TAIPEI — Though not in the bag yet, defense industry analysts and sources in Moscow have confirmed that Beijing and Moscow are negotiating the first Russian export sale of the twin-engine Sukhoi Su-35 multi-role fighter.
If the deal goes forward, China’s fighter capabilities become much greater and the military challenge to regional powers increases. The Su-35s Saturn engines give it a unique supermaneuverability capability.
The principle hurdle has been overcome, said a U.S. defense analyst. Russia has just “caved-in” to demands by China to reduce the initial procurement from 48 fighters to 24 fighters.
“The negotiations on price and other conditions of this deal will take place the next year,” said Vasiliy Kashin, a researcher at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). “Such negotiations can also be quite difficult. The contract, I think, is not likely before 2014.”
During the 2012 Airshow China (Zhuhai Airshow) in mid-November, Russia’s RT media outlet quoted Mikhail Pogosyan, president of the United Aircraft Corporation, confirming China’s interest in the Su-35.
“The Chinese are showing interest in this jet. But we have agreements that we disclose information only upon reaching actual agreements. So, I am not going to comment on the pace of negotiations,” Pogosyan told RT. He also promised the Su-35 would be present at the next Zhuhai Airshow in 2014.
Russia’s new defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited China in mid-November and met with Hu Jintao, China’s outgoing president and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Whether a Russian deal with the current members of the Politburo and the CMC will survive the March turnover of leadership to a new crop of Chinese leaders remains to be seen.
There are fears China will only procure 24 fighters with the intention of reverse engineering and copying the fighter, as they did with the Su-27SK.
In 1995, China secured a production license to build 200 Su-27SKs, dubbed the J-11A, for $2.5 billion from the Shenyang Aircraft Corp. In 2006, Russia cancelled the deal after 95 aircraft when it discovered China had reverse engineered the aircraft and was secretly producing an indigenous copy, the J-11B, with Chinese-built avionics and weapons.
There are also suspicions China will only want the Su-35 engine for the twin-engine Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. The engine in the Su-35 and the T-50 is the Saturn AL-117S, which is an upgraded variant of the AL-31FN. China already imports the AL-31FN from Russia for the single-engine Chengdu J-10 fighter.
“If they procure one spare for every four installed [on China’s Su-35], which you don’t really need, then that’s a warning sign,” said the U.S. source. “There is no fixed ratio for spare engines to installed engines [for the deal] at this time.”
Despite all the obvious bear traps stepped into during the J-11 disaster, the Russian aviation industry needs money and must keep its fighter production line moving. “If it stalls out and the T-50 fighter does not come online as scheduled, then the Russian air force will need them [Su-27/MiG-29],” he said.
The Sukhoi T-50 is the prototype for the PAK FA stealth fighter, intended to replace the Russian air force’s Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters. Delays and problems in the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program are a nagging reminder that glitches can occur in fifth generation fighter programs.
The question of whether the Chinese procure more then just 24 Su-35s is “complicated,” Kashin said.
“The key question is if the Chinese can apply the Su-35 technology to their J-11B family aircraft. If the difference between these two types is big enough, than they cannot absorb that technology quickly and there is the possibility that they will evaluate the Su-35 and then buy additional number of them,” he said.
Kashin said the first batch of Chinese procured Su-27SK fighters in 1992 was for only 26 aircraft. “If they like it and if the J-11B project is not going smoothly, than they can buy more,” or buy the license to build the Su-35 in China.
“The J-11B program is in big trouble; the Chinese have lost a lot of aircraft in crashes,” said the U.S. source. “They have also reached a technological plateau and need help going to the next step beyond the Su-27/J-11.”
No country has procured the Su-35 before, though Brazil, India and South Korea have considered it. China has shown an interest in the Su-33 carrier-borne fighter and the Su-35 before, but previous problems with intellectual property rights infringement with the Su-27 burned Russian arms merchants — that is until now.