As its global reputation ebbs Myanmar continues rebuilding its air force with Moscow’s assistance. It was announced last month that Naypyidaw signed an agreement with the Russian defense minister, who was on a visit accompanied by his staff, for a half dozen Su-30 multirole fighters.
This marks another breakthrough for United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), whose coveted bespoke Sukhois are a hit with so many different customers. The previous year had a total of 19 aircraft–eight Su-30’s for Bangladesh and 11 Su-35’s for Indonesia–ordered in Southeast Asia alone. The adoption of Su-30’s in Myanmar’s air force, if followed by additional airframes, cements Russia’s growing prestige in ASEAN military affairs.
The exact type of Sukhoi variant and the total cost for the twin engine jets weren’t revealed although it’s worth keeping in mind how Myanmar’s armed forces the Tatmadaw prefer keeping their myriad activities under wraps. Even the true size of the annual defense budget is speculative, since the official figure (just $2 billion for 2018) doesn’t seem large enough to cover sundry operational costs and importing advanced weapons from abroad.
The Su-30 marks a graduation of sorts for the air force, whose fleet is dependent on Chinese aircraft imported in bulk during the 1990s. Between 2001 and 2009, however, at least 30 MiG-29’s–both fighters and trainers–were purchased and these are getting upgraded in Russian facilities to a single variant, the MiG-29SMT.
The Tatmadaw began to overhaul its aircraft inventory a few years ago with token purchases. So far this included buying new attack helicopters and trainer jets from Russia. In 2017 it was revealed a half dozen Yak-130’s, which can be adapted for combat, had been delivered to Naypyidaw with another six on the way announced during the lavish Singapore Air Show in February.
The same arrangement might apply to the upcoming Su-30’s with a half dozen more ordered at a separate date. Often dubbed a “4++ generation” model, the Su-30 is an expensive airframe to buy and operate. It’s the most affordable alternative to its competition from Western Europe and far more capable than the 16 JF-17’s Myanmar ordered from Pakistan.
If a full squadron of Su-30’s becomes operational in the next four years, Myanmar possesses a formidable air force that can overmatch its neighbors Bangladesh and Thailand. Adding up the numbers reveals an impressive arsenal: 30 MiG-29SMT’s and at least six Su-30’s are enough for controlling local airspace. The arrival of 16 more JF-17’s and a dozen Yak-130’s, together with more than 60 older single engine Chinese jets currently in service, gives Myanmar one of the larger air forces in ASEAN. This is quite an achievement for a country so poor.
The arrival of Su-30’s opens a world of possibilities for the Tatmadaw, from combat air patrols in the Bay of Bengal to strike missions deep in the country’s violent northeast, where ethnic militias are fighting the government. Neither China nor India will feel antagonized by the revival of Myanmar’s air power–both countries fly their own Su-30 variants anyway–and it’s worth speculating if joint exercises with matching Sukhois could materialize soon.