Procurement: Indonesia Gets Su-35s In Better Barter Deal

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September 10, 2017: After two years of negotiations Indonesia announced that it was going to buy eleven Russian Su-35 aircraft to replace its aging (and grounded) American made F-5s. Indonesia originally discussed obtaining 16 Su-35s and that is still a possibility if the August 2017 deal works. Indonesia drove a hard bargain and while it is paying $104 million per aircraft (including maintenance, spare parts and tech support) only 15 percent of that is being paid in cash. Half the price is being paid in Indonesian goods. This would mainly consist of items Russia has to import and that Indonesia produces like palm oil, rubber, coffee, cocoa, tea, processed fish, copra, and spices. Indonesia also has some manufactured goods Russia could use like footwear, furniture, paper, textiles and several kinds of machinery. Indonesia also produces some defense related goods. Then there is the 35 percent of the aircraft price that will be offset. This will include technology transfer for components and service (maintenance, assembly) to be done in Indonesia. The 35 percent offset for defense related purchases is standard with Indonesia. Details of the offset and exports to Russia have still to be worked out. Russia was eager to make this sale as it would be the second export sale for the Su-35.

The first export sale was to China, which received the first of these Su-35s in 2016. Because of frequent illegal copying of Russian technology this is expected to be the last Russian warplane exported to China. The Indonesia sale is important because it may help convince other potential customers (UAE, Pakistan, Vietnam, Algeria, Kazakhstan and Egypt) that Russia has been negotiating with. Brazil and South Korea rejected the Su-35 and Venezuela and Libya were interested but both have run into political and financial problems. Currently Russia has about 60 Su-35s and China has four (out of 24 ordered). 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.

On paper the Su-35 is impressive. It is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the original, 33 ton, Su-27 that it was based on, and has much better electronics. It can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs at 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. 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 (or at least be less detectable to most fighter aircraft radars). Russia claims the Su-35 has a useful life of 6,000 flight hours and engines good for 4,000 hours. Russia promises world-class avionics, plus a very pilot-friendly cockpit. The use of many thrusters along with fly-by-wire means an aircraft 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. But 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 rounds) and 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 proposed Su-35 live up to the promises, the aircraft would be more than a match for every fighter out there except the F-22. Since the Su-35 is to sell for well under $100 million each, there should be a lot of buyers. There weren’t and Russia is eager to change that if only to just to improve the reputation of the Su-35.

Meanwhile the Indonesian Air Force is trying to recover from two decades of neglect and mismanagement. In the late 1990s Indonesia, blocked from receiving spares and support from its American jet fighters (ten F-16s, and sixteen F-5s) turned to Russian. The U.S., and the West in general, was angry at the Indonesian military government for its corruption and brutality against its own people. Between 2003 and 2013 Russia delivered six Su-27s and eight more advanced Su-30MK2s. At that point few of these fighters were operational because Russia had delivered few weapons for them. It was all about money, or the lack of it. For example in 2009 Qatar had offered the Indonesian Air Force ten used French Mirage fighters but the budget simply doesn't have the money to maintain and operate these older aircraft. Currently only ten of the F-16s are flyable and only two of the F-5s.

By 2010 a new government and reforms had refurbished Indonesia’s reputation to the point that the United States was again willing to provide support for F-16s as well as another 24 of them. Most (18) of the 24 free and refurbished F-16s have been delivered with four arriving in March 2017.

 

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