Commencement of shipments of the improved Sukhoi Su-30SM2 multirole fighters to the Russian Air and Space Force (VKS) might prompt Malaysia and India to upgrade their aging fleets of the Su-30MKM and Su-30MKI, respectively.
The Su-30SM2 is the latest variant of the initial twin-seat Su-30, which started operating 30 years ago. On January 20 the Russian defense ministry publicly acknowledged having taken delivery of four of Su-30SM2s of 21 on order from United Aircraft Corporation’s factory in Irkutsk, produced to a new factory standard that has replaced the previous Su-30SM, first flown 10 years ago. Since then, the Russian Armed Forces has taken delivery of 110 examples, including 22 for the Naval Aviation and 88 for VKS, nine of which fly with the Russian Knights air display group. Twenty vastly different Su-30M2s—with different aerodynamics, radar sets, and avionics—also are in inventory.
The Su-30SM2 differs in its use of more powerful AL-41F1 turbofans in place of the AL-31FPs on the SM/MKI/MKM. Apart from delivering 16 percent more thrust (32,000 pounds versus 27,560 pounds), the engine comes with a swivel nozzle against the previous two-dimensional design, improving the M2’s “super maneuverability” achieved through vectored thrust. Since 1996, Sukhoi fighters have starred at air shows with their ability to perform “Bell” (tail slide), “Pugachov’s Cobra” (pitch-up), “Hook” (similar to Cobra but performed in the horizontal plane rather than vertical), and other maneuvers. More importantly, the model can outmaneuver an enemy fighter and evade radar-guided missiles, Sukhoi claims.
The needed enlargement of air intakes for the AL-41F1 requires a 20 percent higher airflow. Meanwhile, the SM2 version differs in its reshaped nosecone to house a larger radar: a special edition of the N-035 Irbis in place of the N-011M Bars. The Su-35S single-engine fighter also uses the SM2’s avionics package for cross-type commonality. When needed, the Su-30SM2 will serve advanced training roles for novice Su-35S pilots because the latter type does not have a trainer version, while the Su-30SM’s front cockpit features a different layout.
While Irkut has completed Su-30SM shipments to the Russian armed forces, deliveries to foreign clients continue. Armenia has so far received only four out of 12 on order, Belarus four of 12 and Kazakhstan 24 of 40. It remains unclear whether some of those customers, as well as Myanmar—which signed a preliminary agreement on six airplanes—will shift to the more advanced SM2 version.
The recent induction of the Su-30SM2 may prompt users of earlier-version Su-30s to conduct upgrades on their fleets to improve performance. Malaysia, which ordered 18 Su-30MKMs in 2003, has long sought ways to improve their lethality and reliability. The fleet now averages 10 years of age. Russia and Malaysia have tried to resolve issues with engines due to a shortage of prepaid spare parts through a better functioning logistics system and handing over some work on the Su-30MKM fleet to local companies such as Aerospace Technology Systems Corporation (ATSC). The latter handed back the first upgraded aircraft to the Malaysian air force in 2019. Reportedly, Malaysia wants to keep its Sukhois in service through to 2040.
India has ordered a total of 284 Su-30MKIs, of which 240 remain operational, including a recent batch of 12 last year. Although generally considered one of the best radar systems in the world at its introduction in 1997, the N-011M Bars and its passive phase array technology has become increasingly outdated. India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has been working on an active antenna array unit (AAAU) radar with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) that might replace the Bars. Russia offered an alternative in the form of the Super-30 upgrade package that includes the replacement of the Su-30MKI’s original radar with an AESA version employing transceivers developed for the radar of the fifth-generation Su-57 fighter.