Confirmed: Russia Just Sold 24 Lethal Su-35 Fighters to China

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Russia has reached an agreement with the People’s Republic of China to supply the nascent Asian superpower with twenty-four Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighters. The two countries have been discussing the sale of the powerful Russian-built jet since at least 2011.

“Long negotiations for the supply of Su-35 in China are completed, we signed a contract,” Sergei Chemezov general director of Rostec—which is a Russian government entity that helps facilitate Moscow’s defense exports—told the Russian daily Kommersant.

According to Kommersant’s Russian government sources, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force will receive twenty-four jets for a total of $2 billion dollars. The unit price for each Su-35S is expected to be $83 million. “China officially became the first foreign customer of the Su-35 is unprecedented in the history of the contract deliveries of combat aircraft,” a Russian defense source told the newspaper.

It has taken Russia and China a long time to reach this deal. A preliminary agreement had been reached in 2012, but Russia and China have not taken any concrete steps on finalizing an accord for the new jets until now. Much of the delay can be attributed to haggling over the price for the jets, but the Chinese have also insisted that the Russians customize the jet’s cockpit for their particular requirement. That might include Chinese language displays.

Meanwhile, the Russians had initially insisted that the Chinese buy a minimum of forty-eight jets because of fears that Beijing simply wanted to harvest the Su-35 for its technology—particularly, the radar, electronic warfare systems and engines. If Kommersant’s sources are correct, the new deal does not allow for China to license build the Su-35, instead the PLAAF will receive jets manufactured in Russia. Of course, that won’t stop the Chinese from picking the Su-35 clean for technology—it’s just makes the process more difficult.

Ultimately, Russia ended up signing a deal to sell only twenty-four Su-35s to China. Moscow’s hand has been weakened by European sanctions and low oil prices, which means that Russia might have needed the money. The Su-35 deal comes on the heels of several other high-profile Chinese purchases including one last year for the powerful S-400 surface-to-air integrated air defense system worth about $1.9 billion. Once the S-400 is operational, the weapon would allow China to engage Taiwanese aircraft taking off from almost anywhere in on the island from across the strait.

The addition of the Su-35 to the PLAAF arsenal means that China will be about to learn more about its AL-41F1S engine, Ibris-E radar and electronic warfare suite. The Chinese have made huge technological advances, but Russian military technology—particularly for jet engines is light-years ahead. Once the Su-35 is delivered, the jets are almost certainly to be reverse engineered and copied. One can initially expect advanced derivatives of the J-11 Flanker clone, but an entirely new Su-35 clone might follow not long afterwards.

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

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Russia's 'Carrier Killer' (Now ISIS Killer): The Tu-22M3 Supersonic Bomber

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The Russian air force conducted another massive strategic bomber raid on Daesh targets in Syria yesterday.

As before, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS bombers played a prominent role, however, the supersonic Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers conducted the majority of the attacks. “A squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers made airstrikes against 6 ISIS facilities in the provinces of Raqqah and Deir-ez-Zor. They engaged depots with weapons and ammunition, mass concentrations of military hardware, training camps and workshops producing explosives,” reads a statement from the Russian defense ministry.

That statement was later amended to add: “Just a few minutes ago a squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers has made the second massive airstrike against 6 militants’ facilities engaging a communications centre, ISIS ammunition depot, a small factory producing explosives and car bombs, as well as a terrorist training base.”

While videos released by the Russian defense ministry shows that the aircraft were dropping OFAB 250-270 free-fall bombs, the aircraft were originally designed to strike U.S. Navy carrier strike groups in the Atlantic and high value NATO targets in Europe if the Cold War ever turned hot. There is no direct U.S. equivalent to the Tu-22M—the closest is perhaps the Rockwell International B-1B Lancer, which has been de-nuclearized in the post-Cold War-era, has a somewhat similar role. Another rough analogue might be the now retired FB-111 strategic bomber variant of the F-111 Aardvark.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War ISIS Should Fear)

The Tu-22M3 is the last version of the Backfire that is still in service. The aircraft was sold to the Soviet leadership as a derivative of the older and much less sophisticated Tu-22 Blinder—but the Tu-22M is a completely new design that shares nothing with it predecessor except for its designation. The Soviet military basically had to trick the Kremlin into funding the Backfire the same way the U.S. Navy convinced the U.S. Congress that the almost entirely new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet airframe was a derivative of the original F/A-18.

According to the Tupolev design bureau, the first Tu-22M0 prototype was completed in 1969. It made its first flight that year on August 30 with V.P. Borisov as the pilot in command. The first prototype of the current M3 version of the jet first flew on June 20 1977 with production starting in 1978. The last version of the Tu-22M3 became operational in March 1989 just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Tupolev. The Kazan Aircraft Production Association built a total of roughly 500 different Backfire variants.

When the Backfire was introduced into service, it caused a lot of concern within the U.S. Navy because it is designed to carry a massive load of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The jet is fast—it has a top speed of Mach 1.88 and will easily sustain Mach 1.6 for extended periods—and carries 53,000lbs of weapons. Typically, that meant the Tu-22M3 could be carrying ten Raduga Kh-15 anti-ship missiles or three massive Raduga Kh-22 missiles—both of which can hit speeds of around Mach 5.0. The 13,000lbs Kh-22 was especially feared because of its long 320 nautical mile range and 2,200lbs shaped-charge warhead that could cripple an aircraft carrier with a single blow.

(Recommended: 5 ISIS Weapons of War Russia Should Fear

But it also carries conventional free-fall bombs—as many as seventy FAB-250-class weapons or eight FAB-1500-class weapons. A Russian ministry of defense video indicates that the Tu-22M3 dropped OFAB-250-270 bombs—basically 551lbs of blast fragmentation weapons—on Syria.  Dunarit—which manufactures the OFAB-250-270—helpfully points out the weapon “is intended for destruction of military-industrial sites, railway junctions, field facilities and personnel in open terrain as well as in light armoured vehicles and trucks on the march or during attack within the main concentration perimeter.”

(Recommended: The Russian Air Force's Super Bomber)

The Tu-22M3 will eventually be replaced in Russian service by the PAK-DA or potentially even the Tu-160M2—which Moscow has stated will be reentering production in 2023. But that might not be the end of the road for the Backfire. There have been persistent rumors that China wants to buy the aircraft as part of its anti-access/area denial strategy—so it’s not inconceivable that we might see Chinese Backfires one day. Stay tuned…

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

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Is War Between China and India Possible?

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As I was researching and writing the latest Contingency Planning Memorandum for CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, “Armed Confrontation Between China and India,” one of my top priorities was to avoid overstating the probability of the contingency. Throughout most of my conversations with Indian, Chinese, and U.S. policy analysts, I found a striking consensus about the relative stability between these two giant Asian neighbors. This was reassuring, but also slightly surprising given the lingering suspicions and growing competition between New Delhi and Beijing.

Then I started reading a new book by Bharat Karnad, Why India Is Not a Great Power (Yet), and quickly observed that nearly all of the avenues by which I thought a China-India conflict might conceivably emerge (land border skirmish, Tibetan protests, India-Pakistan standoff, and maritime disputes) were also areas where Karnad believes India should pursue far more aggressive policies. The one exception is Pakistan, where Karnad suggests India should principally deploy economic incentives to overcome longstanding hostilities (an approach he recommends for all of India’s smaller neighbors).

Karnad, a professor of National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is unusually strident in his call for India to play an opportunistic power-balancing role in Asia without signing up to either Washington or Beijing’s agenda. He expects that India will never find the United States to be a reliable strategic partner and that China will inevitably represent India’s chief security threat. To chart its own path, India will need to play a more opportunistic and reckless game quite unlike anything we have seen in its history since independence.

Karnad’s prescriptions go well beyond garden variety calls for “nonalignment” or greater Indian “strategic autonomy.” He proposes that India needs to take provocative measures if it wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, and in particular, to “strategically discomfit” China. To these ends, he argues for steps such as mining the Himalayan passes between India and China with atomic demolition munitions, arming China’s neighbors like Vietnam not only with Brahmos cruise missiles but nuclear weapons, and actively bankrolling and assisting an armed uprising in Tibet. Each of these steps would undoubtedly make an armed India-China confrontation more likely and more dangerous.

Quite unlike Karnad, my Contingency Planning Memo assumes that the U.S.-India partnership holds significant strategic value to both sides. As a consequence, I argue that Washington should stand by New Delhi’s side in the unlikely event of an armed confrontation between India and China, even at the risk of heightened U.S. tensions with China. To be clear, however, I also assume that India will not unilaterally pursue the sorts of policies that Karnad advocates and I suggest that Washington’s interest in backing India should apply only to defensive security measures.

These competing perspectives are worth considering because India has important strategic choices to make as its material power grows. I suspect that if India becomes more confident in its partnership with the United States, it will be less likely to pursue risky foreign policy positions. Karnad’s India, on the other hand, with growing power and ambition but deeply insecure about its relations with Washington and convinced of the China threat, would be far more likely to emerge as a dangerous new wild card in the international system.

Daniel Markey is adjunct senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Senior Research Professor and Academic Director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This piece appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here. For more on preventing armed confrontation between China and India, please see CFR’s recent Contingency Planning Memorandum here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

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If North Korea Isn't Communist, Then What Is It?

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Last month I argued that North Korea is not really a communist state, at least not as we normally understand Marxist-Leninist states in the 20th century. For example, North Korea is governed by a monarchic family clan; its 'socialism' has been broadly replaced by corruption (at the top) and informal marketization (at the bottom); it flirts with race-fascism. Yet it does still retain obvious elements of old Stalinist states – for example, in its iconography, obsession with ideology, and anti-Western foreign policy relationships.

In my experience in this area, both scholarly and journalistic, this creates a lot of confusion and intellectual competition, with consequent political repercussions over how exactly to respond to North Korean provocations. There is a wide division out there about just how to interpret North Korea, what it 'really' is, what it 'really' wants, and so on. Similarly, a common retort to de-legitimize one's intellectual opponents in the study of North Korea is to claim another does not really 'understand' the 'true' North Korea.

The easy answer is to throw up one's hands and call North Korea sui generis. That may be right in the way North Korea synthesizes seemingly disparate elements into what should be an ideological rube-goldberg jalopy. But North Korea manages to hang on regardless of how many times we analysts say it is an incoherent mess. So it seems worthwhile to sketch out some of the various interpretations floating around out there. Based on my experience at conferences, in scholarship and journalism, from my trip to North Korea itself, and so on, I would say there are five primary interpretive angles:

1. North Korea as 'classic' Cold War Stalinist alternative to South Korea:

Who believes this? Non-Korean journalists, Korean conservatives and military, non-elite Americans

What is their ideology? Traditional conservative

What is their big fear? A Northern invasion of South Korea

I argued against this interpretation last month, and I would reckon most North Korea analysts would say this is no longer the best way to read Pyongyang. But I find it is still quite popular. Its appeal is obvious. It is easy to understand, parallels nicely with South Korea as the liberal democratic alternate, and fits into an obvious frame – the Cold War.

And because North Korea started out this way, all sorts of vestiges remain: the socialist moniker (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), the iconography (lots of red, the flag, the national seal, the party symbol), the autarkic ideology. And Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, almost certainly believed in socialism or communism (although whether his son and grandson do is matter of intense debate).

2. North Korea as a dangerous rogue state gumming up the works of globalization and U.S. hegemony:

Who believes this? U.S. hawks and think-tankers

What is their ideology? Neoconservative

What is their big fear? Nuclear proliferation

The idea here is that North Korea has actually successfully adapted to the end of the Cold War and remade itself as a gremlin in global governance. It refuses to follow even the most basic rules; its decision-making is a fog to outsiders; it does not belong to any international organizations. It is the most unpredictable state in the system. Back when he was Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz captured this anxiety well: “I'm more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don't understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done.”

3. North Korea as a semi-fascist barracks state

Who believes this? Various intellectuals (Brian Myers, Josh Stanton, Christopher Hitchens, Vox), my North Korean minders

What is their ideology? None

What is their big fear? Nationalist competition with and subversion of South Korea

Brian Myers has led this school, which argues that North Korea is a misunderstood racist state based on Japanese and German fascist forms from the early twentieth century. It rallies its citizens through aggressive race-based nationalism (the defense of minjok), defends the racial 'cleanliness' of Korea in a big intrusive world, insists that ethnic Koreans of other nationalities are still Koreans, and routinely uses racist language in its diplomacy. On top of this, it is one of the most highly militarized states in the world. Racism plus hypermilitarism looks a lot more like fascism than communism.

Notably, when I was in North Korea, my minders used a lot of this sort of language. As one of them put it, 'no mixing' (ie. inter-racial mixing).

4. North Korea as neo-Confucian kingdom defending Korean independence against foreign predators:

Who believes this? Doves (here, here, here), the South Korean left, Korean college students

What is their ideology? Leftist

What is their big fear? American misunderstanding and overreaction

If the above interpretations are all congenial to conservatives and hawks, here is perhaps the one I encounter most from the left. The idea here is that North Korea is more Korean than socialist or fascist, and that if we look at Korean history, we can see where it came from. For example, the North Korean monarchy is not a transplant of Stalinism but a reversion to Korea's earlier Confucian political form, a point evidenced by the inclusion of a Confucian writing brush in the party symbol, and in the DPRK's insistence that it is a modern version of Koguryeo, a much earlier Korean kingdom.

Or, it was U.S. behavior during the Korean War – specifically the extraordinary bombing of the North — which radicalized Kim Il Sung and the Korean Workers Party. If the U.S. had not been so brutal, the logic goes, the North Korea would have been more like North Vietnam or East Germany, instead of the Orwellian tyranny we know today. The policy extension of this view is that North Korea must be brought in from the cold by outreach such as the Sunshine policy.

5. North Korea as a mafia racket masquerading as a country:

Who believes this? No clear school (me, Alastair Gale, Josh Stanton)

What is their ideology? None

What is their big fear? An Inter-Korean federation that effectively subsidizes North Korea permanently

This is perhaps close to the neoconservative interpretation. The more I study North Korea, the more the gangsterism strikes me. North Korea is indeed a trouble-making rogue. But it is far more predictable than rogue/conservative interpretations permit. North Korea is not in fact suicidal, nor is it likely trying to bring down South Korea, invade it, or otherwise achieve Northern-led unification. This is all out of its reach, and there's no way China, Japan or the U.S. would stand by if these eventualities actually began to play out. What Pyongyang wants more than anything else is just to survive, so war is highly unlikely; and its elites want the lifestyle to which their bloody climb to the top has entitled them.

We know that North Korea routinely engages in illicit behavior: smuggling, drug production and running, insurance fraud, proliferation, counterfeiting of dollars and RMB. We know that throughout the 'sunshine' period it took every advantage to demand South Korea pay for joint projects, and even pay Pyongyang off directly. It rips off its own labor force, whether working abroad in Siberia or in the Persian Gulf, or at home in the Kaesong industrial zone. Inside North Korea, corruption is endemic, and its elites gorge themselves at the population's expense. Kim Jong Il's appetites for liquor and women were neronian, while Kim Jong Un has continued his father's partying rule by building a ski resort (yes, really).

In short, North Korea is post-ideological and akin to The Godfather: a massive racket to shake down anyone, inside North Korea and out, to fund the self-indulgent lifestyle of a narrow elite. North Korea is what happens when Don Corleone takes over an entire country and can enforce his clan rule with a secret police rather than just capo henchman. Actually, North Korea is barely a country at all; it's an Orwellian gangster fiefdom.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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Ready for War: Russia's Stealthy Kh-101 Cruise Missile Debuts in Syria

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The Russian strategic bomber raid on the Daesh targets in Syria yesterday marked not only the combat debut of the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack, but of a stealthy new Russian cruise missile. A video released by the Russian defense ministry clearly shows what appears to be the new Raduga Kh-101, which is slowly replacing the older Raduga Kh-55/Kh-555 cruise missile.

The new weapon—which is an extremely long-range stealth cruise missile—comes in two variants. The Kh-101 is the conventional variant, which was launched from Tu-160s against Syrian targets yesterday and the Kh-102, which is the nuclear-tipped variant. The missiles might have a range as great as 3,100 miles by some Western estimates.

However, Russian media indicates that the weapon has far greater capabilities. In 2012, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the conventional variant of the missile would have a circular probability of error of less than 30 feet at ranges of up to 6,000 miles. The missile would use a combination of inertial guidance and satellite navigation using the Russian GLONASS system. Some reports indicate it might have a imaging infrared terminal guidance system.

The missile’s warhead would pack 880lbs of explosives. At the time, Izvestia had reported the weapon would enter service in 2013. Indeed, given that the Russians used the weapon during yesterday’s raid, that appears to have been the case.

There is not much data available about the Kh-102 nuclear version of the cruise missile. One can presume that the nuclear variant will be at least as long-ranged and just as stealthy as the conventional variant. It will also likely travel at tree top levels and it is thought to cruise at about Mach 0.77. The nuclear warhead is thought be a 250KT device.

The nearest U.S. equivalent of the Kh-101 or Kh-102 is the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile, which has been retired from service. But the weapon incorporated a stealthy airframe and a 2000 nautical mile range when it was still in service.

The U.S. Air Force is currently developing the Long Range Stand Off missile which is likely be similar in concept to the two new Russian weapons.

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

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