warplane deal: Russian hopes soar
By John Helmer
MOSCOW - The international battle to win a multibillion-dollar jet-fighter
contract from South Korea's Defense Ministry has taken a new twist, as Seoul is
considering a deal with Russia's arms exporter Rosoboronexport that would award
a license for South Korea to assemble and produce the Sukhoi-35 fighter-bomber.
A Kremlin source told Asia Times Online that the multipurpose Sukhoi combat
aircraft is being considered by Seoul in a competitive tender against rival bids
from the US-made F-15 and the Rafale aircraft from France.
The tender is for purchase of 40 aircraft; the total order is estimated to be
worth about US$4 billion. The United States, which traditionally has supplied
80-90 percent of South Korea's military arsenal, is anxious to win the order,
and a series of officials and politicians - including President George W Bush
himself - have been pressuring Seoul to buy the F-15. If the deal doesn't go
through, the jet's manufacturer, Boeing, will be forced to close its F-15
assembly line in St Louis, analysts predict.
And, as Asia Times Online reported last month, there is more at stake for the
United States than a lucrative contract for one of its top corporations. There
is also the matter of its military strategy in Northeast Asia, in which South
Korea plays a vital role. Said Philip Finnegan, an aerospace industry analyst at
the Teal Group, a Virginia think tank: "The United States always stresses
interoperability of Korean weapons systems with the needs of US troops."
But the South Korean Defense Ministry has been discussing a variety of Russian
arms and aerospace offers since the visit to Seoul last February of President
Vladimir Putin. Shortly after the visit, the two governments signed a memorandum
of understanding that envisaged the supply of Russian aircraft worth an
estimated $600 million to $800 million as partial repayment of Russia's
multibillion-dollar debt to South Korea.
The terms of the tender bid in Seoul parallel an offer by Rosoboronexport of the
Su-35 in a tender called by Brazil. The rivals in that contest include the
French Mirage-2000/5. The Russians recently signed an agreement with a Brazilian
aerospace company to build the Su-35, if it wins the tender.
The Malaysian government is also close to a decision on whether to buy the
Sukhoi-30MKI. The aircraft was flown in demonstrations at the Langkawi
International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition in October. Also shown at
the same time was the Mikoyan MiG-29. "The Malaysians have been offered their
choice of the MiG-29 or the Su-30MKI. It's their choice to make," the Kremlin
After several years of negotiations in the early 1990s, which saw intense
rivalry from Washington for Malaysia to buy the F-18 Hornet, Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad split his air-force acquisition into two, buying 18 Mikoyan
MiG-29s and an equal number of Hornets. The Malaysian Air Force has been
considering a follow-on order, and the Boeing-built F-18, in a modified form, is
again competing against the Russians.
China's air force has already contracted to buy the Su-30MKK, which is equipped
with Russian avionics. The Su-30MKI model to be offered to Malaysia is equipped
with Israeli and French avionics, and is more suited to English-speaking pilots.
This version of the aircraft has been licensed for manufacture and use in India.
Singapore is also reported by Russian sources to be considering the Su-30.
Russian military specialists say the Su-35 is growing more popular in Asia. The
reason, they told Asia Times Online, is that the Su-35 has a longer operating
radius than the Su-30 or its Western competitors; better maneuverability in
flight; and larger ordnance capacity. According to one Russian source, "its
technical characteristics are much better but the price is lower".