How Russia’s Su-35 lost – The Diplomat


Within 24 hours, on February 10 and 11, purchases of Western fighter jets worth $22 billion by the Indonesian Ministry of Defense were announced under two major contracts. The first was an $8.1 billion contract for 42 Rafale twin-engine light fighter jets from France, and the second a $13.9 billion contract for 36 F-15 Eagle heavy fighters from the United States.

The Indonesian Air Force currently deploys 49 fighters in four squadrons, indicating that the 78 new aircraft will not only replace all fighters in service, but also expand the country’s fleet with new squadrons. The backbone of the fleet is currently made up of 33 F-16 and F-5 light fighters, which should be replaced by the Rafales, while the elite is made up of 16 Russian Su-27/30 heavyweights, which should be replaced by F-15s.

The Indonesian acquisitions are remarkable, first of all, for their scale, with $22 billion worth of purchases representing a huge sum even for major arms importers such as Saudi Arabia or Japan and representing a major increase in defense spending. At the same time, the new agreements also reflect the success of US efforts to increase the market share of Western armaments using threats of economic sanctions.

In February 2018, the Indonesian Ministry of Defense announced a $1.1 billion contract to acquire 11 Russian Su-35 heavy fighters, with deliveries to begin by the end of 2019 and additional purchases considered. as probable. However, US intervention, using the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), effectively stalled and then nullified the deal. Enacted in August 2017, CAATSA leveraged the United States‘ place at the heart of the global financial system to influence global arms sales by threatening any customer of a major Russian arms package with economic warfare. It was first applied in September 2018 against China for its $4 billion orders for Russian Su-35 and S-400 air defense systems, placed in 2015.

The law effectively ensures that although a core of countries deeply invested in Russian military hardware, such as Algeria, Vietnam and India, are likely to continue their acquisitions, countries that have sought to shield themselves between Russian weapons and Western ones – such as Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines or Malaysia may have to give Western producers Russia’s market share.

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Since the late 1960s, Indonesia has looked only to the United States for the acquisition of fighter aircraft, buying F-5 and F-16 light aircraft and planning further acquisitions of F- 16 in the 1990s. The perceived threat of US measures to block spare parts for the fleet in the 1990s, which materialized in 1999 in response to alleged human rights abuses in what was then Indonesian East Timor, led Jakarta to diversify its fleet by acquiring Russian Su-27s and later. Su-30 fighters. Acquiring Russian and American fighters in parallel, the former providing a smaller number of elite heavyweights and the latter a larger number of low-maintenance lightweights, was to continue to shape Indonesian acquisition plans. , Su-35s can be supplemented with new F-16 Block 72 aircraft from the United States.

Washington had long been pressuring customers to turn Russian weapons to the West, in part as a means of undermining Russia’s heavily export-dependent defense sector, but CAATSA has dramatically escalated this situation and, in the case of Indonesia, seems to have proved decisive.

The Indonesian government initially issued defiant statements against US sanctions threats, with Defense Minister Riamizard Riachudu saying in October 2018: “Never cancel. We are continuing to implement the contract. It came two months after the Director General of the Indonesian Ministry of Commerce, Oke Nurwan, lamented: “While we are in the process of bartering with Russia, the United States is trying to intervene. Russia’s willingness to accept payment in raw materials, and later to offer heavily customized variants of the Su-35 to Indonesia, seemed like desperate efforts to salvage the deal. Nonetheless, it was announced in December 2021 that Su-35 acquisition plans had been cancelled, with the primary beneficiary appearing to be France.

Indonesia seems to have replaced Russia with France as a secondary fighter supplier. With only Russia and the United States producing heavy fighters for export, Jakarta changed its plans for American acquisitions from light F-16s to heavy F-15s and bought Rafales instead of F-16s. . France’s sales notably benefit the United States not only by undermining Russia, but also by bolstering the often-struggling defense sector of Washington’s NATO ally – a particularly salient point after French anger over the cancellation of a major submarine contract with Australia. It will also generate revenue for American companies, which, alongside several non-French European companies, produce important inputs for the Rafale.

While Indonesia’s new acquisitions allow it to avoid sanctions, this comes at a very considerable cost. Even the light Rafales will be acquired for around $193 million each, while the heavier F-15s are among the most expensive fighters ever exported at $386 million each – compared to just $100 million for the Su-35. When China bought a larger number of two dozen Su-35s, they were sold at around $83 million each, and for an order of 36 to 42 fighters, it is very plausible that the price would drop to less than $80 million.

Meanwhile, the Su-35 is 180% heavier and has 190% more engine power and far greater endurance than the Rafale, which has the weakest engines of any production fighter in the world. The Russian fighter incorporates thrust vector engines, has superior endurance, and notably uses three radars where its Western competitors only align one. The R-37 air-to-air missiles of the Su-35 fighter are fast and can fire much further at 400 km – about twice the range of the Rafale’s Meteor missile and more than double that of the F -15.

This is not to say that the Su-35 is necessarily better, with the F-15 in particular being an even-tier competitor, albeit at nearly five times the price, but rather that the huge cost gap is very difficult to be explained by a performance advantage of Western systems. A number of factors, including the much higher purchasing power of the dollar in Russia, largely explain the price difference in favor of the Su-35. If Indonesia had acquired 78 Su-35 instead of 78 Rafale and F-15, the cost would have been a little over 6 billion dollars instead of 22 billion dollars, the operational costs of the fighter being similar to those of the F-15, although superior to those of the lighter Rafale.

Indonesia’s decisions illustrate the power of U.S. economic sanctions threats, resulting in the provision of much-needed revenue to Western defense industries, a much more expensive and arguably less potent defense capability for customers, and the denial of revenues to Russia’s defense industry as part of wider Western efforts to undermine the country’s economy. The case of Indonesia is far from unique. A notable previous example in the region is the Philippines, where the Department of Defense cited CAATSA threats as the reason for acquiring Black Hawk helicopters from the United States after initially expressing strong interest in the Mi-171. Russian. Similar trends are likely to continue to shape global arms sales unless shifts in the global economy weaken the power of US sanctions and undermine Washington’s ability to use economic and political pressure to influence government decisions. acquisition.


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