Sukhoi Su-33

The Sukhoi Su-33 (NATO reporting name: Flanker-D) is an all-weather carrier-based twin-engine air superiority fighter designed by Sukhoi and manufactured by KnAAPO. It is a derivative of the Su-27 "Flanker" and was initially known as the Su-27K. First used in operations in 1995 aboard the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the fighter officially entered service in August 1998, by which time the designation "Su-33" was used. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the subsequent downsizing of the Russian Navy, only 24 aircraft were produced. Attempted sales to China and India fell through.

Compared with the Su-27, the Su-33 has a strengthened undercarriage and structure, folding wings and stabilators, all for carrier operations. The wings are larger than on land-based aircraft for increased lift. The Su-33 has upgraded engines and a twin nose wheel, and is air refuelable. In 2009, the Russian Navy ordered the MiG-29K as a replacement for the Su-33.

Sukhoi Su-33
Class Aircraft
Type Fighter
Manufacturer Sukhoi
Origin Russia (USSR)
Country Name Origin Year
Russia (USSR) 1987
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
Russia (USSR) 1998 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Sukhoi 24 View

To adapt the original Su-27 for naval operations, Sukhoi first incorporated a reinforced structure and undercarriage withstand the great stress experienced upon landing, particularly quick descents and non-flare landings (landings where the aircraft does not assume a nose-up attitude prior to touchdown). The leading edge slats, flaperons and other control surfaces are enlarged to provide increased lift and manoeuvrability at low speeds, although the wingspan remains unchanged. The wings feature double-slotted flaps and outboard drooping ailerons; in total, the refinements enlarge the wing area by 10–12%. The wings and stabilators are modified for folding to maximise the number of aircraft the carrier can accommodate and to allow ease of movement on deck. The aircraft is outfitted with more powerful turbofan engines to increase thrust-to-weight ratio, as well as an in-flight refuelling probe. The Su-33 sports canards that shorten the take-off distance and improved manoeuvrability, but have required reshaping of the leading edge root extensions (LERX). The rear radome is shortened and reshaped to prevent its striking the deck during high-Alpha (angle of attack) landings.

Aqua and blue jet aircraft on aircraft carrier deck, with a group of men standing close-by. Behind the jet is the ship's island

A Su-33 onboard Admiral Kuznetsov in 1996. U.S. Navy sailors from the USS San Jacinto are visiting the carrier.

Compared with the rival MiG-29K, the Su-33's maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) is 50% higher; fuel capacity is more than double, allowing it to fly 80% further at altitude (or 33% at sea level). The MiG-29K can spend as much time as the Su-33 on station by using external fuel tanks, but this limits its ordnance capacity. The Su-33 can fly at speeds as low as 240 km/h (149 mph), in comparison the MiG-29K needs to maintain a minimum of 250 km/h (155 mph) for effective control. However, the MiG-29K carries more air-to-ground munitions than the Su-33. The Su-33 is more expensive and physically larger than the MiG-29K, limiting the numbers able to be deployed on an aircraft carrier.

The Su-33 carries guided missiles such as the R-73 (four) and R-27E (six) on twelve hardpoints, supplemented by the 150-round 30 mm GSh-30-1. It can carry an assortment of unguided rockets, bombs and cluster bombs for secondary air-to-ground missions. The aircraft can be used in both night and day operations at sea. The radar used, "Slot Back", has been speculated to have poor multi-target tracking, making the Su-33 reliant on other radar platforms and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft like the Kamov Ka-31 early-warning helicopter. The R-27EM missiles have the capability to intercept anti-ship missiles. The infra-red search and track (IRST) system is placed to provide better downward visibility.

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.

Failed bids

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.

Role Carrier-based air superiority fighter, Multirole fighter
National origin Russia
Design group Sukhoi
Built by KnAAPO
First flight 17 August 1987
Introduction 31 August 1998 (official)
Status In service
Primary user Russian Naval Aviation
Number built approx. 24
Developed from Sukhoi Su-27

General characteristics

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 21.94 m (72 ft)
  • Wingspan: 14.70 m (48.25 ft)
  • Height: 5.93 m (19.5 ft)
  • Wing area: 62.0 m² (667 ft²)
  • Empty weight: 18,400 kg (40,600 lb)
  • Loaded weight: 29,940 kg (66,010 lb)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 33,000 kg (72,752 lb)
  • Powerplant: 2 × AL-31F3 afterburning turbofans
  • Dry thrust: 74.5 kN (16,750 lbf) each
  • Thrust with afterburner: 125.5 kN (28,214 lbf) each
  • Wingspan, wings folded: 7.40 m (24.25 ft)


  • Maximum speed: Mach 2.17 (2,300 km/h, 1,430 mph) at 10,000 m (33,000 ft) altitude
  • Stall speed: 240 km/h (150 mp/h)
  • Range: 3,000 km (1,864 mi)
  • Service ceiling: 17,000 m (55,800 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 246 m/s (48,500 ft/min)
  • Wing loading: 483 kg/m²; (98.9 lb/ft²)
  • Thrust/weight: 0.83
  • Maximum g-load: +8 g (+78 m/s²)
  • Landing speed: 240 km/h (149 mph)


  • 1× 30 mm GSh-30-1 cannon with 150 rounds
  • Up to 6,500 kg (14,300 lb) of munitions on twelve external hardpoints, including:
  • 6× R-27R/T/ET/EM or R-77(RVV-AE) and 4× R-73 air-to-air missile
  • Kh-31A Krypton or Kh-41 Moskit anti-ship missile
  • Various bombs and rockets
  • Electronic countermeasure (ECM) pods

End notes