Warplanes: Old, Effective And Affordable

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September 19, 2013: Sudan has obtained another three secondhand Su-24 light bombers. This is apparently part of a deal made with Belarus to obtain twelve of the forty-two Cold War era Su-24s Belarus inherited after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Belarus retired all of its Su-24s in 2011 because it could not afford to operate and maintain them. Some of the air force personnel who maintained these Su-24s have gone to work in Sudan as contractors to keep the Sudanese Su-24s operational. These technicians can also equip the Su-24s with drop tanks to extend range (to about a thousand kilometers) and the amount of time (over an hour) the aircraft can circle the battle area waiting for a target. Sudan uses its Russian warplanes (older Su-22s and transports that push bombs out the back) to attack pro-rebel civilians. Belarus sold Sudan the Su-24s with the understanding that these aircraft would not be used to bomb rebels in Darfur (western Sudan).

During the Cold War the Su-24 was the Russian answer to the American F-111 and European Tornado. Introduced in the mid-1970s, it was a forty-three ton swing-wing design with a crew of two and a short range (only about 600 kilometers). The original Su-24 carried eight tons of bombs and had good fire control and electronics for the time. Some fourteen-hundred were built before production was halted in 1993. Since then most Su-24s have been retired because of old age and lack of upgrade options. Since 2000, Russia has lost sixteen Su-24s to accidents. Many more have been retired because of this tendency to become very dangerous to operate because of old age. This is one of the reasons Russia is hustling to replace the Su-24s with Su-34s.

In 2008, Russia began building the first Su-34 fighter-bombers (20 of them). These are now replacing the Su-24s. The 45 ton Su-34 is yet another variant of the thirty-three ton Su-27 and is very similar to the thirty-six ton U.S. F-15E (a two seat fighter bomber version of the 31 ton F-15C). But Russia still has fewer than four-hundred Su-24s in service and only twenty Su-34s. It appears that the new Su-34s will not arrive quickly enough to replace most of the elderly Su-24s.

The Su-34 has a full set of defensive and offensive sensors (radars, targeting cameras, laser designators) and electronic warfare gear, it also can carry eight tons of missiles and smart bombs. Russia is currently buying fifty-eight Su-34s to replace three-hundred older Su-24s (most of these are not fit for service). Russia is building the first twenty-four Su-34s at a cost of $36 million each (less than half the cost of an F-15E). Meanwhile, some of the more recently built Su-24s were upgraded as the Su-24M2 standard. Most of the Su-24s built are over twenty-five years old and many have been grounded several times recently because of age related problems. The Su-34 has been in the works for several years and earlier versions of two seater Su-27 bombers were known as the Su-32.

The Su-34 would be overkill for users like Sudan, who are using these aircraft to attack civilians or armed opponents with weak anti-aircraft weapons. As long as Sudan can obtain affordable spare parts and keep the foreign maintenance personnel on the payroll, the older Su-24 gets the job done.

 


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