by Budd Davisson
The question on the table is: ìIs the Su-27 the best fighter in the world?î 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 ìPougachevís Cobra Rollî at airshows, itís hard to disagree. However, ìBestî isnít an accolade that can be laid on any fighter without qualifications.
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 gun).
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 itís 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 donít wait for the other guy to dump fuel. Also, since modern aerial combat isnít 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 itís heavy. Maybe, when itís 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 donít count). So, the jury is still out on the ìwhich is bestî 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.