Russia’s Leading Fighter Jet Factory Through Four Major Phases: From Ukraine War Su-57s Back to Korean War MiG-15s

Despite significant contraction in the Russian combat aviation industry to a small fraction of its Soviet era size, the country continues to maintain by far the largest production capacity for fighter aircraft outside China and the United States. Fighters are today assembled at one of four plants, including the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant in the Russian Far East producing Su-35 and Su-57 fighters, the Irkutsk Aviation Plant producing Su-30SM, SM2, MKI and MKA fighters, the Sokol Aviation Plant producing MiG-29 and MiG-35 fighters, and the Novosibirsk Aviation Plant producing Su-34M strike fighters. Other kinds of combat aircraft are produced at a wide range of other facilities, with a notable example being the Kazan Aviation Plant which in the late 2010s resumed production of Tu-160 strategic bombers. By far the largest facility producing combat jet aircraft, however, remains the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant, which with the evolution of the Su-57 fighter program is moving into its fourth major phase since its began production in the Stalinist era. 

The Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant first produced jet fighters in the 1940s when it was responsible for manufacturing MiG-15 and MiG-17 first generation fighters, the former which saw extensive combat in the Korean War and was near unanimously considered the world’s foremost fighter at the time. The MiG-17 was a close derivative of the MiG-15 which entered service four years later from 1952 and further widened the advantage top Soviet fighter units had over their foreign counterparts. The plant began a second phase of production when it converted to manufacture Su-7 strike fighters from 1957, which were second generation aircraft that complemented the more versatile and widely used MiG-21s. The plant then transitioned to production of a heavily enhanced derivative of the Su-7, the Su-17, which integrated third generation level avionics and variable swept wings providing a much improved precision strike capability and greater flight performance. The plant produced the Su-7 and Su-17 for the majority of the Cold War, with the latter entering service from 1970 and ending production only in 1985. 

The Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant rose to prominence in the mid-1980s when it became the first to manufacture the Soviet Union’s premier class of air superiority fighter the Su-27 Flanker, which was considered unrivalled worldwide in its capabilities at the time. The Su-27 entered service from 1984 as the USSR’s fourth class of fourth generation tactical combat jet, and was produced at rates of close to 100 per year before the state disintegrated in 1990. With few orders in the 1990s production was overwhelmingly allocated to meeting the needs of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which ordered more Su-27s in the post-Soviet years than all other clients in the world combined including the Russian Air Force itself. The lack of significant orders for other classes of fighter, and strong Chinese interest in the Su-27, meant that the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant was much less affected than other facilities by the fallout from the Soviet Union’s disintegration. 

Following the Su-27 Chinese orders for Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 fighters from 1999 led the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant to transition to producing these twin seat derivatives of the Flanker design. These aircraft had significantly more modern avionics and were heavily customised to meet Chinese requirements for a highly versatile aircraft capable of performing at the cutting edge in both air superiority and strike roles. Tensions with the United States in the Taiwan Strait were a primary factor leading China to invest in acquiring the aircraft. Chinese orders were completed in 2004, after which the Su-30MK2, which had been developed with Chinese funding, was produced to meet orders from Venezuela, Uganda and Vietnam. The Russian Defence Ministry placed its first order for a full Su-30 squadron in 2009 after these orders were met in order to avoid terminating work at the facility, with 20 Su-30M2 fighters delivered from 2010. These were closely derived from the Su-30MK2, and would serve primarily as trainers within the Russian Air Force. 

The Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant transitioned to production of a third derivative of the Su-27 Flanker from 2009 when it began manufacturing Su-35S fighters. The Su-35 was initially developed exclusively for export, although the collapse of Russia’s first fifth generation fighter program the MiG 1.42 and serious delays to its second fifth generation program the Su-57 led the Defence Ministry to order ‘4++ generation’ Su-35s to provide a much needed boost to the Air Force’s long neglected air superiority capabilities. Like the Su-30, the Su-35 was a heavily advanced derivative of the Su-27 design, although this aircraft was very heavily optimised for air superiority missions much as the original Flanker had been. The first two Su-35s were delivered in 2012, followed by eight in 2013 and 24 in 2014. By that time it was expected that 200 aircraft would be produced, with half of these to be ordered by the Defence Ministry and the other half to be exported. A combination of sustained Western pressure and economic warfare threats against potential clients, a lack of Chinese interest due to development of more capable fighters domestically, and delays to the Su-57’s development, meant that a much greater portion of the Su-35’s production run would be allocated to domestic orders. 

34 years after it began Flanker production the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant began to produce more advanced aircraft from a newer generation in 2018 when low rate initial production of the Su-57 was initiated. Production would reach six aircraft per year in 2022 and 12 aircraft in 2023, with rates expected to continue to rise. With the Russian Air Force itself increasingly appearing to be saturated with Su-35s, the length to which production would continue largely depended on Iranian orders with the country having ordered an estimated two dozen aircraft in 2022 and expected to potentially place followup orders to field close to 60 airframes. The Su-57 thus brought the aviation plant into its fourth major phase of jet fighter manufacturing after the MiG-15/17, the Su-7/17 and the Su-27/30/35, with the fifth generation fighter expected to replace Flankers across much of the Russian Air Force as well as in the fleets of multiple foreign clients. Much regarding the facility’s future work remains uncertain, including the scale Su-57 production will reach, possible production of a lighter class of fifth generation fighter being developed under the Checkmate program, and the extent of continued work contributing to the production of the SSJ100 Superjet and other civil airliners.