The venerable Sukhoi 27 family has had a long history with Russian forces, along with about a dozen other operators in the world. Its heart, the AL-31F engine, has had a successful career with the type; however, engine production will go into steady decline during the next 10 years due to reduced orders for aircraft and possible future competition from the Chinese market.
The Su-27 Flanker is a single-seat, multirole fighter that employs two AL-31F low-bypass turbofan engines. The aircraft’s development began in 1969 and continued through the 1970s. With its introduction in 1985 and official entry into service in 1990, the Su-27 was a response to the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter. The Flanker is aging, and although it remains in production, its cousins are becoming more popular.
The Su-30 is an upgraded two-seat model of the Su-27, featuring increased range. The Su-33, originally called the Su-27K, is a carrier-borne model. A bomber version, the Su-34 Fullback, is easily recognized by its side-by-side cockpit layout reminiscent of the Su-24. The family culminates with the Su-35; similar to the original Su-27, the Su-35 features advanced avionics, thus placing it in the generation 4++ category.
The AL-31F engine that powers all of these variants comes in slightly different forms, with the differences being mainly in thrust and thrust vectoring. Variants with 3-D thrust vectoring enable the aircraft to perform impressive maneuvers as demonstrated at many air shows. This super-maneuverability allows the fighter to perform exceptionally well in close combat situations. Despite the benefits such an aircraft possesses, the race for generation 5 fighters puts the type and its engine at a disadvantage.
The Su-27 family of aircraft is popular with many of the world’s air forces, and both domestic and foreign orders remain in the backlog. Of the Russian orders, 136 remain to be delivered, while there were 90 undelivered aircraft for international customers as of 2015. India is by far the largest customer, with 52 Su-30MKIs left to be delivered, and the Chinese have placed the first export order of the Su-35S, with 24 of the type. Future orders are likely, but will trail off in the coming decade as many older aircraft will have been replaced.
The Chinese might also hurt engine orders as their WS-10, a rival to the AL-31, comes on line. Having been in development for nearly 30 years, the WS-10 is reported to have some endurance issues. Unconfirmed reports have placed the engine on the J-10 and J-11 fighters, and as its issues are ironed out, it will become a worthy successor to the AL-31. The WS-10 will not only eliminate China’s dependence on Russia for engines but will be cheaper as well.
The Su-27 is a well-rounded aircraft and in the generation-4 market is second to none; however, as the major powers look to the next generation of aircraft, the Su-27 and the AL-31F will fall by the wayside.
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