The Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” was never planned to exported when it was originally developed, unlike its lighter cousin, the MiG-29. However, ever since being approved for export it has been one of the most popular fighter exports in the Asian region. The first customer for the Su-27 was China, which secured a procurement deal while the Soviet Union still existed. But how did Beijing accomplish this?
The beginning of the Su-27’s export success began with the Sino-Soviet thaw in 1989. During Gorbachev’s visit to China in May 1989, motions were made to reopen Sino-Soviet military trade. This was followed by an interview published in a magazine in September 1989 that stated that there would be no political obstacle to China acquiring MiG-29 fighter aircraft. In May 1990, a Chinese delegation visited the Soviet Union to discuss the acquisition of advanced aircraft. This delegation saw demonstrations of the MiG-29, Su-27 and various helicopters.
The Soviet handlers attempted to push the MiG-29 onto the Chinese delegation, pointing at the long history of Chinese adoption and adaptation of MiG aircraft. However, after seeing the demonstrations, the Chinese delegation wanted the Su-27. Reasons cited were the larger combat radius of the Su-27, the advanced fly-by-wire system (compared to the MiG-29’s simple hydraulic controls) and the superior performance of the engines in the Su-27 in both raw power and operational life. This would provide the best platform on which future upgrades could be built, a modern “base” on which the next generation of Chinese tactical aircraft would draw from.
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Given the significant Chinese modernization and upgrade programs for the MiG-21 (J-7 in Chinese service) that were necessitated by the long Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese industrial base has had significant experience modifying and improving Soviet designs. Chinese leadership probably felt that the Sukhoi’s superlative aerodynamic capabilities and large airframe made it the most suitable for such experimentation and upgrades, compared to the MiG. While the Soviets resisted, the economic troubles of that era probably lead them to greenlight the Chinese procurement of the Su-27. Chinese sources point more to a spirit of brotherly cooperation and a need to make amends following the long period of chilly relations, but an economic incentive seems more likely.
Following negotiations in the winter of 1990, China signed an agreement to purchase twenty-four Su-27SK and Su-27UBK (K indicating Kitai, meaning China) fighters. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin continued to honor this arrangement, and the first fighters were delivered on June 27, 1992.
But this was not enough for China. Realizing the dire economic straits Russia faced in the 1990s, they pushed for technology transfer of the Su-27, including the full production line. This, too, was agreed on in 1995. China then began licensed production of the Su-27 as the J-11.
This strategy appears to have paid off in spades for China, as apparently one of the original goals of the Su-27 adoption was to have an advanced “chassis” on which Chinese technology could be adopted and developed. We can see this in spades in the myriad of versions of the J-11 China has put out in recent years. The J-11B features AESA radars, composite components, Chinese glass cockpits and Chinese engines. The J-16D represents a Chinese attempt to make an EW aircraft similar to the EA-18G “Growler.” Unlike India, which opened the MMRCA program to find a multirole fighter aircraft because it deemed its Su-30MKIs as incapable of being true multiroles, the J-11 can employ a wide variety of Chinese ground-attack munitions, including Chinese versions of the American Small Diameter Bomb. Russian equipment has been steadily replaced, from the oxygen generators to the radar warning receivers.
Despite these advances, China continues to acquire Russian jets, though this is largely in order to acquire technologies in the latest versions of the Flanker, the Su-35. China acquired these aircraft in December 2015. Supposedly, the primary item of interest is the improved engines in these aircraft, following China’s failure to get a license to produce that specific part and its own difficulties in producing clones of the original Su-27SK engines for the J-11. Regardless, the reasons for China’s adoption of the Su-27 stand: Beijing wanted the top-performing fighter with the best technology from which it could learn, and got it.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.