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Pakistani Defence Minister: talking to Russia for Su-35, T-90 tanks and air defence systems

On 05 April, Pakistan’s Minister of Defence (MoD) Khurram Dastgir Khan told the Russian News Agency RIA Novosti that talks were underway with Russia for the procurement of air defence systems, the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E and potentially the T-90 main battle tanks (MBT).

Khan did not provide a timeline as to when these negotiations are expected to reach fruition, but the MoD was clear in stating that talks are in play and that announcements will be made once they are completed.

In terms of air defence systems, Khan did not provide specifics, though RIA Novosti has quoted Pakistani officials speaking of the Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf in the past.

“The air defense system is another kind of weaponry in which we are interested in … we are negotiating, and when we complete it, we will be able to announce it,” Khan told RIA.

Regarding the T-90 MBT, Khan outlined that Pakistan was “interested in T-90 tanks” and that it would “not be a one-time purchase, but a long-term commitment.”

Finally, Khan noted that negotiations for the Su-35 could reach fruition “in the next few years” considering that Russia and Pakistan “are now in the initial stage of negotiations”.

Pakistan and Russia had formally begun building bilateral defence relations following a memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) in November 2014. In 2015, Pakistan signed an order for four Russian Helicopters Mi-35M assault helicopters for $153 million US, which were handed-over to the Pakistan Army in 2017.

The two countries also conducted a series bilateral military exercises – designated “Friendship” – in 2016 and 2017. Russia also invited Pakistan to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) joint-exercise “Peace Mission 2018” which is to take place in September.

Notes & Comments:

Though there has been growth in bilateral defence ties between Pakistan and Russia, it has been hoisted on the framework of counter-terrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN) and regional stability. Indeed, this was apparent in the objectives of their bilateral exercises as well as the armaments Russia positioned to Pakistan (and its justification for engaging such sales with Pakistan).

However, the Pakistani MoD’s statements underline the objective to recapitalize its conventional warfare capabilities. In particular, the Pakistan Army (PA) and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) have either shown (through trials) or overtly called for new equipment. Unfortunately, a continual lack of funding has been one of the major constraining factors to such procurement. Thus, the supplier’s willingness to extend a line-of-credit or loan to kick-start programs is of importance to Pakistan.

This would be a risk for Russia, not just in terms of the financial aspect but the potential fallout of losing India’s business in the future. For example, India has begun issuing RFIs (requests-for-information) for its bid for 110 new multi-role fighters, a deal that could amount to $15-20 billion in long-term business. Thus, the prospect of losing a much larger Indian deal will generally cloud prospective sales to Pakistan.

However, if genuine, the presence of actual negotiations for new defence hardware would be substantive traction. Interestingly, the Pakistani MoD himself has qualified his statements in some areas, for example outlining that the Su-35 issue is years away from becoming a factor. Likewise, the talk of T-90s align with an ongoing PA effort to find an MBT to complement the al-Khalid-series, for which trials are taking place involving the Chinese VT4 and Ukrainian Oplot. Khan was also aware to highlight that an off-the-shelf MBT – which now apparently has the T-90 in the running – would be a long-term and multi-batch purchase.

Nonetheless, even if traction is being made, it is important to temper expectations. It is unclear if there is a big-ticket purchase in the near-term. In this regard, a careful following of Rosoboronexport, especially in November at the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), will be essential.

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