TechRussia's Struggle with Fighter Jet Export

Russia's Struggle with Fighter Jet Export

Su-35
Su-35
Images source: © Ministry of Defense of Russia

3:22 PM EST, November 16, 2023

Russia stands as a proponent of its multi-role Sukhoi Su-35 fighters, routinely highlighting their successful use during the "special operation" in Ukraine. However, this marketing drive hasn't translated into an uptick in sales of their state-of-the-art fighter jet; rather, discussions surrounding the sale of Su-35s remain static.

The Dubai Air Show serves as a global stage for significant players within the aviation industry to showcase the latest technological advancements and seal high-value contracts. This year's event, which ran from November 13-17, saw a strong presence from the Russian company Sukhoi. Russian pilots even graced the occasion, taking part in air shows.

The marketing strategy for Russia's Su-35 fighters

The Russian state-owned news agency, TASS, reported that the Russian Knights team displayed aerial acrobatics and the capabilities of Su-35S fighters - an apparent attempt to court potential buyers of the multi-role aircraft by demonstrating its vast offerings.

This strategy can be viewed as justified. In recent times, Sukhoi has not secured many foreign buyers. Recently, Lukasz Michalik, a journalist at WP Tech, disclosed plans to build the prototype of the Su-75 (LTS Checkmate), a light Russian 5th-generation fighter plane. The aircraft is slated for its inaugural flight in 2025. Despite attempts to secure potential buyers, interest in the new construction remains sparked, and the same problem is present with the Su-35 fighters.

Defence Express drew attention to statements made by Alexander Mikheev, the head of the Russian state-owned company Rosoboronexport, during the Dubai Airshow. As per the website, his words serve as an admission of Russia's export failure with the Su-35S at this stage, yet they're still attempting to valorize the aircraft by citing its supposed successes in Ukraine.

Poor demand for the Su-35

Besides Russia, the only other owner of Su-35S fighters is China, which owns 24 units in total. This derives from a contract worth 2.5 billion dollars signed in November 2015. However, conversations about potential sales of Su-35S between Moscow and Beijing ignited as far back as 2011, with a preliminary sales agreement established in 2012. Iran was next in line to receive 24 Su-35 fighters (with some estimates pegging this number as high as 50), but these plans currently hang in the balance. The Eurasian Times noted reports from Iranian media suggesting plans regarding Russian fighters are subject to revisions, with Iran possibly opting to manufacture its jet.

The list of countries indicating an interest in acquiring Su-35 fighters extends beyond only Iran, as the following graphic shows:

Egypt was one of the potential Su-35 buyers, having originally ordered 24 fighter jets in 2018. This was pursuant to a 2 billion dollar contract. However, Cairo eventually withdrew this order. Defence Express has suggested that Moscow might be discussing these "Egyptian" fighters with Tehran. Egypt isn't the only country to reconsider purchasing the Su-35—Algeria and Indonesia also backed out. According to the Eurasian Times, indirect pressure from the United States and the looming threat of sanctions significantly swayed this latter country's decision. Russia has yet to finalize contracts with the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, India, and Vietnam, all of which have shown interest in purchasing the multi-role Sukhoi Su-35S fighters, per the Eurasian Times, citing the Russian newspaper "Kommersant".

Su-35: A high-tech jet or simply Russian 'junk'?

Within the fighter market, competition is rife. There's a pervading sentiment held by many experts that the Su-35 isn't as impressive a machine as Russian sources make it out to be. Retired US Air Force F-16 pilot Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hampton, lauded as one of the most acclaimed pilots of the post-Cold War era, voiced to the Voice of America, "In my view, and also in the view of most professional fighter pilots, the Su-35 is a typical Russian machine. It looks nice at air shows, but honestly, it's not that fantastic an aircraft". Considering his professional standing and record, Hampton's opinion is understandable but can be seen as extremely harsh.

The war in Ukraine hasn't helped bolster the Su-35's reputation either, with Russians losing at least five of these machines, some to 'friendly fire'. However, it's worth remembering the Su-35 is based on previous designs and is a refined version of the Su-27 fighter. The aircraft underwent a series of structural enhancements and received improved engines with higher thrust, larger internal fuel tanks, and an upgraded digital control system. The jet allows for the transportation of a comprehensive range of Russian aerial weaponry, including the N035 Irbis-E radar and electronic warfare system, and the OLS-35 optoelectronic target designator.

According to Russian sources, the fighter has a maximum takeoff weight of 76,059 lbs (payload 17,637 lbs) and can reach speeds up to 1553 mph. Its operational range is between 932 and 2,800 miles, and its service ceiling is approximately 65,617 ft. The aircraft is 72 feet long with a wingspan of just over 49 feet and has space to accommodate a single pilot.

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