Is the Flanker the World's Best?
The question on the table is: “Is the Su-27 the
best fighter in the world?” Starting a conversation by saying
any airplane is the best at anything is right up there with politics,
religion and blondes vs redheads vs brunettes for sparking spirited
debate. Still, if you read the popular press, the Su-27 is the best,
and, when you see it doing the obscenely cool “Pougachev’s
Cobra Roll” at airshows, it’s hard to disagree. However,
“Best” isn’t an accolade that can be laid on any fighter
The Su-27 benefited highly from being designed after the F-15 was a
known quantity. The two airplanes first flew five years apart (1972
and 1977 respectively) and reportedly a significant part of the Russian
specifications for the Flanker, which were developed while the cold
war was at its chilliest, was that the airplane had to have F-15 performance
plus ten percent. And it does. However, there are qualifications.
Often thought of as a superior Eagle/Viper/Hornet killer, when the Flanker
came along, it had to fix the short comings of its teammate, the Mig-29,
which is notoriously short on fuel and only carries two missiles. So,
the Flanker has much more internal fuel for longer range, plus it mounts
no less than ten very serious missiles (in addition to a 30 mm Gatling
The range and huge amount of ordnance is actually good news for our
guys because, when the Flanker is fully fueled and armed, despite its
massive 33,000 pounds of thrust, much of its sparkling performance goes
down the tubes. In fact, according to some sources, it has to burn at
least 40 percent of its fuel or it’s too heavy to allow the pilot
to utilize all the performance it offers.
The designers recognized this problem and equipped the airplane with
fuel dump valves. Plus it can jettison some of those pesky, and heavy,
missiles, to lighten up. However, this all takes time and modern aerial
combat is not the drawn-out, canopy-to-canopy dances we see in the movies.
It begins and ends in seconds and quite often the two combatants never
see one another. And they certainly don’t wait for the other guy
to dump fuel. Also, since modern aerial combat isn’t likely to
have fleets of fighters opposing one another, the need to tote around
ten missiles is a little questionable.
As originally designed, the Flanker had very rudimentary avionics and
radar compared to US aircraft, but in the latest version, such as those
sold to China (who also builds them under license) and India, it has
closed much of the electronic gap with American fighters. One of the
Flanker features US pilots openly covet is the helmet-mounted sighting
system that allows the pilot to simply look at his target and get missile
lock. However, the Flanker was never developed as a true multi-role
aircraft and has little, or no, smart bomb capabilities
So, is the Flanker the best? No, when it’s heavy. Maybe, when
it’s light. On the other hand, there has never been an actual
guns loaded, go-for-broke gunfight between the Su-27 and any current
US fighter (exercises don’t count). So, the jury is still out
on the “which is best” question.
Incidentally, if you want to check this out for yourself, keep your
eyes on eBay: not long ago a Flanker showed up for sale and it had been
flown only by a little old lady from Moscow.
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