Myanmar Signs Deal For Six Russian-Made Sukhoi Su-30 Combat Jets

The deal will make this country from Southeast Asia, formerly known as Burma, join a growing club of users spread all across the world.

Sukhoi Su-30 fighters durign an aerial demonstration in Belarus.
Sergei Grits / AP Images

The deal will make this country from Southeast Asia, formerly known as Burma, join a growing club of users spread all across the world.

According to the Russian media, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar will acquire six Sukhoi Su-30 fighters. The deal was signed during the visit of the Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu, to the country, Flight Global reports.

However, there are still no details about what exact variant will Myanmar acquire, nor the total value of the deal. Nevertheless, it is expected that the new airplane will become the main fighter of the Myanmar Air Force.

Additional information advanced by Defense News also implies that Naypyidaw is actively seeking for additional Russian military hardware.

Myanmar’s fighter force is going through a modernization process. Presently, the country counts with a large number of Chinese-built copies of ancient Soviet designs.

Among such units are 24 Chengdu F-7s, essentially copies of the venerable MiG-21. There are also derivatives of the older MiG-19 in Myanmar’s arsenal, like the Shenyang J-6 interceptor and the Nanchang A-5 ground-attack aircraft, both serving in small numbers.

The main fighter in the Air Force is more modern, though. The Mikoyan MiG-29, manufactured in Russia, is a respectable twin-engine fighter. The 39 units in service came from Belarus in the early 2000s, as the nation strove to move away from the older Chinese models.

More recently, Naypyidaw started to make additional efforts to further modernize its squadrons.

Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder fighter during a demonstration in the 2015 Paris Air Show.
The Sino-Pakistani JF-17 might complement the Su-30 in the Myanmar Air Force. Remy de la Mauviniere / AP Images

Last December, the country received half of a 12-strong order of Yakovlev Yak-130 jets from Russia. These are advanced trainer aircraft, with limited combat capabilities, and can prepare crews for the newer generations of combat aircraft.

In 2015, Myanmar also signed a deal with China to acquire 16 Chengdu/PAC JF-17 Thunder light fighters. These jets were co-developed by China and Pakistan and are a further development of the MiG-21/J-7 line but aimed at meeting the needs of the modern battlefields. Cheap and capable, the JF-17s are expected to find buyers across the world, albeit large orders are yet to materialize.

Nevertheless, it seems that Naypyidaw is aiming at creating a fighter force under the hi-lo mix mindset. This means, basically, high and low, or having a cheaper, simpler, fighter to be the workhorse of the Air Force, while also having a more potent machine, which is also more expensive, to deal with high-level threats. The JF-17 is, by design, a “lo” solution, but that leaves out the “hi” half of it.

Enters the Sukhoi Su-30.

The Su-30 is a multi-role derivative of the Sukhoi Su-27 air superiority fighter, known within NATO as the “Flanker.” Developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the Su-27 was from the onset the “hi” complement for the MiG-29’s “lo,” as part of the future of the Soviet Air Force at the time. While the Mikoyan airplane was a relatively small short-ranged interceptor meant to operate from frontline bases, the Sukhoi machine was a large long-range fighter with a heavy payload.

The appearance of the two types was a shock to the NATO forces, which scrambled to develop new fighters to counter them. This reaction resulted in airplanes like the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor.

The two-seat Su-30 aimed at expanding the capabilities of the Su-27. Several variants of the Su-30 were developed since the type entered service in 1996, and it has since become a mainstay of the Indian Air Force. Other countries, like China, Malaysia, Angola, or Venezuela, acquired small numbers of the type, spreading its use across the globe.

The capabilities of the Su-30, along with the type’s relatively lower price when compared with equivalent Western aircraft, makes it an attractive buy. Russia is also eager to use commodities as part of the payment, as proved by the recent deal with Indonesia for the acquisition of Su-35s, an advanced air superiority variant of the baseline Su-27.

Furthermore, Russian arms deals seldom have obvious political strings. Given Myanmar’s recent military history, including the controversial persecution of the Rohingya people, and the border clashes with Bangladesh, this later detail makes Russian military equipment especially enticing.