The Sukhoi Su-34 (NATO reporting name of "Fullback") is a dedicated Fourth Generation two-seat fighter-bomber/strike fighter platform based on the successful Su-27 "Flanker" air superiority fighter series for the Russian Air Force. The Flanker family of aircraft was born out of the Sukhoi Design Bureau in the 1970s and entered service in December of 1984, having since spawned into a handful of capable combat-minded roles including the Su-33 ("Flanker-D") navalized multi-role variant and the Su-35 long-range, air superiority/strike series ("Flanker-E"). While being largely based on the preceding Su-27 design (exported worldwide as the "Su-30") and incorporating some of its key qualities, the Su-34 is regarded as an all-new, independent aircraft design as it is heavily modified and intended for the strike role as primary with air superiority being a secondary quality of the design.
The Su-34 began life under the Sukhoi "T-10V" product designation, an initiative brought about by a 1980s Soviet Air Force requirement for a new, long endurance, high-speed tactical bomber intended to supersede the outgoing Sukhoi Su-24 "Fencer" series in the same role. The Sukhoi concern looked to its new Su-27 airframe as a possible starting point, the aircraft now beginning to take hold in useful numbers across the Soviet air inventory. The airframe was a excellent commodity and flexible enough to modify for the requirement, as proven through the promising - though ultimately abandoned - twin-seat T-10KM-2 navalized training aircraft once intended for the Soviet Navy. Sukhoi engineers felt comfortable with retaining much of the Su-27 arrangement with only a new forward fuselage added to the mix. As the Su-27 family of aircraft relied on a single-seat configuration, the fuselage was allowed a nice cylindrical design shape. However, for the new fighter-bomber endeavor, this would be modified through a new approach in which two pilots - seated side-by-side - would be added to a widened cockpit. To this, engineers then installed forward wing canards ahead of the main wing elements intended to improved stability and increase maneuverability. The Su-27's Lyulka series turbofan engines were uprated for greater power in the new Sukhoi initiative. The ultimate goal for the program was to develop a competent strike platform while retaining the excellent fighter qualities (handling and performance) of the Su-27 family. The Sukhoi program ultimately yielded the first T-10V-1 prototype form (born from an existing Su-27UB) which went airborne for the first time on April 13th, 1990. The T-10V designator was then dropped in favor of "Su-27IB" to indicate the type's new fighter-bomber role ("Istrebeetel'-bombardirovschchik"). The Su-27IB was first formally unveiled in 1992 and a second prototype followed, taking to the air on December 18th, 1993. By this time, the series was assigned the officially Russian Air Force designation of "Su-34" and further codenamed "Fullback" by NATO.
The most obvious design departure of the Su-34 when compared to the Su-27 was its larger cockpit cabin and forward fuselage assembly. The cockpit was deliberately designed as a large, comfortable operating space for the two crew and applicable systems. The area aft of the cockpit would feature a full in-flight galley and lavatory to help offset the fatigue and physical stresses undertaken by the crew over long sorties - the crew can stand or lay down as needed. The crew was made up of a primary pilot and his weapons operator, seated in a side-by-side arrangement (as in the American General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark fighter-bomber). The use of two crew allowed the mission workload to be spread about, lessening crew fatigue (and inherent mistakes) while a consistently pressurized cockpit allowed for a working environment not requiring cumbersome oxygen masks to be worn. The resulting Sukhoi aircraft retained the wings, tail unit, fixed intake engine nacelles and aft-fuselage of the original Su-27, incorporating the new forward fuselage and a modified rear "stinger" housing a rear-facing/scanning radar array. The Su-34 makes use of the prominent rearward-looking radar system housed in a "stinger" at the rear of the fuselage to counter any approaching enemy threats in pursuit of the aircraft. The undercarriage consists of two main landing gear legs and a nose leg, the former outfitted with a pair of inline wheels to offset the added weight of the new design while the latter makes use of a dual-wheel, side-by-side arrangement. These were different from the simpler configuration of the Su-27.
The Su-34's cockpit is a modern, all-glass effort dominated by CRT displays and sporting the latest in Russian avionics technology as well as digital processing systems. Views from within the cockpit are relatively good thanks to the large clear canopy with only a forward frame splitting the frontal view - though the raised fuselage spine (required for larger internal volume) defeats any rearward visibility for the crew. The cockpit's noticeable duck-bill type design approach features a pronounced "nose-down" appearance which aids the crew in taxiing actions and landing of the aircraft. Onboard systems propel the Su-34 (and the Russian Air Force for that matter) into the modern age and feature real-time digital battlefield management systems, advanced targeting and tracking options and a vastly improved navigation suite over previous Russian attempts. Onboard automation extends the overall value of the aircraft by allowing the crew to concentrate on other facets of the mission at hand - engine status, crew health and scanning/incoming threats can all be handled by the aircraft - autopilot is truly autonomous requiring only directional input, the aircraft capable of guiding itself to a point. The crew (as well as engine intakes and internal fuselage fuel cells) are armored for protection against enemy ground fire when in the low-level attack role. Each operator is also afforded the typical Russian helmet-mounted sight and ejection seating. HUD (Head-Up Display) is present and stealth features have been subtly incorporated throughout the airframe (including use of a radar-absorbing skin coat) - though the Su-34 remains a largely conventional Fourth Generation aircraft design and not a true stealth design (as in the now-retired F-117 Nighthawk).
Externally, the Su-34 sports the same wing design as the Su-27 before it. These are shoulder-mounted to provide acceptable ground clearance for a bevy of munitions options. A standard fitting is the 30mm GSh-30-1 series internal cannon with up to 180 rounds of ammunition and intended for extreme close-in work. There are no fewer than 12 external munitions hardpoints to which the Su-34 can field various guided missiles and bombs, rocket pods, air-to-air missiles and specialized mission equipment as required per sortie. The Su-34 can, therefore, be called to fulfill a variety of peacetime and wartime roles including patrol, interdiction, interception, strike (including over-water maritime sorties), early warning and reconnaissance. While not a "true" dedicated fighter thoroughbred at its core, the Su-34 retains the key fighter qualities of the Flanker series to which, when the aircraft is armed with air-to-air ordnance, it can contend with incoming aerial threats such as enemy bombers and contending fighters. In keeping with its Cold War roots, the Su-34 is also a capable nuclear payload delivery system. The airframe is cleared to carry up to 17,600lbs of externally-held ordnance in various load out combinations. External jettisonable fuel tanks can also factor into the mix for extended operational ranges. At least two weapon stations are plumbed for fuel tanks.
The Su-34 is fitted with 2 x Lyulka AL-31FM1 series turbofan engines, each rated at approximately 30,000lbs of thrust and are afterburner-capable for short bursts of increased speed (these engines appear in a slightly different form on the Su-27). The twin engine arrangement allows for a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 (1,375 miles per hour) at altitude to be reached. Ferry range is out to 2,500 miles and the aircraft's listed service ceiling is roughly 50,000 feet. This provides the Russian Air Force with a long-endurance, high-altitude performer that is equally at home in the low-altitude attack level role or operating at higher altitudes when threats require it. Fuel is served through large internal cells while external fittings are supported across two hardpoints. Additionally, the Su-34 features an integrated in-flight refueling facility for near-infinite mission ranges - though a typical "long sortie" would be in the 10-hour range. Despite the new aircraft's increased weight over that of the basic Su-27, the Su-34 features performance specifications roughly equivalent to the original Flanker design.
The original Su-27IB prototype was unveiled several times over the course of a decade and appeared under various guises and project designations. The program was moved along as funding allowed though the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 threatened its future existence as a viable military product - this explains the type's first flight in 1990 and its service introduction in 2014. As funding became available, so too did progression on the Su-34 project. Today (2013), some 32 aircraft have been completed - five based at Lipetsk AB and twenty at Voronezh Malshevo while the remaining seven being identified as project prototypes.
For the Russian Air Force, the Su-34 "Fullback" is intended as a direct successor to the hundreds of Cold War-era Sukhoi Su-24 "Fencer" aircraft still in operational service. Modernization programs have fortunately kept this old aircraft viable in the new century though its Cold War origination cannot be overlooked. The Su-24 will be kept on station until the Su-34 is fully ready and available in the required numbers. It is estimated that the Russian Air Force will look to procure some 200 Su-34s through an initial production run. The Su-34 may already have seen early operational combat service in the 2008 South Ossetia War where it is thought they were armed with anti-radar systems intended to suppress the Georgian anti-aircraft defensive network.
The Su-34 remains a major part of the Russian rearmament initiative currently ongoing as of this writing. The Russian military intends to regain the prominence it once held during the peak of the Cold War years. The massive military commitment - in the billions of dollars - will see all-new air force, naval and army assets added to the modernization effort under President Putin's watch.