What an order of 50 Su-35s really means

The PAK-FA program is having problems between India and Russia, and now Russia publically announces the purchase of 50 more Su-35 variants. Solomon asked what it meant on his blog, and came to the conclusion that US Air Power is no longer the world leader. I offer an alternative analysis to that assessment of the data.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First that the no one has been able to make an affordable 5th generation fighter aircraft on time and on budget, but watch the Chinese J-20 and J-31 to see if they get pushed to the international market.

What is more interesting is the real world repercussions in terms of tactical and strategic capacity for the Russian Air Force. As best I can tell the most recent number for tactical aircraft for Russia is: 359 Su-27s, 87 Su-34s, 61 Su-30s with 65 more on order, and currently 40 Su-35S in service. That is 547 aircraft with common airframe ties, upgraded over time.

The Mig-29 stands in at 253 and the Mig -31 at 135. The Russian Air Force has recently received the first of a new order of Mig-29s last year. The Mig-31 fleet stands at 135, with 60 scheduled for upgrades through 2020.

What this means, it means that Russia is serious about building the Flanker/Fullback platform as the core of their tactical multi-role fighter capability but cannot yet afford to replace all the legacy Mig platforms and may not desire to for political or economic reasons. What it also means is that the PAK-FA isn’t yet better, cheaper, and ready for prime time.

In terms of getting the most capability for the ruble, Russia is buying twin engine multirole aircraft with a performance envelope much like the F-15, and upgrading legacy airframes with better radar, missiles, and communications. If you can’t have a full fleet of stealth fighter bombers, the next best option is to have the best fleet you can of non-stealthy fighter bombers.

In terms of number of aircraft delivered to the Russian Air Force has fallen off in 2015 from previous years, 76 in 2014 but only 53 in 2015 (based on my Wikipedia level of Russian aircraft acquisition). In contrast, the DOD purchased 38 F-35 JSF in 2015. The USAF and USN have both started aggressive rounds of Service Life Extension Programs (SLEP) to keep the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 fleets alive and well into the future to make up for the lack of Joint Strike Fighters being acquired on time and on schedule.

What it looks like is that the Russian military isn’t looking for dominance in the skies, if it were it would be pushing much harder to get the PAK-FA in strategically useful numbers, especially in the face of the Chinese J-20 and J-31 programs. But they are not, so it looks like the Russians are going to hunker down and wait out the current economic storm that has been hitting their economy. When they come out on the other side, they’ll have to play catch up in 5th gen fighters, or possibly push forward with a 6th gen program.

Why is this important? Well if the Russians run into the same “cost of ownership” problem that the US Air Force has with the F-22, you’ll see that the cost of ownership for an F-22 fleet is about twice that of the F-15 fleet in raw program numbers per plane. http://www.bga-aeroweb.com/DoD-Aircraft-Programs.html The 2014 total numbers for the F-15 program was 593.6 million, and the F-22 592.8 million. The USAF has 195 F-22s, but the USAF also has 192 F-15s and 257 F-15E Strike Eagles.  So the F-22 is a bit more than twice as expensive as an F-15 on a per plane basis just to have in the inventory.

Looking at the numbers the sheer affordability of the F-16 comes out in full glory. The USAF spends, on average, between 180 million and 200 million per year on the F-16 fleet of over 900 aircraft. If the F-35 ends up with the same “cost of ownership” issues with relation to the F-16s that would require an additional 300 to 400 million every year. Who wants to bet the F-35 has a cost of ownership more on line with the F-22 than with the F-16?

Further, this means that upgrading non-stealthy airframes with all the top end sensors, fusion logic, and communications is a veritable bargain for making a few future stealth aircraft more tactically effective in combat. In fact the venerable F-4 and F-5 platforms are still useful for carrying payloads, what they generally lack is the modern situation awareness and cooperation advantages brought about by network centric warfare, at less than half the cost of a 5th gen aircraft. The major cost will be in the sensors of the future, not the airframes they are mounted in. Even the processing power to filter, evaluate, and transform sensor data into situational awareness is dirt cheap, literally pennies. The expensive part is the software, custom mounting configurations, and man machine integration challenges.

Cheaper “stealthy” alternatives like the F-15 Silent Eagle and F/A-18 Advances Super Hornet are looking better and better all the time, which is probably why Russia is ordering another 50 Su-35s instead of going full in on the PAK-FA. Really what it boils down to is that if you get a 4th Gen fighter that can supercruise with a top notch sensor package, then you can go up against a fleet of 5th Gen fighters because those airframes are going to be emitting electromagnetic radiation from their comms and radar gear which will negate their stealth.

Right now “packs” of F-35s are beating packs of F-16s, but the F-16s aren’t set up to hunt comms and radar radiation so they can maneuver to a position of advantage. I think that Russia realizes this, and is backing off stealth as a necessary feature for effective air power.

If stealth is a non-starter in five or ten years and Russia is sitting on an effective and modernized 4++ gen fighter fleet, think of how many resources the US and China will have wasted on the J-20 and F-35.

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One Response to What an order of 50 Su-35s really means

  1. B says:

    Realistically, air power will be primarily unmanned in a generation or two. With the navy not far behind. Of course, war can expedite that greatly. As Joe taxpayer, I’m a fan of make do, upgrade, tighten up and polish what you got instead of buying new like the F-15 Silent Eagle represents. Perhaps we start the process of combining the air force and navy. In the future discarding men’s lives on the race to global power by using blood and treasure, will spent to conquer space. Plus that sure sounds like a perfect time to show how much they’re team players. Funny, the air force would have been born in the army only to disappear into space. Sadly, we’ll still need the army filled with meatcicles cause there are jobs that even robots won’t do 😀


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