MOSCOW, RUSSIA — Rumors are spreading quite actively that Russia’s best serial multi-role fighter Su-35S is awaiting a very, very serious modernization. In the course of work, the aircraft will approach the fifth generation. Some more optimistic Russian guesses say it will even overtake the 5th generation. However, they are based on the analogs of the main potential enemy. What kind of modernization is this, what will change, and does the Russian Air Force [VKS] need it?
Photo credit: Rosoboronexport
In general, the topic of modernization is almost always good. Technology is gaining new capabilities that can play a role in many ways. A clear example of this is the actual bringing of the Su-27 to the level of the current Su-35S. They [Su-27 and Su-35] are very different but have a lot in common.
However, how their clash ends now – everyone knows. The old Su-27s cannot compete in long-range dogfights. The main feature of the Su-35 is the ability to use the R-37M. The air-to-air missile with a range of 400 km. The Su-27 doesn’t even come close to boasting anything like that.
Comparison between Su-57 and Su-35
In reality, the Su-57 and Su-35S should be compared. Their weapons are identical, but in terms of communications, detection, stealth, and other things – the difference is colossal. For example, the Belka [Su-57] radar is about 30-40 percent more powerful than the Irbis [Su-35]. Belka is made according to the AFAR technology, which allows the detection of fine targets at a distance of 400 kilometers. This applies to objects whose area is 1 square meter. I.e. most 4th generation cruise missiles and upgraded fighters are roughly in this range.
As you may have guessed, the main direction of the modernization of the Su-35 is the replacement of the Irbis with the Belka. Having received this modernization, the Su-35 will successfully withstand all modern and prospective targets.
But radar is only half the story. It is well known that the Su-57 is far from having one or even two radars – there are as many as five of them, in addition to optics, which allows the fighter to follow the concept of “smart skin”. That is, the machine can fully control the space around it without missing any details.
Yes, capabilities vary in different directions, not all radars are the same [and not all are based on AFAR technology]. However, the fact remains that it is quite difficult to remain unnoticed. So, Russia wants to apply a similar approach to the Su-35. In reality, the Su-35 is a small AWACS aircraft.
Next on the list is the electronic “stuffing” from the Su-57 – the main emphasis on communication systems, unmanned control, and other such equipment. The advantages are obvious – it is a much greater awareness of the pilot about the surrounding situation. Thus, he will receive all available information from all possible sources. Hence another nuance – you can use the fighter as secretly as possible, without its own radiation.
Although the approach is the same, Russian experts say it is a much more interesting concept than the F-35 and AWACS aircraft. At a minimum, this will allow significantly more successful penetration of enemy air/missile defenses, saving pilots and their aircraft.
Is all this necessary?
On the one hand, the advantages are obvious – the Su-35S will seriously increase its capabilities. On the other hand, the aircraft will cost more, and the implementation will be more complicated, which will consume more time and require more complexity.
The same smart skin is almost the main feature of the Su-57, which was originally conceived for it. How much it will cost to convert a production Su-35 into such a concept is a question, but it will probably come close to the production fifth generation.
Next on the list is electronics. Something tells me that the electronics should not be replaced. There are too many inconsistencies. For example, the Su-35S is already an extremely successful project, the relevance of which has not decreased even by a percentage. In the current conflict [the war in Ukraine] all its advantages have been confirmed in practice.
Who is the source?
And here it is worth turning to the main source of news about this major change. As it turns out, all roads lead to some publication on the other side of the ocean. Modernization was presented there so interestingly and excitingly that even in Russia they were surprised. In the original, the author apparently mixed up the Su-35S with the Su-30SM and emphasized a fictitious upgrade to use new weapons.
We are talking about the long-range R-37M missiles and the latest medium-range R-77. In reality, the Su-35 has been using them since at least 2020, as well as now.
However, there is a rational grain in this story and, oddly enough, it is the integration of Belka, but not entirely, but only the main element, which will significantly increase the already impressive ability to detect the enemy.
The fact is that now the Su-30SM is undergoing a real modernization, the key element of which will be the replacement of the outdated station with the Irbis. The following scenario seems logical – we remove the same radar from the Su-35 and install the Belka instead. However, whether this will happen remains to be seen, because, at the moment, this is also a kind of speculation.