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Pakistan’s Interest in Russian Arms (Part 1): Su-35 Flanker-E

On 05 April, Pakistan’s Minister of Defence (MoD) Khurram Dastgir Khan confirmed to the Russian News Agency RIA Novosti that Pakistan had begun talks with Russia for the purchase of Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E multi-role fighters, T-90 main battle tanks (MBT) and air defence systems.

Of these, the Su-35 is arguably the leading draw of interest, especially since 2015 when reports emerged of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) showing interest in the fighter.[1] Regarding the Su-35, Khan told RIA Novosti: “As for Su-35 fighters: maybe in the next few years we will be able to achieve this [agreements – ed.]. We are now at the initial stage of negotiations.”[2] To date, this is the highest-level statement from a Pakistani official on the matter. Prior to this was a statement in April 2017 from the previous PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS) – Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman – calling for new fighter aircraft: “Pakistan definitely has to induct new aircraft. We have both Chinese and Russian options.”[3]

Thus, if the Pakistani MoD’s statements are reflective of the reality, then genuine traction has been made between Pakistan and Russia in negotiating for the Su-35. The MoD also qualified his statements by stating that although talks for the Su-35 were underway, it is a long-term (i.e. “next few years”) factor, provided negotiations succeed. For the PAF, the Su-35 would be a much welcome addition in not only enlarging its fleet of high-tech and high-capability fighters, but in enabling for key operational gains.

Deep Strike & Maritime Operations

For the PAF, the main areas where an imported platform is apparently necessary are in recapitalizing the PAF’s deep-strike capabilities and in enhancing its presence for maritime operations. Until 2016, the PAF had relied upon its Mirage ROSE-I/II/II and Mirage 5PA2/PA3 to carry the mainstay of duties in these areas, respectively. However, in the maritime space the Mirages are now complemented by the JF-17, which has joined the No. 32 Tactical Wing at Masroor Air Base under the No. 2 Squadron. This dynamic is discussed in greater detail in the Quwa Premium article, “RIBAT-2018 (Part 1): Improving PAF-PN Interoperability”.

However, while the JF-17 certainly provides the technology improvement – i.e. through a multi-role suite capable of deploying beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM) and data-linking to offboard sensors such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft – it lacks the range and endurance necessary to sustain a persistent air presence at-sea, especially at the heart of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and distant sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC). The utility of the JF-17 diminishes at long-range, which necessitate air-to-air refueling (AAR) and/or fuel pods. AAR will make the deployment complex and risk-prone, while fuel pods will deplete stores meant for munitions.

Speaking to Quwa in March 2018, retired PAF Air Commodore – and once commander of the 32 Tactical Air Wing –  Kaiser Tufail outlined that the PAF required a “fighter aircraft with a much greater range and patrol time, a very powerful anti-shipping and airborne intercept (AI) radar, and long-range supersonic attack weapons.” In other words, a fighter that can independently operate any area of the EEZ while also retaining enough in payload capacity for heavyweight munitions, such as supersonic-cruising ASCM. Tufail also added that “political constraints and the threat of recurring sanctions” render the Su-35 “as a possible choice for the interim period until a stealthy fifth-generation fighter becomes available to the PAF”.

The Su-35 is a twin-engine design powered by a pair of Saturn 117S turbofan engines. It has a payload of 8,000 kg spread across 12 external hardpoints. It has a ferry range of 4,000 km, while its combat radius is 1,500 km.[4] Sukhoi claims that the Su-35’s passive electronically-scanned array (PESA) radar, the Irbis-E, has an aerial detection range of 350 km for targets with radar cross-sections (RCS) of 3m2. It can track up to 30 targets and simultaneously engage eight of them.[5] Thus, the promised specifications measure to the PAF’s apparent requirements, especially if the Irbis-E can be paired to Chinese CM-302 supersonic ASCM, thus providing the PAF with an analogous capability to the BrahMos-equipped Su-30MKI.

For the PAF, the objective is centered on deterrence, i.e. to dissuade India from attempting to cut Pakistan off from its trade routes through a maritime exclusion zone (MEZ). For Pakistan, the hope is to maintain enough aerial, sub-surface and surface assets – each equipped with long-range ASCMs – to make imposing a MEZ an infeasible and overly risky course. Thus, the constraints of a major fighter purchase – including the reality that the PAF is unlikely to order more than two squadrons – are less concerning (though still a weakness). The point is to meet a minimum threshold, i.e. to have the capability to readily inflict damage against surface ships and to interdict intruding aircraft, especially maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).

In terms of deep-strike, the goal would be to augment the 50-60-year old Mirage ROSE-I/II/III. As discussed in the Quwa Premium article, “Analysis: The Case for Pakistan Procuring the FC-31 Gyrfalcon”, the Mirage ROSE-series and the F-16 neatly complement one another: to the PAF, the F-16 excels in air-to-air thanks to the AIM-120C5 and Link-16 tactical data-link (TDL), while the Mirage ROSE can handle long-range strike via the Ra’ad-series of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and H-2/H-4-series of glide-bombs. The Su-35 would essentially supplant the Mirage ROSE in that strike-oriented role and, perhaps, offer an added layer of air-to-air utility thanks to a much longer-range radar and ability to deploy BVRAAMs.

In general, the idea is that the JF-17 forms the “core” of the PAF fleet, managing the near-entirety of the PAF’s defensive air-to-air and short-range air-to-surface requirements. The sizable JF-17 fleet is supported by a smaller fleet of specialist assets – such as the air-to-air F-16 and air-to-surface Mirage ROSE – serving for long-range and/or offensive engagements. The Su-35 would serve in that specialist role.

Uncertainty & Risk

However, despite the potential, there is considerable uncertainty and risk. Granted, there is the obvious aspect of an Su-35 deal simply not coming to fruition, which would render the discussion moot. However, the other aspect is the reality that Russia is different than China, Europe and the U.S. In procuring the Su-35, Pakistan must contend with a different – and potentially conflicting – approach to after-sales support and maintenance, potentially one beyond the PAF’s comfort-zone.

For example, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Su-30MKI fleet was saddled with a spare parts supply channel (from Russia) that prevented the IAF from maintaining a high operational rate.[6] In this respect, pursuing a small fleet could be prudent, especially if the PAF purchases a five or ten-year stockpile of spare parts and spare engines. Though it would push a higher per-unit cost, it would be a simple and relatively low-risk approach to maintaining a minimum operational rate while also placating to Russia’s commercial interests (i.e. to let the Russian industry manufacture spare parts and carry out overhaul of the engines and aircraft).

However, this would be a costly approach, one that might place the upfront cost of the Su-35 at-par with a comparable American or European fighter. The PAF would have to approach the matter from that view, i.e. not from the adage of ‘lower-cost Russian options’. Secondly, a deal of this magnitude will certainly require Moscow to extend a line-of-credit (or for Pakistan to secure it from an accepting third-party) and will certainly mean widening the scope to other areas, defence and non-defence.

Essentially, for Russia to take a risk with Pakistan (i.e. losing India’s business), it would need sizable long-term gains in terms of the Pakistani market. Thus, it is not surprising that the Pakistani MoD also raised the issue of T-90 main battle tanks and air defence systems, especially when both could be had from China.[7][8] However, the situation could extend beyond defence to include Russian access into key Pakistani industries, enabling Russian businesses to accrue long-term profit.

This would be similar to the commercial offset offered for the Indonesian Su-35 deal, i.e. a $570 million Russian investment in Indonesia’s aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) industry.[9] However, while this stabilizes the near-term issue of losing foreign/hard-currency to pay for a Su-35 purchase (that money will return as Russian investment), it poses the risk of hard-currency outflow with profits generated from businesses in Pakistan flying to Russia as return-on-investment. This approach might be sustainable for Indonesia, which has $125 billion in foreign-exchange reserves and annual foreign direct investment (FDI) pull of $32 billion, but Pakistan must tread with care before signing-off on future hard-currency flight (i.e. before it has the foundations to sustainably pull hard-currency via FDI and exports).

Thus, Pakistan’s disadvantageous position vis-à-vis India could harm it even if it does sign an Su-35 fighter deal (along with other armaments). Pakistani decisionmakers could seek to alleviate a short-term defence need at the cost of long-term economic prudency, which in turn can harm long-term defence interests in the form of future procurement or domestic industry development. For Pakistan, dealing with Russia will mean securing a financing/credit source that will not seek to affect other – especially non-defence – areas. One source is China, but it has an incentive to back its own industry with its credit offerings, not those of Russia or other countries. Russia will only budge on this matter if its risk of losing India is removed (either with Pakistan displacing it, or – the only plausible route – of India removing itself).

Note: Part 2 of this series will be published on the Quwa website on Tuesday, 10 April 2018. Part 3 will be published on Saturday (14 April) and Part 4 on Sunday (15 April).

[1] Farhan Bokhari. “Pakistan official confirms Su-35 talks.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 18 September 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20151124073015/http://www.janes.com/article/54532/pakistani-official-confirms-su-35-talks (Last Accessed: 23 December 2017).

[2] “Pakistan and Russia can conclude an agreement on the purchase of Su-35 fighters”. RIA Novosti. 05 April 2018. URL: https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20180405/1518018204.html

[3] “Two fronts – one mission.” Bol Narratives. Interview by Amir Zia of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. 01 April 2017. URL: http://www.bolnarratives.com/two-fronts-one-mission/ Last accessed: 12 December 2017

[4] Promotional Material. Su-35. United Aircraft Corporation. (Last Accessed: 05 April 2018).

[5] Promotional Material. Su-35. Sukhoi.

[6] Vivek Raghuvanshi. “India’s Sukhoi fleet faces problems despite Russian spare parts deal”. Defense News. 22 March 2017. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/air/2017/03/22/india-s-sukhoi-fleet-faces-problems-despite-russian-spare-parts-deal/ (Last Accessed: 04 April 2018).

[7] “Pakistan intends to purchase Russian tanks T-90”. RIA Novosti. 05 April 2018. URL: https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20180405/1518017837.html (Last Accessed: 06 April 2018).

[8] “Pakistan negotiates with Russia on the purchase of air defense systems.” 05 April 2018. URL: https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20180405/1518017867.html (Last Accessed: 06 April 2018).

[9] Bradley Wood. “Indonesia’s Su-35 countertrade deal: Worth its weight in jet fighters?” The Jakarta Post. 27 September 2017. Accessed: 04 December 2017. URL: http://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2017/09/27/indonesias-su-35-countertrade-deal-worth-its-weight-in-jet-fighters.html

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