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This Week in Review: Understanding Russian-Pakistani Defence Ties

Every weekend, Quwa will close the week’s news with a review and analysis with the aim to tie together several topics into broader themes. It is an opportunity to reflect upon and discuss issues in a way where key trends are identified and individual news topics are connected into a “bigger picture.”

Understanding Russian-Pakistani Defence Ties

There has been a visible uptick of attention on the question of Pakistan’s defence ties with Russia, and the Sukhoi Su-35 is at the epicentre of it. Talk of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s supposed interest in the Su-35 has been circulating for a year, but over the past week, several Russian media outlets have apparently drawn confirmation of the subject from high-level Pakistani officials.

Major General Naveed Ahmad, head of Pakistan’s Directorate General of Defence Purchase (DGDP), was quoted by RIA Novosti saying: “We analyze this (Su-35 – Ed.). We expressed an interest, right now it is up to the Russian side, the negotiations have progressed further it will take some time.

If the DGDP’s statements to RIA Novosti are accurate, then this would mark the first official and verifiable Pakistani statement on the Su-35. Furthermore, it would lend credence to the idea that the PAF is seeking another fighter platform in addition to the JF-17, F-16 and its next-generation program. Of course, even the DGDP cautioned that while Pakistan has expressed interest in the fighter, the decision to progress to the next step is, ultimately, with Russia.

A fighter aircraft sale to Pakistan – especially of the Su-35 – would be unprecedented and significant. Such a sale would mark the first instance of Russia transferring a weapon system that could tilt the conventional balance between India and Pakistan in the latter’s favour. Granted, a sale of two or even three squadrons would alter the balance, but it would imbue the PAF with range, payload and coverage capabilities it does not currently enjoy with its present fleet, which is comprised of light and medium-weight fighter aircraft.

However, in light of Moscow’s strong and longstanding defence ties with New Delhi, the notion that it would approve of a Su-35 sale to Pakistan – especially at this time – is difficult to envision. Interestingly, this is not the first time Moscow and Islamabad had gotten on relatively close grounds on fighter aircraft. In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union had begun selling arms to Pakistan, and at the time it was believed that Moscow was interested in selling fighter aircraft to the PAF. In the 1990s, the PAF had expressed interest in the Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29. Despite the buzz, no fighter sale had been secured.

Interestingly, in both instances, the apparent progression in ties between the PAF and the Russian defence industry was in the aftermath of U.S. sanctions on Pakistan. With the U.S. being a traditional supplier of high-tech qualitative drivers (such as the F-16 and its various subsystems) for its fleet, sanctions have had an acutely severe impact on the PAF. The 1990s had a particularly negative impact in setting the PAF back. However, the situation today is not one of U.S. sanctions, but that of American reluctance to bankroll the Pakistani military’s conventional defence aspirations. Whatever the cause (and there are many to list), the idea that Pakistan could continue sourcing high-tech military equipment from the U.S. is not realistic.

As a result, Russia is viewed as an alternative. In fact, in addition to the Su-35, the DGDP also listed Russian tanks, anti-tank missiles, and air defence systems are areas of interest to Pakistan. From these statements, it is evident that Pakistan is broadly interested in the idea of procuring Russian arms, and the notion that it could express interest in such things is an indication that Moscow is relatively open to the prospect. In fact, the DGDP was hopeful that a deal for RD-93 turbofans (for use on the JF-17) would be signed soon, and the PAF, as well as Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), are interested in broadening the scope of the RD-93 (via a maintenance, repair, and overhaul centre as well as possibly the RD-33MK).

It would be disingenuous to argue that Russia would not transfer sophisticated arms to Pakistan. In some respects, such as the Pakistan Army, the market is certainly worth pursuing in that there is demand for utility helicopters, attack helicopters, armoured vehicles (or armour expertise), small arms, and munitions (e.g. anti-tank missiles). In other words, a vendor will profit.

Moscow likely understood this in 2015 when it broadly agreed to sell arms to Pakistan, and as such, it is probably hopeful of landing a big-ticket sale of some kind, such as the Mi-28NE. Russian officials were reportedly supportive of the idea of selling Mi-28NE attack helicopters to Pakistan. According to IHS Jane’s, Moscow framed its interest from the angle of supporting Pakistan’s counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts (apparently in a bid to cool sensitivities from New Delhi). One could comfortably wager that tanks and/or armour technology could be on the cards, especially considering the Army’s quantitative scale.

With the possible exception of security issues affecting Central Asia, Pakistan’s COIN and counterterrorism efforts are of limited direct relevance to Moscow. Ultimately, Moscow’s interest to sell the Mi-28NE (and in time other arms) stems from its commercial defence interests, not strategic interests or alliances. The country has limited interest in matters that do not concern its immediate frontiers. At this stage, Pakistan is neither a threat or an asset. Rather, it is a viable market for arms. As a result, Russia’s enthusiasm will be gauged on the basis of the weapon system that is of interest to Pakistan.

The Su-35 will draw India’s ire, and if New Delhi cannot leverage its existing contracts, there is little to stop it from proposing new lucrative areas to Russia as a means to nix such a sale. In fact, even if the PAF succeeds in securing the Su-35, who is to guarantee that India will not tirelessly work to cut the PAF’s access to that fighter’s supply chain? If viewed differently, what if Russia decides to beset the PAF with a requirement to buy Russian munitions along with the Su-35, especially in areas where the PAF already has access to comparable solutions, such as precision-guided bombs? If it is going to sustain India’s ire, Russia has every incentive to vertically integrate and milk a Pakistani order in its entirety.

On the other hand, there is a unique aspect to Pakistan’s ties with Russia – China. Through the decades, the Chinese have essentially been Pakistan’s conduit for accessing Russian military technology. Earlier examples include the F-6 (MiG-19), F-7 (MiG-21) and T-59 tank (derived from the T-55). In recent times, the Chinese have been a critical agent in securing essential Russian support, such as the RD-93 turbofan for the JF-17. How this relationship with translate in terms of the Flanker series is, at this stage, a matter of creative speculation. However, there is little India could do to stop Pakistan from benefitting from a joint-program or initiative between Russia and China, or a Chinese program that requires Russian support.

Despite the uncertainty in the Su-35, there may be substantive areas of development in the pipeline, most notably in relation with the JF-17. In addition to bringing the RD-93’s MRO infrastructure to PAC, the PAF has (via IHS Jane’s) interested in the idea of using the much-improved RD-33MK on the JF-17. While this idea is likely in the context of possible variants after the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III, the introduction of a turbofan would have fleet-wide benefits for the PAF (since the JF-17 is the emerging backbone fighter).

In terms of other direct procurements from Russia, Pakistan’s main enabler rests in its economy. As long as its future economic prospects remain unsure or below potential, it will be difficult for the country’s military planners to be liberal or ambitious with their ideas.

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  • by Alex Retiman
    Posted September 11, 2016 12:56 am 0Likes

    The only reason Su-35s would be sold to PAF would be due to strategic reasons and not commercial. There are clouds of war gathering in Central Asia due to US/Nato encirclement policies. Pakistan is vital for the success or failure of this encirclement. And thus the reason for Russia to engage Pakistan. Just my 2-cents.

  • by FAUJI JAT
    Posted September 11, 2016 1:23 am 0Likes

    I think Pakistan will never get Su 35 aircraft.

  • by MT
    Posted September 11, 2016 2:52 am 0Likes

    Pakistani are probably expecting too much from Russia. I doubt if Russians want to sacrifice their relationship with India for couple of bill$>
    Selling SU35 ll mean end to Indo Russian sukhoi super upgrade,Pak Fa & S400. We saw how Indian govt cancelled scorpene follow up contract.
    Pakistan was definitely a useful country until last decade as it used it’s location to get American subsidized weapons . usa pak both had shared interest to contain India.

    India Pak has been dehyphenated and there is no interest in Western countries to bankroll weapons as they have all failed to force Pak pursue normal policy in region.
    Technicaly cheen controls Pakistan economy,investment. There is no room for Russian buiness and investment in Pak.

    Russia need Pakistan bcoz they are scared of pak sponsored Taliban threat to CAR countries.

    I m still not convinced why ll Russia sacrifice 7th biggest economy over a country that needs EMI and loans to fund purchases.

    I can certainly bet that until Pak doesn’t become G20 country it’s almost impossible for pak to get tier1 weapons from Russia because I see no strategic relationship among Pak Russia China.

    currently Russian need Indian money which is in tune of 25bill$ alone for pak fa. Can Pak single handedly replace India as market even if we ignore 10’s bill $indo Russian companies investments in each other oil companies eg Rosneft,Essar energy & Siberian oil field.

    China is biggest threat to Russian super power standing as G2 which hings on Russians Superior military industrial complex.
    Russians and USA both wish China to be denied or delayed into G2. If that were not the case then Russians won’t be selling Brahmos and SSK to Vietnam.

    It ll be interesting to see if Pakistan is able to procure RD33MK for jf17

  • by MT
    Posted September 11, 2016 4:36 am 0Likes

    Usa made good deals with Russia on syria.russian r ready for compromise as that ll help ease off sanction.
    Russia ain’t soviet anymore

  • by SP
    Posted September 11, 2016 7:04 am 0Likes

    Pakistan does not have the option of buying F-35 as the US is reluctant to even sell F-16 to Pakistan without imposing strict conditions in, even if Pakistan could afford the price which it cannot.

    Therefore only option open to Pakistan would be Chinese or Russian aircrafts. As someone suggested the decision to sell would be made according to strategic rational rather than commercial considerations. If the decision is made to sell then financing options can be arranged.

    In the past Russia gave access to Pakistan to evaluate the the SU-27 which PAF considered a capable fighter but Russian didn’t sell it as they viewed Pakistan as non serious and just window shopping. Pakistan then blamed India for exerting influence on Russia to covers its own non seriousness. This time the mood in Pakistan is changing and becoming serious as evidenced by co-operation on engine for JF-17 and Russian help with design aspects. However there is a long way to go and Pakistan would probably go for a Chinese aircraft unless that option is not available but buying a Russian would be a barometer of strategic shift in the relations of both these countries.

  • by Just sayin
    Posted September 11, 2016 8:25 am 0Likes

    The drop in oil prices contracted the Russian economy by 40% still the average per capita income is high,it’s not a poor country that $25 billion in orders from India is just a pie in the sky its not going to happen and if it does would take ten or more years so the $2 or$3 billion order from Pakistan is not shabby and might lead to more orders and service must not forget that Russia has $500 billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves

  • by kashif sheikh
    Posted September 11, 2016 8:37 am 0Likes

    russia has gdp of 1.3 trillion dollar and how much india buy weopens from then may be 2 or 3 billions dollar i dont think so 3 billions dollars can affect the strategic issues of russia who already india is now going towards america for purchasing of weopens and they also know they even dont purchase refale from france because of indians dont have any money

  • by kashif sheikh
    Posted September 11, 2016 8:43 am 0Likes

    russia has economy of 1.33 trillion dollars in which india purchase only weopens of only 2 to 3 billions dollar i dont think so 2 or 3 billion dollars can affect the economy of russia and russians already knows indians know purchasing a weopens from america they are no more interested in russian weopens and they also know they deal of refale is pending from years because indians dont have money they are 7th largest economy only by gdp but reality is that they have popultion of 1.33 billions are 2.23 trillion dollars enough for people of india

  • by MT
    Posted September 11, 2016 9:01 am 0Likes

    Jf17 was designed by Russia as it is nothing but replica of flawed mig33 program sold to China.

    Let’s see if Russians are ready to allow Pak license produce RD93 engines. su35 is much bigger level of engagement

  • by Salman Khan
    Posted September 11, 2016 9:28 am 0Likes

    I think IMO that Russia might actually build strong relationships with Pakistan in many senses. First, if you critically follow the news, you’ll realise that Arab nations and the Turks have suddenly moving to change their alliances towards Russia. The reapproachment with Turkey wasn’t just to return their relations towards normal, it was actually much more than that. Turkey has realised how unreliable pricks Western countries can be. And Arabs followed Turkey as well! For the first time I’ve seen Jubair and Lavrov talk about making strategic relations since five years. Since then, if they ever met they’d talk about the Russian support of Assad’s tyranny. I suppose they realised that although Russians have done bad things, they have proved themselves as extremely reliable allies as they supported Assad without wavering to any global powers. Russia is also a highly favourable ally to Arabs and now to Turkey as well, because unlike the West, their relationships aren’t bound with any further T&Cs in form of social and religious change in their societies; the West would only cooperate well enough if the money is really good, or if the to-be friend is making his country secular and liberal. Of course, Muslims won’t stand down in this matter. Therefore, the relation with Russia contains much respect of each other’s choices. The West say: “Make your country secular and remove all signs of religion and morality, and replace it with our values and ideas, then we’d support you in every last way. Otherwise, we will support you only partially when we fucking wish, (well, even if we completely transform our country, these psychopaths never supported us completely) and we will defame you in our bought media”. Russia is no secular country. Its population still have the values taught by religion. So, strategically, it’s highly probable that Russia would cement a long-term relationship with these new wishful allies.

  • by Syed
    Posted September 11, 2016 10:26 am 0Likes

    The Asian Geopolitics as evidenced in Syria and Afghanistan is placing both China and Russia to check US moves. With recent defence treaty between India and US – India is now a proxy for US. This situation is causing a a realignment even between Russia and Pakistan. The sale of SU 35 would give Russia a friendly leverage with Pakistan – Pakistan can always get alternately the J20 and J31 from China, hence closing the window for Russia. In addition Russia is interested in connecting with Chinese CPEC to get access to Gwadar Port – Dream for Russia since the Czars.

  • by Khalid Riaz
    Posted September 11, 2016 11:00 am 0Likes

    With reference to Pakistan’s interest in Su-35, the question has been raised whether the economic and defense cooperation between India and Russia would provide the latter with the leverage to block the Su-35 sale to Pakistan.

    Let’s start at the broadest level and examine the nuances of arms transfers against the backdrop of the complex milieu of commercial interests and geopolitical imperatives. There is certainly more to strategic calculations than a single minded pursuit of commercial interests alone.

    First, consider the US-China relationship. For the US, China is a much bigger market as well as a source of manufactured imports compared to India. The US-China trade has been thriving. There have been substantial Chinese investments in the past years in the US treasury bonds. Yet, the US seeks to encircle China, and it has recruited India in that project. The US and China compete geopolitically while maintaining a vibrant economic relationship.

    Next, consider the US-Pakistan relationship. Despite its growing commercial and strategic relationship with India, the US is not opposed to “selling” the F-16s to Pakistan. Congress only blocked the concessional financing, not the sale. If Pakistan were to “buy” weapons from Russia on the same terms (hard cash) as they are still available from the US, why would India be able to stop Russia when it is not able to stop the US?

    The comparison of the Indo-Russian and the Sino-Russian relationships is even more interesting. Russia is a supplier of arms and weapons technology to both China and India. If India has so much economic clout in Moscow, why is it not able to forestall the Russian assistance for the Chinese military-industrial complex?

    A spin-off of the Sino-Russian defense industry cooperation is the JF-17, which is powered by the Russian RD-93 engine. Any Su-35 purchases by Pakistan would be limited in number. But the JF-17 is to form the backbone of Pakistan’s air force and, therefore, is far more important to Pakistan (as many as 250 planes could be inducted). India has not succeeded in stopping the indirect supply of RD-93 engine to Pakistan.

    Recently, Russia has agreed to make direct sales of the RD-93 to Pakistan. In future, there might be sales of RD-33MA engine that would enable the JF-17 Block-III to comfortably carry AESA radar and greater munition payloads, making it a much more potent platform. The contours of the emerging scenario should worry India and it should have already used its influence to stop this cooperation dead in its tracks. That this has not happened, and the cooperation may now extend to helicopters for both COIN and attack roles, is not for the want of trying on the part of India.

    We would have to wait and see how the Su-35 affair plays out. The Indian pressure on Russia would be only one factor among the many. Pakistan’s ability to pay, the cost of inducting an additional fighter versus investing the money in development of the JF-17 or the next generation fighter, whether the Russians would insist on single-sourcing the armaments and other systems on the fighter, and the prospects of an advanced chinese twin-engine fighter becoming available in a certain timeframe, are some of the considerations that will have a bearing on the issue.

  • by Jamil
    Posted September 11, 2016 4:25 pm 0Likes

    You can only wish but that is not the reality.

    Pakistan will manage to procure SU35 from Russia for its air force.

  • by Syed Arbab Shah
    Posted September 11, 2016 4:30 pm 0Likes

    By the time Pakistan inducts SU 35S (Approximately 36-40), India will have 270+ Super Sukhoi 30s, 36 Rafaels and upgraded Mig 29s aswel. If you include 90+ F 16s, the balance of power is still in India’s favor.
    Although an offensive weapon, SU 35S in PAF colors, will serve as defensive weapon.

    There is an urgent need to increase the effectiveness of JF 17, with regard to its payload and hardpoints, the necessary structural enhancements/strengthening/modifications be carried out to make it a good weapon. The threat of Brahmos cruise missile is difficult to counter, hence an AESA upgrade is also necessary with an extended target detection/tracking/engagement capability.

    Q. With limited budget, is it cheaper to buy SAMs (or Anti Ship missiles) or 4.5 generation fighters to deny the enemy air superiority over our skies (or prevent Naval blockade in case of PN) ?

  • by MT
    Posted September 12, 2016 2:21 am 0Likes

    Ruskies need Indian support in their oil industry. Just last quarter, Russian company invested 6 bill $ in Indian petrochemical plant–Same with Indian companies which plan to buy 10-15bil$ stake in Rosneft Russia.

    I know its hard for to understand but India is 3d largest consumer of crude oil & it has third largest petrochemical refineries in world

  • by loyalindian
    Posted September 12, 2016 10:22 am 0Likes

    10-15 billion dollar? Thats not too much of an amount for country like Russia. They can have better benefits through China.

  • by MT
    Posted September 12, 2016 1:41 pm 0Likes

    They don’t like over dependency on cheen.

    Source: Vladimir Putin is considering selling part of Russia’s corporate crown jewels to China and India as the president struggles to meet spending commitments before his possible re-election bid in less than two years.

  • by Shamshad Hussain Rizvi
    Posted September 14, 2016 3:16 pm 0Likes

    Very nice analyses of the motives and ways of countries in realpolitik.

  • by MT
    Posted September 14, 2016 3:54 pm 0Likes

    China alone can’t consume all oil. India is third largest consumer of oil after usa China

    Is it that hard for u to understand

  • by MT
    Posted September 15, 2016 1:34 pm 0Likes

    rafale deal finally concluded to be signed on 23rd.

    lets see now if ruskis selll Su35 to pak until 2030

  • by Mazhar
    Posted September 19, 2016 10:04 pm 0Likes

    JF17 is not flawed Mig 33 design but a cancelled US+Isreal design which Israel sold to China.

  • by XoxOOxoX
    Posted September 21, 2016 12:19 am 0Likes

    And in all this how much money does Pakistan have to buy these expensive aircrafts. U guys seemed to have thinking Chinese money as your own money while in reality its far from truth. By the way good luck befriending a nation which helped India break Pakistan into two and a country that is ready to ditch long time ally like India for political and economic favours. It would be a pleasure for Indians to watch it pull support from Pakistan when you guys would need it the most.haha

  • by Muhammad Atif
    Posted November 27, 2016 8:36 am 0Likes

    India and Pakistan both are poor, lazy and fool countries, spending nothing on people and going in to war.
    We both are buyers.
    We both are assemblers not more than that.
    So, be yourself.

  • by haroon
    Posted January 9, 2017 10:27 am 0Likes

    Thank you for letting us know that you don’t know what you are talking about. Haha. Russia is selling weapons and Pakistan is buying. There is no friendship and they are not allies. Just like Pakistan and China are not friends. When you buy groceries from a shopkeeper does he become your best friend? You are confusing countries with school boys.

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