Su-35S: fifth-generation jet fighter in fourth-generation form factor
The story of SU-35 starts in the middle of the 1980s, when designers at the Komsomolsk on Amur aircraft-building factory concentrated on updating the SU-27 jet fighter. The future SU-27M, later renamed SU-35, was to boast updated equipment, an expanded list of weapons, including precision air-to-surface weapons, as well as the capability for mid-air refuelling. Externally, the plane differed from its predecessors by the horizontal canard, or small wings on both sides of the cockpit.
The first SU-35, which we will henceforth refer to as SU-27M to avoid confusion, proved unfortunate in that it was not mass-produced because of the break-up of the USSR. The few aircraft that had been built were handed over to the Russian Knights aerobatic team where they were chiefly used as a source of spare parts for the SU-27 planes that the team used. But then, some SU-27M jet fighters underwent quite a few test flights, they were armed with sophisticated weapons, while one of them got a thrust-vector-control engine and was renamed SU-37. The jet fighter, also known as Terminator, was one of the first to boast this kind of propulsion unit.
The plane was the first to ever perform the aerial stunt that came to be known as Frolov’s Chakra, after the pilot’s name. The stunt is a tightest 360 degree turn while in flight, a somersault of sorts. To perform the stunt, the plane loops the loop and actually spins around its tail. The importance of the stunt is that the jet fighter can attack the enemy behind its back, or, if the enemy aircraft is close, let it pass by and attack it from behind.
In the early 2000s, the Sukhoi Designing Office resumed work on the fifth-generation jet fighter, which eventually took shape of the T-50 PAK FA. It was clear from square one that the effort would take quite some time to succeed, so a decision was made to build a provisional concept of the fighter on the T-10 (SU-27) base, later renamed SU-35. SU-35 Smeans that the plane is mass-produced.
SU-35 differs from the SU-27 baseline model by improved propulsion units (augmented turbofans and longer life), updated radar boasting a passive phased antenna array, modernized equipment of the cockpit, multifunction colour displays, and some other novelties. A number of systems on board the jet fighter are being rendered airworthy to be used in the fifth-generation aircraft.
Likely deliveries of the SU-35S jet fighter to China has been negotiated since the late 2000s, and all along fears have been voiced for the likely consequences of the deal. China once broke a licence agreement with Russia on the deliveries of SU-27SK, and launched the mass production of its own replica of SU-27, designated J-11. China then used the copied aircraft and the prototype of the Soviet SU-33 deck-based fighter that it had obtained from Ukraine, to build its own naval fighter J-15. This seems to augur ill for the future of SU-35S.
On the other hand, there is hardly any point in copying the Russian jet fighter. It would take China a lot of time to copy SU-35S, given the extent of change this jet fighter has undergone since SU-27 was built, as well as some problems that China has still failed to settle in manufacturing its own version of SU-27, - the J-11, above all problems relating to the plane’s propulsion unit. By the time China is through with copying SU-35S, Russia will have built an updated version of the aircraft. More importantly, Russia will have launched the mass production of the fifth-generation jet fighter by then. Also, the contract for the deliveries of SU-35S planes to Beijing, currently under discussion, seems to envisage heavy sanctions in case a pirate copy of it is created by China, so China would hardly decide on souring relations with Russia because of this. But China will certainly study the aircraft in every detail and will use Russian technical solutions in building its own new jet fighters. However, given the current international situation, this should make Japan or the US, rather than anyone else, feel concerned.