Why Russia's Su-35 Fighter Could Soon Be Everywhere
The CEO of Russian defense giant Rostec Sergey Chemezov revealed late last month that Riyadh is in talks with Moscow over a potential import contract for the Su-35 fighter and Russia’s flagship S-400 missile defense system.
Moscow looks to build on the prior export success of its advanced Su-35 air superiority fighter with a raft of new, high-profile deals. Here are the biggest potential customers mulling Su-35 contracts.
The CEO of Russian defense giant Rostec Sergey Chemezov revealed late last month that Riyadh is in talks with Moscow over a potential import contract for the Su-35 fighter and Russia’s flagship S-400 missile defense system. The news comes amid a sharp downturn in U.S.-Saudi relations following President Biden’s first month in office. The administration’s decision to freeze, review, and possibly restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia has opened a window of opportunity for the Kremlin to expand its arms trade business into what has historically been a tough market for Russia to establish a foothold in.
Seeking to capitalize on the political goodwill generated by its 2017 sale of the S-400 missile system to Turkey, the Kremlin wasted no time in trying to cement a high-profile fighter deal with Ankara—even Russian President Vladimir Putin joined in on the marketing blitz, personally pitching the latest Russian fighters to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the MAKS 2019 Air Show. “We talked about cooperation on the Su-35 and even on the possible work on the new Su-57 plane,” said Putin. Turkey’s defense industry has previously expressed tepid interest in the Su-35 as an “interim” solution while Ankara procures something more advanced: We are in the early stages of our talks with Russia [on fighter purchase]. Su-35s can become an interim decision for us. We need to hold extensive talks on various topics,” Turkey’s Undersecretary of Defense Ismail Demir said in 2019. Turkey, which was ejected from the F-35 program in the aftermath of its controversial S-400 deal, has yet to publicly announce its future fighter procurement plans.
Algeria is still considered a potential customer, despite long-standing speculation that it had already signed a deal for fourteen to eighteen Su-35’s in recent years. The Algerian Air Force conducted a Su-35 evaluation period in 2016; Russian media reported at the time that Algiers was satisfied with the fighter’s performance. To date, neither Russia nor Algeria have offered confirmation of any such deal. Recent reports allege that Algeria has passed up the Su-35 in favor of a more ambitious import contract for Russia’s Su-57 fifth-generation fighter.
In 2018, India withdrew from a joint Russian-Indian program to manufacture a Su-57 export variant known as the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). Russia’s defense sector continues to work to win back India’s fighter procurement business. Although a potential Su-57 export deal remains the big prize for Moscow, Russian officials have signaled that they are open to a joint Su-35 production deal with India. One of the biggest obstacles to any such deal is India’s prior acquisition of the Su-30MKI air superiority fighter, which, despite being less advanced, overlaps with the Su-35’s capabilities to the degree that it makes the latter at least somewhat redundant as a prospective procurement.
United Arab Emirates
Russian state media outlet TASS reported that the United Arab Emirates entered into Su-35 procurement talks with Russia in 2017, with the potential for a preliminary contract to be signed by the end of that year. The state of these talks remains unknown. There is some indication that the thrust of Russia’s advertising focus has since shifted to the Su-57, including an apparent offer to further sweeten the deal with a partial local production arrangement.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.