Challenges persist in sustaining Russian Sukhoi Su-34 supply

Despite existing economic sanctions, Russia has managed to sustain a notable tank production capacity, delivering approximately 125 tanks per month. This figure adequately compensates for its losses in Ukraine. Although today’s production rates fall short of the Soviet Union era’s staggering 4,000 tanks per year, under the prevailing circumstances, they are quite substantial. 

Russian Su-34 is too heavy as a fighter and too small as a bomber
Photo by Alex Beltyukov

However, the situation has changed dramatically in terms of Russian combat aviation. The production of weaponry in this crucial national security sector requires a more extended period. This reality underscores Ukraine’s claim of downing 10 Russian Su-34s with local air defenses, all within a brief span of only 13 days in February. 

Despite the uncertainty surrounding these reported figures – as it’s a common practice for warring parties to utilize propaganda as a tactical weapon – some Western analysts have begun questioning the previously assumed Russian aerial supremacy. A noticeable decline in the number of fighter jets, particularly Su-34s, has been observed.

Russia acquired new Su-34Ms with rear-hemisphere scanning radar
Photo credit: Global Look Press

The information is different

It was widely understood that before hostilities commenced between the adjacent nations, Russia possessed approximately 140 fighter-bombers. This figure was derived from a variety of sources. Western media outlets, such as Newsweek, report that Ukraine has shot down 35 of these since the conflict began. Meanwhile, open data advocates like Oryx present a lower figure – 25. Here lies the discrepancy, information that is not verified. We’ll likely have to wait until long after hostilities cease to know the actual figure. 

The Su-34 fighter bomber holds significant importance for Russia, particularly in its conflict with Ukraine. Why is that, you might ask? Primarily, it’s due to its ability to maneuver and deliver glide bombs – a capability that even Kew admits poses a significant challenge for air defenses. Faced with this problem, Russia could employ one of two strategies. They could either increase production to replace the lost Su-34s or focus their attacks on enemy air defense systems, including their radar equipment. Both options present unique challenges.

UAC delivered RuAF new batch of Su-34 declaring a production reserve
Video screenshot

Replacement will be difficult

While we don’t possess a precise timeline for the production of a single Su-34, we’re able to make an informed estimate based on the information available to us. Creating military aircraft is no simple task; it involves a multitude of intricate steps, from sourcing materials to assembly, testing, and certifying that quality standards are met. In scenarios such as high demand or conflict, these steps could take a couple of months to complete. However, during standard circumstances, this process could extend to a few years. 

A host of variables influences the speed of production, including the availability of resources, the capacity of the production facilities, and the level of government funding. It’s critical to remember that during periods of conflict, the rate of production could potentially be escalated, consequently reducing the production timeframe for each aircraft. 

In conclusion, despite the absence of a detailed timeline, it’s reasonable to infer that the production of a single Su-34 could take anywhere from a few months to several years, governed by a plethora of factors. This estimation aligns with the general production timelines of modern military aircraft.

What did it produce in 2023?

Despite the certainty of the Russian Federation’s assertions regarding their production and dispatch of military aircraft, the exact figures for the quantity contained within each batch often remain undisclosed. As such, we are left navigating through this silence and arrive at an approximate production and dispatch count of 24 to 34 aircraft in 2023 alone. These include various models such as Su-30SM2, Su-34, Su-35, and Su-57

'The Su-34 workhorse has five or six flights a day' - Russia
Photo credit: Russian MoD

Piecing together uncorroborated pieces of information, we estimate that the number of Su-34 aircraft produced and dispatched within the Russian Federation in 2023 falls between 7 and 9. 

It appears that Russia is keen on maintaining a steady equilibrium between its losses and production rates, extending that approach to aircraft manufacturing. However, if Ukraine’s claim of shooting down 10 Su-34s in a fortnight is substantiated, Russia might have to reassess the deployment of this fighter in Ukraine. This is because a successful run from the Ukrainian air defense can potentially tip the Russian aircraft production balance into a deficit.

Why is the Su-34 an easy target?

Russia sent Su-34M/M2 strike aircraft to Ukraine for testing
Photo credit: Military Watch Magazine

The Su-34, even after launching all its weapons, is still an easy target for both the Soviet S-200 and S-300 and the Patriot air defense systems. This is largely because the Su-34 can’t effectively perform a “High G” maneuver, which is key to dodging an incoming interceptor. Consider the comparison between the Su-35 fighter jet and the Su-34 bomber. The Su-35 can handle a high G-force of about 9G, while the Su-34 can endure around 7G. The Su-35 is lighter by about 4 tons and has superior thrust weaponry. Additionally, the Su-34 has to drop its UMPK bombs before it can maneuver, which further limits its agility. 

Why are these high-G maneuvers vital to dodge anti-aircraft missiles? Let’s delve into it. When a missile is detected, either visually or by onboard systems, the pilot initiates this maneuver. The pilot changes direction swiftly by strongly moving the control stick to the side, causing the aircraft to roll into the maneuver. During this sharp turn, the pilot must accelerate to maintain speed. The escalating speeds and tight turns generate a surge in G-forces. 

These G-forces can reach extreme levels, sometimes many times the force of gravity, making it challenging for the pilot to move or even breathe. To counter this, pilots wear specialized G-suits that exert pressure on the lower body. This prevents blood from pooling in the legs and causing unconsciousness. 

Throughout this meticulous maneuvering, pilots also have the demanding task of managing the aircraft’s energy state. They must strike a balance between speed, altitude, and direction to continuously evade or to get in position to retaliate. It’s crucial to understand the aircraft’s abilities to avoid a stall or damage. After a successful evasion, pilots need to recover from the strenuous high-G maneuver. This involves slowly reducing the G-forces by easing out of the turn and decelerating. Pilots also need to regain their orientation and prepare for any further threats. 

Executing a high-speed, high-G maneuver requires skill, precision, and an in-depth understanding of the aircraft’s capabilities and limitations. This further underscores the importance of such maneuvers in robust defense.


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