Procurement: Multipurpose Su-35

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April 22, 2019: Russia has found its third export customer for its new Su-35 fighter. Egypt is buying twenty Su-35s for $2 billion. Saudi Arabia is providing the cash. China ordered 24 of them in 2015 and received all of them by 2018. Indonesia bought eleven in 2017 and begins receiving them in 2019. The sale of Su-35s to China was special. Because of frequent illegal copying of Russian technology, this was expected to be the last Russian warplane exported to China.

Currently, Russia has 98 Su-35s in service or 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 98.

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 was 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 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 (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. 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. 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 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. Since the Su-35 sold for $100 million (or less) each, there were supposed to 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.

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 (and a lot of older Russian stuff “in storage’). Most of the current 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. When all the MiG-29s and Su-35s are delivered (by 2022) Egypt will have 66 modern Russian fighters, which will come to about 17 percent of the fighter force.

 


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