Why Russia’s plans to use the Su-33 as an on-board fighter fell apart


  • The Sukhoi Su-33 distinguished itself in the early 2000s as Russia’s most capable mounted fighter.
  • But it fell into the limbo of naval aviation after being eclipsed by a smaller, more versatile competitor.
  • The Su-33 can be restarted, but its fate also depends on the future of the only Russian aircraft carrier.

The Sukhoi Su-33 distinguished itself in the early 2000s as Russia’s most capable carrier-based air superiority fighter, but fell into naval limbo after being eclipsed by a competitor smaller and more versatile.

In the later stages of the Cold War, Soviet strategists devised a new power projection platform to secure the USSR’s vast Eurasian borders and compete with NATO aircraft carrier attack groups: “heavy aircraft cruisers” or a hybrid cross between an aircraft carrier and a heavily armed battleship. .

In their implementation as soon as possible, these heavy cruisers carried Yak-38 VTOL fighters; however, the Yak-38 was quickly withdrawn for its anemic performance and crippling technical issues.

The Soviet Navy was looking for a solution based on a more robust aircraft carrier, offering greater range and greater payload capacity for high intensity missions.

Here is the Su-33:

Russian Su-33 fighter landing on Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier

A Su-33 aircraft lands on Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean Sea off Syria on November 21, 2016.

Andrei Luzik TASS via Getty Images


In the late 1970s, the decision was made to develop a transporter-based variant of the prolific Su-27 flanker. Originally labeled “Su-27K”, the fighter was renamed Su-33 after its introduction in the summer of 1998.

Despite their external similarity, the Su-33 features a series of practical changes from its Su-27 counterpart: reinforced landing gear, sturdy landing gear, ducks, folding wings, wing surface significantly larger and slightly more powerful AL-31F3 engines.

These design features are specifically designed to accommodate narrower configurations and smaller aircraft carrier runways. The Su-33 also has two additional payload points for a total of 12, and – although it overlaps widely with the Su-27 in weapon choices – is anti-missile compatible. Kh-41 / Kh-31 ships.

But the Su-33 turned out to be slightly too big for a comfortable mass operation on the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier. More importantly, it lacked the full range of payload delivery features necessary to fulfill its purpose in Soviet naval aviation. Despite disorderly attempts to equip it with anti-ship missiles, the Su-33 unquestionably remains an air superiority fighter.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

A Su-33, left, and a MiG 29K, right, on Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean Sea off Syria, January 8, 2017.

Andrei Luzik TASS via Getty Images


As with its cousin Su-27, the fact that it cannot effectively fulfill ground attack roles makes the Su-33 inherently unsustainable as a dedicated littoral power projection tool and significantly reduces its operational value. as Admiral Kuznetsov’s main embarked fighter.

It doesn’t help that the Su-33 comes with a archaic avionics assembly that cannot be significantly upgraded without a full refit plan.

In 2009, the Russian Navy decided to replace the 30-35 Su-33s currently in service with cheaper competitors. MiG-29K. In some ways, the transition from the Su-33 to the MiG-29K marks a technical downgrade: notably, the Su-33 benefits from a significantly higher operating range and maneuverability.

However, the MiG-29K performs much better as a ground strike and multirole fighter – it offers an expanded selection of ranged missiles and guided bombs.

No less crucially, the MiG-29K is equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) functionality, low observability technology and a comparatively sophisticated system. Zhuk-M multifunction radar for significantly more robust ground strike capabilities.

A restart? :

Russia's Su-33 fighters on the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier

Admiral Kuznetsov with Su-33 fighters at a ship repair yard, October 14, 2016.

Lev Fedoseyev TASS via Getty Images


Some Su-33 fighters are reportedly being updated with a better engine, “improved detection system” and other unspecified changes to make it more viable as a multirole fighter.

The scope and timing of this upgrade package remains unclear. The future of service for the Su-33 – and more broadly for Russian naval aviation – is inextricably linked to the only Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, which is undergoing extensive repairs and overhaul in the wake of of them catastrophic accidents during the last years.

Kuznetsov refit would imply improvement and more reliable cockpit, capable of aligning the latest Su-33 and MiG-29K variants.


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