The only doomed Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, is best known for the series of unfortunate events that make up its short history. It is questionable whether the carrier will enter service in the future. In addition to spending more time in dry dock than in service, it has been a platform for aircraft accidents and losses while in service.

During its initial deployment in 2016, the Kuznetsov met with perhaps its greatest tragedy off the coast of Syria. Although the crew of the Kuznetsov was still trying to recover from the loss of a Mikoyan MiG-29K jet a few weeks earlier during an aborted carrier landing, another disaster occurred.

A Su-33 airframe skidded off the carrier’s dock due to a faulty arresting device. Designed to ensure that the Russian carrier fleet had a formidable fighter, the Su-33 was once billed as the country’s fighter of the future.

However, the old fighter may be reaching its last days due to its lackluster performance record and negative connotations.

The origin of the Su-33

Like many other modern Soviet fighters, the Su-33 is a direct offspring of the Su-27. Production of the carrier-based air superiority fighter, designed by Russian defense firm Sukhoi, began in the mid-1980s.

Just about a dozen Su-33s were ever built, although given that Russia has only one aircraft carrier, this number appears high. The low stocks of this fighter in Moscow are partly due to the Mikoyan MiG-29 multi-role fighter, a cheaper, carrier-grade alternative.

China indicated an interest in acquiring the Su-33 fighter in the early 2000s, and a $2.5 billion contract was finalized.

However, during negotiations, the People’s Liberation Army developed a copycat version of the Shenyang J-15 fighter violating its intellectual property agreement. Similar export disasters have left Russia the sole user of its Su-33 fighter.

Su-33: Russia's worst fighter jet?

Summary of Su-33 capabilities

Although the Su-33 Flanker-D is very similar in appearance to its Su-27 predecessor, the fighter features some significant differences.

In addition to its advanced landing gear, ailerons, and strengthened landing gear, the Su-33 is powered by a slightly more powerful Al-31F3 engine. The plane’s maximum speed is about 2,300 km/h at an altitude of 10 km.

Sukhoi intentionally included stronger airframe and landing gear on the Su-33 so the jets could withstand the inevitable wear and tear of frequent hard landings on an aircraft carrier.

The Su-33’s avionics include the following:

  • A Doppler navigation radar.
  • A remote control system.
  • A fire control system.
  • An in-flight navigation system.
  • A radar warning receiver.
  • A radio jamming transmitter.

It has 12 external hard points, two more than the Su-27. The Su-27’s 30mm Gsh-30-1 guns can deploy “R-27R1(ER1), R-27T1(ET1) and R-73E air-to-air missiles, S-8KOM, S-8OM, S-8BM S-13T, S-13OF and S-13OF unguided missiles -25-OFM-PU, Kh-25MP, Kh-31 and Kh-41 guided missiles, RBK-500 cluster bombs and electronic countermeasure pods”.

As 19FortyFive analyst Alex Betley explains, the Su-33’s inability to carry significant munitions makes the fighter unworthy of the multi-role fighter title. 

The end of the Su-33 is near.

While it is true that the Russian Air Force currently flies a number of old Soviet aircraft that can still compete with the most modern fighters, the Su-33 is not one of them.

With no combat history to support it, this mediocre airframe is known today for its connection to the ill-fated aircraft carrier Kuznetsov. Perhaps the time has come for Moscow to send its fleet of Su-33s to the grave.