Since the commencement of the limited conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, when the United States and Europe imposed crippling sanctions, Russia has received its first significant order for the export of weapons. Yerzhan Nurdybayev, Chief of the Main Equipment Department and Deputy Commander of the Air Defence Forces of Kazakhstan, announced on November 30 that Kazakhstan has chosen to acquire Russian Su-30SM fighter jets instead of the French-supplied Rafale fighter jets. He stated that the Kazakh Ministry of Defence intends to procure ten Su-30SM fighter jets between 2023 and 2024, emphasising that the Su-30SM is “more cost-effective” than the French Rafale fighter aircraft. The move can potentially bring Kazakhstan under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
This is the second significant export order in a technical sense, following the order that Russia received to supply Iran with an unspecified number of Su-35s, Yak-130 trainers, and other substantial armament. Nevertheless, Iran is also subject to sanctions, which diminishes the threat posed by CAATSA and sanctions.
The United States may impose penalties under the CAATSA sanctions bill on foreign nations that acquire Russian weaponry, while the Pentagon may make exceptions for certain nations. According to earlier claims made by the State Department, it has already persuaded several nations to renounce multibillion-dollar weapons contracts with Russia.
In recent months, the French aerospace company Dassault Aviation carried out extensive promotional activities regarding the Rafale fighter aircraft in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The CAATSA Act and the sanctions on Russia have greatly benefited France, supplying Rafale aircraft to nations wary of purchasing Russian equipment due to the CAATSA threat.
The Kazak Su-30 SM purchase
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan each own obsolete fighter aircraft originally produced in the Soviet Union: MiG-27s for Kazakhstan and Su-27s for Uzbekistan. A phase-out process is planned for these aircraft in the coming years. The Kazakh Air Force, regarded as Central Asia’s most formidable air force, obtained its first delivery of Su-30SM fighter aircraft in 2015. As of this moment, the Kazakh Air Force has contracted for a total of 23 Su-30SM fighter aircraft by implementing three separate procurement agreements.
The Su-30SM attains a competitive advantage over the Rafale fighter by capitalising on the fleet expansion of operational fighter aircraft. This contrasts with a brand-new fighter requiring substantial retraining and integrating numerous infrastructure, components, and weaponry. Present-day Kazakh Air Force is primarily composed of 32 MiG-31BM interceptors, in addition to Su-30SM fighter aircraft. Compared to the Su-30SM, this fighter variant features an enormously expanded operational range and a significantly larger radar. In 2010, these fighters were sent to Belarus for engine and radar enhancements as part of a modernisation effort.
In the past, comparable transactions have taken place. Algeria implemented a similar strategy at the beginning of the twenty-first century by acquiring Su-30SM fighter aircraft. Algeria has obtained two aircraft from the same lineage: the Su-30MKA and the Su-30SMSM. Both of these aircraft are derived from the design of the Su-30MKI and were built at the Irkut Aircraft Manufacturing Plant. To meet the requirements of the Indian Air Force, Irkut initiated the construction of the Su-30MKI. This aircraft incorporated several technologies that were originally sourced from the Su-37 and Su-27M fighters. Included are thrust vectoring engines and phased array radar. The air-to-air combat performance of the Su-30MKI is superior to that of cheaper Su-30 models produced by the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant.
One of its primary advantages is the Su-30SM fighter jet’s extended operational range, which enables it to cover a larger combat area. Although the Rafale has a greater range than medium fighters, it is considerably shorter than the Su-30 or F-15. The Algerian Air Force’s operational area is approximately equivalent to the contiguous regions encompassing France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Greece. Kazakhstan possesses a 14% larger territory than Algeria.
Su-30SM possesses improved situational awareness, a longer range, and the capacity to carry additional armaments. It uses the more sophisticated N011M phased-array radar with a maximum detection range of 400 kilometres. It is roughly twice as large as the RBE2 radar of the Rafale fighter. Although phased array radar technologies have certain drawbacks compared to AESA radar technology, Russia has developed phased array radars that substantially alleviate these drawbacks. It affords the Russian radar an expanded range of detection, improved resolution, and the possibility of acquiring additional functionalities at a lower cost.
The Su-30SM’s AL-31FP engine is more powerful than the M88 engine of the Rafale fighter, which limits the latter’s operational altitude and flight speed.
Compared to other medium-sized fighters, the Rafale fighter’s primary benefit is its reduced maintenance and operating expenses. The Su-30SM’s cheaper procurement costs largely mitigate this advantage since a single Rafale fighter costs around $40 million more than a Su-30SM. The most recent Rafale versions incorporate air-to-air missiles and more sophisticated sensors, matching the sophistication of Russia’s sole fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57. Nonetheless, it is anticipated that these technologies will be included in Su-30 fighter upgrading plans in the future.
The Rafale fighter’s possible incompatibility with Kazakhstan’s existing Soviet and Russian hardware is another significant drawback. This could prohibit Kazakhstan from cooperating with Russian forces on network-centric joint operations. The defence systems of Kazakhstan and Russia are closely linked, and in November, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) established a cooperative air defence network, further solidifying this integration. Therefore, there could be significant challenges with integrating French fighter aircraft—which are known for their short range and incompatibility—into the air defence system.
However, the speculations regarding the Kazakh Air Force’s intended acquisition of French Rafale jets were not verified. On this matter, there were no talks, according to Yerzhan Nildibaev, adding that Kazakhstan has no such plans. Dassault Aviation has been working towards supplying Rafale fighters to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan “for some months,” according to a November story in the daily La Tribune, which cited sources.
Russian International Arms Sales
Russia has taken the initial move to break out of its international isolation in arms sales with Kazakstan’s acquisition of Russian military equipment, given the stabilisation of the Russian economy and military production following the 2022 sanctions.
In the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russia has already dispelled the myth of the superiority of Western arms and shown the rest of the world that its weapons are reliable and effective in combat. It remains to be seen if the Kazak transaction will create a precedent for future arms sales or is just an outlier.