Procurement: Russia Sells Iran 50 Su-35s


December 5, 2023: In 2022 Iran ordered 50 Su-35 fighters from Russia. This aircraft sells for about $80 million each. This Su-35 customer was unexpected because Iran has been unable to buy new jet fighters for decades because of economic sanctions. Any nation violating these sanctions risked having those sanctions imposed on them. When Russia was hit with heavy sanctions for invading Ukraine in 2022, Iran saw an opportunity and offered Russia weapons and other useful items if Russia paid for those items by providing Iran with the most modern Russian fighter; the Su-35. Later in 2022 Iran announced that the Su-35 barter deal was agreed to and that Iran would receive at least 65 Su-35s. Russia has only have about a hundred Su-35s in their air force and production has been halted by the sanctions. Too many key Su-35 components come from Western suppliers. Russia was slow to ship most of its own Su-35s to Iran, especially now that Russia knows that the Iranian UAVs supplied were not as effective as expected.

Russia is also still building Su-35s for Egypt. Apparently less than a third of the 26 Su-35s Egypt ordered in 2018 were delivered by 2022. Then there is the problem that Egypt and Iran are enemies. Egypt belongs to an anti-Iran coalition which includes Israel and Saudi Arabia. This is a problem in other ways. Israel and Iran are at war with each other in Syria and Iran is losing. Israeli F-35I fighters have encountered Russian Su-35s in Syria and have a good idea of what the Su-35 can and cannot do. One thing the Su-35 cannot do is defeat the F-35I. The F-35I can detect the Su-35 first and shoot it down with missiles. This is not a major concern for Iran, which wants the Su-35 so that it can more effectively threaten its Arab neighbors.

In Ukraine, Su-35s destroyed seven older Russian fighters used by the Ukrainian air force, along with a defenseless Ukrainian naval reconnaissance aircraft. Until the arrival of Western air defense systems, especially Patriot, Russian Su-35s had air superiority over Ukraine. There were still Su-35 losses, one of them to Ukrainian ground fire and another to a Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile with a faulty IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) system that failed to recognize a Su-35 as friendly.

Su-35 sales have been difficult because many eager customers depend on other countries to help pay for the aircraft. Egypt bought Su-35s only because Saudi Arabia provided the money. China could pay hard currency for the 24 of them it ordered in 2015 and received all of them by 2018. Indonesia bought eleven in 2017 and began receiving them in 2019. The sale of Su-35s to China was special. Because of China’s frequent illegal copying of Russian technology, this was expected to be the last Russian warplane exported to China.

Currently Russia has over a hundred Su-35s in service and nearly as many on order. Russia received its first Su-35s in 2013 and four were sent to Syria in early 2016 for some combat experience. These were apparently successful, especially when delivering Russian built smart bombs. Russia then increased its own orders from 50 to over a hundred.

On paper the Su-35 is impressive. It is a 34-ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the original, 33 ton, Su-27 it is based on, and has much better electronics. It can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs nearly twice as much as the Su-27. That would be some $80 million for a barebones model, about what a top-of-the-line F-16 costs. Export models of the Su-35 go for about $100 million. The Su-27 was originally developed to match the F-15, which is larger than the single engine F-16. The larger size of the Su-27/30/35 allows designers to do a lot more with it in terms of modifications and enhancements.

The Su-35 has some stealth capabilities, in that it is less detectable to most fighter aircraft radars. Russia claims the Su-35 has a useful life of 6,000 flight hours with engines good for 4,000 hours. That is longer than earlier Su-27/30 aircraft. Russia promises world-class avionics, plus a very pilot-friendly cockpit. The use of many thrusters along with fly-by-wire means the Su-35 is even more maneuverable than Su-30s, which were Su-27s tweaked to be extremely agile. The Su-35 was in development for two decades before it was declared ready for production in 2005. Even then there were problems with the new engines that gave it its superior performance. Russia says the engine problems are solved, but only time will tell if that is true.

The Su-35 is not meant to be a direct rival for the F-22 because the Russian aircraft is not nearly as stealthy. The Su-35 carries a 30mm autocannon with 150 30mm shells on board. Su-35s can carry up to eight tons of munitions, hanging from 12 hard points. This reduces stealthiness, which the F-22 and F-35 get around by using an internal bay for bombs and missiles. But if the maneuverability and advanced electronics of the Su-35 live up to the promises, the aircraft would be more than a match for every fighter out there except the F-22 and possibly the F-35 and late model F-16s. Since each Su-35 sold for $100 million or less there were supposed to be a lot of buyers. There weren’t and Russia is eager to change that if only to improve the reputation of the Su-35. This is one reason for the large number sold to Iran. Russia also sold Iran Yak-130 jet trainer aircraft that are used to train pilots to handle aircraft like the Su-35. Iran also received some Mi-28 attack helicopters which Iran can use against poorly armed but troublesome rebels and separatists.

The Egyptian sale is more about diplomacy than air power. This purchase, financed by Saudi Arabia, increases diplomatic relations between Russia and the Middle Eastern Arab states. The two most important ones are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian air force has nearly 400 combat aircraft in service plus a lot of older Russian fighters in storage. Most of the active combat aircraft are Western, including 210 F-16s, 40 Alpha Jets, 90 Mirages and 17 Rafales. There are 15 MiG-29s in service and another 32 on the way. Once all the MiG-29s and Su-35s are in service, Egypt will have 106 modern Russian fighters, which account for about 25 percent of its fighter force. Because of the Iran deal, the 50-plane SU-35 deal will probably be the last for Russia because Egypt considers Iran an enemy while Russia and Iran are now allies.




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