Since the Soviet Union collapse in 1991, the succeeding Russian Federation is exporting defence hardware on commercial terms instead of political. Air force material remains the lion’s share of such exports, which achieved a figure near to $15 billion for the past five years. All contract sales amounts are at the US Dollar value for that particular year.
Asian nations have been Russia’s best customers with China and India topping the list. The total amount of export sales to China was estimated as being more than $9 bln. while exports to India are more than $8 billion. These figures are not precise as none of the trading partners will provide exact figures of various contracts.
Russia’s other market countries in the region include Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. All of these have Russian fixed-wing and rotor aircraft within their Armed Forces in significant quantities; however, Thailand and Sri-Lanka have a limited amount of Russian air frames.
Russia’s best sellers in the region over this past five-year period are the Sukhoi 27/35 and MiG-29 families of combat aircraft, Yak-130 combat trainers, as well as Mil and Kamov helicopters.
Throughout the 1990s, China was a significant customer of Russian military airframes. In total in the period of 1991-2012 China received 178 fighters of Su-27/30 family including 38 Su-27SK, 40 Su-27UBK, 76 Su-30MKK and 24 Su-30MK2.
What some might consider the start of China’s now flourishing modern combat aircraft industry, China signed a deal in 1996 for 200 Su-27SK license production on sum of about US$2.5 billion. The production line was established in Shenyang, Liaoning province. The factory and the production line was designed and equipped by Russia.
More than 100 Su-27SK were assembled at these factories by the end of 2007, which coincides with when China refused to receive its remaining ordered 95 assembling kits as it started its own J-11 production.
Ironically, 11 years later, China became the first foreign customer for Russia’s latest serial multi-functional fighter, the Su-35. The contract on 24 aircraft was signed in 2015 and concluded in 2018.
Apart from “ready-made” aircraft, Russia exported a substantial amount of aviation engines – including RD-93 and D-30KP-2 engines. Nevertheless, as a signal to its intentions to keep developing its indigenous jet fighter programme, China received 273 Al-31F and Al-31FN engines for its J-11 and J-10. The latest contract on these engines was signed in 2016 and remains in force, indicating China is not manufacturing its own jet engines for this airframe…yet.
China has circa 350 various helicopters of Mil and Kamov families currently in use. The latest contracts include 20 Ansat light helicopters and 12 Mi-171 fire-fighting rotorcraft.
The new contracts with China might include an extra batch of Su-35 multi-role fighters as well as new batches of aviation engines.
In the late 1990s, India bought a total mix of Su-30MKI and Su-30K multi-role fighters, designed specifically for the Indian Air Force. A few years later, in 2000, India signed a contract on 140 Su-30MKI that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would produce indigenously under license production. The deal was estimated to be worth $3.5 billion. The license production contract was extended several times and by 2017 HAL assembled 183 Su-30MKI.
This shows how India, like China, is keen to increase its technology transfers from suppliers and also increase its own indigenous manufacturing – if not also development – capabilities in this sector. Dassault and Saab pledged significant amounts towards technology transfers and commitments to technology centres of excellence. So, the question is: “What does Russia need to pledge to keep India’s business in the future?”
India continued through the early 2000s to purchase more “pre-owned” and upgraded aircraft – such as five Soviet-era Il-38 anti-submarine aircraft. In addition to its other aircraft, India received 62 kits to upgrade its MiG-29 aircraft into MiG-29UPG and in the midst of other negotiations, the Indian Navy signed two contracts on MiG-29K/KUB for a total of 45 units delivered between 2011-2018.
Here is a twist: in 2011 India received 3 A-50EI AWACS-type aircraft built by Russia with the incorporation of Israeli ELTA radar and two more of this specific airframe were ordered in February 2017. This might be considered the start of Israel’s deepening level of cooperation with India’s defence establishment.
Russian exports to India exceed airframes, licensed production and upgrade kits. In April, 2016 Russia and India signed the deal on five President-S on-board defence systems for India’s VIP aircraft. In 2019 the contract was signed for upgrade and engine supply for the Indian Air Force Il-78MKI flying tankers being worth about $80 million.
Looking over Russia’s rotorcraft to India, the most impressive helicopter deals with India include the G-to-G agreement on 200 Ka-226T light, multi-purpose helicopters for the Indian Army Aviation branch and Air Force.
While the initial batch of 40 rotorcraft were to be built completely in Russia, the remaining 160 were to be assembled locally within the framework of the “Make in India” programme via the Indo-Russian Helicopters Ltd Joint Venture. The navalised version of Ka-226T took part in the recent tender of 111 vehicles for the Indian Navy.
As recent as February 2016, Russian Helicopters Holding concluded delivery of 151 Mi-17V5 multi-purpose helicopters to fulfil two contracts (from 2008 and 2012) with a combined worth of $2.64 billion.
The following cataloguing of sales to other Southeast Asian nations are not as extensive as Russia’s sales and cooperation agreements with former Soviet trading partners, China and India; however, these are worth noting, especially since Vietnam was beneficiary of much Soviet arms support since the 1950s.
While a recent contract was signed in 2019 for 12 Yak-130 combat trainers for over $350 million, trade with Russia extends back twenty years to the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This underscores two things: reliability and loyalty between trading partners that transcends politics.
During the 1990s through the early 2000s, Vietnam received seven Su-27SK single-seaters and six Su-27UBK double-seaters for circa $350 million. Then, by 2013, Vietnam received the final planes that were part of a 36 Su-30MK2 multi-purpose combat aircraft that was worth circa $2.5 billion.
While Russia signed a sensational contract in 1994 – the first of its kind – for delivery of 16 MiG-20SE single-seaters and two MiG-29UB double-seaters for a total of $600 million., Malaysia received two Mi-171V multi-purpose helicopters in 1999. Then, in 2003 a new contract was completed for 18 Su-30MKM multi-role fighters that were delivered between 2007 and 2009. The deal was estimated as $1 billion.
Interestingly, in 2012 a maintenance service centre was established in Malaysia to keep Sukhoi aircraft operational. This is the first of its kind in in the region as well as Malaysia and paving the way to subsequent contracts. Between 2013 and 2017, Russia concluded several more deals with Malaysia. These included MiG and Sukhoi maintenance, repair and various spare parts supply including extra aircraft engines all worth in in excess of several hundred millions of dollars.
Myanmar has in service several MiG-29 fighters delivered from 2001 through 2013 as well as a variety of Mi-24, Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters delivered in 2010-2015. the Air Force also received 12 Yak-130 combat trainers in 2015.
As of January 2018, Myanmar agreed to buy six Su-30SME multi-purpose fighters. Deliveries are to start this year and these jets are to become the backbone of the Myanmar Air Force.
This country received in 2003 four multi-purpose fighters (2 Su-27 and 2 Su-30) plus 2 Mi-35P gunships in a total sum of $193 million. Three more Mi-35P were received in 2010. Now, negotiations on 11 Su-35 multipurpose aircraft are underway and facing two main obstacles: 1) the odd means of payment in cash and palm oil (really); and, 2) threat of sanctions from the USA for conducting business with Russia.
Using several Mi-17V5 helicopters and 2 Ka-32 SARS/ fire-fighting helicopters since 2017, Thailand received 3 SSJ-100 business jets being used by the Government and MoD from the same year. In February 2019, Kom Airlines Ltd. signed a deal on six more of these aircraft for $300 million.
A long-term user of the Russian helicopters, some strategists say that Sri Lanka’s helicopter fleet helped it mobilise quickly to respond to or curtail efforts by the Tamil Tigers during the country’s civil war.
Nowadays there are bilateral negotiations on 6 Su-30 multirole fighters to be procured via commercial credit from Russia.
This snapshot shows a continuous stream of Russian airframes into the Southeast Asian region beyond its two biggest customers – China and India. As the countries of the region grow economically and politically, they need reliable airframes that can meet a variety of tasks and requirements. As evidenced by increasing exports into the region, Russia is becoming a long-term partner for these countries own national and regional security. From this perspective, it could be argued that Russia is becoming one of the favoured European export partners.