Reuben F Johnson JDW Correspondent
Russian fears that China would copy its Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft may yet scupper a deal that Moscow and Beijing are reportedly close to signing for an export sale of the fighter to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
A source in the Russian government told the influential Moscow daily Kommersant : “The two sides are in practical agreement regarding the delivery to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] of 48 Su-35s at a cost of USD4 billion.”
However, reports on this sale continue with the additional detail that “an unanticipated obstacle to the deal has emerged. Moscow is requiring that Beijing provide a legally binding guarantee that it will refrain from making reverse-engineered copies of the Russian fighter – largely so that this does not create a potential competitor in the market to sell the aircraft to other countries. China is no hurry to provide this guarantee.”
Russian sources close to the Federal Service for Military-Technical Co-operation (FSVTS) state that such a guarantee “is an essential condition” of the sale. Some of the same industry sources point out that the Chinese have used their assistance from Russia or have copied designs to create competitors for almost every class of combat aircraft that Russian industry offers for export and they do not want a repeat of this experience.
“No one really believes that the Chinese will actually purchase all 48 Su-35s,” one industry representative told IHS Jane’s . “They may sign a contract that says they are obligated to take delivery of all 48 but after they have received some number of aeroplanes they will truncate the deal, just as they did with the licence production of the Su-27SK.”
China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) signed an agreement in 1995 to manufacture 200 Su-27SK aircraft but only ended up building 95 of these models before Russia says it cancelled production and started producing the J-11B, its own “illegal” copy of the aircraft.
The J-11B has also has been offered to export customers as an alternative to the Russian Su-27 and Su-30MK models. Shenyang, industry sources point out, has also created a copy of the Su-33 carrier-capable fighter – developed from one of the T-10K/Su-27K prototypes that remained in Feodosia, Ukraine, after the break-up of the Soviet Union – in the form of the J-15. Another Chinese fighter designated J-16 and also from Shenyang is claimed by Russia to be an illegal copy of the Su-30MK2.
Some of the same Russian sources recount that the cheaper, simpler fighter designs offered by China have already damaged Russian export prospects. The Chengdu FC-1/JF-17 model, which is a modernised and modified variant on the Mikoyan MiG-21, is credited with ruining chances for a sale of the MiG-29 in Egypt and causing problems with a MiG-29 sale to Myanmar. The issue was so serious that “in July 2010 the Russian Presidential Administration commissioned a study on the subject,” said one source.
“We have reliable customers like Venezuela standing in line waiting for this aircraft; they would like to have the Su-35, will purchase all the aircraft that they initially sign for and will not try to copy the aircraft as the Chinese intend to do,” said a Russian industry representative. “It makes no sense to let the Chinese jump the queue in front of these buyers. Some of us would be happier if this deal with Beijing is just never signed because we know how it will end.”
Some of the same Russian industry representatives who have experience in working with China on previous sales and licence-production of the Su-27SK/J-11 have previously told IHS Jane’s that Chinese manufacturers were looking to acquire the technology that is on board the aircraft, specifically the NIIP Irbis-E passive electronically scanned-array radar and the Saturn/Lyulka 117S jet engine, a next-generation modernisation of the Su-27’s AL-31F engine.
The 117S is at present also the powerplant used in the Sukhoi T-50/PAK-FA fifth-generation fighter undergoing flight testing at the Gromov Flight Research Institute in Zhukovskiy. A Chinese request in 2010 to purchase an unspecified number of 117S engines, assumed to be for use in the new Chengdu Machine No 2001/J-20 stealth attack aircraft programme, has not been signed-off.
The assessment of Russian military technology analysts who have been following the history of defence co-operation with China is that Beijing’s aerospace industry has hit a technological bottleneck in its work on building copies of the Su-27, which contains a radar and other systems designed more than 30 years ago. The function of the Su-35 purchase, they assert, is to give the Shenyang design team access to more contemporary Russian know-how.
“Preparing to purchase such a large number of these fighters is a clear indication that the Chinese have come up against serious technical problems in the process of their work to make modifications to their aircraft, which are based on the Su-27,” said Vasily Kashin, one of the specialists at the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Moscow think-tank with close ties to Russian industry. “With this purchase they can learn about new-age fighter aircraft [design],” he said.
It is not clear what the PLAAF would be receiving in the Su-35 deal in addition to the aircraft (in terms of additional engines, weaponry, spare parts and so on). According to the contract negotiations thus far the Su-35s would cost about USD85 million per unit, which is considerably higher than the USD50 million per aircraft that is supposedly the price charged to the Russian Air Force. Sources close to the intergovernmental commission discussing the sale state that “the price may change in the process of negotiations”.