Although it has appeared at previous Dubai Air Shows over the past 25 years, this year will see the debut of the current-day variant of the Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker. This Su-35, however, is not the same aircraft that originally flew at the show in the 1990s. It is a completely different version of the aircraft, and the same configuration that is being delivered to the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
More than one source told AIN that the purchase will be made official during this year’s Dubai Air Show, and that the Gulf state wants “more than one” squadron of the aircraft, with a total of “more than 10 aircraft.” However, exact numbers and other details may be known only once the official announcement is made.
Buying Su-35s would be a marked change from the UAE’s traditional purchases of either French- or U.S.-built aircraft. A Russian industry source told AIN that this purchase “will signal a broadening of the cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Moscow in the area of military-technical cooperation.”
Long Time Coming
The UAE originally expressed interest during the 1990s in what was then called the “Su-35.” This aircraft was actually an enhanced version of the Su-27 with a set of canard foreplanes added to the configuration, along with other improvements. The aircraft was produced in very limited numbers, was later re-designated “Su-27M,” and the UAE ended up acquiring the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60 instead.
The current process to acquire today’s redesigned Su-35 variant started around the time of the 2015 MAKS airshow in Moscow. The Su-35 was part of a “menu of items” that was discussed at the time by a senior UAE delegation to that the show, according to a Russian defense analyst with links to the MAKS show. The UAE expressed a high level of interest in “acquiring advanced Russian defense technology,” said the analyst.
For these and other reasons, the UAE Air Force and other government authorities insisted on the Su-35 being present for this year’s event. The UAE is also reportedly underwriting part of the expenses for the aircraft and its personnel to participate at Dubai Air Show 2017.
Acquiring Su-35s is reportedly part of a larger portfolio of projects that the UAE is pursuing with Moscow. During February’s IDEX defense exposition in Abu Dhabi, Rostec general director Sergei Chemezov said he had discussed developing a “lightweight, fifth-generation, single-engine fighter with the UAE.” That aircraft would potentially use an improved version of the MiG-29’s Isotov RD-33 engine, which is built by KNP Klimov in St. Petersburg.
This program would proceed in parallel with the Su-35 acquisition and would be aimed at fulfilling requirements for regional neighbors of the UAE who are looking for a more affordable fighter. As such, this aircraft would be a competitor for the Chinese-Pakistan joint venture that is building the Chengdu JF-17 fighter at the Kamra Pakistan Aeronautical Complex.
The UAE is believed to be interested in the Su-35 for some of the same reasons the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is acquiring the aircraft: access to technology to a degree that Western fighter manufacturers are not willing to grant, and at a reasonable price.
Some of the notable features of the Su-35 aircraft that embody those technologies are:
- Two Saturn/Lyulka 117S/Al-41F1 engines with 31,900 pounds of thrust each. The engine has been described since its inception as a “deep modernization” of the original AL-31F engine that powered the Su-27 from the beginning of that program. The 117S design incorporates some of the technology and other design improvements originally developed for the AL-41F engines that were installed in the Mikoyan Multirole Fighter (MFI) 1.42 project prototypes. The engines are equipped with an advanced thrust vector control (TVC) module that provides the same maneuverability seen in earlier Su-35 variants, but without the need for the canard control surfaces.
- The Su-35’s radar is the NIIP N035 Irbis-E passive electronically scanning array (PESA) design, which is a generational leap beyond the N001-series of designs installed in the Su-27. This radar is a significant step above the other famous PESA design from NIIP, the N011M Bars radar set that is flown in the Indian Air Force (IAF) Su-30MKI.
- The Su-35 is also equipped with avionics and on-board systems that represent the state of the art of Russia’s defense electronics industry. Some of these are so advanced that they will share commonality with the configuration of the Su-57/T-50 fifth-generation fighter program in Russia.
Russian aerospace analysts suggest that the Su-35 will become the “tip of the spear” of their country’s air forces. This is due to the slow entry-into-service of the Su-57 and lack of institutional support for that program. “Su-35 is a very powerful platform with a significant amount of growth left in it,” said a Sukhoi (Stand A05, A06, 882) representative. “So it is not surprising that it is beginning to generate more interest, even from non-traditional customers like the UAE.