Russia and the US did similar things when it came to coming up with replacements for their aging swing-wing deep strike bombers, in their case the SU-24 “FENCER”, and in our case the F-111 “Aardvark.” Instead of clean sheet designs both sides looked toward their best heavy fighter to modify into a swing role fighter attack platform with long legs and a serious punch. America’s answer came in the guise as the F-15E “Strike Eagle”, which made it’s rushed combat debut in the 1991 Desert Storm conflict. Around this same time as the Strike Eagle’s baptism by fire came the first flight of newly democratic Russia’s SU-27 deep strike derivative, the SU-34, NATO nickname “FULLBACK.”
Although both aircraft were born from similar philosophies, their final configuration could not have been more different. The F-15E Strike Eagle was a beefed up version of the F-15D, with modified conformal fuel tanks (once known by the F-15A/B/C/D community as “Fast Packs”) that could tote bombs as well as hold much needed fuel. Further, the most advanced avionics and radar package available at the time was crammed into the Strike Eagle, giving the aircraft immense multirole capability to match it’s fairly unmolested airframe design borrowed from its air superiority focused cousin. In the end the F-15E defined the very apogee of the term “multirole fighter,” an aircraft that could be equally at home interdicting deep into enemy air space, flying low through terrain in the dead of night to mask it’s radar signature while loaded down with precision guided weapons as it would defending a raid of B-52s from marauding enemy fighters. The designers over at Sukhoi took a different path with their modern Flanker derivative the SU-34…
The SU-34 design is eye popping different than anything to ever come from the SU-27 family of fighter aircraft. Utilizing the same basic Flanker planform design, with its massive lifting body (that could also hold tons of gas), widely separated engines and twin looming vertical tail planes, the rest of the aircraft, mainly the very back and the very front was brand new. Instead of going for a fighter style inline twin cockpit, the Sukhoi team gave the elegant jet a massive tandem cockpit and platypus nose, very similar to the American F-111 and the SU-24 it is meant to replace. With such a design much of the “fighteresque” rear visibility is lost, but what is gained is incredible crew ergonomics, where both members could work in a shirtsleeve, pressurized, side by side environment for maximum crew coordination. Further, designers included a chemical toilet, a galley and even a bed down area just aft of the main cockpit for long endurance missions. Also, seeing as Russia has always lagged behind in systems integration and man-machine interface, the side by side seating would help compensate for those deficiencies. Another area where the Fullback differs from the Flanker is in the very back. The tail cone is much elongated to house a rear warning radar to enhance the crew’s situational awareness as well as to compensate for the total lack of rearward visibility imposed by the side-by-side cabin configuration. Also the landing gear is very heavy-duty for rough field operations under heavy takeoff weights and allows more clearance for the attachment of massive cruise and anti-ship missiles. Also of note are the canard foreplanes, similar to those on the carrier borne SU-33. These foreplanes help compensate for the massive nose as well as offering enhanced trimming at transonic speeds.
Although the Fullback retains much of the SU-27’s legendary maneuverability, the aircraft is a bit limited in comparison when it comes to top end speed, due to a fixed intake system instead of the Flanker’s maneuvering intake system. This is hardly a factor though as rarely would an aircraft like this need to speeds above mach 1.5, if even that. No doubt the biggest positive factors in the Fullback’s design come down to fuel volume, loadouts and adaptability. In the SU-34 Russia has a large aircraft that can strike deep into enemy territory with loads of guided munitions, while defending itself when egressing into and out of the battlefield. In the SU-34 it also has a fantastic long range anti-ship weapon delivery system via the Kh-55 Kent ASM missile and even an anti-AWACS missile delivery system via the KH-31 “Krypton” anti-radiation missile.
Although these are roles that not even the F-15E is slated to cover, the SU-34’s potential is so much more than that. Due to its massive size and crew design the Fullback could make one hell of a standoff jammer, something closely along the lines of the US’s prematurely retired EF-111 “Sparkvark,” an Electronic Warfare (EA) and Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD/DEAD) platform without comparison. Furthermore, because of its unique frontal “platypus nose” design, the SU-34 has a MASSIVE radar aperture to work with. This frontal real-estate is absolutely priceless when it comes it AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar technology, as the larger the aperture, the more transmit and receive modules can be installed and more power brought to bare, vastly increasing detection ranges and resolutions. Further, such an array can work as an electronic attack weapon all its own, frying enemy electronics or even transmitting massive amounts of data over huge distances. It could even act as a mini AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) with such a large AESA, sending targeting information to other players remotely via data link. Another area where the SU-34 is very well suited for is in the maritime patrol mission. The aircraft’s long-range and room for missionized equipment, even its long tail boom where a Magnetic anomaly Detector (MAD) could be installed, along with its radar mapping and attack capabilities could make for a ground breaking tactical sea control platform. Finally, the SU-34 could be one hell of a tactical tanker, filling up its hard points with fuel tanks instead of missiles and bombs would allow the big fighter-bomber to haul one massive amount of fuel to refuel a transiting attack package all the way to the target and back while also providing offensive counter air and even electronic attack support for the strike package.
The massive internal fuel volume of the airframe allows Fullback to cover regional distances without performance and loadout compromising external fuel tanks, an almost fixed hindrance on the F-15E. Plus its cabin is setup for this exact mission which makes the Fullback more of a bomber than a fighter. What the SU-34 seems to need most are modern western avionics to take full advantage of its ingenious airframe design, although recent reports show the aircraft with a similar “glass cockpit” as say the now somewhat dated F-15E along with dated internal laser designation system, and there is talk of foreign targeting pods being integrated on the aircraft.. In fact, many of the potential roles for the aircraft discussed above have been at least projected by Sukhoi for this remarkable aircraft (for instance the sea control variant known as the SU-32FN), and some have even been proof of concepted on the test airframe. With this in mind, in many ways the Fullback is the regional fighter-bomber America could so desperately use, one that is less dependent of tanking and can serve many roles with adaptable ease. Hopefully over time, as Russia begins to pour larger and larger sums back into its air arm we will see the SU-34 realize its true potential, but with just a handful of operational aircraft after 20 years of testing that reality is still very much in question.
Around 2:40 the weapons tests of the jet slung up are unreal: