The empennage featured a single large vertical tail fin with noticeable sweep along the leading edge, less so along the trailing edge. The horizontal planes were all-moving surfaces and set to either aft fuselage side. There were ventral strakes positioned well-aft under each engine compartment. The engines exhausted through a pair of circular rings at the rear.
The Fencer (taking the Su-24MK as our model) fitted a single Gryazev/Shipunov GSh-6-23 series 23mm internal cannon with approximately 500 rounds of ammunition. The cannon was set along the starboard side of the fuselage. While limiting to some extent, the Su-24 was designed as a ground strike platform and built around speed - not intended to get into the fanciful head-to-head dogfights with the expected Western fighters. Her mission was to simply evade enemy radar and unleash her payload in unsuspecting targets in range - thusly her biggest enemies would be enemy radar and surface-to-air missile installations.
The Su-24 was cleared to wield up to 17,640lbs of external ordnance across her eight hardpoints (nine in a later production model). The two outermost (underwing) stations swiveled to match the currently-selected wing sweep - that is, they were designed to always face directly forward regardless of the wing sweep being utilized by the pilot - this helped to maintain the aircrafts aerodynamic aspect. There were an additional two fixed weapons stations under the wing gloves as well as four underfuselage stations. The two inner underwing stations were "plumbed" to accept fuel delivery using external droptanks.
The Su-24 could make use of 4 x Kh-23 "Kerry" (radio-directed) or 4 x Kh-25ML "Karen" (laser-guided) air-to-surface missiles. Up to two Kh-28 "Kyle", Kh-58 "Kilter" or Kh-31P "Krypton" anti-radiation missiles figured prominently into the Su-24 arsenal. Additional munitions included the Kh-29L/T "Kedge" laser/TV-guided missiles and the Kh-59 "Kingbolt" TV-guided missile.
Drop ordnance was made up of the KAB-500KR TV- and KAB-500L laser-guided bombs as well as whatever conventional bombs were made available in the Soviet inventory at the time. Point ordnance came in the form of 55mm S-5, 80mm S-8 or 120mm S-13 rocket pods as well as cannon pods of varying calibers.
Perhaps more important to students of the Cold War was the Su-24s clearance to field tactical nuclear-tipped bombs if required. Droptanks can take up the inner underwing weapon stations. Self-defense was handled by a up to four of AA-8 "Aphid" or (later) AA-11 "Archer" air-to-air missiles.
Performance of the Su-24 (Su-24MK) centered around her powerful pair of Saturn/Lyulka AL-21F-3A series turbojet engines delivering 16,860lbs of thrust each on dry and 24,675lbs of thrust with afterburner. She could hit a maximum speed of 815 miles per hour (roughly Mach 1.07) at sea level and up to Mach 1.35 at higher altitudes. Radius was limited to 1,725 miles for ferry operations and about 590 miles in a combat radius (this without external fuel tanks).
The "Fencer-A" was the initial production Su-24 discovered by NATO. Fencer-B were the Su-24s featuring the revised rear fuselage among the other noted enhancements. Fencer-C designations were used by NATO to label improved countermeasures capability. None of these first three Fencer models were given a separate designation by Sukhoi, all collectively falling under the "Su-24" designation.
The Fencer-D was the Su-24M ("M" translating to "Modified"), featuring integrated chaff/flare countermeasures dispensers as well as noticeable wing fencing, usually along the wing gloves but placement differed on some production units. Munitions capabilities were greatly expanded beginning with this model. This included the addition of the Kaira-24 (Grebe) laser designator (at the expense of some internal fuel stores, thus limiting range somewhat) for use with precision guided ordnance delivery replacing the original electro-optical sighting system. Adoption of the Kaira-24 did away with the former required external designator pod. A collapsing in-flight refueling probe was affixed to the starboard side of the forward fuselage, improving tactical range substantially and putting the Su-24 on par with her Western counterparts. The fuselage was lengthened out some 30-inches (officially 29.9-inches) and the radome was revised in shape. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the new aircraft lay in the implementation of a new weapons control system known under the name of PNS-24M "Tiger" NS. A ninth hardpoint was added to the design. Defensive measures were also improved with the new "Karpaty" system, incorporating the "Mak" infrared sensor on the upper fuselage surface amidships. Work on these improved Su-24s began in 1971, producing the initial T6-M8 prototype which flew some time later on June 29th, 1977. The first production Su-24M went airborne on June 20th, 1979 with full acceptance into service coming in 1983.
The Su-24MK (Fencer-D) became simply the export version of the base and improved Su-24M models. By the middle of the 1980s, Sukhoi OKB received government permission to sell a "scaled down" version of the Su-24 to Arab allies. First flight was achieved on May 30th, 1987 under the prototype designation of T6-MK. The Su-24MK became officially available for export on May 17th, 1988 with production running into 1991. Of course these systems were sold to nations without the true avionics, IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) and weapons packages as found on the Soviet aircraft. The installed digital processing computer was the TsVM-24 series. This made for a less-functional, perhaps even less-lethal end product in the long run. Recipients of this Fencer became Algeria, both Iran and Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The Su-24MR (Fencer-E) became the dedicated tactical reconnaissance platform of the Su-24 series. The Soviet Air Force began to see a growing need to replace its outgoing reconnaissance aircraft with more modern types. Their current crop of aircraft lacked the needed operational ranges and utilized outdated equipment for the task. Sukhoi delivered two modified Su-24 airframes for evaluation as T6M-26 and T6M-34 (later becoming T6MR-26 and T6MR-34 respectively). First flight was conducted in September of 1980, and the new version entered service in 1983. Notable differences between the Su-24MR and the attack Su-24s was the deletion of the Orion-A attack radar suite as well as the laser target designator. Essentially, most of her ground attack equipment was removed including her internal cannon, this replaced by internal reconnaissance cameras. Additionally, three of the external hardpoints were dropped. Infrared and TV sensors were installed as was a panoramic camera fitted into a slightly smaller and shorter nose. An oblique camera was fitted to the lower fuselage. The nose showcased a slightly new external look as it housed a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and dielectric panels covering reconnaissance equipment. Collectively, the reconnaissance suite was known under the designation of "BKR-1" and was developed by the Moscow Institute of Instrument Engineering. For its time, the Soviets claimed it was the best of its type anywhere in the world, allowing for operations in all-weather, day or night, with image reproduction at near-photographic quality ranging out to over four times the altitude of the aircraft. Structurally, the wing root fencing was deleted. Most Su-24MRs are quickly identified by their use of external recce pods along their weapon stations.
Su-24MP (Fencer-F) signified the dedicated ELINT (ELectronic INTelligence) model variants. Work on this derivative began in 1976 and involved the T6M-25 and T6M-35 prototypes, becoming the T6MP-25 and T6MP-35 respectively. First flight of the model was achieved on November of 1979. The type was officially marked as ready on April 7th, 1983. These airframes could be identified by the addition of more antenna protrusions but were allowed to keep their internal 23mm cannons. The Su-24MP was traditionally armed with up to four AA-8 air-to-air missiles and is believed to have existed in only 10 production examples though some sources state the total as high as 20 aircraft.
The Su-24 was shipped beyond Russian borders to Soviet allies and satellite states. Algeria operated some 39 total Su-24s of which 36 are believed operational today. Angola was a rumored operator, having received perhaps 12 Su-24s by way of Belarus. Azerbaijan was noted for their 11 Su-24s in service. Belarus operated at least 34 of their own Su-24s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Between 24 and 36 Su-24s are thought to have been received into the inventory of the Iranian Air Force, some being captured Iraqi mounts following the 1991 Gulf War. No Iraqi Su-24s exist today. Kazakhstan operated at least 25 Su-24s while Libya purchased some 8 examples. Syria may have operated 20 Su-24 types at one time. It is believed that Uzbekistan still operates some ex-Soviet Su-24s left over from the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine remains the second largest Su-24 operator with some 230 total examples believed in circulation as of late 2008.
Russian maintains the Su-24 in her aging air force ranks, making up 415 total examples as of late 2008. Over 300 of these serve with the Air Force while less than 100 of these form elements of the Russian Navy.
Once in operational status across the Russian inventory, the Su-24 proved a bear to maintain. Her complex infrastructure, while an impressive feat for Sukhoi OKB in itself, brought along with it the minute attention to detail required by her ground crews. The complexities inherent in her swing-wing design coupled with her computer-controlled internal functions made for one difficult horse to keep happy. The Su-24 was, in essence, the first Soviet combat aircraft to feature systems under control from onboard computers.
Despite these technological drawbacks, her pilots quickly found a lot to like in their new Su-24s when compared to their outgoing Yakovlev Yak-28s and Mikoyan MiG-27 "Floggers". She was a well thought-out design and especially endeared by those airmen charged with long flights abroad - her automatic terrain flight system proving handy in such sorties. Her cockpit offered up a good field of view from within and a few ergonomic amenities were noted. The variable wing sweep lived up to her STOL expectations and high-wing loading produced a fairly comfortable low-altitude journey. Additionally, the Su-24 fielded quite a bit of power at full afterburn from her dual engine configuration. Her handling was remembered as somewhat forgiving and responsive though still requiring a steady trained hand. The weapons hauling capability of such a system was a story all its own when compared to previous Soviet offerings.
Notable actions of the Su-24 in Soviet service began in 1984 with operations over Afghanistan. Su-24s operated from bases in southern USSR and were charged with tackling fixed fortifications being used by the Mujaheddin. The Fencer delivered as promised and was noted for her precision, range and variable weapons loadouts. However, as the war evolved, there was much less need for the high-speed, precision antics of such an aircraft and a diminished role soon followed. The Soviet war in Afghanistan turned more into an intimate affair requiring the use of close-air support aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-25 "Frogfoot". Regardless, of all the Su-24s fielded in anger during the war, none were lost to enemy ground fire - the few that were lost were reportedly victims of accidents involving maintenance.
Additional activity yielded similar results in the Russian anti-rebel campaign against Chechen targets throughout the volatile 1990s. It is believed that the aircraft played a role in airstrikes against Georgian targets in South Ossetia during the limited August 2008 conflict as well.
The Su-24's Future
From a technological standpoint, the Su-24 is a design that met its last fruitful day sometime yesterday. Her 1960s origins almost dictate such action but financial limitations and modernization programs within the Russian Federation have kept the Fencer relevant in the last decade. However, to the West, the F-111 Aardvark has already been retired from service with the USAF and the Su-24 could hardly be considered a contender on today's "stealth" battlefields. The Su-24 is scheduled to be replaced in the long run (at least within the Russian Air Force) by Sukhoi's Su-34 "Fullback" two-seat, twin engine, fixed-wing fighter bomber. The aircraft fulfills a similar role but sports a bevy of modern and advanced features that make the Su-24 wholly archaic in nature. At $36 million US dollars apiece, there have only been twelve Su-34 examples produced even though its first flight occurred sometime in mid-1990.
For the interim, the Su-24M and Su-24MK production models are being given modernization assessments to keep them viable. The updates will include incorporation of "all glass" cockpits featuring a HUD (Heads Up Display) and MFDs (Multi-Function Displays). Compatibility with the AA-11 "Archer" short-range, air-to-air missile is expected. There will also be a digital moving map display and helmet-mounted sights for pilots (this currently en vogue on many modern jet fighters worldwide). It is believed that testing of upgraded Su-24s began as early as 1999.
The Russians have deployed their most advanced versions of the Cold War-era Su-24 int he skies over Syria during the Syrian Civil War which began in 2011. They have been responsible for most of the bombing runs seen against opposition forces. In 2015, a Turkish jet downed an Su-24 which caused Russia to deploy Su-35 air defense fighters for protection.
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