Review by Takis Diakoumis.
For more than eighty years Pavel Sukhoi and his design bureau has been at the cutting edge of Soviet and, later, Russian aviation. While the continued evolution and success of the more recent Flanker fighter aircraft from Sukhoi has elevated the bureau to the top of the Russian group among the later consolidated United Aircraft Corporation, its early interceptor designs and their role in protecting the vast North-Eastern Soviet expanses saw it begin to really carve out an extraordinary capability in delivering unique and effective fighter and bomber aircraft for the Soviet Air Forces.
Yefim Gordon continues his collaboration with Dmitriy Komissarov in this recent, heavy, beauty from Schiffer Publishing. Much more than a basic reprint of Yefim’s earlier title of the same name from Midlands, this new release, at about three times the size, goes much deeper with a mountain of additional information on each interceptor described – particularly the Su-15 – as well as the inclusion of previously unpublished engineering schematics and prototype material, making this an absolute treasure for Soviet aircraft or any Cold War military enthusiasts.
Working initially within the Tupolev design bureau, Pavel Sukhoi contributed and led the design on a number of unique early aircraft including the pioneering ANT-25 which became the first aircraft to cross the North Pole from the Soviet Union into the United States. By 1939 the Sukhoi design bureau was established as a separate entity supporting the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War. Sukhoi’s difficult relationship with Joseph Stalin, who both, during and after the war, made key aircraft selection and production decisions, saw him remain at the lower ranks of praporschik (non-commissioned officer) rather than being promoted to a rank of general as was the case with other designers. By 1949 Sukhoi’s now well-deteriorated standing with Stalin saw the closing of the Sukhoi design bureau and Pavel Sukhoi and his team returned to work at Tupolev. Stalin’s death in 1953 allowed Sukhoi to re-establish his bureau with new production facilities that helped the team continue research and development into supersonic jets and swept wing deltas.
By the mid-1950s American penetration flights over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself were becoming more frequent and more brazen. In response, the Soviets accelerated development of defensive weapons including surface-to-air-missiles and manned interceptors. As high-flying American U-2s continued to embarrass Soviet defences, very specific requirements for high service-ceiling interceptors were made directly to Soviet design bureaus. The resulting work from Sukhoi formed the basis of a family of early interceptors that would help secure the unforgiving Soviet frontiers well into the 1980s.
Sukhoi’s first critical project, following reactivation after Stalin’s death, was the development of a tactical fighter and dedicated interceptor – the latter to counter western overflights. Early research had indicated that an effective way to achieve high speeds required thin delta wings with high wing loading. As with most deltas, the sacrifice here was manoeuvrability and, not unlike western thinking for the time, it was assumed long-range missiles would eventually supplant traditional dogfights so this was deemed a permissible trade-off. As it turned out, the bureau decided to work in two directions simultaneously, pure swept-wing designs and deltas, for the tactical fighter and interceptor respectively.
Where the tactical fighter eventually developed into the swept-wing Su-7 tactical fighter-bomber, the interceptor matured into the production Su-9. It is of course obvious and interesting to note the MiG-21 and Su-9 bear a striking resemblance to each other. In very typical Sukhoi style, the Su- 9 is significantly larger than the MiG-21, but both relied on the same engineering studies by TsAGI and early specification direction.
While it was the rapid SAM development and the arrival of the SA-2 that would finally bring an end to the U-2 overflights with the downing of Gary Powers in 1960, Sukhoi’s Su-9 would feature in the episode briefly. Following unsuccessful interception attempts by MiG-19s stationed along the U-2’s route, an unarmed Su-9 on a ferry flight, and the only aircraft capable of reaching the U-2, was ordered to ram the intruder. The Su-9 failed to locate the target and Powers was shot down soon after. Despite the method of downing the U-2 and the prevailing missile hawks of the day (again, much like in the West), the episode actually reinforced the need for high altitude interceptors and by the mid-1960s almost thirty air defence units were equipped with the Su-9.
The later Su-11 was an upgraded Su-9 with a significantly more powerful engine, much more effective radar and armed with the newer R-8M missiles. The combination of the more powerful radar and missiles provided the Su-11 a greater maximum interception altitude, allowing targets well above its own flight level to be attacked. Both the Su-9 and -11 would perform a number of interceptions of actual targets that included straying Iranian fighters and a number of reconnaissance balloons (using a specially developed version of the R-8 missile to shoot down the large slow objects).
Only a small fraction of the improved Su-11s were built compared to their forebear. From the late 1960s, most Su-9s started being replaced by the massive Tu-128 interceptor. Retirements continued through the 1970s with most being superseded by the MiG-25 and the next evolutionary leap for Sukhoi interceptors with the Su-15.
The Su-15 began development as an internal project disguised as an upgrade to existing weapon systems. The new aircraft would feature two engines, a radar with increased detection range and longer-range missiles. The radar was to be a scaled-down version of the one created for the Tu-128. Much too large to fit in the shock cone of the Su-9/11’s axisymmetrical air intake, the design bureau opted for lateral air intakes with airflow control ramps – a design fairly unexplored in the Soviet Union at the time. Other design departures included a double-delta wing with increased span and area.
While the Su-15 was produced in large numbers, successfully protecting Soviet borders, it would become better known as the aircraft that shot down Korean Air Lines Flight KAL007 in 1983. The book includes a radio transcript excerpt between the Su-15 pilot and his ground controller during the interception and shoot down and this certainly makes for a rather thrilling read. It follows with an interview of Lieutenant Colonel Gennadiy Osipovich, the pilot of the Su-15. While he doesn’t necessarily offer much more than what became the official account, it is a fascinating read and only continues the debate that persists to this day.
Gordon and Komissarov include in-depth component detail of each interceptor with a fabulous selection of photos and illustrations. A separate chapter includes a focus on experimental models with important information on design evolution including weapons and radar. Annotated engineering diagrams, charts and tables, and the countless black and white and colour photos, are complemented with a large number of beautiful aircraft profiles throughout the book.
While the origins of this new release with Komissarov are still clear through some sections where it is reproduced verbatim from the original Midlands book – notably with some chapter references that do not align with this latest one, Schiffer’s Sukhoi Interceptors is much expanded and about as detailed as you are ever likely to get on the subject of early Sukhoi developments and, specifically, the ‘flying tubes’. Gordon’s access to Soviet material remains second-to-none and here he unloads with Komissarov to bring us an absolute treat on these important aircraft during turbulent times.