Despite Russia’s active marketing of the Su-35 fighter in the Middle East, there has been no communication with the United Arab Emirates about supplying this aircraft as of 2021. As stated by the information resource TASS, Alexander Mikheev, the chief of ‘Rosoboronexport’, the state company, made this claim during the international exhibition at the Dubai Airshow 2023.
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Interestingly, the head of Rosoboronexport was quoted by the Russian media as attempting to “soften” the perception of Russian weapons. This was done through the contextual use of the conflict in Ukraine and the showcase of the Su-35 in Ukraine.
According to Mikheev, the Su-35 fighters have proven to be highly effective aviation systems in real-time battle, even under the harsh opposition from the radio-electronic protection and air defense systems.
In an interview with journalists, Mikheev also noted, “We are discussing cooperation with various partners for a wide range of products, which includes the Su-35. We are actively pushing these aircraft in the global market, especially in Middle Eastern countries, by flexibly adapting to the demands of potential clients. However, after 2021, there has been no communication with UAE regarding their acquisition of the Su-35.”
From Mikheev’s statements, it can be deduced that Russia has more or less accepted their export setback for the Su-35S. Apart from the Russian Federation, only China, with 24 units, and potentially Iran, with a plausible supply of up to 24 aircraft at the initial stage, are users of this plane. However, an increasingly growing list of countries initially showed interest in the Su-35, but later changed their decision about purchasing it.
First, let’s recall Egypt which originally ordered the delivery of 24 Su-35SE under a $2 billion contract in 2018, but subsequently backed out from the purchase at the last moment.
As a result, it’s highly likely that Russia is redirecting the “Egyptian” Su-35 units to Iran. Adding to this, Algeria abruptly changed its choice to procure fighters of this model in January 2022 followed by Indonesia in February 2022.
Su-35 for Iran is also not certain
Beginning mid-year, buzz started to circulate that Iran might annul the agreement with Russia to purchase Su-35 fighters. A veiled reference to this was made by Iran’s Minister of Defense.
Mohammad-Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, when queried about the deal’s status – which was presumed to be finalized the previous year – hinted at a change of plans. His comments suggested Iran had the ability to manufacture these high-class fighters domestically.
Without giving away too much information, Ashtiani remarked: “At one stage, we did affirm an intention to purchase, but we’ve since determined that we’re capable of producing these [fighter jets] domestically.” Despite this, the idea of making a purchase wasn’t entirely dismissed. Ashtiani commented that the situation was still being appraised, with the option to revisit the purchase if required.
Intriguingly, in 2018, Iran declared it had started production of the Kowsar fighter, a domestically designed aircraft for the nation’s air force. Several defense experts conjecture that the Kowsar jet is an exact copy of the F-5, a model initially produced in the US during the 60s.
Conjectures have arisen concerning the reasons behind the dissolution of the deal with Russia. Some claim that Israel may have influenced Russia’s decision to retain the advanced fighters from Iran. Additionally, the US government has shown concern over the escalating military relationship between Russia and Iran, viewing it as a potentially destabilising factor for the region.
Babak Taghvaee, an aviation enthusiast and writer, offers a more compelling hypothesis. He contends that the real obstacle is Russia’s reluctance to share crucial technology for producing Su-35 parts in Iran and the unwillingness to pass on know-how for domestic maintenance over the next 30 years.
Taghvaee cited Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi, Commander of the Iranian Army’s Air Force, noting, “the General Staff of the Armed Forces is, for now, opposing the procurement of Su-35SE multirole fighter jets from Russia. This is owing to Russia’s refusal to transfer production technology and provide Iran with the expertise for maintaining the aircraft domestically for the forthcoming 30 years.”
Adding to this, Taghvaee pointed out that Russia is only prepared to sell 25 Su-35Es, originally ordered by Egypt, without providing appropriate maintenance, weaponry, spare parts, and simulation support.
Taghvaee concluded by stating, “Based on previous experiences, such as selling and delivering Su-30SM fighter jets to Armenia and the deceptive decision by the Russian government to prohibit Armenians from utilizing them against Azerbaijan during the recent Karabakh war, one can surmise that the Russians, whom many see as unreliable, could repeat this action with the Iranian air force if they contemplate using Su-35SEs in any future conflicts.”
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