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Fulcrum and Flanker
The New Look in Soviet Air Superiority

First published in Australian Aviation
May/June, 1990
by Carlo Kopp
© 1990,  2005 Carlo Kopp

Part 1

Editor's Note 2005: this analysis was compiled in early 1990, before the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent large scale public exposure and export of these aircraft across the Asia-Pacific region. As such it reflects the best then available knowledge. Since then significantly more material has become public. Visitors interested in more current technical material should access the 2003/2004 analyses. The summary analysis at the end of this paper - produced 15 years ago - largely reflects events as they have since evolved, raising many interesting questions about Australian DoD planning, given that these issues were raised publicly one and a half decades ago.

The stated primary role of the PVO Flanker force is long range air defence, frustrating strategic raids by SAC B-1B and B-52G/H bombers, and preventing US Navy carriers from threatening Soviet coastal targets. Flankers deployed with Soviet strategic air forces have a very different role, flying long range fighter escort for Bears, Backfires and Blackjacks tasked with strikes on strategic and theatre targets, such as the UK, Iceland, Japan, Alaska and the Aleutians (US DoD, 1988).

One of the most remarkable side effects of the internal political upheavals in the Communist Bloc has been the public showing of the latest generation of Soviet tactical aircraft. The Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum A and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker B have been thus scrutinised in a way that no other Soviet aircraft of their kind have been in the past. The principal conclusion which we may draw is simple, the Soviets have finally produced a generation of aircraft which are comparable in the least in performance with the generation of aircraft which have protected Western skies since the seventies. The implications of this in the area of air war strategy are alarming, as Soviet air power is no longer tied down to local ground control by inferior combat radius and primitive fire control systems - the Fulcrum and in particular Flanker are aircraft designed specifically for long range offensive air warfare.

Russians are generally considered to be obsessive chess players, and like good chess players they looked at the emerging teen series fighters during the seventies and drafted an appropriate strategy to counter. This strategy revolved about which design parameters would receive attention in the generation of aircraft built to succeed the mediocre MiG-21 Fishbed, MiG-23 Flogger and tactically dubious MiG-25 Foxbat. To fully understand the scale of change in Soviet thinking about air warfare we must look closely at the history of Soviet fighter development which reflects within itself much about Soviet military thinking.

The first tactically useful jet fighter which the Soviets produced was the Rolls-Royce Nene powered MiG-15 Fagot, which drew heavily upon WW II German research into swept wing aerodynamics. The MiG-15 was a simple and rugged airframe, with a respectable thrust to weight ratio and heavy gun armament of two 23 mm and one 37 mm cannon. It came as a rude surprise to Western air forces when the MiG-15 first challenged Western air forces in Korea, it easily outclassed the underpowered Meteor and F-84. Lighter than the leading US air superiority fighter, the F-86 Sabre, largely due to its rudimentary systems fit, the MiG-15 proved to be a tough adversary when well flown and the quoted 10:1 exchange rate in favour of the F-86 resulted largely from superior Western tactical airmanship.

The MiG-15 thus set the mold for the two subsequent generations of Soviet fighters, lightweight, simple and cheap to produce with good thrust to weight ratio and primarily gun armament, designed to fit into a closely controlled air defence environment tied to the local offensive land forces.

Arguably this approach did not stem so much from doctrine as from circumstances, the technologically unsophisticated industrial base of the USSR severely constrained what could be done in terms of powerplant performance, particularly specific fuel consumption, and avionic fit which determines radar and missile capability. Given that the USSR, as a continental power, placed most of its offensive warfare capabilities into the basket of massed tank and motorised infantry formations, there was hardly a perceived need to invest in the Douhet flavoured long range air war strategies espoused by the major Western powers. The Soviet military relied on the proven approach of overrunning its opponent with massive concentrations of armour, rather than bleeding its opponent to death by sustained air war against production facilities and infrastructure.

In this environment the role of the air forces, the tactical Frontovaya Aviatsia Voenno-Vozdushnykh Sil (FA VVS-Tactical Aviation/Military Air Forces) and home defence Istrebitelnaya Aviatsia Protivo Vozdushnoy Oborony Strany (IA PVOS - Interceptor Aviation/National Air Defences) was clear cut, the former would wrest control of the airspace above the battlefield, while the latter would defend the Soviet homeland from long range air attack. The specialisation would eventually lead to two unique streams of fighter development, the VVS tactical fighters and the PVO interceptor.

Initially this manifested itself in specialised variants of standard fighters, ie the VVS flew the MiG-17F (Fresco) and MiG-19S (Farmer), while the PVO flew the MiG-17PF, MiG-19PF and PM, the PVO types carrying rudimentary air intercept (AI) radar and gun in PF or air-air missile (ie AAM) in PM versions. Both the MiG-17 and MiG-19 were lightweight, short legged aircraft with good turn performance, thrust/weight ratio and short field performance.

The early sixties saw the first major split in fighter development, with the VVS adopting the MiG-21F Fishbed, essentially a VFR fighter armed with guns and cloned AIM-9B missiles designated K-13 (AA-2 Atoll), and the PVO adopting the Su-9 Fishpot family.The MiG-21 proved the more successful, spawning a string of variants with a wide range of capabilities (FA, PF, FL, PFS, PFM, PFMA, M, R, MF), spanning two decades in production, and achieving the distinction of being built in greater numbers than any other supersonic fighter. Exhaustive coverage of the genealogy of the MiG-21 is well beyond the scope of this discussion. The Fishpot in turn led to the larger Su-11 and Su-15/21 family of aircraft, all specialised interceptors locked via datalink into ground control air defence systems.

The PVO had opted out of the air combat game altogether, these aircraft being capable only against bombers. This philosophy culminated in the MiG-25 Foxbat family of Mach 3 interceptors, aircraft virtually useless in any task other than killing high flying high speed bombers and recce aircraft (the Foxbat is a major topic within itself, conceived to kill the B-70 Valkyrie and ultimately the means of a massive and successful strategic deception played against the USAF).

The VVS pursued its tactical role with vigour, adopting the Su-7 family of fighter bombers typified by the Su-7BM and creating a split within its own fighter force, between strike fighters and local air superiority aircraft. This in turn led to the next major Soviet fighter type, the swing wing MiG-23 Flogger family.

The late sixties saw the relative success, as perceived by the Soviets, of the surface-air missile (SAM) in Vietnam which saw the Red Army deemphasise the air superiority role in favour of strike. VVS aircraft would support land forces with air strikes against battlefield and theatre targets.

The Flogger drew heavily on the fad which created the F-111 family, the idea of the tactical strike aircraft which by virtue of AAMs could compete successfully in the air superiority role. Much like the F-111, the Flogger was cast into this mold at an early stage and thus proved to be an inferior air superiority fighter to the aircraft it was intended to defeat, the F-4 Phantom II.

The early seventies became a pivotal point in the global struggle for air superiority. The PVO was largely equipped with the ineffective Su-15 Flagon, supported by growing numbers of interceptor versions of the MiG-25 Foxbat and MiG-23M/MF Flogger, the latter entering massive series production. The VVS were still largely equipped with Fishbeds, but with substantial quantities of the Flogger becoming available, supported by growing numbers of swing wing Su-17 Fitter strike fighters. There was no capable air superiority aircraft in the class of the F-4E available, the Soviets having pushed the specialisation of their inventory to the point where fighter roles were subjugated to the respective services primary missions.

The Americans were at that time introducing the F-14A Tomcat and F-15A Eagle, both aircraft designed around the concept of energy manoeuvrability and the practical lessons gleaned from the many engagements flown between the USAF's F-4C/D/E, F-105D/F, the Navy's F-4B/N, F-8E and the MiG-17s, 19s and 21s of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Vietnam was a rude awakening for the Americans, who did not enjoy the absolute air superiority they sought over Hanoi and Haiphong. While they did decimate the NVAF and ultimately wipe out the NV air defence system, the exchange rate between the complex and expensive F-4 family and the cheap and nasty MiGs hardly reflected the technological advantage of the US. The new generation of fighters, dubbed the teen series, embodied a number of major departures from previous design strategies.

Air combat manoeuvring performance was a major priority, with both designs built for maximum thrust/weight ratio and minimum energy bleed, to provide the sustained turn performance required to get a guns or tail aspect heat seeking missile kill against a manoeuvrable and small target. The use of afterburning turbofan engines and substantial internal fuel capacity provided an effective combat radius well beyond 500 n.mi., to fight a strategic air war in the opponent's back yard. The cockpit saw major improvements in ergonomics and all round visibility, and look-down shoot-down pulse Doppler radars were fitted to allow beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile attacks on low flying targets. Both teen series fighters were thus formidable air combat fighters built for the long range air war strategy implicit within Western air war doctrine.

The strategic deception played by the Soviets with the Foxbat, seen by the Americans at the time as a highly manoeuvrable, 600 n.mi. radius Mach 3 air superiority fighter, had to some degree backfired, as the specifications for the F-14/15 performance and weapon system included the ability to defeat such an aircraft.

Many observers have commented, in the light of Belenko's defection to Japan, that both the F-14 and F-15 were clearly a case of overkill in capability against the mediocre Fishbeds and Floggers of the VVS. While that is true, the margin in performance has been of benefit in that these types are still serious players twenty years after their conception and are likely to remain such for the next decade.

Both the F-14 and F-15 were expensive and this quickly reflected in political pressure to adopt a 'Hi-Lo' mix of fighters, with cheaper aircraft supplementing these types. The USAF's Light Weight Fighter (LWF) flyoff between the YF-16 and YF-17 resulted in the adoption of the F-16, initially a clear weather dogfighter, to supplement the F-15. The YF-17 evolved into the Navy's F/A-18 multirole strike fighter, replacing A-4s, A-7s and F-4s in the fleet.

The teen series fighters had undisputed control of the skies since the late seventies and if there was any surprise, it was in the Soviets' apparent lack of response to this new generation of technology.

But the Soviets were not idle, and commenced work on a new generation of fighters during the early seventies, drawing heavily on the concepts adopted by the Americans in the teen series fighters. Clearly the new aircraft had to provide a worthwhile performance margin against the US aircraft as they would be at least half a decade later in deployment. Also they had to be manufactured within an industrial base much less sophisticated than that of the Western world, while also retaining the simplicity and ruggedness which the Soviet military uncompromisingly demanded.

T-10 Flanker A prototype at Ramenskoye, TV still circa 1989 (US DoD).

There is some contention at this time concerning the origin of the basic aerodynamic configuration which the Soviets adopted for both the Fulcrum and Flanker, its nearest equivalent in the West was one of Grumman's early F-14 proposals with a fixed rather than variable geometry wing. This configuration was adopted with the addition of ogival forebody strakes and wing/fuselage blending, a technique first used in the West on the YF-16 LWF demonstrator. Many Western observers, noting the commonality in layout between both Soviet fighters, have attributed the configuration to the TsAGI (Central Aero-Fluid-dynamics Institute, much a Russian NACA/NASA), who are known to have wind tunnel tested a Sukhoi design of the given configuration extensively during the early seventies. No doubt time (and glasnost) will shed light upon the full story.

The twin engine twin tail blended fuselage/strake hybrid planform configuration common to both designs is optimised for sustained subsonic manoeuvring. Excellent high angle of attack (AoA) lifting performance is achieved by a combination of body lift generated by the large fuselage carapace, and enhanced wing lift resulting from the formation of vortices by the large forebody strakes. In this fashion the configuration exploits attributes of both the F-14 family and the F-17/18 family.

The usage of large strakes well forward will also substantially affect the lift distribution by shifting the centre of pressure forward and thus reducing the static stability margin, particularly with increasing AoA. This, used with a stability augmentation system, will improve instantaneous pitch rates while reducing the necessary tailplane download required to maintain high AoA. The twin vertical tails of both the MiG-29 and Su-27 are large and very widely spaced to avoid interference with the forebody vortices at high angle of attack.

The powerplant installation in long nacelles, with inlets well below the forward fuselage, is designed for minimum interference with external flow and best possible pressure recovery at high AoA. While this arrangement has some penalties insofar as vulnerability to foreign object damage (FOD), weapon carriage and undercarriage stowage go, these were sacrifices made quite readily in the quest for good engine performance at high AoA. Both the Fulcrum and Flanker have relatively narrow fuselage tunnels in comparison with the F-14, which limits the usefulness of the fuselage for semiconformal weapon or fuel tank carriage, again this penalty was accepted to ensure the desired relative geometry between the inlets and forebody/nose of the aircraft. The upper lip of the variable geometry inlets is clearly offset to ensure removal of the ventral forebody boundary layer.

Supersonic dash performance for the air defence role was a lesser priority but reflects in the usage of variable inlet geometry and the pronounced area ruling of the fuselage, resulting in the substantial forward hump. The resulting airframe configuration thus offers excellent sustained and instantaneous turn performance at subsonic speeds, adequate supersonic dash performance and a substantial internal volume for fuel. It is penalised by limited fuselage area available for stores carriage, particularly in the MiG design, and poor fuselage and inlet clearance in landing configuration. Clearly air combat manoeuvring performance was the highest priority in the minds of the designers and little was compromised in the pursuit of this objective.

The common configuration of the Fulcrum and Flanker cleverly blends aerodynamic features used in several earlier Western designs with the result of superb subsonic manoeuvring performance, without the benefit of sophisticated flight control software. The agility displayed by both types at various events over the last several years provides practical evidence of that what can be inferred from the geometry of the aircraft. The detail areas in which the two aircraft differ in turn reflect the specific roles of the aircraft.

Mikoyan MiG-29A Fulcrum A

Development of the Fulcrum progressed through the seventies and was first confirmed by Western reconnaissance when prototypes were seen at Ramenskoye test centre in 1977. These aircraft were provisionally allocated the reporting name of Ram-L, subsequent US intelligence reports stated that the aircraft entered production in 1982. It is certain that major toothing troubles were encountered because the aircraft did not achieve full operational capability until the mid eighties, a full decade after its Western adversaries. The principal user of the Fulcrum is the FA-VVS, the Soviet Army's tactical air arm, with aircraft deployed in Eastern Europe and within the USSR. An export drive seeking hard currency has resulted in export sales to India, Yugoslavia, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and other Third World nations, although it is not clear whether these aircraft retain the full systems capability of the Soviet aircraft.

Airframe and Propulsion

Without access to engineering documentation it is difficult to analyse the Fulcrum structurally, it is however known to employ conventional Al alloy construction in most areas. The forward fuselage will almost certainly be a separate shell, split into a radar/avionics bay, crew station and possibly a fuel tank area. The fuselage carapace will be another major assembly, absorbing the structural loads from the wings and mounting the tail booms which carry the vertical tails and horizontal tail surfaces. The fuselage tunnel between the nacelles is narrow and thus not useful for stores carriage, although a drop tank can be fitted with a major drag penalty.

What is unique to the Fulcrum is the FOD protection mechanism, which uses inlet blocking doors and dorsal louvres. On the ground at low speed the inlets are closed and air ingested from above the aircraft.

This arrangement is almost certainly an exercise in fudging an existing design which probably had far greater fuel capacity and lower empty weight, but had a FOD problem when operated under typical Soviet field conditions. As a result, most of the Fulcrum's 9,000 lb of fuel will be in fuselage/carapace fuel cells.

The aircraft's variable geometry intake almost certainly uses the FOD door as a single normal shock ramp, to provide acceptable inlet performance at Mach 2 speeds.

The undercarriage is of conventional design, with a dual nosewheel retracting aft and single mainwheels retracting forward, the mainwheels rotating flush into the wing roots.

The vertical tails are very large in area to ensure controllability at high AoA without the use of fly-by-wire control.

Roll control is via outboard ailerons and differential stabilator, with aileron control probably phased out at high speeds. Half span trailing edge flaps and full span leading edge flaps are used for landing and takeoff, there is no indication of their usage as manoeuvre flaps. The wing has three stations for pylons, typically carrying two BVR AAMs inboard and dogfight AAMs outboard. Up to four wing mount drop tanks may be carried, with quoted capacities of up to 800 lb of fuel.

The Fulcrum is powered by a pair of Isotov RD-33 low bypass ratio afterburning turbofans. The engine uses a twin shaft arrangement, with a conventional variable area exhaust nozzle. The engine is rated at 18,300 lb maximum afterburning thrust, with a specific fuel consumption of 0.77 lb/lb.hr and weighs in at 2,700 lb. The high thrust/weight ratio of the RD-33 has a penalty in poor durability, although this would not be seen as a problem in the Soviet logistical system which is structured about complete engine overhauls at several hundred hours.

Avionic Systems

The core of the Fulcrum's weapon system is the NO-93 Flash Dance coherent pulse Doppler look-down shoot-down radar, which is integrated with an Infra-Red Search and Track/Laser Rangefinder (IRST/LR) system. The radar has a quoted detection range of 54 n.mi. against fighter size targets, no information has been released on its target tracking capability. The IRST/LR and radar are slaved such that the inactive sensor tracks the boresight of the active sensor, this allows radar silent IR stalking of targets under VFR conditions with automatic switchover to radar if infrared lock is lost eg by cloud cover. Soviet engineers claim the IRST/LR is extremely accurate providing more precise gun solutions than the radar in visual engagements. What is not stated is that this arrangement can defeat jamming of the fire control radar, by switching to IRST/LR to complete the engagement.

Little has been published on the Fulcrum's defensive suite, it is known to carry a Sirena 3 (or possibly later generation design) Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and upward firing flare/chaff dispensers in the vertical tail root extensions. It is not clear whether defensive trackbreaker ECM is carried, this is however likely given the presence of unexplained dielectric patches on the strakes and tailbooms. Other systems known to be carried are a radio altimeter and radio equipment for tie-in into the ground control intercept environment.


The cockpit of the Fulcrum more than anything illustrates the limitations of Soviet technological capability, as it is at the best comparable to late sixties Western technology. The layout is rather conventional, with a left hand console mounted throttles, centre control stick and a far left positioned switch bank. The AH, load factor, AoA, altimeter and DG are left of centre, the ASI, VSI and engine gauges to the right of centre. The upper right panel area is filled with a shrouded radar/IRST scope and a block of telltale warning indicators. A dual flat combiner Head Up Display (HUD) is fitted, the HUD camera optics are fed via optical fibre bundle. A Helmet Mounted Sight (HMS) can be carried, its output is fed together with IRST and radar parameters to the fire control computer which drives the HUD and missile seekers.

The canopy is relatively low and thus provides inferior rearward visibility in comparison with its Western counterparts. The pilot sits on a K-36D zero-zero seat which was inadvertently demonstrated to work well at last year's Paris air show.

With a cockpit much like sixties vintage Western fighters, the workload will be substantial where the pilot must rapidly switch weapons modes and manipulate systems, eg during a close-in engagement. While this would be considered a disadvantage in the West, it was another compromise accepted by the Soviets to keep the design as simple, maintainable and easy to produce as possible.

Performance and Weapons

With an combat weight of 30,200 lb and installed engine thrust of 36,600 lb, the Fulcrum is a very agile fighter. It has a wing loading and thrust/weight ratio which allow sustained 9G turning and excellent acceleration, including the ability to accelerate in a vertical climb at lower fuel states. The Fulcrum is redlined at 2.3M or 809 kt and has a sea level maximum RoC of 65,000 ft/min, which is respectable performance for the dash to intercept mission. In the fighter escort role the Fulcrum offers an unspectacular combat radius of over 300 n.mi. which is however acceptable for its primary role. Accepting this limitation, its acceleration and turning performance make up the principal elements of a successful air superiority fighter design. In terms of weapon load, the MiG-29 typically carries two large medium range R-23 (AA-7 Apex) missiles and four R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) heatseeking dogfight missiles. These are supplemented with a single barrel 30 mm cannon for close-in combat.

Soviet Fulcrums are also reported to carry the new AA-10 Alamo BVR missile and the AA-11 Archer dogfight missile. All missiles are carried on wing mounted pylons with the resulting drag penalties.

An unknown factor at this time is the performance of the new Fulcrum C which is reported to have a substantially higher internal fuel capacity as a result of a larger fuselage hump. Other upgrades reported involve a fly by wire control system and glass cockpit, which imply a mission computer and thus highly automated cockpit and weapon system.


The principal role of the Fulcrum is air superiority and air defence in support of Soviet land forces. While the aircraft is claimed to be capable of carrying up to 6,700 lb of air to ground stores, it does not appear to be fitted with the inertial navigation equipment or laser designator required for precision bomb delivery. Given the abundance of dedicated strike aircraft in the FA VVS inventory, mud bashing was obviously not a priority.

Deployed in the central European theatre, the Fulcrum would be used to engage NATO's F-15 and F-16 force thus allowing FA strike aircraft to penetrate NATO's air defence barrier. In the air defence role it would use its lookdown shootdown radar to engage NATO's low flying F-111 and Tornado aircraft, up to now almost impossible to stop.

The greatest tactical limitation of Fulcrum A is its limited radius which is rather low for its class of air superiority fighter (and almost certainly not what the designers intended), nevertheless it is a vast improvement over the earlier Fishbed, the later Flogger not being a serious contender for this role. Fulcrum C will almost certainly match its Western counterparts in combat radius. Deployment of the Fulcrum spells the end for older air superiority fighters such as the F-4E/F and the Mirage III/F.1 and will force the need for fighter escort for most NATO strike aircraft.

In Third World scenarios the Fulcrum balances the F-16A and defeats all earlier aircraft.

The MiG-29 Fulcrum is the principal air superiority fighter flown by the Frontovaya Aviatsia, the Russian equivalent to the USAF TAC. Its primary role is air superiority over the battlefield, where it would challenge NATO's F-15 and F-16 force, while also using its lookdown-shootdown weapon system to hunt down NATO's F-111 and Tornado IDS strike aircraft. Depicted Slovakian Air Force MiG-29AS Fulcrum in low visibility pixelated camouflage  (© 2009, Miroslav Gyűrösi).

The hybrid planform of the Fulcrum exploits non-linear vortex lift generated by the ogival forebody strakes at high AoA. This together with body lift generated by the fuselage carapace provides for excellent sustained turn rate. The aircraft is powered by a pair of Isotov RD-33 afterburning low bypass ratio fans which deliver 18,300 lb of thrust each, resulting in acceleration and climb rate performance comparable to that of the F-16 Falcon. Depicted MiG-29UBS Fulcrum of the Slovakian Air Force in tiger camouflage at Sliac Air Base (© 2007, Miroslav Gyűrösi).

The Fulcrum is designed for a Third World operating environment, much like that in the USSR. It has robust undercarriage and an elaborate FOD protection mechanism in its inlets, its systems are as simple as possible and its cockpit is of conventional sixties design. A typical weapon load for export aircraft is two AA-7 Apex BVR missiles and four AA-8 Aphid dogfight missiles, supplemented with an internal 30 mm cannon with ranging provided by the infrared/laser equipment or radar. Depicted MiG-29UBS Fulcrum in low visibility tiger camouflage at Kuchyna Air Base (© 2009, Miroslav Gyűrösi).

The RAAF's F/A-18A has inferior thrust/weight ratio to the Fulcrum A largely as a result of its detuned GE F404-GE-400 engines. These deliver only 16,000 lb each of afterburning thrust which at almost equal combat weights gives the Fulcrum a better than 10 % advantage in afterburning thrust/weight. The penalty paid by the Fulcrum is an engine TBO quoted at 350 hours, which will vastly increase life cycle costs. Engine upgrades for the F/A-18A could include current 18,000 lb or newer 20,000 lb versions of the F404, although the latter would probably require a larger inlet for increased airflow (© 2007, M.R. Tyson).

Part 2

Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker

The development of the Flanker was a protracted affair. It appears that conceptual work on the design began as far back as 1969, in response to the emerging F-14 and F-15. In any event, the design work progressed slowly as the first prototype of the Flanker A first flew in early 1977, soon receiving the provisional designation of Ram-K. The A model was largely a technology demonstrator for aerodynamic, propulsion and structural design purposes. It differed from later airframes in many respects, with vertical tails above the engine nacelles, beavertail afterbody, different wing planform with fences and a lanky rearward retracting forward undercarriage assembly. While this aircraft had many of the sought aerodynamic characteristics, its undercarriage and inlet arrangement were unsuitable for field deployment, its strakes did not perform to expectations and its vertical tails would have suffered similar problems to those of the F-17/18 family ie vortex interference.

The production standard Flanker B first flew in 1981 but again experienced numerous delays to deployment reportedly due to difficulties with the radar and avionic equipment. This is credible given the crudeness of preceding Soviet designs.

The US DoD states that IOC was achieved in 1986, when the first aircraft were delivered to PVO regiments.

At the time of writing Flanker numbers had reached well over 100 with production continuing at a steady pace.

It is not clear whether the Soviets plan to export the Flanker in substantial numbers. Because it is a large and complex aircraft it will be expensive to purchase and to run, therefore few of the USSR's Third World clients will be able to afford it, let alone have a strategically viable use for it. Given however the desperate need the Russians have for hard currency, and the bombastic attitudes of many Third World leaders, the possibility of export cannot be discounted in the longer term.

Airframe and Propulsion

The airframe of the Flanker is far more aerodynamically refined than that of the smaller Fulcrum. Like the Fulcrum, the general layout dictates much of the structural configuration of the aircraft, with correspondingly similar placement of functional blocks. The structure of the Flanker employs generous amounts of titanium.

The fuselage/carapace of the Flanker employs wing body blending most apparent aft of the strakes, this provides considerable internal volume for fuel. Further fuel is housed in the pronounced hump which also structurally supports an F-15 style dorsal speedbrake. This arrangement cleverly exploits area ruling for low supersonic drag while maximising fuel volume, fuel is held in urethane foam cells.

The inlets of the Flanker are typical of a multiple oblique shock ramp inlet , as used on the F-14, it is not clear as to how many wedges are used. The result is an inlet with very good performance at high supersonic speeds. Like the Fulcrum, protection against FOD is used, with an internal grill deployed at low speed which diverts ingested solids out through a bank of ventral louvres.

The aft fuselage uses a tailboom arrangement for structural support of the vertical tails and stabilators, with additional ventral strakes fitted to enhance directional stability. The fuselage centrebody ends in a distinctive tail bullet.

The undercarriage is conventional with nosewheel and mainwheels retracting forward, the nosewheel has a mud guard fitted.

The large size of the Flanker allows a reasonably wide fuselage tunnel which is much like the F-14 used for stores carriage. The aircraft has two tandem tunnel stations and two nacelle stations.

The wing is moderately swept and fitted with full span leading edge manoeuvre flaps and part span inboard flaperons for roll control, all tied into the fly-by-wire system. Two pylons can be fitted and the wingtip carries a fixed launch rail.

The fly-by-wire control system is a first in a Soviet tactical aircraft, it is a triple redundant analogue system comparable to that in the F-16A. An AoA limiter (35 degrees), load factor, roll, yaw and pitch rate limiters are built in, some of these may be disengaged by the pilot.

Avionic Systems

Like the Fulcrum, the Flanker's weapon system is built around a large pulse Doppler lookdown shootdown radar augmented by a IRST/LR system. The designation of the radar and its performance figures have not been made available to date, but given the size of the aircraft and thus antenna a detection range of 130 nautical miles has been suggested. Other conjecture suggests the radar is a high PRF (pulse repetition frequency) type optimised for detection range of head on targets, which is entirely consistent with the aircraft's stated primary role of long range intercept. The IRST/LR equipment fitted appears to be larger than that of the Fulcrum which implies larger optics and thus more sensitivity implying in turn better detection range performance.

It is likely that the IRST/LR and radar are integrated in the same fashion as that of the smaller MiG.

Nothing has to date been published on the Flanker's defensive avionic suite, but given the size of the aircraft and its alternate offensive role a capable system must be assumed. Dielectric patches on the strakes, wing roots, tail bullet and inlet antenna housings suggest a separate RWR and defensive trackbreaker ECM. The location of the chaff/flare dispenser is not clear from published photographs.

In terms of communications equipment, the standard Soviet air defence suite must be assumed, with additional HF equipment for long range operations. The HF antenna is most likely hidden beneath the dielectric panel on the leading edge of the right vertical stabiliser.

An unknown at this time is the reported new variant of the Flanker equipped with a digital flight control system, glass cockpit and presumably a sophisticated computer based fire control system.


The cockpit of the Flanker is much like that of the Fulcrum, both in usage of conventional instruments and in layout. Unlike the Fulcrum, the Flanker has a large bubble canopy with sills well below pilot shoulder height, and much larger consoles on either side. The instrument panel has a similar layout, but is less crowded with most of the switches shifted to the side consoles. The left hand console mounts the twin throttles, while the right hand consoles are occupied with three sets of keypads, the function of which has not been discussed. It is likely that these will be associated with a digital weapon delivery computer, stores control system and possibly the flight control computer. The HUD is similar to that of the Fulcrum, but uses slightly different controls and does not appear to have the lensing and cable associated with the gun camera. Provision is made for the Helmet Mounted Sight.

The Flanker cockpit offers excellent visibility in all directions, much like Western fighters and is spacious enough to be comfortable on long range missions. As such it is major departure from traditional Soviet design practice which suggests a more serious view of this matter.

Performance and Weapons

The Flanker is an air superiority fighter with aerodynamic performance in the class of the F-15 and F-14D, with good manoeuvring ability, acceleration and excellent combat radius. Rated at 9G maximum load factor and using a fly-by-wire control system and relaxed static stability, the Flanker offers excellent sustained and instantaneous turning performance which are essential for successful gun and all aspect missile engagements.

The aircraft's controllability at extreme AoA, demonstrated at the Paris air show, suggests few restrictions upon manoeuvring during dogfights.

The combat thrust/weight ratio of 1.25 at 30% fuel load implies excellent acceleration and climb performance thus providing the Flanker with a major energy advantage against most opponents.

As an interceptor, the 20,000 lb of internal fuel, climb performance and 2.35M dash speed suggest sustained afterburning dashes to intercept are feasible which vastly reduces the opportunities available for its quarry to escape.

Flanker's combat radius will depend upon profile and payload, but will certainly approach 800 n.mi. and with external tanks would be substantially greater. The Flanker is equipped with a single internal 30 mm gun carrying over 200 rounds of ammunition, which given its rate of fire is a reasonable figure if Soviet statements concerning the accuracy of the infrared/laser fire control are correct. The aircraft can carry up to ten air-air missiles which would be mixed for the mission to be flown. Operational aircraft have been photographed with loads of six BVR AA-10 Alamo missiles, two rounds on tandem tunnel stations, two on nacelle stations and two on inboard wing stations. Typically the wing station rounds are the heatseeking AA-10B and the fuselage rounds the semiactive radar AA-10C. Outboard wing and wingtip stations are then available for the AA-11 heatseeking dogfight missile.


The formally stated role of the Flanker is long range air intercept and air superiority. What this implies is that the aircraft would defend the extremities of Soviet airspace and associated ocean areas from hostile aircraft.

In practice PVO Flankers deployed to strategic areas such as the Kola peninsula and Kamchatka would perform two roles, intercepting SAC bombers on strategic raids and frustrating the US Navy's attempts to implement the Maritime Strategy by sailing carrier battle groups up to Soviet ocean sanctuaries.

In either of the roles the Flanker will have a major impact. With its radar/IRST capability it will threaten both the B-1B and B-52H on penetration missions and possibly even standoff cruise missile strikes, given its substantial combat radius. In the maritime scenario it will tie down USN fighter assets at those operating radii where massed bomber/ASCM strikes against the carriers are most likely, as a result the F-14s will have to fight both the Flanker and the inbound bombers. In this fashion the Flanker is a potent defensive asset.

What has received little publicity is the assignment of the Flanker to squadrons of the Soviet strategic air force, Russia's counterpart to SAC. In this role the Flanker becomes a long range fighter escort for the Backfires, Blackjacks and Bears tasked with conventional or nuclear strike against strategic or theatre targets. In this fashion bombers inbound to targets in the UK, Iceland, Norway, Japan, Alaska and the Aleutians would receive fighter escort with the objective of frustrating defending interceptors.

Needless to say, the Tornado ADVs, F-4s and F-16s tasked with air intercept are likely to sustain substantial attrition if they engage the Flanker.

Deployment of substantial numbers of Flankers in this role would have a major impact upon any large confrontation, as the Soviets would for the first time be able to implement a Douhet strategy of sustained strategic air attack and thus put at risk Western targets up to now secure. The implications are obvious.

The navalised Flanker currently undergoing carrier compatibility trials on the new Soviet CVN will cause revolutionary changes in Soviet naval capability. The absence of capable naval fighters has rendered Soviet naval surface forces impotent in the face of the USN CBG, as there can be no contest between a SAM firing ship and a massed strike force of missile firing aircraft. Flanker will defend the fleet and provide offensive fighter escort for anti shipping strikes.

It is fair to say that the Flanker will ultimately have the greatest impact upon Soviet air capability of any fighter aircraft since WW II. It is therefore surprising that the deployment of this aircraft has produced so little reaction, in comparison with the ineffective Foxbat during the sixties. The success of the Allied air war against the Axis powers resulted largely from the superior combat radius of Allied fighters. Flanker represents the first departure by the Soviets from Axis air warfare strategy and should be seen as such. Western air warfare strategists are well advised to take this event seriously.

Above, Su-30MK Flanker of the Indian Air Force at Cope India 2004 (US Air Force).

The Australian Perspective

From the Australian observer's viewpoint, both the Fulcrum and Flanker represent a potential long term problem, both in terms of a general threat to Western air power and as potential regional threats. While the contingency of a large full scale confrontation between the Western world and the Communist bloc is increasingly unlikely with time, as the USSR's relative economic strength and thus ability to fight a protracted conflict decline, the determined marketing effort of the Soviet government will see these aircraft sooner or later proliferating throughout the Third World. In a full scale confrontation the superior numbers of Western teen series fighters would lead to rapid attrition of the numerically inferior Soviet force, ie even trading one for one will result in a favourable long term outcome and thus Soviet defeat.

A regional confrontation between a lesser power such as Australia and a Third World threat is however a rather different situation, as the criterion of numerical superiority will no longer apply and thus an exchange rate of that order would be at the least disastrous. In comparative terms both Soviet fighters must weigh out about equal in performance to their Western counterparts, the slight advantage in agility would almost certainly be balanced by better airmanship and superior Western weapons and electronic warfare capability.

The latter factors may be considered seriously by competent air warfare strategists, however those are few and far between amongst the ranks of Third World military leaders who are more likely to conclude that x percent better aerodynamic performance will directly translate into a very favourable exchange rate. The folly of the Argentine air force must be quoted as a case study, where the supersonic Mirage was perceived to be more than a match for the subsonic Harrier. As the Falklands demonstrated, airmanship, weapon systems and missile performance had a far greater impact upon exchange rate. As a result it is reasonable to conclude that a cheaply acquired force of several dozen Fulcrums may well be perceived as offering a sufficient advantage to make a confrontation winnable. That is of course a dangerous situation as it may encourage hostilities, once of course committed to a confrontation, it is difficult for a government to extricate itself.

Faced with such a confrontation, Australia with its existing inventory would be in a difficult situation unless the RAAF were given the freedom to wage a full scale counterair campaign with the objective of destroying as many of these aircraft as possible on the ground thus conferring a sufficient numerical advantage in the air to secure a reasonable exchange rate. Under these circumstances rules of engagement become quite critical, as the best means of defeating such a threat lies in exploiting the superior radar/missile/systems performance of the F/A-18 in BVR combat. If the ROE force combat at visual range, exchange rates cannot be expected to be particularly favourable.

The whole USAF strategy behind the ATF hinges on the ability to defeat Soviet aircraft in BVR engagements by using superior radar/missile/systems performance combined with stealth technology to degrade the capability of Soviet radar and missiles. If the ROE force the ATF to engage the Soviet aircraft in visual combat, much of its technological advantage is wasted and the exchange rate may no longer reflect the imbalance in technology. The air war over North Vietnam was a case study with ROE effectively robbing the USAF and USN of any advantage conferred by technology.

There are two aspects of defeating this class of threat which the RAAF would have to address. The first is ensuring an acceptable kill ratio in air superiority operations and the second is ensuring that strike aircraft are not subjected to attrition by this threat.

In dealing with the first aspect, there are several options available. The first involves hardware upgrades to the F/A-18A to improve its agility, BVR lethality and electronic warfare capability. This would involve fitting more powerful engines (ie 18,000 lb F-404-GE-402 Enhanced Performance Engine), laser warning equipment and better jammers and missiles to improve kill ratios in close-in combat.

The second would involve trading in some F/A-18s and acquiring some higher performance aircraft instead, producing a two tier hi-lo mix fighter force like that of the USAF or USN. The third and least credible to an opponent option is to acquire standoff airfield attack munitions and attempt to preemptively destroy the threat on the ground, once hostilities commence.

In dealing with the second aspect, defending strike aircraft, the choices are more limited. Because the Fulcrum will burn through jamming at close range and can use its IRST/LR at close range, fitting the F-111 with laser warning equipment is a must, while upgrading the jamming suite may also be of some benefit. This may not be adequate though and the choices then largely reduce to that of providing fighter escort on strike missions, assuming that the RAAF fighter force can engage on favourable terms, and that of supplementing or replacing the F-111 with a stealth technology strike aircraft such as the A-12A Avenger II (Advanced Tactical Aircraft) sooner than currently anticipated.

Both of these options will be expensive. Fighter escort at extended ranges will require more tankers which would probably need to double up as communications relay platforms. Airborne Early Warning may be another requirement. Fighter capability is another problem, as discussed above. The other alternative of acquiring the A-12 will also be expensive, although given realistic timescales the F-111 is likely to be out of airframe life at about the time when such a contingency could be reasonably expected to arise. The A-12 may well be the eventual replacement for the RAAF F-111 regardless, this aircraft has already been designated as the long term replacement for the USAF F-111 fleet.

In summary acquisition of the Fulcrum by regional powers would require the RAAF to adopt a range of measures to restore the current favourable balance in capability. We can hope that the RAAF will give this problem some careful thought to ensure that a properly structured and appropriate response is taken, should this situation arise. The risk in not doing so will ultimately lie in a potential regional opponent seeing the odds to be more favourable than they really are, and behaving accordingly. It will be rather late to cry wolf once that has occurred.


  1. Whitford R. 'Design for Air Combat', Jane's Publishing Co, 1987
  2. Shaw R.L. 'Fighter Combat, Tactics and Maneuvering',Naval Institute Press,1985

The Flanker B combines the use of vortex lift and relaxed static stability to achieve very high sustained and instantaneous turn rates, which make it a formidable adversary in gun and all aspect missile engagements. The triplex fly-by-wire control system and aerodynamic design provide exceptional controllability at very high angles of attack. Flanker B is fitted with a pair of 28,000 lb thrust Lyulka AL-31F afterburning fans which provide very good acceleration and climb performance at combat weights. Depicted digital Su-27SKM (KnAAPO).

The Su-27 Flanker is a milestone in Soviet fighter design, radically departing from established design practices. It has a large bubble canopy for air combat and a 20,000 lb internal fuel capacity conferring truly strategic combat radius. To these features must be added a powerful lookdown-shootdown radar integrated with an infrared/laser fire control system. Flanker carries up to six large AA-10 BVR AAMs with up to four AA-11 Archer dogfight AAMs, supplemented by a 30 mm internal cannon.

The deployment of the Flanker with Soviet strategic air forces is a major headache for the UK's air defence planners. The Tornado ADV F.3 is no match for the Flanker which would fly escort for Backfire strikes against rear echelon NATO targets in the UK. The RAF is deploying E-3 AWACS and carrying out a major weapon system upgrade on the Tornado to provide the ability to engage the Flanker under BVR conditions.

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