The isolated Russian territory of Kaliningrad is one of the most heavily militarized regions of the country, and lies on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania.
It is separated from the Russian mainland by the lands of NATO member states Lithuania and Latvia, and has no land border with any other Russian regions leaving the territory potentially vulnerable to Western attacks in the event of a major war.
Kaliningrad serves as a staging ground allowing Russian Iskander tactical ballistic missiles and long range air defense systems such as the S-400 to cover targets deeper into Europe with their range.
Kaliningrad is defended by some of the country’s most capable weapons systems including new motorized rifle, artillery and tank regiments which were deployed there in December 2020.
Reinforcements in December included T-72B3M battle tanks — one of the latest designs in the country’s inventory — as well as Su-30SM fighter jets.
Kaliningrad also serves as the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet, and is heavily defended by land based P-800 long range anti ship cruise missile systems which provide coverage over much of the Baltic Sea.
One of the most prolific assets deployed in Kaliningrad, however, has been a squadron of Su-27 heavyweight air superiority fighters which have been cause for considerable trouble for NATO over several years.
The Su-27 Flanker first entered service in the Soviet Air Force in 1985, and after U.S. personnel gained access to a number of air-frames after the Cold War American assessments showed the fighter to be more capable than the U.S. Air Force’s own prime fighter the F-15 Eagle.
Despite being a high end heavyweight design, the kind of expensive aircraft usually fielded in small numbers for special roles, the Su-27 was for many years the most widely used class of combat jet in the Russian military with over 250 in service.
Over 150 of the aircraft remain in service today. Unlike its successor the Su-30, which was design for a well rounded performance including an ability to perform anti shipping and strike roles, the Su-27 was designed purely for air to air combat with the limited air to ground capabilities added to later variants being an afterthought.
The Flanker can accommodate some of the largest radars ever integrated onto a fighter, and have the range, maneuverability and firepower to pose a serious threat to aircraft very far from the airfields that host them.
The fighters initially deployed R-27 air to air missiles for long range engagements, which were the most capable missiles of their kind integrated onto fighter sized aircraft at the time but have since been superseded by the R-77 missile that benefits from active radar guidance and ‘fire and forget’ capabilities.
While exact details on the Su-27 contingent in Kaliningrad remain scarce a portion of Su-27s deployed are of the Su-27SM3 variant, which are the most capable variant ever developed.
Only around two dozen Su-27SM3 aircraft are though to be in service in the entire Russian Air Force, and the advanced jets saw a brief combat deployment to Syria in late 2015 as the first Russian dedicated air superiority fighter in the theater.
The fighters were produced shortly before production lines for the Su-27 were permanently closed in favor of production of their successor the Su-35, and used the same Irbis-E radar as the Su-35.
The Irbis-E provides overwhelmingly superior situational awareness relative to older Su-27 variants, and can track up to 30 airborne targets simultaneously and engage up to eight.
The radar allows the Su-27SM3 to detect medium sized fighters at ranges of over 400 kilometers, and can track stealth fighters with lower radar cross sections at ranges of little over 80 km.
Beyond a new radar, the fighters benefit from a reinforced air-frame allowing them to carry three more tons of armaments, and additional hard-points expanding their maximum missile payload from eight to twelve – double that of the American F-16 and triple that of the F-35.
The fighters also benefit from more fuel efficient AL-31F-M1 engines for an increased range and flight performance, and from a comprehensively modernized full glass cockpit with the thirteen Cold War era arrow indicators discarded in favor of four multi-functional displays.
A new radio complex was also integrated to facilitate more secure communications, and changes to the design also reduced maintenance requirements.
The Su-27SM3 can thus be considered a ‘4+ generation’ fighter with capabilities close to those of the more well known Su-35, and the aircraft’s deployment to guard Kaliningrad is a strong sign of the Russian military’s faith in its capabilities.
Deployment to a territory surrounded by NATO member states has meant that Su-27s based in Kaliningrad, which when identified by variant have often been Su-27SM3’s, have often intercepted or otherwise seen non-kinetic clashes with Western aircraft.
Such incidents have been particularly frequent since relations between Russia and the Western world deteriorated following the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
A notable example was on October 3, 2014, when a Su-27 intercepted a Swedish Air Force Gulfstream spy plane and flew around 30 feet away from it while displaying an intimidating arsenal of air to air missiles.
Several similar incidents occurred over the following years.
On June 9, 2017, when a drill by American B-1B, B-2 and B-52H heavy bombers over the Baltic Sea was being photographed, the bombers were closely shadowed by a Su-27 which appeared in several of the pictures.
Later that month Su-27’s intervened aggressively against Polish F-16 fighters, after the F-16’s had themselves aggressively intercepted the transport of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu who was at the time flying to Kaliningrad.
The following month a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance aircraft thought to have been monitoring electronic signals in Kaliningrad was intercepted by a sizeable Su-27 unit including at least three Su-27SM3’s.
The American jet quickly made an unscheduled turn into friendly Swedish airspace.
The Su-27’s often unusually aggressive actions have send a strong signal regarding Russia’s willingness to guard its small Baltic enclave and quickly respond to any potential threat, and are likely intended to send a strong signal to NATO to this effect.
The fact that Su-27s at Kaliningrad are deployed beyond the Russian mainland and provide the Russian Air Force with a deeper reach into NATO territory makes them arguably the most troublesome fighter unit faced by the Western alliance.
Despite their advanced capabilities, the Su-27s in Kaliningrad have shown no signs of widely deploying either R-77 or the newer K-77 or R-37M active radar guided air to air missiles and have continued to rely on older R-27’s which do not have ‘fire and forget’ capabilities and can only engage a more limited number of targets simultaneously.
This means there is still room to improve the capabilities of the Kaliningrad Flankers without needing to replace them with a new fighter class, with the R-37M in particular providing the ability to engage aircraft at over triple the range of the R-27 currently in use – at 400 km away.
Although many older Su-27 variants cannot deploy newer missile classes, the Su-27SM3’s use of the Irbis-E radar and Su-35-style avionics makes it compatible with all the latest air to air missile classes.
How long the Su-27 will continue to be deployed to Kaliningrad will likely depend on the state of relations between Russia and NATO and the kind of assets deployed by the U.S. to the region.
While the Su-27SM3 was Russia’s most capable fighter in terms of air to air combat performance when it entered service, the newer Su-35, Su-57 and the upcoming Su-30SM2 are overall be more capable today and all could be candidates to eventually replace it likely before the end of the decade.
The possibility of upgrading Su-27s with AL-41 engines from the Su-35, which would drastically increase their flight performances and improve their ranges, has also been raised multiple times with the Kaliningrad Flankers likely to be leading candidates for such an investment within the Su-27 fleet.
It remains to be seen whether the much newer Su-30SM fighters deployed to reinforce Kaliningrad in late 2020 will be deployed alongside Su-27’s to intercept Western aircraft and patrol the Baltics, or whether they will be used more conservatively.
Military Watch Magazine / ABC Flash Point News 2022.