Su-34 Fullback fighter takes to the skies

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti defense commentator Viktor Litovkin) - The inauguration of two brand-new Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers last week at Yeltsovka airfield, in Novosibirsk, was an event on a par with the great achievements of the past that people were once proud of but have long ago forgotten, such as the opening of new railways, power stations, or steel mills.

The official ceremony, attended by Russian Air Force Commander General of the Army Vladimir Mikhailov, Sukhoi CEO Mikhail Pogosyan and Fyodor Zhdanov, his counterpart at NAPO (the Chkalov Novosibirsk aircraft producing association), the Fullback's producer, was a major landmark for the military as well as for the aircraft industry. This is because, as Mikhailov acknowledged, these two aircraft are the first new fighter jets to enter into service in Russia since 1992. Other planes have only been modernized.

The Su-34's performance is well-known: its takeoff weight of 39 metric tons; maximum speed of 1,900 km/h near the ceiling and 1,400 km/h near the ground; operational range of 4,000 km without refueling and unlimited range with in-flight refueling (IFR); 30mm built-in cannon and bombs and missiles of all kinds; all-weapon, all-weather day-and-night capability against any, including pinpoint, surface targets; and a host of other features make it a truly formidable machine. The use of advanced munitions, with satellite-guided bombs that successfully completed tests last summer, makes the new aircraft uniquely useful in counterterrorist as well as conventional warfare.

The new fighter-bombers will be powered by high-thrust Salyut AL-31F-M1 engines. Salyut CEO Yury Yeliseyev has promised that his company will raise the engine's already increased thrust and turnaround time (750 hours) to 14 metric tons and 1,000 hours in the near future.

Though the newly launched Su-34s are marked 01 and 02, they are in fact the latest in a test series of 10 aircraft. Others have been withdrawn by the designer as a basis for further upgrades. Fullback chief designer Rollan Martirosov told RIA Novosti that the current version has gone through three major upgrades: in 1999, 2004, and earlier this year.

The newly operational tactical aircraft has been called a "wireless flying computer," meaning that it is very easy to install and uninstall programs without major changes to the hardware except for weapons and controlling electronics. The chief designer says the scope of upgrades that can be done in the field includes even the installation of innovative thrust-vectoring engines. The plane will not need a new power plant anytime soon, the designer says, because the Fullbacks are expected to perform well enough with the existing engines. However, you never know: the Su-34 will be in service for at least 30-40 years.

Right now, the 01 and 02 are heading for the Pilot Training Center in Lipetsk and the Air Force Test Center in Akhtubinsk, Astrakhan Region, where test pilots will try them out in various conditions to write combat instruction manuals, Mikhailov said.

Under a three-year contract between the Russian Air Force and NAPO, the latter will make two more Su-34s next year and then ten aircraft in each of the following two years. NAPO was considering radical re-equipment and staffing efforts to cope with the Russian order (150 new engineers next year, 450 in 2008 and 400 in 2009) and subsequent exports, Zhdanov told RIA Novosti.

Russian Air Force Commander Vladimir Mikhailov promised the new multirole fighter-bombers would not be exported until the first Russian Fullback-armed air division was formed. He also said 200 such aircraft would be in operation with the Russian Air Force by 2020. Meanwhile, some of the older Su-24 Fencers, which the Fullbacks are meant to replace, will be upgraded regularly.

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