Alexander Mladenov explains the upgraded Su-22 Fitter earmarked to continue in Polish Air Force service until 2025
SUKHOI Su-22 FITTER
The swing-wing Sukhoi Su-22 (NATO reporting name Fitter) serving with the Sily Powietrzne Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej or Air Force of the Republic of Poland is set to remain active for another eight years. The type is well supported by local industry: one of the main factors for its remarkable longevity in Polish service.
The Su-22 was the principal front-line jet for the strike role in Poland between 1985 and the late 2000s but its significance diminished soon after the newly delivered Lockheed Martin Block 52+ F-16 force achieved full combat-ready status. By that time, the Fitter force suffered a reduction in numbers and its pilots lost out on training opportunities for using guided weapons.
In 2012, the Su-22’s primary mission shifted to training, as well as a wide variety of secondary combat support missions. Today the Polish Su-22 fleet is a shadow of its former self, with only 18 aircraft set to remain in active service from a total of 110 airframes delivered between 1984 and 1988. All serviceable, upgraded, life-extended Fitters and a handful of non-upgraded examples earmarked for retirement in 2018, are now serving with 21. Baza Lotnictwa Taktycznego (21. BLT or 21st Tactical Air Base) at Świdwin in Poland’s Western Pomerania province.
The fact that the Sily Powietrzenje Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej (SPRP) Fitter force has survived until the middle of the next decade, despite its age, is due to its reliability, affordability and its ability to conduct niche missions which cannot be delivered in an effective and efficient way by other SPRP jets. The 21. BLT incorporates 8.elt and 40.elt (Eskadra Lotnictwa Taktycznego or Tactical Air Squadron) as well as a support squadron, staffed with pilots who fly Fitters.
Six two-seat Su-22UM3K Fitter-G aircraft, manufactured in 1984 and 1985, and 12 single-seat Su-22M4 Fitter-Ks, built at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant in Russia between 1985 and 1988 are due to remain in service. Between 2015 and 2017 all 18 aircraft will receive a comprehensive lifeextension programme at the WZL-2 aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul facility in Bydgoszcz to extend their service life until 2025 when the Fitter should be replaced by a new-generation combat aircraft, the tender for which is tentatively expected to be launched before 2020.
The front-line significance of the Polish Fitter force has been consigned to the history books and, as a consequence, 21. BLT’s main mission, assigned in 2012, is to train pilots fresh from graduating the SPRP’s Air Academy at Deblin.
The first group of four young Fitter pilots, out of 16 who began flying the swing-wing aircraft four years ago, are reported to have achieved a limited mission-ready rating in November and December 2016. They are expected to continue working toward achieving full mission-ready rating which usually requires four years of training. Some of the pilots will also work toward an instructor pilot qualification so they are able to conduct conversion-to-type and operational training of pilots selected to fly the Fitter after completing their advanced flying training phase on the PZL TS-11 Iskra jet trainer at the Air Force Academy at Deblin.
Because the 21. BLT is now tasked mainly with training pilots graduating from the academy, in effect an operational conversion unit, some pilots are supposed to remain serving with the Swidwin-based squadrons, while others, after gaining limited-combat ready status, will be posted to other units – for example the MiG-29 fighter squadrons; 41.elt at Malbork and 1.elt at Miñsk-Mazowiecki.
However, there are no plans for posting Su- 22 pilots who have achieved limited combatready status to continue their career flying the Block 52+ F-16. All graduate pilots selected for the F-16 follow a different training path to their colleagues flying the Su-22. Initially they go to the United States for advanced and lead-in fighter training flying the T-38C Talon before F-16 conversion training.
Secondary missions performed by 21. BLT during day-to-day training include support to the SPRP, Polish Land Forces, Special Operations Forces and the Polish Navy. Support involves flying as adversaries - for training fighter pilots and ship crew operating surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery to counter air threats.
Close air support training is provided to personnel from the Polish Land Forces and Special Operations Forces plus training Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs) with NATOstandard aircraft controls on the battlefield.
1 The two-seat Su-22UM3K has a different mission suite to the single-seat Su-22M4 and limited capability to carry guided weapons but retains an effective combat capability. 2 Su-22UM3K 509 in its fresh grey paint scheme applied during upgrade at the WZL-2 plant. The colour scheme comprises two shades of grey applied on the upper fuselage and wings and areas painted black for anti-glare forward of the windshield and around the wing roots. 3 The swing-wing Fitter is a useful asset assigned to NATO and will remain in active service until the mid-2020s for training and combat support roles. 4 Su-22M4 3817 is one of a dozen upgraded single-seat Fitters which the SPRP plans to operate until 2025.
Polish Fitters also perform reconnaissance missions using the KKR-1 pod fitted with cameras and electronic intelligence [ELINT] gathering systems. The nature of the missions is classified.
No doubt, the vast majority of reconnaissance sorties flown by Polish Su-22M4s carrying a KKR-1 pod involve monitoring Russian radar emissions in the Kaliningrad enclave and ship movements of the Russian Baltic Fleet.
The 21. BLT also maintains ground and sea strike missions in defensive operations.
Life-extension and Upgrade Effort
In late 2014, the Polish Ministry of Defence rejected an option to withdraw the Su-22 from service and instead decided to extend the service life of 18 aircraft until 2025.
In February 2015, WZL-2 was awarded a contract to perform fuselage and systems life extension work, while the Su-22’s AL- 21F-3 turbojets were to be overhauled and life extended at Warsaw-based WZL-4 plant.
Su-22 life extension provides the remains of the once-huge SPRP Fitter fleet with an additional 800 flight hours, 1,200 landings (1,600 for the two-seat aircraft) and ten years of service (whichever occurs first) and makes the swing-wing aircraft good for a total 40-year service life. As a result, total life for the Fitter airframe has been extended to 3,200 flight hours, while the total number of landings has increased to 4,200 for singleseat aircraft and 5,200 for the much more heavily used two-seat aircraft.
By comparison, the original service life for the Su-22M4, as set by Sukhoi OKB in the late 1980s, was only 1,500 flight hours and 19 years, whichever was reached first, while the time between overhauls was set at 750 flight hours and ten years; the AL- 21F-3 engine’s time between overhaul is increased from 450 to 500 hours.
Wing span fully spread: 13.68m (44ft 11in)
Wing span fully swept: 10.02m (32ft 10in)
Length overall: 19.02m (62ft 5in)
Height overall: 5.12m (16ft 10in)
Wing area fully spread: 38.49m2 (414ft2)
Wing area fully swept: 34.45m2 (370ft2)
Max take-off weight: 19,430kg (42,824lb)
Normal take-off weight: 16,400kg (36,155lb)
Empty operating weight: 12,161kg (26,810lb)
Internal fuel: 3,770kg (8,310lb)
External fuel: 2,875kg (6,337lb)
Max speed at sea level clean: 755kts (1,400km/h)
Max speed at high level clean: 1,005kts (1,860km/h)
Landing speed: 154kts (285km/h)
Take-off speed: 194kts (360km/h)
Max operating speed clean: Mach 1.7
Service ceiling clean: 46,576ft (14,200m)
Rate of climb: 45,590ft/min (13,895m/min)
Ferry range with max internal fuel: 1,520km (820nm)
Ferry range with external tanks: 2,550km (1,375nm)
Range with high-low-high profile and 2,000kg (4,400lb) ordnance: 1,150km (620nm)
Take-off run: 1,500m (4,920ft)
Landing roll with brake chute: 1,100m (3,608ft)
G limit: +7g
The dozen Su-22M4s and half a dozen Su-22UM3Ks cycled through WZL-2 received very basic upgrades, divided into two stages. Stage I, completed on nine aircraft by October 2016, included installation of a second UHF/VHF radio, the Polish-made Unimor RS6113-2, with 8.33 MHz channel spacing and conversion of the flight/navigation instruments in the cockpit to imperial measurement units.
Stage II, slated for implementation in 2016 and 2017, will add a new Polishmade S2-3A solid-state crash-resistant flight data recorder, while the Su-22M4s will also receive an audio/video cockpit recorder (for recording the picture seen by pilot through the S-17VG electrooptical sight and the audio information in his headsets) in addition to a solid-state mission data loading device replacing the original Soviet-era unit which uses antiquated paper perfocards.
All Su-22s upgraded under Stage I and already delivered to 21. BLT will return to WZL-2 to receive the additional new equipment under Stage II.
Upgraded aircraft also receive a new colour scheme comprising two shades of grey on the upper fuselage and wings in addition to black areas just ahead of the windshield (applied for anti-glare purposes) and wing roots: an area next to the gun muzzles which is prone to collecting powder gases generated when firing the 30mm cannons. Black is only applied to the port side wing root on two-seat aircraft because the starboard side lacks a cannon.
1 The two-seat Su-22UM3K Fitter-G has the KN-23-1 analogue navigation-attack suite with a Klen-PS laser rangefinder and designator housed in the nose cone, and an improved ASP-17BT electro-optical weapons sight in the front cockpit. 2 The cockpit of a Su-22M4 still lacks a gun camera in the ASP- 17VG electro-optical sight, which is set to be added during the second stage of the upgrade in 2017. 3 Su-22UM3K 310 taxies out for an intercept training sortie, loaded with a UZR-60T captive carriage training missile. 4 Świdwin’s flight line full of upgraded (grey) and non-upgraded Fitters.
As Captain Krzysztof Kreciejewski, a flight commander and an experienced instructor pilot with 21. BLT noted, the process of training new pilots for the Su-22, after many years of absence, has been under way for the last four years. A training syllabus undertaken between 2012 and 2016 comprised instrument flight rules; day and night flying with procedural approaches; air-to-ground combat (the employment of unguided ordnance only); air-to-air combat; and low-level flying down to 700ft (213m) above ground. Course duration was set at 350 flight hours.
According to Capt Kreciejewski, the intention for the first group of four young pilots who completed the course in late 2016, is for them to remain serving with 21. BLT as instructors. Pilot flight hours at 21. BLT are set at 60 per year, as per the SPRP combat training plan but according to Capt Kreciejewski, the busiest instructors could fly 160 hours per year and in general young Fitter pilots log no less than 80 flight hours a year.
1st Lieutenant Lukasz Sosnowik, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in December 2011, was among the first group of pilots to convert to the Fitter in 2012. Before commencing the course at Świdwin, his flying experience comprised 200 flight hours on PZL-130 Orlik turboprop trainers and the PZL TS-11 Iskra jet trainer.
Lt Sosnowik amassed four years of experience on the Su-22 with 340 flight hours under his belt by October 2016, after which he expects to achieve the eagerly sought limited mission-ready status before commencing his instructor training course. The Su-22 is considered to be a valuable platform for close air support (CAS) training for new JTACs (Joint Terminal Air Controllers), not only in Poland but also in exercises in neighbouring NATO nations. To date Estonian, Latvian, German and Czech troops have received more than 240 CAS controls with the Su-22.
Pros and Cons
The Su-22M4 and Su-22UM3K inherited the same basic airframe structure designed back in the late 1950s for the Su-7B swept-wing supersonic fighter bomber, while its Lyul’ka AL-21F-3 turbojet is a reverse-engineered copy of the General Electric J79 engine that powered the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, albeit in an improved and uprated form, developing 76.5kN (17,200lb) of dry thrust and 110.5kN (24,700lb) with full afterburner.
Although the SPRP has a selection of Russian-made guided air-to-air weapons with laser and TV guidance for its Su-22 fleet, these are no longer used in training and are not regarded as having combat value. Guided munitions in the Polish inventory, delivered in the late 1980s, comprise the Kh-23M (AS-7 Kerry) radio-guided missile; Kh-29L (AS-14 Kedge-A) and Kh-25ML (AS-12 Kegler) laser-guided air-to-surface missiles; and the Kh-29T (AS-14 Kedge-B) which is the only TV-guided missile in the Su-22M4’s arsenal. All of these types of missile require large areas within which to safely launch during training. If a missile misses its target, it can potentially fly for up to 40km (22nm) from the launch point. Ranges of this size are no longer available in Poland and as a consequence all training to employ missiles has been abandoned. The Su-22M4 can also employ the Kh-25MP (AS-12 Kegler) and Kh-58U (AS-11 Kilter) anti-radar missiles but both types are now deemed useless against Russian GBAD systems: both missiles were originally designed for use against NATO systems only, such as the MIM-23B Improved Hawk SAM. Today only unguided air-to-surface ordnance - free-fall bombs, rockets and guns - is being used in training.
A Su-22M4 has a maximum external payload (including ordnance and external fuel tanks) of 4,250kg (8,687lb): the biggest single bomb carried weighs 500kg (1,100lb). Up to eight high-explosive variants, dubbed FAB-500M-62 or FAB-500M-54, can theoretically be carried, but in reality smaller numbers are carried. Other weapon payloads comprise ten 250kg (550lb) FAB-250-120 high-explosive bombs or 20 100kg (220lb) OFAB-100-120 fragmentation/high-explosive bombs. Explaining the training regime, Capt Kreciejewski said in the beginning, young pilots working for their mission-ready qualification train at the range with the 30mm NR-30 30mm cannons, 57mm S-5 rockets and 50kg (110lb) practice bombs without explosive charges.
Only after accumulating certain weapons delivery experience amounting to between 60 and 80 flight hours on the Fitter, are pilots allowed to begin training with live bombs and S-8 80mm rockets. The only guided weapon currently cleared for use by the Fitter community is the R-60 or R-60M (AA-8 Aphid) short-range air-to-air missile fitted with an infrared seeker. Su-22 pilots practise offensive and defensive close air combat using R-60 training rounds (dubbed UZR-60Ts) fitted with operable seekers.
The self-protection capability of the Su-22M4 relies on an outdated SPO-15LM radar warning receiver and the SPS-141MVG Gvozdika jammer pod, but again, these Russian-made systems are optimised to operate against 1980s-vintage radar-guided NATO GBAD; ship-based air defence systems; and older-generation NATO fighters. The aircraft are equipped with built-in KDS-23 and scabbed-on ASO-2V chaff and flare dispensers.
The hydraulically driven and manually controlled outer wing sections feature variable sweep angles between 30° and 63° - the former used for take-off and landing and the latter for the high-speed dashes and smooth ride at low-level. The third main wing sweep setting is at 45°, the so-called mid-position, which is useful for cruise and ground attack. Wing sweep is set manually by the pilot using a three-position electrical selector switch (one for each sweep position) in the upper left corner of the dashboard.
Each Su-22M4 features the PrNK-54 integrated digital nav/attack system, which comprises the Orbita-20-22 digital mission computer; an improved Klyon-54 laser rangefinder/designator; an ASP-17BTs electro-optical weapons sight; an IKV-8 inertial navigation unit; an A-321 RSBN short-range radio aid to navigation; an A-720 RSDN long-range radio aid to navigation; an RV-21 radar altimeter; an ARK-22 ADF; an R-862 UHF/VHF radio and the SAU-22M2 automatic flight control system. The PrNK-54 enables automatic flight on a route with six waypoints and four targets. The Su-22UM3K features a less advanced and fully analogue KN-23-1 nav/attack suite and the ASP-17BTs sight.
Engine intake cones differ between the two Polish variants: the Fitter-K has a fixed intake cone, while the Fitter-G has a movable cone to provide better operating conditions for the engine in supersonic flight (both versions are powered by the same engine). Use of the fixed cone on the Su-22M4 reduces the maximum level speed at high altitude to Mach 1.7 vs Mach 2.09 for the Su-22UMK3 when clean. Nevertheless, the aircraft’s overall combat effectiveness was not affected as the theoretical Mach 2.0-plus airspeed at high altitude is a luxury: the low-level strike platform very rarely flies at supersonic speed.
1 The well-designed Fitter has a robust airframe, a reliable engine and is easy for servicing and repair. 2 The single-seat Fitter-K has a fixed intake cone, while the two-seat Fitter-G seen here features a movable cone, which provides better operating conditions for the engine in supersonic flight. 3 The first group of young pilots who completed their four-year Su-22 training course in late 2016, will serve with 21. BLT at Świdwin as instructors. 4 Su-22M4 3817 on the Świdwin flight line. 5 UZR-60T captive carriage training missiles are used for training pilots in the air-to-air role.
Sharing his thoughts on the Su-22’s ability to integrate with other fourth-generation fighters, Capt Kreciejewski said the Polish Fitter community has, in general, very little ability to integrate with their F-16 colleagues due to the limited communication capability on-board. Once a second radio was added in 2015 and 2016, the situation improved.
Among the advantages of the swingwing Fitter, as the experienced pilot noted, is its rugged and reliable structure, while the aerodynamic configuration makes it a very good and stable platform for weapons delivery. The AL-21F-3 turbojet is an old design featuring quite old technology, but has proved very reliable and has shown a remarkable resistance to bird ingestion and foreign object damage on multiple occasions.
Poland was the first country to announce an intention to upgrade its large fleet of Su-22 Fitters in the 1990s but in the event nothing happened except a small upgrade of the aircraft’s navigation system. In Communist times and immediately afterwards the SPRP was the largest Fitter export operator in the world with a total procurement run of 110 aircraft: 90 Su-22M4s and 20 Su-22UM3Ks. In 1999, 88 Su-22M4s and 18 Su-22UM3s reportedly remained in active service, but by 2010 the Fitter fleet had reduced to 26 Su-22M4s and six Su-22UM3Ks. The SPRP has lost 11 Su-22s in accidents.
Since 2005, the SPRP ceased cyclical overhaul of its ageing Fitter aircraft at WZL-2 and has instead it operated the fleet under a step-by-step service life extension programme developed jointly by WZL-2 and the Instytut Techniczny Wojsk Lotniczych or Polish Air Force Institute of Technology. This first life-extension effort for the type, still serving in numbers with the SPRP, set a life limit of 3,000 flight hours, 3,000 landings and 30 years for the single-seat Su-24M4, while the Su- 22UM3K was cleared for 3,000 flight hours, 4,000 landings and 30 years. By November 2011, the most heavily used Su-22M4 logged 2,251 flight cycles, while the least-used one had only 1,527. The two-seat Su-22UM3K with the highest usage is reported to have amassed at that time some 3,870 flight cycles.
In 1999 and 2000, a number of Fitters had undergone the so-called ‘small-scale’ upgrade of their navigation and communication systems in order to ensure limited NATO and ICAO compatibility. The work was carried out by WZL-2, which installed Trimble 2101AP commercial GPS receivers, Bendix KLU-709 commercial tactical aid to navigation (TACAN) receivers and ANV-241MMR instrument landing system (ILS). Some of these systems were provided free of charge by the US but proved not particularly well-suited for use on board manoeuvring aircraft. The new Western-standard navigation aids were added to the Su-22M4’s existing PrNK-54 nav/attack system, integrated within the existing Orbita-20-22 digital mission computer by using a newly developed interface box. The upgrade was designed in such a way that the cockpit ergonomy was not affected as information from the new navigation devices is displayed directly on the existing NPP ‘clockwork’ navigation indicator situated in the centre of the instrument panel. New anti-collision lights were also installed, while the original Russian-made R-862 UHF radio control panel was upgraded with a continuous frequency selector featuring 8.33 MHz spacing. The upgraded Su-22 also received the ATM QAR/S-54 quick-removable flight data recorders and the Polish-made Radwar SC-10 identification friend or foe (IFF) transponders.
During his career, Capt Kreciejewski has experienced two incidents involving multiple bird ingestion in the engine (no less than seven birds each time), but no deviations in the engine operation were noticed by the pilot. In fact, bird ingestion was only discovered after landing.
The Fitter’s nav/attack suite is 1980s vintage, but still considered reliable enough, including the bulky, heavy and antiquated Orbita-20-22 digital mission computer. Asked to name the most unreliable systems on board, Capt Kreciejewski claimed new Western-made navigation aids (added during a previous Fitter upgrade) have proved to be the systems most prone to failure.
According to Capt Kreciejewski, the new two-tone grey camouflage has not been accepted with much enthusiasm; described as ill-suited for hiding low-flying aircraft on the terrain background compared to the old-style green-and-brown camouflage. The same is true when operating at low level over the dark surface of the Baltic Sea and hence low-flying Fitters could be easily detectable visually by pilots of intercepting aircraft which fly higher. The new camouflage, however, works well when the Fitter is being intercepted at higher altitude. According to Polish MiG-29 pilots practicing intercepts against the upgraded Su-22s, grey Fitters are much more difficult to detect visually. Also, ground-based air defence (GBAD) crews report it is now a lot harder for them to visually detect grey Fitters on a grey sky background.