Key point: Sukhoi designed the Flanker with the capabilities of the F-15 Eagle firmly in mind
To the West, most of the legendary Soviet aircraft of the Cold War came from the design bureau Mikoyan Gurevitch, which spawned such aircraft as the MiG-15 “Fagot,” MiG-21 “Fishbed,” MiG-25 “Foxbat” and MiG-29 “Fulcrum.” The single best Soviet fighter of the Cold War, however, was Sukhoi’s Su-27 “Flanker.” Intended both to defeat U.S. fighters over central Europe in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict and to patrol the airspace of the Soviet Union against U.S. bomber incursions, the Su-27 survived the end of the Cold War to become one of the world’s premier export fighters.
The Flanker emerged as part of the high part of the high-low fighter mix that both the United States and the Soviet Union adopted in the 1970s and 1980s. In the U.S. Air Force this manifested in the F-15 and F-16; in the U.S. Navy, the F-14 and F/A-18. The MiG-29 “Fulcrum” played the light role in the Soviet partnership.
Sukhoi designed the Flanker with the capabilities of the F-15 Eagle firmly in mind, and the aircraft that emerged resembles the fast, heavily armed, long-ranged Eagle in many ways. Whereas the Eagle looks healthy and well-fed, the Flanker has a gaunt, hungry appearance. Although designed as an air superiority aircraft, the Su-27 (much like the Eagle) has proven flexible enough to adapt to interceptor and ground strike roles. Sukhoi has also developed a wide family of variants, specialized for particular missions but retaining overall multirole capabilities.
The Su-27 entered service more slowly than its fourth-generation counterparts in the United States (or the MiG-29, for that matter). A series of disastrous tests bedeviled the program’s early years, with several pilots dying in early versions of the Flanker. As it entered service in the mid-1980s, production problems slowed its transition to front-line status. And of course, the end of the Cold War curtailed the overall production run of the aircraft.