Procurement: Iran Obtains Su-35s And Unwanted Problems

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September 22, 2022: Russia has found another export customer for its new Su-35 fighter. This Su-35 customer was unexpected because it is Iran, a country that 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. In early September Iran announced that the Su-35 barter deal was agreed to and that Iran would receive at least 65 Su-35s. When Su-35s will be delivered to Iran. The Russians 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 is unlikely to ship most of its own Su-35s to Iran, especially now that it 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 have been delivered by 2022. Then there is the problem that Egypt and Iran are enemies. Egypt belongs to an anti-Iran coalition that 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.

There is yet another complication. Egypt is buying Su-35s only because 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 began 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 103 Su-35s in service and 30 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 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 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 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 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.

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. Because of the Iran deal, the number of Russian aircraft in the Egyptian Air Force will be a lot less.

 


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