By John Mills
In the decade after WWII, the Soviet aerospace industry focused on strategic bombers and long range missiles, all with the express purpose of carrying nuclear weapons to US shores in the event WWIII broke out.
The Mikoyan Gurevich and Sukhoi design bureaus were the sole remaining fighter design houses left, after the dissolution of all others. Mikoyan became famous during this period for its stellar MiG-15 and -17 fighters, which would be staple aircraft of Soviet client state airforces around the world for years to come.
Sukhoi had rather less success in the early 1950s, pitching several similar, though larger, designs to the MiG bureau’s examples. The first of these was the sleek, jet age Su-17, which never got the chance to fly, even in testing. It is worth noting that the designation Su-17 later got re-used for a later generation evolved variant of the ‘Fitter’ family.
The Su-7 came about initally as a rival to the Mig-15 and -17 fighters. The initial desire was for a supersonic-capable fighter to oppose American aircraft like the F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo, and F-104 Starfighter.
The design for the first prototype produced by Sukhoi was the S-1, the design for which was submitted for review in Nov. 1953. It would be over a year before a prototype would actually be built.
When it finally was, it was powered by the colossal Lyulka AL-7F turbojet, which would power several other Sukhoi designs, the Tuploev Tu-128 (which will be written about in a later issue), and the nuclear-tipped KH-20 cruise missile.
This engine had a stated thrust of 16,530 pounds dry,and 22,045 pounds in afterburner. The S-1 prototype featured a wing swept back at a steep 60° angle, and a nose air intake with a variable position shock cone, much like the later MiG-21. Armament was to be three 30mm cannons, with 65 rounds per gun. This would later change to only two cannon, though each cannon retained its 65-round ammunition load.
The S-1 would evolve into the S-2, which fitted an upgraded AL-7F-1 engine. This was then further refined into the production Su-7, dubbed ‘Fitter’ by NATO, in keeping with the tradition of giving English code names to Soviet equipment.
The production fighter was fast, powerful, and reasonably maneuverable, but very heavy for its type. However, it had the benefit of being the only aircraft in the Soviet inventory that had the performance to intercept the U-2 at altitude.
The Su-7 didn’t last terribly long as an air-to-air fighter, and soon the Su-7B fighter-bomber was introduced. Again the engine would be upgraded, this time to the AL-7F-100, which was markedly more reliable than earlier versions.
Like many early Cold War Soviet combat aircraft, the Soviets never took the Su-7 into battle. However, in similar circumstances as last issue’s Tu-22 ‘Blinder,’ the Su-7B saw combat with Soviet client states, specifically Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and India.
The Egyptians took murderous losses amongst their fleet during the Six Day War in 1967. The far faster, more agile, and better-armed Israeli Mirage III fighters had little difficulty shooting down any Su-7s they ran across. The Egyptian airforce made a difficult situation worse by loading their jets to their max payload limits, resulting in short range and slow speeds, neither of which are particularly conducive to returning home alive. Fourteen of the initial sixty four Egyptian Su-7Bs were destroyed by the Israelis in 1967, though the Soviets supplied over 150 more before the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This is not to say that the Su-7s performed particularly poorly in Egyptian service: there were many instances where Su-7s did their job well, but the overriding impression from Egyptian pilots was not a generally positive one.
The Indian Air Force had a notably different experience with the aircraft in their 1971 war against Pakistan. In that conflict, 140 Su-7Bs flew over 1,500 individual sorties against Pakistani forces, and maintained a steady readiness rate. Fourteen aircraft were lost to ground fire, yet none were shot down by another aircraft. On one occasion, an aircraft was hit by a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile, taking significant damage to its wings and horizontal stabilizer, but managed to make it back to base safely.
The Su-7 would be developed into the swing-wing Su-17, also named ‘Fitter,’ the first such aircraft in Soviet service. The Su-17 family would itself be developed into the -20 and -22 variants, some of which are still in limited service around the world.
In fact, several of these have seen combat in recent years in Syria, though there is no reliable count of how many are left in that country after seven years of civil war. In the end, the Su-7 was a remarkable design for the mid-1950s, and while all remaining have long since gone to the boneyard or museums, its legacy lives on quietly, though not totally forgotten.
If anyone would like to learn much, much more about this aircraft and its successors, look into buying ‘Sukhoi Su-7/-17/-20/-22 Soviet Fighter and Fighter Bomber Family’ by Yefim Gordon.