By Bilal Khan
As with the Yak-130 story, there are reports floating around claiming that Pakistan may be interested in the Sukhoi Su-35, Russia’s current 4+/4.5 generation fighter. The short of my point is that it is very unlikely that Pakistan will pick up the Su-35. At the same time however, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) not acquiring the Su-35 does not necessarily mean that Pakistan will not acquire other high-value systems from Russia. Yes, Russian-Pakistani defence relations are at an all-time high, especially with Moscow’s willingness to sell Pakistan RD-93 turbofans and Mi-35 assault helicopters, but it is important to manage expectations.
It is no secret that Pakistan’s purchase of the Mi-35 was seen as a major milestone for Pakistani-Russian commercial defence ties, especially since the Mi-35 (despite the Pakistan Army’s requirement for using it as part of its counter-insurgency efforts) is at heart an ‘offensive’ system. Perhaps more significant was Russia’s willingness to sell the RD-93 turbofan, which powers the JF-17, an increasingly vital pillar of Pakistan’s defensive and offensive strategies against external powers. There really is no room for Russia to claim that its arms-transfers to Pakistan are innocuous to India. Thus, if the PAF was genuinely interested and able to purchase it, then I am sure the Russians would sell the Su-35 to the PAF.
But herein lies the problem, the PAF is not interested in the Su-35. Yes, there have been some thoughtful calls on the part of many enthusiasts and even experts for the PAF (or even Pakistan Navy!) to buy the Su-35, or at least some kind of Flanker (e.g. the Chinese J-11B/D). The rationale stems in part from the fact that the Su-35 is a formidable long-range fighter with considerable payload. For long-range strike and maritime patrol operations, a fighter of the Flanker’s nature would, without doubt, be a valuable asset. Even the Indian Air Force’s Su-30MKI presents a real and serious problem for the PAF, and even with the advances coming up with JF-17 and the induction of the Block-52+/MLU, the Flanker is a major challenge.
At the same time however, the Su-35 has its drawbacks, and those drawbacks will be of particular concern to the PAF. The Flanker-series has shown itself to be a maintenance challenge, and even on a good day, a fighter as large and powerful as the Su-35 would require considerable resources in servicing and flight. As far as the PAF is concerned, the Su-35 would be a mismatch that could end up costing the PAF more than actually benefitting it. Do not construe this point for suggesting that the PAF does not need fighters with additional range and payload (compared to the JF-17), it does, but this fighter needs to be feasible enough to operate. What would be the point of possessing such a high-value asset if it cannot be flown regularly enough due to mounting maintenance and operational costs? And let us assume the PAF can regularly fly Su-35s, what about the opportunity costs of spending that extra money?
As far as I am concerned, talk about the PAF looking into the Su-35 is a non-starter. In fact, at this stage anyways, the PAF is probably looking into the Shenyang J-31 as the nucleus of a possible long-range flight element. In essence, the J-31 probably sit in the comfortable middle between the Su-35 and JF-17 in terms of improving upon the latter’s range and payload, but avoiding the former’s maintenance overhead. Yes, this is not happening any time soon, but let us be frank, the PAF is not in a position to immediately induct such platforms anyways. Pakistan’s general economic woes and internal inefficiencies aside, the country spent nearly $2 billion U.S on its recent campaign in Waziristan. It is difficult to expect to see the induction of an entirely new fighter type this soon.
With all that said, there is still significant room for growth in Pakistan’s relations with Russia. While the PAF is unlikely to acquire the Su-35 or Yak-130, there might be a chance to see it pursue Russian surface-to-air (SAM) missiles such as the S-300. The PAF has had a longstanding requirement for long-range SAMs and has made some attempts over the past decade or so to acquire this capability. If there were a chance for a truly landmark deal between Russia and Pakistan, then the S-300 would be it, though there is nothing at this stage to suggest that this is happening, unfortunately. Besides that, we can comfortably expect additional Mi-35, Mi-171 and perhaps even RD-93MA for use on the JF-17.