The Buzz

China Nears Deal to Acquire Russia's Lethal Su-35 Fighter

If reports prove accurate, Russia is set to finally close a deal many years in the making—selling China one its most advanced fighter jets.

According to a report in the WantChinaTimes citing work done by China’s GlobalTimes, Beijing will soon be in possession of twenty-four Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

“We are holding talks with our Chinese partners on agreeing a draft contract for the supply of fighter jets,” explained Ivan Goncharenko, first deputy director general of Russia's arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

A sale of the Su-35, considered by many defense officials to be one of the best fighter jets in the world, would be significant for a number of reasons.

For starters, the fighter is highly advanced and would be a strong upgrade for China’s air force.

“It’s a great airplane and very dangerous, especially if they make a lot of them,” said one senior U.S. military official to The National Interest back in December. “I think even an AESA [active electronically scanned array-radar equipped F-15C] Eagle and [Boeing F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet would both have their hands full.”

A U.S. Navy Super Hornet pilot—a graduate of that service’s elite TOPGUN school—offered his own analysis on the plane: “When taken as a singular platform, I like the Su-35’s chances against most of our platforms, with perhaps the exception of the F-22 and F-15C,” the naval aviator said.

Beijing, besides getting its hands on one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets would also get access to the planes advanced suite of technology—some of Russia’s best—at a time when China is attempting to develop its own aviation industry and become as self-sufficient as possible.

Additionally, Beijing would also be able to get an up-close-and-personal look at the advanced engines that power the Su-35. Presumably, China could learn a great deal from the latest in Russian aircraft engine design—an ongoing weakness in Beijing’s own fighter aircraft development programs.

“Large powerful engines, the ability to supercruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform on paper,” said one highly experienced F-22 pilot to TNI, also back in December.

But Will It Happen?

The deal itself has been the subject of rumor and speculation for a number of years now. History shows that even with signs that an agreement is close to be finalized, there is the strong possibility it could fall through again.

The biggest reason: Russia may get cold feet.

As I have explained on a number of different occasions, Russia has multiple reasons to hold off selling one of its most capable pieces of military hardware to China.

Moscow's last big jet sale to China, the Su-27, should give Moscow some serious reason to pause or scrap the deal altogether. When Russia’s defense industry was on its back in 1992 after the death of the Soviet Union, China purchased $1 billion worth of the then-advanced fighter. Future Sino-Russo military sales seemed to have a bright future. Plans were laid for an expansion of the agreement for the sale of up to two hundred jets, with huge quantities to be assembled in China. The deal would, however, collapse after the first hundred or so jets were delivered when Moscow accused Beijing of replicating the jet and prepping it for resale under the names J-11 and J-11B.

Chinese officials denied the allegations quite strongly. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010, Zhang Xinguo, deputy president of AVIC, claimed the jets were not a copy.

“You cannot say it’s just a copy,” Zhang boldly asserted. “Even if it looks the same, everything inside cannot be the same.”

However, with oil prices dropping and Moscow looking to lock in strong ties with Beijing as tensions in Ukraine continue to simmer, Russia might consider the sale of the advanced fighter a small price to pay towards a longer-term partnership. Stay tuned, this could all get very interesting. 

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.