Can the Sukhoi Su-30 have the edge over U.S. fighters in aerial combat?

Jun 18 2014 - 42 Comments

Su-30s would beat F-15s every time. But…..

We recently explained how, 10 years ago, Exercise Cope India put the Indian Air Force Su-30 against U.S. Air Force F-15C jets with results that are still open to debate: since the drills took place during F-22 budget reviews, some analysts affirm the Air Force intentionally accepted the challenging ROE (Rules Of Engagement) to gain more Raptors. Others claim this version of the story was invented to try to save face after the Indians achieved an impressive 9:1 kill ratio.

Even if we might never know the truth, it’s undeniable that, at least on paper, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker has been one of the best Russian combat planes.

The Su-27 belongs to the same class of the U.S. F-14 and F-15, but unlike the American fighters it can fly at an angle of attack of 30 degrees and can also perform the “Pugachev Cobra”.

In a Cobra, the plane suddenly raises the nose to the veritical position (or beyond) before dropping it back to the normal flight, maintaining more or less the same altitude through the entire maneuver.

The Su-27 and its “Cobra” have been the highlight of many air shows from the end of the 1980s to the middle of the 1990s. But, since then, the Flanker maneuverability has been furtherly enhanced.

The improved multirole Su-30MK is a Flanker variant fitted with both canard forewings and thrust-vectoring nozzles which have improved its agility.

But how can this kind of maneuvers be used in combat?

A clear idea comes from an authoritative source: Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine.

In “Su-30MK Beats F-15C ‘Every Time'” published in 2002 on AW&ST, David A. Fulghum and Douglas Barrie reported that the Su-30 used its maneuverability to beat the F-15 in several engagements conducted in a complex of 360-deg. simulation domes at Boeing’s St. Louis facilities.

According to the article (that is often referenced by Indian media outlets to highlight the presumed Su-30 superiority on the American fighter jets) an anonymous USAF officer explained that in the case of a missed BVR missile (like the AA-12 Adder) shot by the Flanker, the Su-30 could turn into the clutter notch of the F-15’s radar, where the Eagle’s Doppler was ineffective.

As the AW&ST story explained in detail, this maneuver could be accomplished making a descending, right-angle turn to drop below the approaching F-15 while reducing the Su-30’s relative forward speed close to zero: even if this is a very old air combat tactic, the USAF officer said that the Sukhoi could perform effectively this maneuver thanks to its ability to reduce rapidly its speed and then quickly regain it.

If the Flanker driver performed correctly the maneuver, the Su-30 was invisible to the F-15’s radar until the Eagle was inside the AA-11 Archer IR missile range, since the F-15’s Doppler radar relied on movements of its targets.

As pointed out by the USAF officer, this tactic “works in the simulator every time,” however, only few countries have pilots with the required skills to fly those scenarios.

This happened about 10 years ago.

In the meanwhile, American pilots have received their F-22 Raptor stealth planes (facing also some serious problems).

But some unique features, such as the power of its engines and its superb aerodynamics, make the Flanker, in the right hands and in the proper scenario, a great dogfighter and a very tough enemy for every western jet WVR (Within Visual Range).

Moreover the Su-30 could carry the short range IR missile AA-11 Archer which in the ‘90s was the best short-range AAM in the world since it could be linked to the pilot’s helmet fire control system and was capable to be fired at targets until 45 degrees off the axis of the aircraft: both these capabilities were not possessed by the AIM-9M, the main western short range missile at the time (later replaced by the AIM-9X Sidewinder).

Image credit: Wiki


  • annase

    USAF f-22s are pitching Royal Malaysian Air Force Su-30s and Mig-29s in Cope Taufan 2014. USAF has the upper edge wrt pilot n aircraft factors

  • Adam Ellis

    Who was flying the f-15? Russian, Indian, or American pilots? Tell me about replacement part logistics. And r&d. Ground to pilot communication and coordination? Pilot to pilot communication and coordination?

  • Roland Lawrence

    Awesome article. Very informative. There is much debate about this encounter between the IAF and USAF. Nice to have some extra information.

  • Azid

    No story about Exercise Cope Taufan In Malaysia?

    Su 30 MKM vs F-22 Raptor?

    • Vietkong Lor

      Sorry but there weren’t any simulation aerial combat between the F-22A and Su-30MKM.

      The F-22A outclassed the Su-30MKM. The only Multirole Fighters can take on F-22A is Su-35BM Super Flanker and Su-50 FireFox even though is still a prototype.

      • cujo

        it was learnt that several RMAF jet jocks acquitted themselves well against the Raptor.

      • cujo

        several RMAF jet jocks acquitted themselves well against the Raptor at ex ex cope taufan 2014

      • Rahul Santiago

        Actually Sukhoi Su 30 MKI has better equipment and avoinics then
        Chinese Sukhoi su 30 MKK and malaysian sukhoi su 30 MKM

      • Archit Garg

        Su 30 MKIs are most superior planes after f22 primarily due to the presence of 2 personnel on each plane.

  • patofeo

    What are you talking about? It does not take that long, nor does the F-35 cost as much. There are over a hundred F-35s flying.

    • goalkeeper

      Cost per plane right now has the F-35 (early LRIP production) very close in cost to the F-22’s (late in production, but starved of funding down to an anemic production rate where efficiencies and economies of scale were largely sacrificed) that were rolling off the line. Of those >100 F-35 you list as already flying, how many are combat capable? How many do not need considerable retrofit or modification to address issues identified in testing since it was built? What % of F-35 overall testing and evaluation is complete?

      • patofeo

        Well, that’s the key. Cost will decrease after LRIP. Asking how many are combat capable is a dead end question. How many fighter programs in this stage are combat capable? First, you need to iron out the bugs and expand the performance envelope, train pilots and support crews, develop tactics, clear weapons usages, etc… What is your point?

      • Stuart DeQuincy

        As far as I am aware the USAF is preparing to declare its FIRST fully operational F-35A SQUADRON, (what, 15 odd airframes?) combat capable this summer. The Marine Corp are also close too declaring their first F-35B aircraft operational too. I don’t know about the navies F-35C but there are no way 100 F-35’s combat capable. If there are indeed 100 flying it is test aircraft, prototypes, operational conversion trainers etc. Yee Haa

    • Szmigiel

      How many active squadrons? Two? One Marine and One Air Force?

      • patofeo

        Google reveals 4 Air Force, 1 Navy, 1 Marine Corps. I doubt you where interested in figures so why don’t you make your point?

    • Stuart DeQuincy

      If there were 100 F-35’s flying you would have to qualify the statement too, “there are over 100 F-35’s flying sometimes….. when the whole fleet isn’t grounded”, something that seems to occur on a regular basis. To suggest that the F-35 project has not been one of the greatest R and D disasters in the history of the democratic west is simply pedantic. I almost agree with current the thinking that we are too deeply committed to this aircraft for there to be any alternative. However I pray to God, that we learn the lessons from this debacle. Russ Neal is correct, US/NATO strike/fighter procurement is a total mess and all the more terrifying as we seem to be continuing a development scenario without significant change. It can be done better, I don’t presume to know exactly how we must change the complete dynamic of our R and D programs but I assume we all agree that Russian aircraft and to a much lesser degree Chinese aircraft are closer to parity with our current generation airframes than at any time in the cold war? In Russia’s case they used to rely on numbers. Now that they can no longer simply overwhelm us their design ethic seems to be evolving towards greater capability per airframe to compensate for their inability to field excessive air fleets any longer. The point is their limited numbers of new aircraft are closer and closer to parity in technology and capability to our own and yet all this progress has been made in an enviroment of economic disquiet, lack of funds as well as lack of serious govt investment and yet with great success. Surely lessons can be learnt from the Russian aerospace industry. They have created an ntire generation of vastly improved weaponry on a shoestring budget and chaotic economic climate. Many area’s of military R and D have just got out of control in the West, especially the development of the latest generation of fighter/strike aircraft but surely this is just the primary area of madness in an industry wide breakdown. The world is a dangerous place and we simply cannot afford to be complacent, we owe it to our children to ensure that we remain the dominant military power in the world. We are far from perfect, but we are the best of a bad bunch. Democracy for all its many faults is still superior to Russia’s gangster regime, China’s completely non-communist/communist dictatorship or the mad mullahs of global Islam, all of whom would clamour to see the fall of the West. We have to remain the best and perhaps with lessons learned from our enemies we might be able to ensure our reign at the top is not brought to an untimely end. Yee Haa

  • kusanagi no tsurugi

    Yes yes the Sukhois are very maneuverable very agile etc..but what about the training of western pilots, the tactics they train for ? You can have a hell of a superfighter that can backflip or whatsoever under your pants but if you don’t know how to use it effectively..

  • Common Sense

    The SU-27, of which the SU-30 is just a beefed-up variant, followed about five years after the F-15. That’s not exactly a vast difference.

    • Pooter Bilbo

      And by beefed up you mean completely new avionics and radar, thrust vectoring, canards (on some variants), better engines etc… The SU-30 is very different from the SU-27 in pretty much every aspect except for the basic airframe.

      Look I don’t doubt Sukhois can turn up their own ass. But it’s going to take a little more than decade old Rand simulations and an indian wargaming exercise with very dubious rules of engagement to convince me that they pose any serious threat to the US Air Force.. Especially when the only combat advantages they enjoy over legacy American fighters are within visual range.

  • patofeo

    Doesn’t really tell us much. Don’t forget the USAF f-15 and F-16 pilots returned the favor in Red Flag ’08

    Against the much larger RCS Su-30MKI, the F-16s and F-15s won consistently during the first three days of air-to-air combat, he continues. However, that was the result of trying to immediately go into a post-stall, thrust-vectored turn when attacked. The turn then creates massive drag and the aircraft starts sinking and losing altitude. “It starts dropping so fast you don’t have to go vertical [first]. The low-speed tail slide allowed the U.S. aircraft to dive from above and “get one chance to come down to shoot,” the pilot says. “You go to guns and drill his brains out.” The Su-30 is jamming your missiles so…you go to guns and drill his brains out.”

  • DJMA

    I know the Doppler issue was quite well known with the F-15C’s original radar (heck it was used by the Iraqi’s in the original Gulf War), but does anyone know if this is still an issue with the APG-63(V)3 AESA upgrades?

    I strongly suspect that the clutter notch issues is no longer relevant in the AESA upgrades, but confirmation from a credible source would be nice.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I agree totally. But it’s not just the US. Look at the Su-27, first flown in 1977, redesigned, and finally operational in 1985ish. But extensive re-work and modifications made until 1997. Look at the Tu-160. First flight in 1983, it’s still considered under test. It extends into the commercial sector as well. 787 over budget and late to a similar extent as the F-35. A-380 was late and problematic. The Chinese are having real problems with their modern version of the DC-9 the ARJ21 started in 2002 is still testing for a type certificate, a Chinese type certificate.

    I think it’s computers. They’ve allowed the engineer to go nuts with complexity without the feedback of having to do all the computations. If your main calculator was oh as slow as a slide rule, you’d endevour on a day to day basis to keep your designs simple in order to keep the computations manageable. Now a computation run over an hour encompass a wide field of engineering problems. I can’t say I think the solution is to go back to computing with sticks, but I think we may have gone too far in one direction.

  • SterlingArcher

    its kinda sad that most F-15s in foreign service have AESA or PESA radars while US F-15s carry pulse doppler radars

  • Atul T

    buddy, you can’t dismiss the Indian Air Force as untested and untried, that is so ludicrous. Usually I find americans limit their world views to what happens around the US , Indian Air Force has been used in 4 wars and they kicked ass every time and have a very rigorous training program. How do I know? My dad was a squadron leader in the Indian Air Force and I grew up around families of Indian Air Force personnel, usually living in close proximity to Air Force bases spread around the length and breath of India.

    • Archit Garg

      IAF rocks dude. their air dominance doctrine makes enemies shit their pants.

  • George

    By the innstalled rear active radar of the SU 30 it can perform computer calculated missile avoid manouver, which are implemented perfectly by the 3D TVC of the engines and the very advanced computing of its FCS.

  • George

    I wonder how the EADS aclaims for the Typhoon that “nothing comes close” if it has an Puls Doppler Radar until 2015 which is not Jam immune and tested by the Austrian Airforce with a low tracking performance.

  • CheetahFang258

    IKR! How could the pugachev cobra? be applied usefully in combat? Do you expect to get out of a lock of an AIM-9X that quickly? Yeah right. By that time, the AIM-9 or AIM-120 would have destroyed your SU-30 already…

    • wmac

      Ya, and Su-30 is only equipped with guns. It does not have any missiles.

      If F-15 is in the range of AIM-9 use, the opponent has as much or more chance of destroying the F-15.

  • CheetahFang258

    That radar stuff? Inaccurate, the F-15 is receiving the AN/APG-82 AESA radar.

  • BuckyLaw14

    I would take these articles with a healthy dose of salt. The ROE being used have heavily favored WVR fighting thus mitigating the USAFs principle advantage. Are the SU-30MKIs the best dogfighters around? Perhaps. How much would this close combat advantage matter when faced with a flight of F-15Cs upgraded with AESA radars and modern ecw backed by EW aircraft? I tend to look at the latest and greatest Russian fighters as the best knives in a gun fight.

    • Archit Garg

      As if India can’t field the same.

  • sai kiran sharma

    I had similar experiences with several American visitors.

  • objectivefactsmatter

    Possibly, sure. But testing all of these scenarios and then improving training and configurations is a huge part of staying ahead.

    It’s not really just plane A versus plane B or plane USA versus plane Rus. There’s always the potential to lose because of trivial mistakes and only the best pilots know how to maximize their advantages to win consistently. But anyone’s number can come up.

  • R-77 PD = 250 Km
    R-27 EM Alamo = 170 Km

    AIM-120 C7 = 48 Km.

    So yes. Anytime….Anywhere.