Soviet Union and Russia
The Su-27K entered service in the mid-1990s. From December 1995 to March 1996, the Admiral Kuznetsov set sail in the Mediterranean Sea, carrying two Su-25UTGs, nine Ka-27s, and 13 Su-27Ks. However, the aircraft officially entered service 31 August 1998 with the 279th Naval Fighter Regiment of the Northern Fleet based at Severomorsk-3, by which time it was officially designated the "Su-33". The Russian Navy currently operates 19 Su-33s, however in the long term these need to be replaced.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy was dramatically downsized, with many shipbuilding programmes stopped. Had the Varyag, Oryol and Ulyanovsk been commissioned, a total of 72 production airframes would have been built; the early-airborne warning and MiG-29K would also have proceed, instead of being abandoned. Only 24 examples were built at the time Varyag was sold to China. In 2009, the Russian Navy announced an order for 24 MiG-29Ks to replace the Su-33, to be delivered from 2011 to 2015.
Internationally, the People’s Republic of China was identified as a possible export customer. Russia's state weapons exporter, Rosoboronexport, was previously negotiating an order of 50 aircraft totalling US$2.5 billion. China would have initially acquired two aircraft worth $100 million for testing and then have further options to acquire an additional 12–48 aircraft. The fighters were intended to be used with the fledgling Chinese aircraft carrier programme, with the former Soviet carrier Varyag as the centrepiece.
Angled rear view of fighter aircraft, with the engines showing prominently. Above the engines are the two uncanted vertical stabilizers; the wings and horizontal stabilizers are folded
At the sixth Zhuhai Airshow in late 2006, Lieutenant General Aleksander Denisov publicly confirmed at a news conference that China had approached Russia for the possible purchase of Su-33s, and negotiations were to start in 2007. On 1 November 2006, the Xinhua News Agency published the information on its military website that China planned to introduce the Su-33. China had previously obtained a manufacturing license for Su-27 production.
Sukhoi is working on a more advanced version, the Su-33K, a development to integrate the advanced technologies of the Su-35 fighters into the older Su-33 airframe. However, worries over other Chinese intentions emerged when it was reported that China had acquired one of the T-10Ks, an Su-33 prototype, from Ukraine, potentially to study and reverse engineer a domestic version. Various aircraft are alleged to have originated partially from the Su-33, such as the Shenyang J-11B and the Shenyang J-15. Photos of Shenyang aircraft designers posing in front of a T-10K carrier based fighter prototype strongly suggest that the J-15 is directly related to T-10K. Negotiations stagnated as the Shenyang Aircraft company sought to reduce Russian content in the aircraft, while Sukhoi wanted to ensure a level of income from future upgrades and modifications made to the J-11.
India was also viewed as another potential operator of the Su-33. The Indian Navy planned to acquire the Su-33 for its aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, the refurbished Soviet Admiral Gorshkov, which was sold to India in 2004. In the end, the rival MiG-29K was opted for, because of the Su-33's outdated avionics. The size of the Su-33 reportedly led to concerns over potential difficulties in operating it off the Indian carriers, a constraint not shared by the smaller MiG-29K.