In recent months, Turkey announced plans to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system, a decision that cost them their opportunity to purchase America’s premier fighter, the F-35. Since then, speculation has run rampant about what fighter platform Turkey will procure in its place, with initial rumors pointing toward Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57. These rumors were bolstered by Russia’s announced plans to finally put their long-troubled Su-57 into serial production, but recent announcements now show that Turkey is instead looking to buy the older, but likely more capable Su-35 instead. While lacking the stealth offered by a fifth-generation platform, the Su-35 has been touted by many as the most capable fourth generation fighter on the planet — which is precisely why it’s seen as perhaps the most threatening air platform employed by both the Russian and Chinese militaries.
Now, with China, Russia, and Turkey all looking to fly the Su-35 in combat operations, it seems worth asking: Just how good is it as compared to the platforms American pilots are flying?
What makes the Su-35 dangerous?
The Su-35 platform is really just a heavily updated Soviet era Su-27, but don’t let that fool you. The Su-35 comes equipped with a lighter frame, updated avionics, a significantly expanded suite of munitions, and 3d thrust vectoring capability — making it one of the most acrobatic fighters in service anywhere in the world today. The Su-35 was originally built to serve as Russia’s workhorse fighter through the 2010s, just long enough for the more advanced Su-57 to take the reigns, but the Su-35 has since proven so capable that some fault it for the dwindling funding being allocated to the Su-57. Of course, others contend that the re-allocation of funds was actually because the Su-57 is such a troubled program.
While the Su-35 is a well-rounded and capable platform, it’s truly its thrust vectoring capability that makes it such a daunting opponent in air-to-air engagements. Each of its twin AL-41F1S turbofan engines can point in different directions independently of one another. That means the aircraft can literally perform maneuvers that aerodynamics simply wouldn’t allow otherwise. The only fighter in America’s arsenal that can match this capability is the F-22 Raptor — America’s top of the line (and rare) intercept fighter.
This engine vectoring literally allows the Su-35 to travel in one direction while the aircraft is pointed in another, like pointing its nose down toward enemy aircraft flying below it while it continues moving forward. This ability grants the Su-35 a very high angle of attack — allowing it to engage enemy aircraft while they have no hope of returning fire. Of course, conducting such a maneuver scrubs the fighter of its forward moving momentum, but thanks to its excellent acceleration, the Su-35 can quickly find its feet and accelerate up to Mach 2.25 at high altitude — significantly faster than the F-35 and, again, matched by the F-22.
How would it fair in a fight against other 4th and 5th generation fighters?
While the Su-35 lacks stealth, it does employ the L175M Khibiny electronic countermeasure system that makes targeting the jet a difficult task for most weapons. The system distorts radar waves, making a weapon’s grade lock difficult to manage and even harder to maintain. It’s IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar is said to be somewhat successful against stealth platforms, but is also considered to be easier to detect and jam than comparable western systems. It also flies with an OLS-35 targeting system, which relies on an Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) system that likely poses a greater threat to stealthy jets like the F-22 and F-35.
In just about every appreciable way, the Su-35 is at least equal to the best fourth-generation fighters America has to offer but what does that mean for fifth-generation platforms like the F-35 and F-22? Well, to be honest, it may mean very little. The F-35, which was built with a larger emphasis on air-to-ground engagements than air-to-air, was never designed to be able to step in the ring with air-superiority acrobats. Instead, it relies on stealth and a powerful sensor array that allows it to spot enemy aircraft before they realize an F-35 is in the neighborhood. In truth, an F-35 would likely destroy an enemy Su-35 before the Russian pilot even knew he was in trouble.
However, if an F-35 were ever to find itself in a boxing match with the Su-35, it might be in trouble itself. The Su-35 is faster, more maneuverable, and carries more weapons on board, while the F-35 has far greater situational awareness and would be extremely slippery when it came to a weapons-grade lock. The F-22 Raptor would likely make short work of a Su-35 in a similar fight, as it lacks some of the F-35s data capabilities but makes up for that in speed and maneuverability.
So, while the Su-35 is a fourth-generation platform, it’s certainly no slouch. Turkey will be hard pressed to find opponents other than NATO allies that are fielding jets that can stand and swing with the Su-35 in any real numbers, though there are certainly fourth generation fighters out there that are on par with the jet’s overall capabilities.
Is the Su-35 an F-35 killer? Absolutely not. But it’s no pushover either.