service. Photo credit - Alexander Mishin CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Fencer has seen active combat on many occasions over its almost 50-year service. Photo credit – Alexander Mishin CC BY-SA 3.0.

More recently, the Su-24 has been involved in military operations in the Middle East and North Africa, where its robust design and advanced avionics systems have adapted to new challenges. These operations have demonstrated not only the aircraft’s enduring relevance in modern warfare but also the importance of continuous upgrades and maintenance to maintain its combat effectiveness.

Furthermore, the Su-24’s global presence, due to its adoption by several countries outside the former Soviet Union, underscores its operational versatility.

These nations have often undertaken their modifications and upgrades, enhancing the aircraft’s capabilities and integrating it into their defense strategies. This widespread use has facilitated a degree of interoperability and shared tactical knowledge among allied nations, further extending the Su-24’s operational legacy.

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Global Presence

The Fencer, with its remarkable blend of speed, versatility, and striking power, has become a staple in the air forces of numerous countries around the world. This section explores the aircraft’s widespread adoption and the unique roles it plays in different national contexts, reflecting its adaptability and enduring appeal.

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Following its successful deployment in the Soviet and later Russian air forces, the Fencer quickly attracted attention on the international stage. Countries seeking an advanced, all-weather, supersonic strike aircraft saw in the Su-24 an opportunity to enhance their tactical and strategic air capabilities.

Its ability to operate at low altitudes, evade radar detection, and deliver precision strikes in adverse conditions made it an attractive option for nations looking to bolster their defensive and offensive capabilities.

A Russian Su-24M on final. Photo credit - Andrei Shmatko CC BY-SA 4.0.
A Russian Su-24M on final. Photo credit – Andrei Shmatko CC BY-SA 4.0.

The export of the Su-24 began in earnest during the latter years of the Cold War, expanding its operational footprint beyond the Eastern Bloc. Nations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia acquired the Su-24, each adapting the aircraft to their specific defence needs and strategic doctrines.

The adaptability of the Su-24’s avionics and weapons systems allowed these countries to integrate it seamlessly into their existing military infrastructure, enhancing their air forces’ versatility and strike capabilities.

In the Middle East, the Su-24 has played a crucial role in various regional conflicts, providing countries with a formidable strike capability that has been employed in complex operational scenarios.

Its ability to deliver a wide range of munitions with precision has proven invaluable in areas where tactical flexibility and the ability to engage targets with minimal collateral damage are paramount.

African nations have also leveraged the Su-24’s capabilities, particularly in long-range patrol and border defence roles. Its endurance and payload capacity make it well-suited for monitoring vast territorial expanses and providing a rapid response to incursions or threats. The aircraft’s rugged design ensures reliability and effectiveness in the challenging environments typical of the continent.

A group of Fencers perform a flyby for the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's independence.
A group of Fencers perform a flyby for the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence.

In Central Asia, the Su-24 contributes to maintaining regional security and deterrence. Its electronic warfare and reconnaissance capabilities complement its strike role, providing a multi-dimensional tool that enhances both national defence and cooperative security arrangements with neighbouring states.

The continued operation of the Su-24 across the globe is not merely a testament to its initial design but also to the ongoing efforts to modernise and upgrade the aircraft.

Nations operating the Su-24 invest in significant upgrades to avionics, weaponry, and survivability, ensuring the aircraft remains relevant in the face of evolving threats and technological advancements. These modernization programs reflect a commitment to maintaining the Su-24’s operational edge, extending its service life well into the 21st century.

Chequered History

The Sukhoi Su-24, with its extensive operational history across various global theatres, has inevitably experienced several notable accidents over the years. These incidents, often resulting from the complex interplay of technical, human, and environmental factors, underscore the inherent risks associated with military aviation, especially in the demanding environments where the Su-24 operates.

One significant accident occurred in September 2014, when a Russian Su-24 crashed in the Khabarovsk Territory during a training flight.

The aircraft, flying a routine mission, encountered a sudden technical malfunction that led to the crash. Both crew members managed to eject safely, highlighting the effectiveness of the Su-24’s emergency systems in protecting the lives of its pilots despite the catastrophic failure of the aircraft.

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Another tragic incident took place in February 2012, involving a Syrian Air Force Su-24 that crashed under mysterious circumstances amid the country’s ongoing conflict. The loss of the aircraft, reported under conditions of intense operational strain, reflected the heightened risks faced by Su-24 crews operating in combat zones, where the margin for error narrows significantly.

The specifics of the crash, including the fate of the crew and the precise cause, remained enveloped in the fog of war, illustrating the challenges of conducting military operations in such tumultuous environments.

As well as in Asia, Belarus used the Su-24M. Photo credit - Dmitriy Pichugin GFDL 1.2.
As well as in Asia, Belarus used the Su-24M. Photo credit – Dmitriy Pichugin GFDL 1.2.

In July 2015, an Iranian Su-24 was involved in an accident near the city of Dezful. The aircraft was on a training mission when it encountered difficulties that resulted in a crash.

This incident highlighted the challenges associated with operating ageing aircraft and underscored the importance of rigorous maintenance and training regimes to mitigate the risks of mechanical failures.

A noteworthy incident involving a Russian Su-24 occurred in November 2015, when a Turkish F-16 shot down the aircraft near the Syrian-Turkish border.

This event marked a significant escalation in the region, illustrating the dangers of operating in contested airspace where the risk of misunderstanding or confrontation with forces from other nations can lead to deadly outcomes. The incident resulted in the loss of one crew member and sparked a diplomatic crisis, emphasising the volatile nature of international air operations.