YEREVAN— The Armenian Ministry of Defense has confirmed that it is expecting an order for four Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role fighters. This announcement follows months of deliberation over the purchase of the aircraft.
On June 17, 2018, then newly-elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan posted a photo to his Facebook account depicting him at the controls of an Su-30 on the tarmac at Erebuni air base. The potential purchase of the fighters became the focus of considerable debate among Armenia’s defense community and spending watchdogs.
According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the previous administration had also negotiated the purchase of the airplanes as far back as 2012, but the deal fell through due to a lack of funds. Rumors resurfaced in 2016 when then-Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian hinted that they would be purchased along with the Iskander-M ballistic missile system.
The Su-30SM multi-role fighter is a development of the Soviet-era fourth generation Su-27 family of jets introduced by the Sukhoi design bureau. The twin-engined two-seater plane is intended to conduct air-to-air and air-to-surface deep interdiction missions in any weather condition. Aircraft of the type have been deployed as part of Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Various versions have already been delivered to India, China, Vietnam, Venezuela and Kazakhstan to name a few.
According to sources close to the Russian defense industry, Armenia will pay for the four planes through a Russian loan. Yerevan benefits from preferential pricing on Russian military hardware through its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
About 15 Soviet-era Su-25 (NATO reporting name Frogfoot) ground support aircraft make up the core of the Armenian Air Force fleet, one of which was involved in a fatal crash late last year. They are supported by a smaller number of trainer jets. With the addition of the Su-30s to its inventory, the Armenian Air Force will considerably upgrade its operational capabilities.
Critics of the deal are concerned over the cost of the purchase. Ministry of Defense (MOD) spokesman Artsrun Hovannisian did not reveal the price tag on these advanced jets. Similar jets have been sold to India for approximately $30 million per unit. Details regarding weapon payloads, replacement parts, pilot training and daily operational costs have likewise not been discussed.
Denouncing what they saw as a frivolous purchase by the Armenian government, experts have called on the government to avoid unnecessary spending while prioritizing investments into domestic poverty-reduction programs. According to the Asian Development Bank, approximately 29 percent of the country’s population lives on $2 a day. News that Armenia would take out yet another loan from Russia to finance the acquisition garnered more apprehension over the increasing dependency on Moscow.
The Su-30SM purchase has also faced criticism from defense strategists. These large aircraft are designed for offensive missions in vast operational theaters. The conditions created physical limitations of Armenia and Artsakh’s combined airspace; mountainous conditions have also been described as unsuitable for such an aircraft. This operational environment is much better suited for rotary aircraft. The MOD has neglected to modernize its aging fleet of Mi-8 transport helicopters and M-25 Hind helicopter gunships. These helicopters are vital for the security of Artsakh by providing air cover, troop deployment and resupply capabilities to remote parts of the frontline. Badly-needed upgrades like fly-by-wire avionics, next-generation Doppler radars, firing optics and targeting systems could keep these machines flying above the modern battlefield.
Defense analyst Richard Giragosian told the Weekly, “Air power hasn’t played a significant role in the 1989-94 Karabakh conflict or the Four Day War in 2016.” Despite Azerbaijan’s acquisition of a squadron of MiG-29s in 2007, these machines took a backseat to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) during the most recent conflict.
Giragosian went on to say that Pashinyan has essentially picked up a Sarkisian-era deal to buy the jets as part of a “gesture of good faith” toward the Kremlin. Back in 2015, at Moscow’s insistence, Yerevan agreed to integrate its air defense infrastructure with that of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. This agreement came into force in April 2018, only days before the Sarkisian regime was deposed.
Incidentally, both Astana and Minsk have also received deliveries of the same Su-30SM interceptors. In many ways, this aircraft is better suited for the role of patrolling the airspace of the CSTO than fulfill any of Armenia’s defense requirements against Turkey or Azerbaijan. “This investment may offer prestige and pride, yet does little to meet real military needs or necessity,” added Giragosian.
This revelation comes a week after the MOD also announced the purchase of the AK-12 infantry assault rifle from Russia, making Armenia the first foreign country to adopt it. Additional batches will be produced domestically under license. The rifle uses the same 5.45×39mm cartridge and magazines as the legendary Kalashnikov AK-74 it intends to replace. This new service weapon will feature a polymer retractable stock and hand guards to reduce weight. An integrated Picatinny rail will be capable of mounting optics. The rifle will also have a slightly improved cyclic rate.
The new service rifle offers only minor improvements on the current issued AK-74. The Russian military itself only grudgingly adopted the rifle (which had been relegated to storage until they can figure out what to do with them). It remains unclear whether the Armenian MOD’s military procurement office announced any rifle replacement tenders before settling on the AK-12. Other contenders, such as the Finnish Valmet RK 62 M1, the Israeli IWI Galil Ace or domestically manufactured alternatives, may have been overlooked. Both the Valmet and Galil have garnered reputations as some of the best AK variants on the market. Their lightweight, ergonomic design, compatibility with AK parts and modularity make them perfect contenders for service rifle replacement in former-communist militaries.
In either case, fighter jet-diplomacy, rather than tactical necessity, seems to be motivating Armenia’s recent military procurement strategy.