The Su-30 heavyweight fighter has been by far the most successful derivative of the Soviet Su-27 Flanker air superiority platform on world export markets, with over 550 having been sold abroad and the Russian Air Force and Navy themselves having acquired close to 150 since 2009. The fighter adapted the Su-27 airframe to provide a much higher endurance, new avionics better suited to precision air to ground anti shipping missions, and a second seat as its standard configuration to accommodate a weapons systems officer. The Su-30 was for over a decade in production in parallel at two factories – the plants at Irkutsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur – the latter which ceased production at the end of the 2000s to begin manufacturing the more specialised Su-35 air superiority fighter. Irkutsk continues to produce advanced Su-30 variants which incorporate a range of technologies first developed for the Su-35 and Su-37 in the 1990s, providing far superiority capabilities for air to air combat than the original Su-30 including thrust vectoring engines.
The Irkutsk family of Su-30s are all based on the the Su-30MKI developed for India, which first entered service in 2002, and includes the Su-30MKM built for Malaysia, the Su-30MKA built for Algeria, and the Su-30SM which the Russian Air Force began to acquire in the 2010s after belatedly gaining funds to acquire post-Soviet fighters. The Su-30SM has since been widely exported, and has proven particularly popular among Soviet successor states, but in January 2022 was superseded by the entry into service of the newer Su-30SM2. While the Russian military is expected to acquire a few dozen newly built Su-30SM2 fighters, however, the new aircraft primarily represents an upgrade package for older Su-30SMs all of which are to be brought up to this standard.
The Su-30SM2’s primary improvement is its integration of the Su-35’s AL-41 engine, which has 16 percent more thrust than the older AL-31 and allows the fighter to take off with a larger weapons payload, manoeuvre better and fly for longer periods due to its greater efficiency. The Su-30SM2 also integrates a new radar although reports have conflicted retarding whether it is the Su-35’s Irbis-E or the less capable N011M Bars-R – both of which provide the ability to use Kh-59 standoff missiles and a range of new guided bombs. Should the superior Irbis-E not have been installed on Russian Su-30SM2s to cut costs, similar upgrade packages marketed for export are widely reported to offer it to upgrade the Su-30s of foreign clients alongside the AL-41. With an upgrade package based on the Su-30SM2, sometimes dubbed ’Super Sukhoi,’ set to be marketed particularly to operators of Su-30s built at Irkutsk, a look at the leading possible clients is given below.
The Indian Air Force is by far the largest operator of the Su-30, having placed its most recent order in July 2020, and already fields over 270 of the aircraft. The country was the first to import the Su-30, with the Su-30MKI today forming the backbone of its fleet and being the first Flanker considered to have ‘4+ generation’ capabilities. Although the Su-30MKI was very likely the world’s most capable fighter when it first entered service, its advantages over the fighters of neighbouring countries have increasingly eroded with China’s J-16 and J-20 and Pakistan’s JF-17 Block 3 and J-10C in particular all being much more sophisticated. The integration of AL-41 engines and the Irbis-E radar would do much to bridge the performance gap with these new Chinese-designed aircraft, particularly as the new radar will provide Indian fighters with compatibility with the new K-77M and R-37M air to air missiles which the Su-30MKI, unlike the Russian Su-30SM, notably does not already have.
Algeria is the second largest client for Su-30 fighters from Irkutsk, after deeming them to have a considerably superior performance over the competing French Rafale fighter in testing, and deploys over 70 Su-30MKAs which form the backbone of its fleet. With the Algerian Air Force notably having refrained from purchasing the Su-35 despite multiple reports that this was under consideration, upgrading the Su-30MKA fleet with many of the same technologies could provide a much needed improvement to the fleet’s air to air combat capabilities to compensate. Although the Algerian Air Force reportedly may have ordered a squadron of Su-57 fifth generation fighters, these are not expected to enter service until much later in the decade and will initially only form a single squadron to replace the country’s MiG-25 Foxbat interceptors. Modernising the Su-30 fleet, as in India’s case, would provide compatibility with the K-77M and R-37M as well as the sensors needed to better engage enemy stealth targets. As potential threats from NATO remain a leading concern, ambitious upgrades will ensure the Su-30 fleet remains capable of going head to head with the latest fighter classes deployed by the Western alliance.
The Malaysian Air Force fields what are widely considered the most capable fighter class in Southeast Asia – the Su-30MKM – of which 18 are currently in service. As neighbouring Singapore moves to upgrade its F-16 fighters to the F-16V standard with new AESA radars, and to being purchases of F-35 stealth fighters, the balance of power in the air is expected to become very one sided against Malaysia as its fleet is also heavily outnumbered. While in the longer term Su-57 acquisitions remain a possibility, until then a modernisation of the Su-30 with the Su-35’s sensors and engines could go a long way towards preventing Singapore from gaining an overwhelming advantage.
Other than China, which has since moved to produce fighters much more capable than the Su-30 domestically, Vietnam remains the largest operator of Su-30 fighters built at Komsomolsk-on-Amur which are generally less costly and less capable in air to air combat than those built at Irkutsk. The Su-30MK2 was closely derived from the Su-30MKK that was custom developed for Chinese requirements in the late 1990s, and forms the backbone of the Vietnamese Air Force’s combat fleet with 35 in service. The aircraft face a considerable disadvantage against the latest fighters of neighbouring China such as the J-16, J-10C and J-20, but could potentially benefit from integration of AL-41 engines and Irbis-E radars which would do much to bridge the performance gap. While Vietnam is considered a leading potential client for the next generation Su-57, until then modernising the Su-30MK2 could represent the most cost-effective means of preventing its fleet from becoming effectively obsolete for air engagements against China. The integration of the K-77M and R-37M missiles in particular would be game changers and balance the current significant advantage enjoyed by Chinese fighters using the PL-15 air to air missile.
Belarus fields a single squadron of Su-30SM fighters alongside two squadrons of ageing Soviet-built MiG-29s, and is expected to acquire more Su-30 units to expand its fleet and phase the MiGs out of service in the coming decade. The country remains the most likely potential client for additional Su-30SM fighters, which could be delivered at the Su-30SM2 standard. This would provide a strong incentive to modernise the existing unit of 12 to the same standard to provide commonality in maintenance. Although facing threats from NATO member states with much larger fleets, with neighbouring Poland having ordered fifth generation F-35 stealth fighters, even at special ‘friendly’ prices Belarus is unlikely to be able to afford higher end Russian fighters such as the Su-35 and Su-57. This leaves the Su-30SM2 as potentially the most capable fighter the country will be able to afford, and alongside upgrades packages for its existing fleet this also makes Belarus the most likely export client for ‘off the shelf’ Su-30SM2 fighters. With Russia and Belarus more closely integrating their defences, and Russian Su-35s and other assets operating alongside Belarusian Su-30s and deploying to bases in the country, Russia will have an incentive to offer Belarus Su-30s with modern AL-41 engines to improve commonality with its own fighter units.