On the purchase of Su-30SM for the Belarusian Air Force

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The news about the signed contract for the supply of 12 Russian Su-30SM fighters to Belarus became a very noticeable event against the background of a summer calm. Although the details of the transaction are very sparse, nevertheless, we can make certain preliminary estimates.

The price. The main newsmaker of the deal is the Russian side. It is necessary to operate with the data that it provides. Moreover, the data is not official. Therefore, its correctness is questionable.

Let’s note that the statement of the Russian source about the cost of each fighter for Belarus of USD 50 million means that the deal is concluded on Russian terms without any discounts in connection with special relations between Minsk and Moscow. This price is export one, for third countries, not for allies. It should be noted, that the cost of Su-30SM for Russian Aerospace Forces is about USD 35-37 million, depending on the exchange rate of RUB to the USD.

The quantity matters. The assessment of Russian specialists from the Academy of Military Sciences (which the Belarusian authorities do not refute) states the need for at least three combat-ready fighter squadrons in the Air Force of Belarus. Which is at least 36 units. It should be taken into consideration that 100% combat readiness is rare, some aircraft are under repair, modernization, etc. Thus, more than 36 fighters, approximately not less than 50 ones (and a similar number of pilots), should be at the disposal of the Air Force.

In this connection, there is the issue of the organizational structure of fighter aircraft fleet: is it planned to form a third squadron of new aircraft or only two ones will remain, one of which will change from MiG-29 to Su-30SM? The first option is preferable. Due to the improved radar equipment, Su-30SM is able to act as an aiming aircraft for MiG-29. But this option will require additional costs associated with the operation of equipment.

Once again about money. Aircraft fleet, consisting of different fighters, creates additional difficulties associated with ensuring their operation and leads to increase in expenditures, even with an unchanged number of units. Therefore, the unification of the fleet is more rational in the long term. In our case, this means the purchase of 100% of the new fighters, which will cost about USD 2.5 billion.

But in addition to the purchase of aircraft, there are still costs for their operation. The reason for withdrawing Su-27 from the armament of the Air Force of Belarus was, according to generals, the high cost of their operation — more than 2 times higher than one of the MiG-29. In turn, Hungarians, Czechs and Poles complained about the high operation cost of MiG-29.

Speaking about the operation cost of aircraft, it is customary to use the concept of the flight hour cost. On average, according to open sources, MiG-29’s flight hour costs about USD 16,000-20,000. For Su-30, the same indicator is declared to be around USD 35,000. The latter figure can be underestimated. The Syrian operation of the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation provides for the flight hour cost of the involved aircraft (Su-25, S-24, Su-34, Su-30, Su-35) within USD 60-95 thousand. Of course, the specifics of the combat use of the aircraft (flight profile) increases operating costs. In addition, the supply of the Russian group in Syria costs a lot of money. Therefore USD 35,000 can be considered a relevant indicator.

It is believed that in order to maintain the required professional level, the annual flight time of a pilot of a combat aircraft must be at least 100 hours. In total — 5000 flight hours per year for the fighter aircraft fleet of the Belarusian Air Force. Or at least USD 175 million per year, which makes more than 40% of the expenditures allocated in 2016 to national defense. “At least”, because the cost of fuel in Russia is much lower than in the West. At the moment Belarus receives Russian oil at domestic prices. But only at the moment. Is Belarus able to provide its fighter pilots with 5000 annual flying hours with Su-30SM? It can be assumed, that yes. But in order to provide funds for one sphere, you have to cut them for another one.

Su-30SM as a replacement for the Russian air base. The opinion that the purchase of Su-30 will solve the issue of the creation of the Russian airbase in Belarus seems erroneous. Indeed, Russia motivates the desire to expand the military presence in our country by the inability of the national air forces in their current state to guarantee a reliable cover for the airspace of the so-called “union state”. At the same time, the problem of inadequate capabilities of the Belarusian Air Force has three aspects: 1) the existing fighters are physically and technically obsolete; 2) insufficient number of combat vehicles (60% of the required number); 3) insufficient flight practice of the pilots of the national air force, the quantity of flight hours must be increased by at least 20 hours per year per pilot. So, in itself, the purchase of 12 aircraft is only part of the solution to the problem, but not a complete solution.

In fact, there is no reason to link the purchase of Su-30SM and the issue of the Russian airbase. These are issues of different scale.

One link broken, the whole chain is broken. One must understand that the purchase of the first squadron of Su-30SM essentially determines the development of national fighter aircraft fleet for the next 30-40 years. It won’t be possible just to say “oh, we changed our minds”. The manufacturer will not be engaged in buying back. They will not give permission for the export of these aircraft as well, as they are interested in the availability of new markets for them. Therefore, in the future it will be necessary or to buy new lots of equipment (preferably up to 50 units), or organize the operation of different types of aircraft (which complicates the process and makes it more expensive), or just put some fighters into a depot and buy other ones (if “we change our minds”). This means that from the moment of receiving the first Su-30SM, Minsk actually loses the field for maneuvering, and Moscow can continue to dictate its terms both in terms of aviation equipment supplies, and in terms of its modernization and maintaining operability.

Political and economic background of the deal. In addition to the fact that the transaction looks “wrong”, it was held at the wrong time. There is a political crisis in the country. The authorities’ rating in the absence of independent political sociology is not reliably known. However, informally it is estimated at the level of less than 20%.

A full-scale social and economic crisis is accompanied by the political crisis: half of the working people have earnings below USD 200; underemployment and actual unemployment is at the level of 10-15% of the able-bodied population; many areas of the country can be declared zones of socio-economic disaster, since outside the budgetary sector the average earnings hardly exceed USD 100. Under these conditions, such significant expenditures simply will not be understood in society. And judging by the comments of the readers of the Internet media, they aren’t understood. New fighters are perceived as expensive toys for generals. Belarusian society traditionally supports some “hungry nurse from the kindergarten”, not the military.

Information failure. This is a consequence of absolutely disastrous information support for the deal. Which in fact was absent at all. Taking into account that the contract on Su-30SM can become the largest purchase of arms in the history of Belarus, it would be logical to hold a preliminary awareness-raising campaign. Taxpayers should understand why there is a need for new fighters, what are the consequences of delaying the resolve of this issue, why the choice made is the most optimal.

However, taxpayers simply faced the fact. And even worse — they were informed by Russian newsmakers. The Ministry of Defence of Belarus reacted to public outcry belatedly and in an unacceptable way. Firstly, the media service of the agency refused to comment on the independent media information on the deal. And then BelTA (state news agency) gave information very vaguely. The refusal of the Defence Ministry’s media service to comment on information relating to public finances to independent media (which, by the way, are taxpayers and “breadwinners” for the military) is rude and unprofessional at the same time. Normally, this should result in the dismissal of the responsible person for discrediting the Defence Ministry. 

An intermediate solution. The purchased batch of aircraft is not enough for modernizing Belarusian Air Force, while there are doubts about the ability of the national budget to ensure the operation of the aircraft at the necessary scale.

In addition, it is necessary to take into account the change in the technological environment of regional security. Su-30SM is 4th generation fighter. Which gradually gives way to fighters of the 5th generation. In 10 years, we can face a situation in which the combat value of these aircraft will approach zero. The air forces of Poland and Russia are in the process of preparing for the change, albeit partially, to a new generation of aircraft. Already in 2019, the cost of the American fighter of the 5th generation F-35 is expected to drop below USD 80 million. This means it will be comparable to the current cost of the Western aircraft of the 4th generation. The estimated cost of the Russian 5th generation PAK FA fighters is about USD 100 million.

Of course, there are questions as to how significant the advantage of new generation aircraft over the current one will be. Manufacturers speak of the overwhelming superiority of fighters of the 5th generation in comparison to the 4th generation ones. Can it be an advertising gimmick? But it can be truth as well. Moreover, it is planned to produce about 3200 F-35s for a dozen countries including the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Turkey as well as Japan and South Korea, which are balancing on the verge of military conflicts. No one has yet expressed disappointment about the new fighters.

Facing the transition period from aircraft of one generation to the next one, it would be more rational to take a break for 10-15 years and spend it on studying the market, the proposed technological solutions and the experience of operating 5th generation aircraft. It would be also necessary to try to integrate into the chain of development and production of such aircraft as a partner. This is primarily about the Chinese projects of the 5th generation fighter aircraft. The access to Russian and Western projects is closed for Belarus for political reasons. By the way, the cost of the Chinese perspective light fighter of the 5th generation J-31 will be about USD 70 million. Which means it is comparable to the cost of F-35.

For these 10-15 years, one can turn to Russia for leasing relatively new MiG-29 SMT fighters as an intermediate solution. There are 34 aircraft in Russia which are removed or have already been already removed from the service. In case of Moscow’s refusal, there is an opportunity to speak to China regarding the possibility of obtaining J-10 fighters: Beijing is interested in entering the European arms market, even if it is the market of Belarus.

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