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Get Ready, America: Russia's Lethal Su-35 Fighter Is Now Part of China's Air Force

Russia has apparently delivered an initial batch of four advanced Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E jet fighters to China.

The aircraft appropriately arrived at the People's Liberation Army Air Force training center in Cangzhou, in China’s Hebei province, on Christmas day from the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association (KnAAPO) plant in Russia according to the BMPB blog—which is produced by Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.

According to the Komsomolsk-on-Amur city government, the first four Chinese Su-35s were officially handed over to Beijing on Dec. 20, but flew out on Dec. 25. The Russians were originally expected to deliver the Su-35s in early 2017, but the Russians agreed to accelerate deliveries in time for Christmas. The Komsomolsk-on-Amur government site notes: “The fighters successfully flew to the destination.”

Moscow’s deal with the Chinese— which was signed in November 2015—stipulates that Russia will deliver 24 Su-35 for roughly $2 billion. Initially, the Russians wanted a considerably larger order, but had to acquiesce to Beijing’s terms. The Russians fear that the Chinese will try to harvest the Su-35 for its advanced technologies as they have done with previous weapons sales. “Russia and China have signed an agreement, which regulates the protection of intellectual property,” Komsomolsk-on-Amur government statement insists. “The fighter will be protected from unlicensed copying.”

But Russia is well aware that an agreement with China to protect its intellectual property might well be meaningless.

Speaking at a lunch event at the Center for the National Interest on November 15, retired Lt. Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky (Ret.), chairman of the executive board of Russia’s PIR Center, said that Russia is not about to hand over the crown jewels of its technology to China without taking precautions. The Chinese version of the Su-35 will not be the same as the one used by the Russian Air Force. “We have export version and a version for our own use,” Buzhinsky said. “The Chinese are very good at copying all kinds of stuff.”

Nonetheless, Russia is confident that its technology will be safe in Chinese hands—particularly the all-important Saturn AL-41F1S engine. “They cannot produce engines,” Buzhinsky said. “We agreed to supply engines for the Su-35, but fortunately—my technical colleagues told me—that it is practically impossible to copy that engine because it is practically impossible just to reach the heart of the engine without breaking it completely.”

Nonetheless, Beijing’s likely motive for the Su-35 purchase is to harvest those aircraft for their technology. While Beijing is working on developing advanced stealth fighter aircraft such as the J-20 and J-31, the Chinese have proven to be woefully behind in developing jet propulsion technology. Indeed, the J-20 is known to use Russian Salut AL-31FN engines—which were originally designed to power variants of the Russian Su-27 Flanker.

While Moscow is confident that China will not be able to pick the Su-35 and S-400 clean of their advanced technology, Beijing has proven to be remarkably adept at technology theft. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin’s safeguards will be effective in preventing the Chinese from reverse engineering the Su-35 and its engines. Only time will tell.  

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia.