Su-27SK Flanker: China’s Oldest Fighter Jet and the Superseding of Soviet and Russian Technology

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has come to field one of the most modern inventories of combat aircraft of any military in the world, with the large majority of jets in both the Air Force and the Navy produced after the year 2000. This trend accompanied the country’s emergence as the world’s largest economy in 2014, with a GDP approximately one sixth larger than that of the United States by the end of 2020, as well as its overtaking of the U.S. Military in spending on arms acquisitions in 2020 despite a much lower defence budget. China emerged in 2016 as the first country in the world other than the United States to deploy a domestically developed fifth generation fighter, the capabilities of which figures in the U.S. Military leadership expressed high regard for, with the Chengdu J-20 remaining the only non-U.S. fighter of its generation deployed at squadron level strength globally. While the PLA Air Force does operate modernised variants of older Cold War designs, namely the J-8 II and J-7G, these were mostly manufactured in the 2000s or early 2010s with J-7 production lines remaining open until 2013 and the variants manufactured benefitting from fourth generation technologies

China’s inventory of aircraft from airborne early warning platforms and bombers to ground and carried based fighters is considerably newer than those in Russia or the United States, which is a result multiple factors including it’s fleet’s smaller size until the 2000s and its relatively late induction of fourth generation aircraft. Thus the oldest combat jets in Chinese service today are the country’s first fourth generation fighters the Su-27SKs. With an order for these jets placed in 1990, the Su-27SK was by far China’s heaviest, most capable and sophisticated combat aircraft when three were delivered the following year. The increasingly cash strapped Soviet Union had initially intended its elite MiG-31 and Su-27 heavyweight platforms for domestic use only, exporting their lighter and cheaper counterparts the MiG-25 and MiG-29, and while China initially considered MiG-29 acquisitions it eventually managed to gain permission to purchase the superior but much more costly Su-27.

The PLA Air Force would very quickly move past the Su-27SK, first purchasing a licence to manufacture the aircraft domestically and doing so in small numbers as the conservatively enhanced J-11A, but later producing the heavily upgraded J-11B. The J-11B entered service from around 2007 and remained in production until 2018, benefitting from newer avionics, a lighter airframe making greater use of composite materials, indigenous PL-12 active radar guided air to air missiles and new sensors and electronic warfare systems. The Su-27SK’s capabilities were thus left far behind, and the jet is today one of the least capable in Chinese service. While minor upgrades have reportedly been made to the fleet’s sensors and electronics, they are hindered by the age of their low composite airframes and radars and their continued reliance on semi active radar guided R-27 missiles. This has undermined their ability to contend in beyond visual range combat against modern adversaries – the majority of which are equipped with active radar guided missiles. China’s fighter fleet has since moved well past the R-27 and the PL-12, with its modern aircraft deploying PL-15 missiles with far longer ranges, AESA radars for guidance, and far more sophisticated electronic warfare countermeasures. Short range missiles have also been modernised considerably with new fighter classes deploying the PL-10 with one of the best high off boresight performances in the world.

While the PLA has a moved to enhance its J-11 fighters to the J-11BG ‘4+ generation’ standard, and is today producing a wide range of high performance heavyweight fighter jets, it remains uncertain how long the Su-27SK will remain in service. As designs which are both old and heavy, the jets impose high operational costs on the fleet which could portend their retirement some time before the middle of the decade. This would make the Soviet built fighters the first fourth generation aircraft China has retired completely, and make China only the second country after Belarus to remove the Su-27 from service. The Russian Air Force for its part has invested in upgrading its old Su-27 airframes to a ‘4+ generation’ standard by integrating up to date avionics, weapons and sensors. The U.S. Air Force has invested in similar upgrades for its own analogue to the Su-27, the F-15C/D, although the class is today being retired in favour of its successor the F-15EX. The Su-27 will continue to have an important place in the PLA’s history as the first fourth generation fighter and the first heavyweight fighter ever fielded, as well as the first foreign fighter class acquired in little over three decades. Derivatives of the design are expected to remain in production for the foreseeable future and possibly into the 2030s with vastly improved capabilities, with those in production today including the J-16, the J-15B carrier based air superiority fighter, and their electronic attack variants the J-16D and J-15D.