In the mid-1960s, the main line-attack aircraft in the Soviet air force was the Su-7 Fitter, with a swept wing. Although highly regarded by its pilots, it was not entirely suitable for the missions assigned to it by the Soviet military. Its poor take-off and landing performance did not allow it to be used close to a possible front, and its payload was much too small. The use of booster rockets constituted an interim solution, but the Soviets quickly realized the obvious. The concept had to be improved.

So, in the mid-1960s, the Sukhoi design office decided to rework the Su-7, using a relatively new technology in the East, the variable boom. On August 2, 1966, a modified Su-7BM made its first flight, before being officially unveiled at the Domodevo airshow on the outskirts of Moscow in 1967. This prototype, named S-22I (NATO designation: Fitter-B), differed from the Su-7 by having a variable swept wing, but only on the external parts. In practice, only the wing panels furthest away from the fuselage were rotated. However, this evolution proved to be a complete success.

Designated the Su-17 by the Soviets, the new aircraft retained many of the features of its predecessor, plus a number of modifications and improvements that made it much more efficient. Like the Su-7, the Su-17 was single-seat. Its nasal air intake fed a single engine, a Lyulka AL-21F-3, more powerful than the Su-7’s AL-7F. Two excrescences extended the nose: a Pitot tube and especially a boom feeding in measures a system of control of shooting ASP-5ND. The cone slightly exceeding the nose of the Su-17 sheltered a multi-mode radar SRD-5M (NATO designation: High Fix). The landing gear was further strengthened to facilitate operations on rough terrain. The new wing allowed for much greater performance. The combat radius increased significantly: with two tons of external load, the Su-17 (Fitter-C) had a range of 630 kilometers, while the latest Su-22MK (Fitter-K) was capable of 1100 kilometers.

Sukhoi Su-17

Soviet Sukhoi Su-17M2 exposedIn addition to the two NR-30 guns of the Su-7, the Su-17 had several pylons (up to 10 on the most recent versions), capable of carrying nearly 4 tons of load. As on the Su-7, the armament was essentially composed of rocket-launching baskets (the UV-16-57 being advantageously replaced by UV-32-57 of higher capacity), FAB-250 and FAB-500 smooth bombs or less conventional bombs (BETAB anti-track, OFAB fragmentation, RPK submunitions, incendiary ZAB). UPK-23 guns could also be mounted in pods. Finally, for its own defence, the Su-17 could carry short-range air-to-air missiles, generally R-13 (AA-2 Atoll) or R-60 (AA-8 Aphid).

Emblematic versions:

  • Su-17 (Fitter-B): modified Su-7U, fitted with the Su-7’s Lyulka AL-7F, produced from 1969 to 1973; also known by the Soviet designation S-32; delivered to Egypt in 1971 as the Su-17K.
  • Su-17M (Fitter-C): first major variant in production, equipped with the AL-21F-3 and the SRD-5M navigation and attack system; produced from 1972 to 1975; exported to Egypt, but also to Poland and Syria.
  • Su-17M2 (Fitter-D): improved variant, offering more visibility to the pilot and superior electronic equipment; produced from 1974 to 1977.
  • Su-17UM (Fitter-E): two-seater trainer, based on the Su-17M2; produced from 1976 to 1978; exported, notably to Peru, under the designation Su-22U; Soviet designation, S-52U.
  • Su-17UM3 (Fitter-G): two-seater trainer, based on the Su-17M3; produced from 1978 to 1982; exported under the designations Su-22UM3 (equipped with an R-29) and Su-22UM3K (equipped with an AL-21); Soviet designation, S-52U
  • Su-17M3 (Fitter-H): developed from the Su-17UM, but with additional equipment in place of the passenger; received air-to-air missile pylons and a laser target designator; exported as the Su-22M2 and Su-22M3; Soviet designation, S-52

Soviet Sukhoi Su-17M on display in Togliatti – Su-17M4 (Fitter-K): final production version, produced between 1981 and 1990; exported under the designation Su-22M4.

Production began in 1969 and ended in 1990. The first examples were declared operational in 1971. After the Soviet Union, other countries received Su-17s, often to replace MiG-17s or Su-7s. Within the Warsaw Pact, Poland was the first to receive them, due to its greater political reliability in the eyes of the Soviets. Poland was one of the largest users of the Su-17, with nearly 140 aircraft, the last of which are still in service.

The Soviet Union was naturally Sukhoi’s main customer. It engaged several dozen of these aircraft in the conflict in Afghanistan, where several were shot down by the local resistance. More recently, Yemeni aircraft were apparently also shot down by rebels in the north of the country. In general, Su-17s have participated in several conflicts: Iraqi aircraft were engaged against Iran and then against the Allied forces in 1991 (ironically, some of them were to join Iran, where they are still in service), Libyan aircraft against the United States during the incidents around the Gulf of Sirte (two Fitter-Js were shot down by a patrol of Grumman F-14s on August 19, 1981), and Egyptian aircraft against Israel (Yom Kippur War, 1973).

The Peruvian aircraft were used twice against Ecuador, in 1981 and in 1995: during this last conflict, on February 10, 1995, a group made up of two A-37 Dragonflies and two Peruvian Su-22s met, on the return from a bombing mission, two Ecuadorian Mirage F-1s, soon joined by two Kfirs. The two Su-22s were shot down by the F-1s.

In total, nearly 2,900 aircraft (2,867 to be exact) came off the assembly line, all versions combined. A number of them are still in service, even if the majority are currently finishing their operational career. Others (like the Peruvian ones) are stored. The Soviet Union’s aircraft remained in the states where they were based before 1991. Russia separated from them in 1998.

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