Su-35 versus Typhoon: Analysis from RUSI’s Justin Bronk

 

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Outside the Western world, Russia’s ultra-agile Su-35 is the most potent fighter in operational service. We asked Justin Bronk from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank his thoughts on the Su-35’s combat effectiveness against the Typhoon, the backbone of NATO’s fighter force. We also look at how the Su-35 would fare against the US’ F-15, F-16 and F-22. 

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HK: What is the current status of the Russian Su-35 fleet?

JB: Russia has 48 Su-35S in service with another 48 scheduled for production. They appear to offer a greater average serviceability rate than previous iterations of the Su-27/30 family, as well as the MiG-29, mainly due to the success of the new Saturn 117S thrust vectoring engines which have so far avoided many of the reliability issues of previous models. However, as with many other aspects of the Russian military, the fact that the production and service numbers of the Su-35 are quite low and exist within a huge mix of various MiG-29 and Su-27/30 derivations which do not share many key components means that running costs are high and logistics remain complex. This drives down serviceability to significantly below US, British and French fighter fleets, except in the case of small forward deployments such as Syria where the entire logistics chain can be concentrated on keeping a small portion of the force at high readines

How does it compare to Typhoon in terms of the following:

Detection/conspicuity to hostile sensors

The Su-35 has a significantly greater Radar Cross Section (RCS) than Typhoon due to its large intakes without effective fan-blade shielding, vertical dual stabilizers and thrust vectoring jet nozzles, as well as the latter’s greater use of radar absorbent materials and signature management for canards. The Su-35’s larger size and the canted position of the engines and greater thrust required also contribute to a heat signature that is significantly greater than Typhoon’s.

 

In terms of radars, the Su-35S’s Irbis-E PESA radar provides extremely high power levels allowing target detection beyond 300km (although without weapons which can engage at this range), as well as claimed advances in detecting low-observable threats such as stealth fighters at significantly beyond visual range. However, the downside to this is that the Irbis-E has to operate at extremely high power levels to achieve this performance and so is easily detectable and track-able at ranges beyond those at which it can track. All radars except AESAs with very low probabilities of intercept such as the F-22’s APG-77 suffer from this paradox but it is worse for the Su-35 because of the latter’s very large RCS and IR signature which means it must rely on out-ranging its opponents at BVR rather than trying to sneak up on them whilst relying on passive tracking.

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Copyright Eurofighter-L. Caliaro

Typhoon’s CAPTOR-M is comparable with the Irbis-E in terms of long range tracking and detection in active scanning mode and may be inferior with regard to detecting low-observable threats, but Typhoon has a very significant advantage in terms of passive tracking through the DASS and the world-leading PIRATE IRST.

Performance (at various altitudes, speeds and in both WVR and BVR)

Both aircraft are capable of super-cruising although the Typhoon’s speed without afterburners at combat loading is significantly higher than the Su-35*. Top speeds at low and high altitudes are comparable, but again Typhoon has the slight edge. In terms of kinematic persistence, the Su-35 burns much more more fuel to sustain energy than Typhoon, but also carries twice as much fully loaded. In prolonged engagements, the Typhoon has better combat persistence during sustained afterburner-dependent manoeuvres and also retains energy better at during high-g turns. This would tend to put the Su-35 at an increasing energy disadvantage over time, even as its thrust-to-weight ratio improves towards parity with Typhoon as it burns off fuel.

During a BVR engagement at high altitudes, assuming both aircraft have detected each other, the Su-35 is likely to be at a significant energy disadvantage as Typhoon would be flying at its higher service ceiling at faster supercruise speeds.

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WVR, however, the Su-35 is extremely dangerous due to its phenomenal supermanoeuvrability due to its thrust vectoring engines and huge lifting body. Both in the horizontal and vertical planes, Typhoon would likely be outmatched by the Su-35 WVR, unless a Typhoon pilot could find space to accelerate vertically to gain an energy advantage without being shot down in the process. In reality, of course, whilst in a WVR dogfight situation the Su-35 does have a kinematic advantage, both aircraft are equipped with helmet-mounted sights to cue off-boresight missile shots and carry extremely manoeuvrable IR missiles with excellent countermeasure resistance. Neither is likely to survive a WVR ‘merge’ against the other.

*HK: The Typhoon’s maximum quoted supercruise speed has varied. EADS test pilot Chris Worning put it at M1.15-M1.2, the RAF have stated M1.1 and Typhoon pilots have suggested 1.2-3 with four conformal AMRAAMS, twin tanks and twin ASRAAMs, and 1.5 clean. The Su-35’s supercruise is marginal, probably no higher than M1.1 – it is a much draggier design than the Typhoon.

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Maintenance/reliability/sortie rate

Su-35 is bigger, heavier and more mechanically temperamental than Typhoon. However, it does not have such a dependence on software and computers which can cause many issues of their own in the case of Typhoon. If deployed as part of a large unified fleet by a Western air force, Su-35 could probably approach Typhoon’s reliability rate and surpass it in terms of ease of maintenance. However, the fact that Su-35 exists within a patchily resourced Russian Air Force with a myriad of different fighter types means it comes substantially below Typhoon in terms of reliability.

Defensive aids/electronic warfare (EW) suite

Russian EW capabilities tend to be superb. However, their defensive aids suites often lag behind their Western competitors. In the case of Su-35 and Typhoon specifically, both have some of the best DAS and EW capabilities which their respective nations can mount in frontline jets, but the exact details are highly classified. It is probably fair to assume that Typhoon has the edge in terms of defensive aids and passive ELINT gathering, whilst Su-35 has the edge in offensive EW and jamming capabilities.

Man-machine interface/ ease of flying and fighting

This is an area where Russian jets have always struggled. Even with multifunction cockpit displays and digital flight instruments, the Su-35 lags behind Typhoon in terms of ease of flying and fighting with it as a weapons system.

Network connectivity

Lack of Russian Air Force standardisation means that Typhoon wins hands down with latest generation Link 16, MIDS and other connectivity advantages. However, Russian tactical doctrine may mean that this disadvantage is less of an issue for them than it would be for a Western Air Force.

Weapons

Su-35 benefits from superb Russian missile design expertise. The multiple seeker-head mix which Russian fighters would fire in missile salvos in combat with Western fighters makes defending against them a very complicated task. At long range, the Su-35 can fire a mix of semi-active radar homing, anti-radiation (home on jam) and IR homing missiles, whilst at short range the ‘Archer’ series remains as deadly as ever. Typhoon has the excellent ASRAAM and IRIS-T short range IR missiles which can equal or surpass their Russian counterparts, but at long range the AMRAAM is showing its age and against Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jamming technology which the Su-35S employs, its Pk drops significantly to the point that multiple missiles would likely be required to kill each target.

Which set-ups would favour which aircraft?

High and fast in BVR combat and rules of engagement which allow long range missile shots would favour Typhoon, especially once Meteor is fully integrated next year. WVR combat, especially at lower altitudes and speeds favour the Su-35. During a sudden incident as part of, say Baltic Air Policing, where both aircraft would typically be at medium altitude and at close range during QRA intercepts, Su-35S would likely be a real handful for Typhoon.

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Which aircraft, all things being equal, would have an advantage?

I would certainly still take a Typhoon going into a hypothetical ‘all things equal’ scenario, because of its superior kinematics at high altitudes and speeds which allow it to have control of an engagement except in specific scenarios.

Are there tactics which would enable a Su-35 force to take on a F-22 formation?

Simply put – no. Whilst the Su-35 does have the hypothetical capability to detect the F-22 at close ranges using its IRST and potentially the Irbis-E radar, both sensors would have to be cued to focus on exactly the right part of sky to have a chance of generating a target track. By contrast, the F-22 will know exactly where the Su-35 is at extremely long range and can position for complete control of the engagement from the outset with superior kinematics. The Su-35’s only chance would be to absorb the AMRAAM and AIM-9 shots from the F-22’s and hope that they had sufficient numbers left to attack the tankers and airbases which the F-22’s rely on post-engagement.

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How do the F-22 and Su-35 compare in terms of close-in agility/energy preservation/types of fighters (angles V energy)

The Su-35 can probably out-turn an F-22 in a horizontal fight at medium and low altitudes, but the need to carry missiles and tanks externally to be effective, as well as the brute size of the Sukhoi will ensure it remains at a distinct energy disadvantage to the Raptor in terms of energy retention and acceleration at all speeds. The F-22 also will not get into an angles fight with an Sukhoi – there is simply no need for it to do so.

How do they compare in terms of BVR engagements?

BVR engagements are all about situational awareness, positioning/energy advantage, and persistence in terms of fuel and missiles. In all but the latter category the Su-35 is hopelessly outclassed by the F-22 (as are all other operational fighter aircraft). Even in terms of missiles, the Su-35 can carry up to twelve to the F-22’s eight but combat practice, especially against stealthy targets, involves firing salvos of six missiles with mixed seekers so the Su-35 only really has two credible shots. By contrast the F-22 can get much closer without being threatened so even against the Su-35S DRFM jammers, it can fire smaller salvos with much better Pk.

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Britain’s Typhoons have intercepted Russian Su-27 approaching British airspace (pictured), and performed multiple exercises with Indian’s Su-30s. Far less is known in the West about the Su-35’s capabilities.

How would USAF F-15Cs and F-16Cs fair against the Su-35?

The USAF’s classic F-15C is slightly outclassed by the Su-35, although with upgrades along the lines of the Saudi F-15SA configuration, with a very powerful AN/APG-63(V)3 AESA radar and double the missile loadout of the classic F-15C, they are approaching parity again – albeit with a much heavier focus on BVR capabilities than WVR manoeuvrability than the Sukhoi. The F-15C (modernised), teamed with the F-22 fleet, can certainly remain a match for the Su-35S.

By contrast, the F-16 Block 50/52 fleet is certainly not capable of meeting the Su-35S on anything like equal terms – losing out to the Russian fighter in kinematics, sensors, weapons loadout and EW capabilities.

And against the Saab Gripen and Dassault Rafale? 

Gripen is a bit of an unknown quantity against modern air superiority machines because it takes a fundamentally different approach to survivability. Whilst in traditional DACT exercises, Typhoon pilots have often referred to the Gripen as ‘cannon-fodder’ due to its inferior thrust-to-weight ratio, speed, agility and armament, in the few cases where the Gripen has ‘come to play’ with its full electronic warfare capabilities, it has given Typhoons very nasty shocks. Against the Su-35S, Gripen would rely on the cutting edge EW capabilities which Saab builds the Gripen (especially the new E/F) around to hide the aircraft from the sensors of the Russian jets in much the same way as the Raptor relies on x-band stealth. These EW capabilities are so highly classified that there is simply no way to assess their effectiveness in the public domain. Having said that, RAF pilots who I have talked to with experience of the Saab fighter’s EW teeth first hand say that the ability of the aircraft to get alarmingly close without detection thanks entirely to EW is very impressive.

 

Rafale is in a similar position as Typhoon relative to Su-35, but with less of a kinematic advantage over the Su-35 at high altitudes and BVR ranges, and being closer to parity on manoeuvrability at medium and low altitudes than Typhoon. Equally, the excellent SPECTRA system on Rafale would give it more offensive and defensive options in the EW space against Su-35 than Typhoon would have.

What do you expect the future holds for the Su-35, in terms of upgrades and production figures?

I expect that following the second order of 48 being delivered to the Russian Air Force by 2020, further orders will come in in dribs and drabs whilst the PAK FA/T-50 continues to be refined. Upgrades here and there will no doubt be added but I don’t anticipate any fundamental improvements – the Su-35S really is the pinnacle of the Flanker line.

What should I have asked you about the Su-35?

Haha, is it good value for money? Not withstanding what I’ve said about the various ways in which top-of-the-line and extremely expensive Western fighters such as the F-22, Typhoon (and Rafale which we haven’t really touched on) have answers to the Su-35, for its price tag of around $65M very little comes close!

Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow at the Military Sciences at Royal United Services Institute. He has written articles on the RAF’s role in Syria, and the Rafale versus Typhoon

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27 comments

    • Toady

      Amusing. You are aware that most current sport cars (and all super cars) are faster and more agile with their electronically controlled dual-clutch automatics with launch and stability control that cannot be fully enabled on manual cars, aren’t you? So your analogy is super-accurate, just not for the reasons you think.

      I am also amused that you are reviewing a pretty detailed expert analysis and your response is to ignore the facts and argue an obtuse analogy.

      Here’s an analogy for you: The Su-35 is an AK-74 carrying drafted soldier using a spotlight to target his opponent at night (he is emitting massive amounts of enemy trying to target his enemy). The Typhoon is marksman-rated paratrooper with an NV scope (able to be spotted, able to be jammed, but the Typhoon always has an advantage). The F-35 is a Marine recon sniper with an IR scope (trained to be undetectable, able to detect the opponent and control the engagement, unable to be jammed). The F-22 is a ghost, shape-shifting ninja with cat eyes and ESP.

      • ghostwhowalksnz

        Remember the little North Vietnamese Mig17s, they had a far greater capability than the US forces expected when they bought in their high tech wonders. Its later cousin the Mig 19 was the first operational supersonic jet when introduced, just beating the F100 Super Sabre. They were crude but effective planes of their time.
        Yet the so called US wonder weapon F-22 has only just introduced use of an off bore sight missile to the entire fleet, there is no IRST capability , unless it carries a pod. Same goes for helmet mounted cueing system, no can do.
        The story indicates the IRST is only useful at short range while the F-22 has some secret sauce to detect at long range- no way to do any tracking though if its by EW.
        The only operational deployment in Syria required refueling 2 or 3 times in its flight to North Syria and back from UAE or Qatar. Thats an area where the Su-35 could just watch the F-22 refuel from a long distance

      • Toady

        Lets not forget that the F-16As had a crude radar and never could launch an aim-7. It was expected to enter a world where 1/2 the world’s fighters didn’t have radar and those that did had pretty poor look-down performance. The USSR’s air-to-air doctrine depended on ground controlled intercept using surface radar and they built simple, robust fighters to fit that paradigm. That paradigm failed miserably in the first Gulf War (where a modern air forces encountered a modern integrated Iraqi air defense system over terrain favorable to the defender) which is why Russia moved from Mig-29 to SU-27 (longer range, and larger radar set) to emulate the US’s doctrine. There is no modern analog to the F-16A. Even in low threat areas, like South America (Argentina) and Africa (South Africa), countries are buying radar equipped airplanes.

        The US mantra of “first look, first shot, first kill” focused on long range detection, and reduced detect-ability. Along with powerful on-board radars and stealth, the US valued computing quick firing solutions, and fire and forget (self-tracking) medium missiles with good kinetics at the end of their fly-out. IRST and off-bore sight missiles didn’t fit that mantra. They still won’t be necessary for at least another 20 years when net connected air defense and multi-frequency jammers negate the US’s radar advantage.

        The F-22 was originally integrated radar/EW suite similar to the system being developed for the F-35, but cut because of the spiraling cost. It was dumped on the F-35 because the three service, multiple partner program made it impossible to kill. Once it gets developed, I have no doubt it will either get retrofitted onto the F-22 or put on an F-22/F-35 based F-15E replacement.

      • lee

        That would be true,yet to much technology,it will be glitchy and tempermental(run fine,then sensor laytenacey issues,$$$$$ then it goes into limp-mode….yeah such permance.

    • Grim

      Informative thanks, for 65 Million that makes the SU-35 a great value. A similar costing American fighter then is the Super bug which is 60 mill last I heard.

      I would like to here how the Super hornet compares, people tend to be rather shocked when they find out how effective the Super hornets stealth characteristics are plus Aesa radar etc do these give it a chance against the vastly superior kinetics of the Flanker?

  1. Mike

    1. An F-22 uses APG-77 not 79s
    2. The Su-35 can “probably” out turn and F-22 in medium to high altitude? really? the Raptor has significantly more thrust, more wing area and more pitch in TVC if needed. I don’t see how the Su-35 can ever hope to out turn a Raptor.
    3. The Su-35 is one of the few 4th gens that can actually fly into combat without requiring external tanks
    4. AMRAAM showing it’s age? well the B and C5s maybe, but what about the C7 and D models?

    • Алексей Скородумов

      >The Su-35 can “probably” out turn and F-22 in medium to high altitude? really? the Raptor has significantly more thrust, more wing area and more pitch in TVC if needed. I don’t see how the Su-35 can ever hope to out turn a Raptor.

      May be because of 2D thrust vectoring?

      • Mike

        Well heres the thing,

        1. both the F-22 and Su-35 (as well as any other fighter that has TVC) only use thrust vectoring in very slow speed environments. According to the USAF their TVC equipped F-16 VISTA only had to use it when below 250 knots. Above that speed, the traditional flight controls had more than enough energy to perform the desired turn rate.

        2. an aircraft turns by banking first and then pitching. in the Pitch axis the F-22’s TVC nozzles is greater than the Su-35’s. 20 degrees in the pitch axis vs 15 degrees in the Su-35.

      • duker

        Thanks Mike, but arent the Su-35s nozzles already canted, while those of the F22 are aligned along longitudinal axis. Then there is this
        “The thrust vectoring nozzles operate in one plane for pitch, but the canting allows the aircraft to produce both roll and yaw by vectoring each engine nozzle differently.”
        There seems to be an advantage for the F-22 in what I would call ‘shopping mall car park maneuvers’ while the Su35 is at home on something akin to an undulating 3D dirt bike track.

    • Hush Kit

      Thanks Mike,

      1. Now corrected, thank you.
      2. This is a valid query, I will look into this.
      3. There are many variables to this point (is there tanker support/ the agility of a heavy ‘Flanker’ etc
      4. Many are noting AMRAAM is reaching the end of its useful life even in the latest forms- there’s a reason ten nations are likely to order Meteor. Design for carriage on F-16 wingtips limited size and weight. Also, as it is the (almost) universal threat missile for non-Western air forces all of their counter MRAAM efforts in tech and tactics go against it. It is also considered very vulnerable to DRFM.

  2. duker

    “.. Typhoon has a very significant advantage in terms of passive tracking through the DASS and the world-leading PIRATE IRST.”
    Thats because the Russians have never bothered with IRST…but wait, thats the US thats never bothered and the Russians who were first in this field.

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  4. Off File

    Nice photos. That Su35 does look a bit 80’s, I’d be pulling off all that bling and redoing this intakes – it may go better.

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  6. Tantumblogo

    Color me hyper-skeptical that Typhoons can supercruise with a full A2A load as described. Very few aircraft can go much beyond Mach 1 with tanks missiles and pylons in full burner. A lot of pilots like to exaggerate their aircraft’s capabilities. An F-16 with a centerline tank, two AIM-9s, and two Mk. 84s is lucky to make 500 kts in military power. In fact in many A2G loads an A-10 has similar cruise to a Viper.

  7. Tantumblogo

    Thanks for the stimulating post. Very interesting, but all these sorts of analyses have to be taken with a significant grain of salt. So much is unknown in the open world, and as we have seen so many times, so much comes down to planning, organization, tactics, and training training training. The man matters much more than the machine, and the team much more than the man.

    But thanks for reaffirming that the Gates/Obama decision to prematurely terminate F-22 production will go down in history as one of the great blunders in military history, nearly on a par with invading Iraq with no post-invasion plan and the 1957 Defense White Paper. That decision has knee-capped US ability to establish air supremacy over near-peer rivals (have you seen the studies of how the US fares against China and Russia in many scenarios? ), to the extent that the US’ four decade edge (an edge damn hard-won after the sobering experience in SEA) in that department is now open to question due to sheer lack of numbers and the tyranny of distance.

    I could go on, but what’s the point? The F-35, a design with huge question marks for A2A, is the only game in town and will have to serve in roles for which it was never intended due to Hussein’s myopic hatred of US military superiority and Gates’ callow self-aggrandizement. McNamara Mark II, I tell you.

    • Hush Kit

      Thanks for you comment, you’re absolutely right that “organization, tactics, and training training training” are more important than mere hardware stats. I would question your conclusion that the F-22 production cancellation will “go down in history as one of the great blunders in military history”. NATO’s F-22s, F-15s, F/A-18s, Typhoons and Rafales combine into a force miles ahead of any potential enemy’s air force (look at the size and capabilities of the Su-35 fleet mentioned in this article- it would be easily decimated by the USN alone) . US defence spending is still ENORMOUS- despite what Commanders and defence contractors wish us to believe. If you want to question the value for money the US receives for its titanic expenditure – the reals scandal- then blame clearly goes to the procurement process, incestuous relationships between the DoD and the ‘private sector’ (which is removed from any real free market- see tanker decision etc for details).

      • Toady

        The USN is the global insurer that oil flows freely and since oil is priced in dollars, the rest of the world subsidizes the US military.

        I would say the KC-46 (in its current form) is the only procurement that permits market forces at play since it is a fixed price contract.

        That procurement process that occurred during the Bush II years are infamous for graft, waste, and abuse. The VH-71, ARH-70, LCS, next-gen tanker (episodes 1, 2, and 3), F-35, F-22 (partially–its procurement began way before Bush), USAF CSAR HH-47, CVN Gerald Ford are all examples of out-of-control procurement. Every one of these weapons were either procured using concurrency procurement (foregoing prototypes to build in-service examples with increasing capabilities) or adding new capabilities after a contract was signed and selection process was performed. Obama’s Pentagon cancelled the VH-71, the CSAR HH-47, the ARH-70, curtailed the LCS buy, curtailed the F-22 buy, and rebid the next-gen tanker to get costs in line. But even now the Gerald Ford is two years late, billions over budget, and doesn’t have usable catapults; the LCS is late and over budget and doesn’t perform its mission set ; and the F-35 is billions over budget, six years late, and unable to perform its mission set.

        But at least the US gets it right, eventually. In Russia, you declare the system functions perfectly even when there is a horrible airshow attrition rate with brand new platforms.

    • duker

      Gates and Obama only presided over the lowering of the F-22s coffin to the grave as the decision to reduce the buy was taken way back earlier. Rumsfeld was in the seat then and also didnt see the need for larger numbers of high end fighters.
      Heres the crucial timeline from ‘Flightglobal’.
      September 1997: First Raptor flight. Quadrennial Defense Review cuts the Raptor programme to 339
      August 2001: Low-rate production approved, but with cost cap of $72 billion the USAF could only afford 277 jets
      December 2004: Program Budget Decision 753 axes $10 billion from programme and trims total buy to 179
      December 2005: Initial Operational Capability declared
      2007: USAF secures multi-year procurement for 60 F-22s in bid to extend production past Bush Administration
      June 2008: Defense Secretary Robert Gates fires USAF’s top leaders – secretary Michael Wynne and chief of staff Gen Michael Moseley – partly over their vocal lobbying for the F-22
      March 2012: Last F-22 Raptor flown on first test sortie

      So you can see the cutbacks started way back when it first flew and kept cutting until Dec 2004 when the final number or so was reached. It wasnt a coincidence thats not long after LM won the F-35 contract, and of course after the 2004 election was over.
      Its time the myth of Obama/Gates killed off the F-22, it was mortally wounded back in 2004

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