Arms Export: Weapon Generation Change Around the Corner


According to reliable sources, including Western expert community, Russia continues to hold its position as the world’s second largest arms exporter.


By Leonid Nersisyan

For example, the research group for the U.S. Congress states that in 2014 the arms export income of Russian companies totaled $10.2 billion, maintaining the same level in comparison to the 2013 income data. The USA is still the world's first largest arms exporter with an increase in the volume of arms sales from $26.7 to 36.2 billion. This growth is based on the international escalation in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula: South Korea, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have made new purchases. The new myth of the “Russia military threat” has resulted in an increase in purchasing of foreign-made arms, including the U.S. arms, by some European countries (especially, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries). Now, the USA can control up to 50% of the world arms market. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) gives similar figures.

It is logical to ask: what future may bring Russian arms exporters and how we will be able to extend the volume of arms sales, using the unstable situation in the world as American arms exporters have already done?

At first, the stock of arms export orders accumulated by Russian exporters has reached its record – according to the Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation, the total value of export orders has reached the amount over $55 billion. Recently, this figure has ranged between $45 and 55 billion. In the machine-building industry, only Rosatom has managed to overcome the defense industry’s figures with its $110 billion export order portfolio.

Most of popular and exported Russian arms and military equipment are the Soviet arms and military equipment that have been modified and proved successful. This approach cannot be referred to as a surprising or an improper way as the USA applies the same practice: it may take a few decades to produce and modify highly demanded products. As an obvious example here, we can mention the F-16 light fighter, which has been operated since 1979 and is expected to be manufactured until 2017 or further (for now, over 4,500 F-16 aircraft in different modifications have been produced). Nonetheless, sooner or later the potential for aircraft upgrading will come to an end and require the development of a new base model.

For more detailed discussion on the matter under consideration, let’s talk about specific types of military equipment.

Is the Sukhoi Su-35 Aircraft Going to Be the Main Export Fighter Until the Sukhoi PAK FA Project Reaches Large-Scale Production Phase?

In the post-Soviet period, the Sukhoi Su-27 fighter modifications were the top sellers in the world arms market. Let us mention here India’s “Contract of the Century” to build 272 licensed Su-30MKI two-seat fighters (the customer has already received over 200 aircraft). Another example is the supply of 130 Su-27 fighters and 98 Su-30 fighters to China (Chinese customers have refused to buy additional 100 Su-27 aircraft because they duplicated all the aircraft systems, except the engines). Nonetheless, the fourth-generation fighters are becoming obsolescent in spite of their modifications however advanced they may be. Based on the Su-27 model, the latest Su-35 fighter is going to hit the market. The first export contract was signed with China on November 19, 2015 to supply 24 Russian multirole fighters for the Celestial Empire. In December 2015, it was announced that twelve Su-35 fighters were planned to be purchased by Indonesia.

Therefore, foreign customers are still maintaining their interest in this type of the fighter and it is likely to be exported until the mid-2020s. As for the light fighter series based on the Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft, things are getting worse – the MiG-35 fighter does not meet expectations – it lost a big tender in India in favor of the French Rafale fighter (this Russian aircraft was not even included in the tender bid) while the Ministry of Defense of Russia again and again postpones signing of supply contract because this fighter does not meet the design performance requirements.

Anyway, the PAK FA (T-50) fifth-generation fighter and its export version – FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) – shall become the top priority for the Russian defense industry. This fighter is expected to reach the large-scale production phase in 2017. For effective promotion of this model on the world arms market, the key point is the contract to supply the Sukhoi FGFA two-seat modification for the Indian Air Force. The signing of the final agreement is being constantly postponed despite receiving frequent rumor that the supply contract for 154 fighters is going to come up. Meanwhile, Indian media also report that Indian military officials doubt that this aircraft really complies with the design performance and are discontent with a high price. However, this deal needs to be pushed through because in the future the other big arms markets such as the Chinese market may be open for this new aircraft.

Multirole Transport Aircraft: On the Brink of Failure

The project of the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) being co-developed by Russia and India is facing bigger problems than the development of FGFA. According to local media, Indian military customers are reportedly on the brink of termination of the project and even the meeting between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to settle the differences. The matter is that the Russian party insists on the installation of the modified PS-90 engine on the aircraft (this modification is used on the Il-76 military transport aircraft), but the Indian party wants this aircraft with an absolutely new engine. United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) executives believe that the Indian party has come up with their engine-related requirements too late and UAC is going to develop the aircraft under all circumstances even if India withdraws from the project. Anyway, on January 13, 2016 General Director of ILYUSHIN Sergey Velmozhkin announced that the project had been frozen. According to Mr. Velmozhkin, the project had been paused to “amend the program and clarify concurrent conditions”.

The MTA is intended to replace the Antonov An-12, An-26 and An-72 aircraft that are operated by the Russian Air Force, but are getting obsolescent. However, India’s refusal to purchase this aircraft may somehow have a negative impact on the aircraft reputation or ruin the development project. Everything will depend on the decision the Ministry of Defense of Russia may take – to purchase or not to purchase the Ilyushin Il-214 aircraft (the other name of the MTA). Therefore, the future of this project is still unclear.

A Growing Interest in the Sukhoi Su-34 Fighter-Bomber Due to Its Success in Syria

According to recent reports, Algeria has ordered 12 Su-32 fighter-bombers (it’s not a mistake: the Su-32 is an export version of the Su-34) to be supplied by Rosoboronexport. The contact has already been signed, local sources say. The purchase sum is rumored to be about $500 million while up to additional 40 aircraft may be ordered until 2022, including the electronic warfare (EW) aircraft modification. This deal may become a hallmark and the first step to win popularity in the world arms market. Moreover, sources say that Nigeria and, probably, Uganda show an intense interest in the Su-32. Anyway, the aircraft’s effective performance demonstration and its first experience under fire in Syria rewarded the efforts – the aircraft has captured headlines in the world’s media and shows its high combat effectiveness when using precision-guided munitions to hit ground targets. Besides, another advantage of the Su-34 aircraft that it is able to ensure the fighter functions (such features are vital for countries that are not the richest ones) because it is also based on the Su-27 fighter.

Therefore, the Su-34 may take rightful place in the export portfolio in the years ahead. The main target markets are African and Asian countries and, perhaps, our CSTO partners (for instance, Kazakhstan that has already purchased Su-30SM fighters).

Air Defence: Smooth Transition to Next-Gen Weapons

Russian air defense systems are always a huge success abroad. This success is particularly based on the S-300 AA missile system that is still on the buying list of different countries, which want to purchase large amounts of this weapon. For example, various sources say that since 1993 China has purchased from 24 to 40 S-300 battalions (according to Chinese sources) available in different modifications – the S-300PMU, S-300PMU-1 and S-300PMU-2. Even Greece, a NATO member, has purchased the S-300 system (initially, the system has been purchased by Cyprus, but after the diplomatic scandal with the participation of Turkey, the system has been transferred to Greece).

The S-300 system is popular due to its excellent performance. As for the latest system modification, it is able to hit up to 36 targets at a time within the maximum range of 200 km. Moreover, this system can be used as an anti-missile defense system (against short-range missiles and short-range ballistic missiles).

As soon as the Iran Nuclear Project is agreed, Iran may become the latest buyer of the S-300PMU-2 system – the system supplies have started since January 2015. Initially, Iran purchased the Tor-M1 short-range AA missile system and concluded the supply contract for the S-300 systems in 2007, but later this transaction was frozen and Iran filed an arbitration claim against the Russian Federation. For now, this claim has been abandoned.

Later on, the advanced S-400 Triumf AA missile systems and the cheaper and simplified S-350 Vityaz systems are meant for further export. The former has the more promising future – the S-400 system obviously surpasses its competitors by most of parameters. The contract to supply at least 6 Triumf system battalions for China has already been signed (the amount of transaction is over $3 billion). The Government of India has approved the purchase of S-400 systems and the contact is expected to be signed in the nearest future. This contract may stipulate the purchase of 10 battalions for nearly $6 billion. The other buyers may soon come up – the Airspace Defence Concern “Almaz-Antey” has recently reached appropriate production capabilities in order to supply S-400 systems for the Russian Army and abroad.

As for the other short-range and medium-range AA missile systems, they are sufficiently desirable in the ?arms market, especially the Tor AA missile system and the Panzir-S1 missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapon system. The medium-range Buk AA missile system shows worse results.

Ground Systems: Will the Armata, Kurganets-25, Bumerang and Koalitsia-SV Systems Become Rising Stars?

For ground armored vehicles and tanks, the weapon generation change is the urgent issue. For example, the T-90 tank model that is very popular abroad has actually depleted its potential for upgrading. This tank is an advanced modification of the Soviet T-72 tank that has been produced since 1973, or over 40 years so far. To compare, the American M1A1 Abrams reached the assembly line production stage 7 years later while the German Leopard 2 tank, 6 years later. The British Challenger 2 tank and the French Leclerc tank have been produced since 1983 and 1990 respectively. This is one of the reasons why Russia was the first country to develop the next-gen armoured vehicles. As for the T-90 tank, its Т-90АМ modification seems to be the last one (T-90SM – export version).

The export future for the T-90 is coming to an end. A few contracts to supply Т-90SМ tanks for the Middle East countries may be signed, but such course of events is complicated due to the existing situation in foreign policy (In Syria, Russia is actually opposing the interests of major buyers – Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Strange as it may seem, but these contradictions do not hamper to conduct negotiations on large arms supplies). On the other hand, Iran's arms market is about to open. With the T-90 tank, its manufacturer, Uralvagonzavod, has discovered the goldmine – India has launched the production of licensed tanks, the Indian Army has already received over 800 tanks of this type, and the total amount is expected to reach 2,000 by 2020. Anyway, the early 2020s will be the period with the arms market flooded with the T-90 tanks and a new platform will be required. The same prognosis is valid for armoured vehicles such as the BMP-3, the BTR-82A, etc. Their new modifications will be desirable in the international arms market but after 2020 they are unlikely to be in great demand.

That is why it’s very important that despite all the troubles, the next generation of the armoured vehicles demonstrated during the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade shall reach the large-scale production phase with the appropriate design performance. The T-14 tank and the heavy T-15 armoured infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV) based on the Armata track-type platform may become the most interesting offers. The main feature of the T-15 model is its unmanned turret. For now, this is the unique tank in the world with such configuration that along with the active protection system shall enable the maximum protection of the crew. The concept of the heavy armoured infantry fighting vehicle with the protection system similar to the tank protection system shall be in demand for modern combat operations in urban districts when the enemy has a plenty of antitank weapons that are able to easily destroy standard APCs and AIFVs.

Based on the modular assembly concept and on the Kurganets-25 track-type platform, the medium AIFVs and APCs also have better protection than the BMP-3 and the BTR-82A. This can be applied to the Bumerang light wheeled APC. The Koalitsia-SV self-propelled 152 mm howitzer shall deprive the German PzH-2000 155 mm howitzer considered the best one of its leadership position

Many times officials state that all the above-mentioned weapons and systems are initially planned to be supplied for the Russian Army, and then for export (for example, such systems as the S-400 AA missile system). Therefore, we can expect the first foreign supply contracts by 2025.

Conclusion: Weapon Generation Change is Inevitable

It is clear that Russian arms export and the national defence industry are getting closer to the milestone associated with the weapon generation change, i.e. leaving old Soviet arms and military equipment behind and transitioning to newly developed Russian weaponry. This process has been completed/is going easier for air defence forces, while aviation faces tough challenges. As for the armoured vehicles, it is too early to talk about any generation changes – this process will start by 2020 but it’s inevitable and we shall be ready for it. As for the export of ship combat systems, this topic requires many issues and aspects to be discussed, especially due to the problems caused by anti-Russian sanctions imposed by Western countries. An in-depth analysis is required to discuss the matter.

Another problem is higher prices of new weapons and military equipment in comparison to the Soviet military products and their modifications. Thus, Russian arms exporters may successfully compete with foreign manufacturers in terms of the products’ quality while attracting customers by offering lower prices will be more difficult.

Many things depend on failure or success in development and export of new weapons and military equipment, including combat effectiveness of the Russian Army because large amounts of money received from foreign buyers allow to intensify the development of the national defence industry and to develop more advanced weapons.

Our partners