The Russian Air Force has for the first time employed Su-34 strike fighters to launch ballistic missiles, which was a previously unknown capability that could transform the way the aircraft are used. This development follows a reported surge in production of the missile in question, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, which from late 2017 was integrated onto modified MiG-31 interceptors which were designated MiG-31K and, for later variants, MiG-31I. While only approximately 30-35 MiG-31K/Is are currently in service, however, the Su-34 is the most widely fielded fighter class in the Russian Air Force with over 120 having entered service. The discrepancy in numbers is further exacerbated by the fact that the Su-34 requires significantly less maintenance and has higher availability rates and lower operational costs than the MiG-31, which makes it an optimal aircraft to deploy Kinzhal missiles. The integration of the Kinzhal onto the Su-34 has significant implications across multiple theatres where the aircraft are deployed, from the Arctic and Far East to the Ukrainian and Syrian theatres. The Su-34 is the longest ranged tactical combat jet in service anywhere in the world, and second only to the MiG-31 for the position of the world’s largest. As a much more modern aircraft with a more efficient design it can carry much heavier payloads over longer distances.
Russian state media outlets notably mistakenly initially reported that it was the lighter Su-35 fighter which had been used to carry the Kinzhal missile, while also mislabelling pictures of the Su-34 as ‘Su-35.’ The Su-35’s design as an air superiority fighter, and its much lower carrying capacity and range and higher cost than the Su-34, raised questions from the outset regarding the plausibility of these reports. A defence official speaking anonymously reported on September 4 regarding the first Kinzhal missile strike from a Su-34: “The Su-34 fighter jet used the Kinzhal hypersonic missile in the special military operation. The first crew who successfully accomplished such a task will receive state awards.” Kinzhal missiles have been employed extensively in the Ukrainian theatre, with one of their most significant achievements being the reported destruction of newly delivered Patriot missile batteries in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in May when fired from MiG-31K strike fighters. The missiles are highly manoeuvrable and difficult to track, which combined with their terminal speeds approaching Mach 9 makes them very difficult to intercept. The can carry a variety of warhead types, and are produced on the same production lines as 9M723 missiles for the Iskander-M ground based system which have seen productive capacity increase manifold over the past year. The unique capabilities of Russian air launched cruise and ballistic missiles integrated onto its fighters had provided a key means of compensating for shortcomings elsewhere in its defence sector such as the serious delays faced in fielding stealth fighters when compared to rival Chinese and American programs.