MELBOURNE, Australia — Indonesia has admitted defeat in its attempt to buy Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, and will now decide between two Western designs, the Southeast Asian nation’s Air Force chief announced in December.
Nevertheless, Russia’s aerospace industry is thriving through a lucrative export market in the Indo-Pacific region, selling multirole fighters, light-attack aircraft and helicopters to traditional customers and making inroads into new ones.
The Yakovlev Yak-130 advanced trainer/light-attack aircraft is a popular choice among regional air forces seeking to recapitalize fleets of legacy Russian or Soviet bloc trainer aircraft or to acquire light-attack and air defense capabilities.
The aircraft offers advanced avionics, including a fly-by-wire flight control system and a digital glass cockpit. It can carry a range of rockets and guided and unguided bombs as well as air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
Russia’s state-owned arms export agency Rosoboronexport says the Yak-130 “training (combat-training) aircraft is intended for flight and operational training of flying personnel as well as for performing combat missions.” It adds that the aircraft “can be effective as a light attack aircraft in engaging air and ground (surface) targets.”
The type is in use with the air forces of Bangladesh, Laos and Myanmar, which operate 11, 10 and 18 of the aircraft, respectively. Vietnam has also begun accepting deliveries of a dozen it has on order.
Through its purchase of the Yak-130, the small Air Force of the landlocked Southeast Asian nation Laos has gained an air defense capability for the first time since the late 1990s.
In contrast, Vietnam will likely use its Yak-130s mostly as trainers, replacing its aging Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros trainers and providing its future pilots with a modern platform able to replicate the newer aircraft in its fleet, including Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 jets.
Myanmar is a relatively new market for Russia, having previously been reliant on China as its source of arms and other military equipment. The Southeast Asian country is also an operator of the Russian Mil Mi-35P attack helicopter and has six Sukhoi Su-30MKE multirole fighter jets on order, the latter following a 2018 contract.
Russia said in July 2021 it is committed to delivering on the aircraft deal despite the February 2021 coup that saw Myanmar’s military take over the government. Myanmar’s Air Force has used its Yak-130s and Mi-35Ps in combat against the insurgency that sprung up after the coup.
The largest Indo-Pacific market for Russia’s aerospace industry remains China, although technological advancements by Chinese businesses have led to a downward trend in Beijing’s interest in Russian platforms.
China’s reliance on Russian aircraft engines, a long-reported Achilles’ heel of Beijing’s military modernization drive, is also likely to wane as local aerospace engine developments continue apace, said Andreas Rupprecht, who has written several books on Chinese military aviation.
Some Chengdu J-10 fighters are in operational service with the WS-10 engine in lieu of the Russian AL-31s. Recent months have also seen the Chinese WS-10 fitted on several of China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters.
Additionally, satellite imagery of the Xi’an Aircraft Company’s production facility at Yanliang airfield in Xi’an show at least four Y-20 strategic airlifters and Y-20U tankers fitted with the WS-20 high-bypass turbofan.
Rupprecht told Defense News he would be surprised if any future indigenous fixed-wing aircraft design meant for China’s military uses Russian engines. He noted that China’s Xi’an H-6K bomber is also believed to be earmarked for re-engine work using domestic technology, which is currently undergoing flight tests and would replace the Russian D-30KP turbofan.
China’s latest aircraft purchase from Russia was an order for an unknown number of Mil Mi-171Sh transport helicopters, placed sometime in the second half of 2020. Initial rumors of the sale spread in September that year, and a news segment broadcast on China’s Phoenix TV showed a helicopter with Chinese markings at Russian Helicopters’ Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant. The acquisition followed the purchase of a small fleet of Su-35s from Russia in 2015, with deliveries starting two years later.
It was reported that the Mil Mi-171Sh helicopters are configured for combat search and rescue missions, and feature a “complete self-protection package.” Deliveries of these began sometime in 2021 and are reported to serve with an as-yet-unknown brigade in the Eastern Theater Command.
The acquisition caught observers by surprise, given China’s indigenous helicopter program that has led to the development of several medium and heavy transport helicopters as well as attack helicopter designs. But the purchase is part of a continuing trend in which China buys niche capabilities that it has yet to produce itself — in this case, for combat search and rescue.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.