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Sri Lanka may buy a Russian fighter (instead of JF-17/LCA)
September 18, 2019
Photo credit: United Aircraft Corporation

Sri Lanka may buy a Russian fighter (instead of JF-17/LCA)

The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) is reportedly planning to open talks with Russia for the purchase of fighter aircraft. The type and numbers have not been specified, but it seems Sri Lanka is not going to engage with any of its neighbours in South Asia for new combat aircraft to replace its ageing MiG-27s and IAI Kfirs.

According to The Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan news outlet, Pakistan sought to sell eight JF-17s to the SLAF for $29 million a piece in a deal that purportedly had support from a number of key individuals in Sri Lanka.

In response, India exerted considerable political and diplomatic pressure onto Sri Lanka to drop Pakistan’s JF-17 offer. India even pushed the Tejas as a plausible alternative, with the SLAF apparently rejected.

Currently, Sri Lanka is eyeing comparable Russian-built aircraft for about $25 million a piece.

Comment and Analysis

It seems the SLAF fighter acquisition program is in its early stages, especially as the Sri Lankan government is seemingly in the process of properly identifying its available options. The Russian angle is interesting. It is unlikely that the SLAF would be in talks for the Mikoyan MiG-29M/M2 or Sukhoi Su-30 or Su-35 as the unit costs of each those types would be well above Sri Lanka’s budgeted price-point of $25 million.

Given that the SLAF had largely come into contact with lightweight fighter aircraft such as the JF-17, it is likely that it is interested in acquiring the Yakovlev Yak-130 from Russia.

Although designed as a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT), the Yak-130 has the performance benchmarks (e.g. range and combat radius) as well as payload to operate as a capable light fighter. A Yak-130 purchase would be within the SLAF’s budget, and it could additionally opt for an avionics and weapons suite to pair up with its operational needs, such as precision-strike. The Yak-130 is currently in service with four countries, one of which is Bangladesh.

A less likely route could be refurbished MiG-29s. Although a plausible option, it is unclear if Mikoyan has any interest in refurbishing and upgrading used airframes. Moreover, the cost of such a product could be unattractive to Mikoyan, which would prefer channeling orders to its production line.

Among alternate scenarios, Sri Lanka could be incentivized towards the JF-17 or another Chinese platform (such as the L-15) if economic ties between Beijing and Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte grow, and in turn, lead to Chinese-backed loans or line of credit programs.