Russia Boosting Production of Su-34M Strike Fighters: Enhanced Variants Introduce New Capabilities

The Russian Defence Ministry has given directives to expand production of Su-34 strike fighters, as the class continues to be widely relied on for both nuclear deterrence and for tactical strike missions across all theatres from Syria to the Arctic to the Western Pacific. This comes in parallel to successes increasing production of the Su-57 fifth generation fighter which is seeing output double this year from 2022. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the Chkalov Aircraft Factory in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in the first week of October, and gave orders to increase Su-34 output, while highlighting the importance of the role the fighter class plays in the country’s air force. “This warplane is the main workhorse, they have four, five sorties every day, so we need to step up, hurry up. We have enterprises that are ahead of schedule for the 2024 program this year. So we need to organise work here as well,” he stated, adding that facilities were on schedule delivering new units and modernising a number of those already in service. The Su-34 is the longest ranged tactical combat aircraft in the world, and is a very heavily modified derivative of the Soviet Union’s top air superiority the Su-27 Flanker. It is approximately 50 percent heavier and carries significantly more ordnance than the original Flanker. The aircraft is capable of deploying a very wide range of cruise missiles and guided bombs, and has seen extensively deployments for combat operations from late 2015 in Syria and from early 2022 in Ukraine

Although the Su-34 entered low rate initial production in 2008, with just a single airframe built that year, the aircraft would only join the Russian Air Force in 2014. Eighteen airframes were delivered that year, with delivery rates for several years remaining the highest in the Russian fleet other than the less specialised Su-30SM. The Russian Defence Ministry has purchased more Su-34s than any other fighter class since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which partly reflects the very large number of older Su-24M strike fighters in service the large majority of which have been or will be replaced by the Su-34. The Defence Ministry placed the latest order for Su-34s in August 2022, with aircraft delivered since July that year notably having been built to an enhanced standard as the Su-34M variant. The director general of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation Yuri Slyusar claimed that these had double the combat capacity of the original Su-34. Alongside standard Su-34M fighters, specialised variants built for electronic warfare or reconnaissance have also been delivered. The reconnaissance variant integrates the UKR-RT electronic search pod, the UKR-OE camera pod and the UKR-RL which integrates a synthetic aperture radar, while the electronic warfare variant integrates the L700 Tarantul ECM pod as a primary armament among other unknown alterations.

In early September the Su-34 demonstrated compatibility with a new weapons class, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile, which will allow the fighters to engage targets 2000km away. The highly manoeuvrable missile can carry either nuclear or a wide range of conventional warheads and is considered almost impossible to intercept. 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. The integration of the missiles onto the Su-34 revolutionises the class’ capabilities and is expected to create greater demand for the aircraft within the fleet, with Su-34s having the advantage over the Kinzhal’s previous carrier the MiG-31K of much lower operational costs and a significantly higher endurance. The decision to ingrate the Kinzhal onto the Su-34 is thought to have been taken as a result of the missile’s impressive combat performance in Ukraine, with production having increased fourfold by mid-2023 compared to pre war output levels meaning the size of the arsenal could far eclipse the number of MiG-31s available.