On January 30, 2019 Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the Irkut Corporation, where he inspected the production of heavy Su-30SM multi-role fighters.
The company’s management announced plans to modernize the aircraft already in service with the Russian army. As far as can be judged, its main element is the replacement of imported avionics with products from Russian manufacturers.
Further, Mr. Shoigu was familiarized with the prospects for the supply of Su-30SM to the CSTO countries: Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus. It was announced that it is planned to provide 4 fighters for Belarusian Air Force in the coming year. Which was later confirmed by the Ministry of Defence of Belarus.
In this regard, it is necessary to pay the attention to the following.
Firstly, the purchase price of the aircraft is hidden so far. Russian sources reported that each aircraft would cost Belarusian taxpayers USD 50 million. Meanwhile, Armenia and Kazakhstan pay for the aircraft at Russian domestic prices, depending on the exchange rate of the Russian ruble USD 25-35 million per unit.
Secondly, there is no clarity about the sources of financing the transaction: budget funds, credit, or extra-budgetary funds. Meanwhile, we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars from the people’s pocket. This secrecy suggests that purchases are planned at the conditions far from the most optimal ones.
Thirdly, there is no explanation regarding the cost of maintaining and operating the Su-30SM. It is worth recalling that earlier the Belarusian Ministry of Defence explained the refusal from Su-27 fighters by extremely high cost of their operation, which is twice higher than the cost of operating the MiG-29.
Su-30SM is a deep modernization of Su-27. According to Belarusian and Russian military experts, the sufficient number of fighter aircraft for Belarus is 3 combat-ready squadrons (at least 36 combat-ready aircraft). Currently, the national air force has 2 fighter squadrons of undetermined numbers. Even assuming their full manning, the parallel use of 2 squadrons of the MiG-29 and the 1st squadron of the Su-30SM will require doubling the cost of maintaining fighter aircraft due to the high cost of the Su-30SM operating. Due to the economic stagnation in Belarus, one can hardly count on a sharp increase in military spending, which will allow it to be done. Not to mention the complete replacement of old fighters in the 1:1 ratio or the required 1:1.5 ratio. If in the end it turns out that the 12 Su-30SM supposed to be purchased are the only 12 combat-ready fighters of the Air Force of Belarus, then this means the fighter aviation turns into a symbolic value. At the same time, the symbol will be too expensive for taxpayers and useless due to the inability to protect the country in the event of a more or less serious conflict because of its small number. Quantity matters no less than quality.
Fourthly, there is no justification for the choice in favour of heavy fighters. It is worth recalling that earlier the same Ministry of Defence of Belarus planned to carry out the modernization of existing MiG-29 fighters to the level of the MiG-35 and the purchase of lightweight multi-purpose fighters MiG-29M/M2, the operation cost of which is significantly smaller (at least as stated by the manufacturer). As far as we know, these plans were supported by Russian specialists, who were initially critical of the ability of Belarus to re-equip with the required number (3 combat-ready squadrons) of heavy fighters.
Fifthly, earlier the Minister of Defence of Belarus Andrei Raukou said that an obstacle for the delivery of the Su-30SM to Belarus is the need of the manufacturer to replace all Western components of the aircraft with Russian analogues. The delivery of avionics from the West is impossible due to the embargo imposed on Russia. Fully “Russian” Su-30SM will be provided to the Russian Defence Ministry only this year and in the amount of three units. Probably for trial operation. Belarus risks to become the second of such aircraft. Although the manufacturer claims about the high quality of Russian analogues of Western equipment, the Indian Air Force prefers Western rather than Russian avionics. Not to mention the fact that Western equipment was originally used in the production of the Su-30SM for the Russian Aerospace Forces. It was done not because of having extra money, but because of the inability of the Russian manufacturers to offer good analogues. In fact, for a lot of money, Belarus can get aircraft, the reliability of which is only to be checked by actual operation. Which is a pure adventure.