The Sukhoi Su-33: The Naval Fighter That Never Quite Was

Image sourced from mil.ru

Image sourced from mil.ru

While its performance on paper is nothing to be scoffed at, the Sukhoi Su-33 has had a short and rather disappointing career with the Russian Navy. In fact, as of writing this, the Su-33 is almost due for retirement from Russian Naval Aviation. Why the Su-33 was such a disappointment can come across as a bit of a mystery. After all, its design is based on the Su-27 (NATO codename ‘Flanker’), one of the world’s most formidable combat aircraft. In fact, the Su-33 has many improvements over its land-based ancestor. So why then is the Russian Navy retiring the Su-33 in favour of the smaller MiG-29K which has lower performance standards? The answer lies not only in the aircraft itself, but in the aircraft carriers used by the Russian Navy.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet Union’s only carrier-borne fighter jet was the Yakovlev Yak-38, NATO codename ‘Forger’. By the early 1980s, it was becoming apparent that the Soviet Navy needed not just new aircraft carriers, but new fighters to operate from them. When looking for a replacement, the Soviet Navy looked to two pre-existing aircraft. These were the Sukhoi Su-27 and the MiG-29. Both of these jets were fairly new to the Soviet military but despite similarities in their overall configuration (both are twin-engine, twin-tail, single-seat fighter jets), they were actually quite different. The Su-27 was designed to counter the American McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and the MiG-29 was to counter the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. This is why the Su-27 is a much larger aircraft than the MiG-29. Both of these aircraft were trialed as carrier-borne jets in tandem. In 1982, work began on the Su-27K (the aircraft’s initial designation) and throughout the decade, development and testing continued. There are several differences between the land and naval versions of this aircraft. The most obvious one is the inclusion of canards which dramatically improve the aircraft’s low-speed performance by increasing lift and stability. The naval version also has strengthened landing gear and folding wings and tailplane which enable it to take up less space inside the aircraft carrier. An air-to-air refueling probe greatly extends the aircraft’s range and slotted flaps improve its maneuverability when landing.

On November 1 1989, the Su-27K made the Soviet Union’s first conventional aircraft carrier landing (before then, Russian naval fighter jets such as the Yak-38 and the Yak-41 were STOVL aircraft, standing for Short Take Off, Vertical Landing). Its rival the MiG-29KVB (the aircraft’s initial designation) first flew in 1982 and the proper MiG-29K in 1988, with its first carrier landing being completed on the same day as the Su-27K. However, development of these two aircraft was to take a turn for the worse. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, funding for military projects (and indeed funding for pretty much everything) either dried up or was reduced to a trickle. Despite this, work continued very slowly over the new few years. The Su-27K passed state acceptance trials in 1994 and after being deployed on the aircraft carrier* Admiral Kuznetsov during its 1995-1996 cruise, it was officially accepted into service in August 1998. The aircraft was deployed to the 279th Naval Fighter Regiment and it was at this point that it was re-designated the Su-33, NATO codename ‘Flanker D’.

Despite the fact that it was chosen over the MiG-29K, in early 2012 the Russian government announced that it was going to purchase 20 MiG-29K fighters and four MiG-29KUB training aircraft. Whether the MiG-29K is a replacement or a companion for the Su-33 is hard to tell. The Sentinel has reported that 2015 was given as the year that the MiG-29K would officially take over from the Su-33. Military Factory has also made this claim. However, according to Russian chief of naval aviation Major General Igor Kozhin, naval aviation will be “reinforced” by the MiG-29K. The Sentinel also stated in its report that Russia’s new naval fighter regiment would probably be equipped with Su-33s until the MiG-29Ks are fully ready. Regardless, it’s clear that Russian Naval Aviation has decided that the Su-33’s days are largely over and that its aircraft carrier duties will be passed onto the MiG-29K. This is despite the fact that, on paper, the Su-33 is a much more capable aircraft. The Su-33 has a maximum speed of 2,300km/h, can carry 6,500kgs of ordinance, has a range of 3,000kms and has a ceiling of 56,000ft. In contrast to this, the MiG-29K has a top speed of 2,200km/h, can only carry 4,500kgs of ordinance, has a range of 3,000kms (only 1,800kms without its three external fuel tanks which increase weight and drag and thus decrease performance) but has a similar ceiling to the Su-33. However, as we shall now see, an aircraft that performs well from runways doesn’t necessarily do the same when taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Possibly the biggest Achilles heel that the Admiral Kuznetsov has is that, unlike American aircraft carriers, it is not equipped with steam catapults. Instead, it uses a ski ramp to launch fighters into the air. Because of this, fighters that take off from the carrier have to lighten their loads considerably, meaning they can carry fewer weapons and less fuel than when they take off from land. Indeed, many of the Su-33’s problems have been mirrored in its Chinese copy, the Shenyang J-15. In late 2013, the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation began mass-producing the J-15 for the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (Chinese naval aviation). They were able to do this by acquiring an Su-33 prototype from Ukraine that somehow ended up in that country and reverse-engineering it. China’s one and only functioning aircraft carrier is also of Soviet origin. In 1998, the Chinese managed to purchase the half-complete aircraft carrier the Varyag from Ukraine and then put it into use with their own navy and rename it the Liaoning. However, like its cousin the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Liaoning is not equipped with steam catapults and must rely on its ski ramp. Because of aforementioned weight restrictions, the J-15 is not able to carry the PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missile and must rely upon the PL-8 which has a much shorter range. The J-15 is able to carry the C-602 anti-ship cruise missile but once again, reduced takeoff weight is a huge problem. The J-15’s range is 400kms and when the C-602’s range of another 400kms is taken into account, the aircraft can strike at ships that are 800kms away. Compare this to the American F/A-18 Super Hornet which has a range of 650kms (not including various anti-ship cruise missiles) which can be increased even further if air-to-air refueling is used (this is how F/A-18s are able to fly ground attack missions over Iraq and Afghanistan after being launched from aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean). When it comes to the J-15’s problems, the Chinese media even went to far as to call it a “flopping fish”, a play on the J-15’s official name the ‘flying shark’. When referring to the original Su-33, international relations publication The Diplomat says “The Su-33 is simply not an ideal fighter for ramp-equipped carriers.”

Shenyang J-11, the land-based version of the J-15 fighter. Image sourced from the U.S. Navy.

Shenyang J-11, the land-based version of the J-15 fighter. Image sourced from the U.S. Navy.

After acknowledging the Su-33/J-15’s disadvantages, the question that then comes up is, what advantages does the MiG-29K have? Several years before the Russian Navy announced that they were purchasing the MiG-29K, the Indian Navy decided to make it their main naval fighter. Indeed, like China, India’s most recent aircraft carrier is of Soviet/Russian origin. In 2004, the Russian government reached a $1.5 billion deal to sell the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov to India. Part of this initial deal was the sale of 12 MiG-29Ks and 2 MiG-29KUB trainers to India as well. Though the deal to actually sell the Admiral Gorshkov was protracted over several years and had its ups and downs, in January 2014 it arrived in India and was renamed the Vikramaditya. By this time, two separate deals had been made to purchase MiG-29K fighters and MiG-29KUB trainers, with the first of these aircraft entering service with the Indian Navy in February 2010. Like the Su-33, the MiG-29K has several modifications that make it carrier-capable. Aside from the essentials such as an arrestor hook and folding wings, the MiG-29K carries the Zhuk-ME slotted array radar which makes it a truly multi-role fighter. This radar allows the MiG-29K to carry anti-radiation and anti-ship missiles such as the Kh-31. While restricted fuel loads have always been a problem for naval fighter jets, the MiG-29K is able to carry the PAZ-1MK refueling pod which enables fighters to refuel other fighters in mid-air. Though the Su-33 can carry out secondary ground attack duties it is primarily a fleet defence fighter.† For navies that have only one carrier-based fighter such as Russia and China, having an aircraft that can only really carry out one type of mission places huge restrictions on what that aircraft carrier can achieve.

Indian Navy MiG-29K. Image sourced from indiannavy.nic.in

Indian Navy MiG-29K. Image sourced from indiannavy.nic.in

As I explained earlier, the original Su-27 fighter was designed to counter the American F-15 Eagle. Indeed, both aircraft are very good at what they were designed to do. The Su-27’s incredible performance has already been mentioned and throughout its service, the F-15 has achieved 101 kills with 0 losses. However, there’s a reason that the F-15 was (after brief consideration) not accepted as a carrier-based fighter. The already heavy aircraft was almost too heavy for aircraft carrier operations, and that was before the weight of the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles was added (the ability to operate with these missiles was a major reason why the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was accepted as the U.S. Navy’s fleet defence fighter). Navalising the F-15 (hypothesized by McDonnell Douglas as the F-15N) is basically what happened with the Su-33, except the added restrictions of Russia’s aircraft carriers made things even worse. While a hypothetical F-15N could still take advantage of the steam catapults installed on American aircraft carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov and her sister ships that were sold to India and China have to rely on ski ramps which place huge restrictions on heavy aircraft that take off from them. To continue the Soviet-American analogy, the MiG-29 was designed to counter the smaller and lighter General Dynamics F-16. When the F-16 was being developed, it was in direct competition with the Northrop YF-17 Cobra and while the latter was not selected for U.S. Air Force service, it caught the attention of the U.S. Navy and was developed into the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, both of which are still in frontline service today. Using this basic analogy, it is clear why the Su-33 failed to perform well as a carrier-based fighter. Being able to carry a massive weapons load and engage a handful of enemy fighters at once is all well and good but in the world of aircraft carrier operations, especially when your navy only has one type of fighter, the jack of all trades will probably outperform the one trick pony.

* The Admiral Kuznetsov is technically classed as a ‘heavy aircraft carrying cruiser‘. This is because international treaties prohibit aircraft carriers from sailing through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, thus meaning that no Russian ‘aircraft carrier’ could enter or leave the Black Sea.

† There are photographs of the Su-33 carrying the Kh-41 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. However, there is speculation as to whether the Su-33 can actually fire this missile (let alone after being launched from an aircraft carrier) or whether the Kh-41 is those photos is a dummy used for propaganda purposes only.

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