Russia Says UAE Could Help Build Su-57s As Gulf Nation Puts F-35 Ambitions On Hold

The Russians need a partner to help share the costs of the Su-57 program and are offering a similar deal to other potential customers.

The first serial production Su-57 under construction.
Ivan Suraev / Sputnik via AP

Russia says that it is offering opportunities to produce certain components for the Su-57 as part of potential sales of the advanced combat jets to the United Arab Emirates, as well as India and Turkey. This comes just days after the U.S. government made clear that it was not engaged in any active discussions with the UAE about selling that country the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, despite reports of significant progress on that prospective deal two years ago.

Sergey Chemezov, in charge of Russia's main state-owned industrial conglomerate Rostec, talked about the possibility of "localization" of portions of the Su-57 supply chain within other countries that decide to buy those jets on the sidelines of the biennial Dubai Air Show in the UAE on Nov. 18, 2019. The development of this advanced combat jet, which now reportedly has the NATO nickname Felon, has been a saga unto itself, as you can read in these past War Zone pieces. In May 2018, the Kremlin announced that it planned to buy 76 Su-57s through 2028 and TV Zvezda, the official television channel of the Russian Ministry of Defense, released video of the first serial production aircraft under construction earlier this month. Russia has also been actively courting prospective customers for any future export variant in recent months.

"Su-57 – India, most probably Emirates. They have been considering and discussing it [buying these aircraft] for a long time, though no decision has been delivered yet," Chemezov told reporters. "Localization [has been offered] ... It does not matter whether it is [the] United Arab Emirates, India or Turkey, we will rely on what they can do."

Chemezov elaborated that the last point meant that Russia would seek to offer industrial cooperation opportunities that align with the capabilities of the defense industrial base of the customer in question. He added that if the buyer did not have an existing or potential ability to produce relevant components itself, that Russia would not assist in the establishment of those supply chains and that "it simply means that it [localization] does not work" in that case.

The offer is still clearly meant to sweeten the deal for prospective customers. Chemezov's decision to name the UAE specifically is also notable given that in 2017 it had appeared that the country was making real progress in negotiations with the United States about acquiring the F-35. Reports that year indicated that such discussions were advanced enough that Gulf nation was looking at potential initial order of 24 Joint Strike Fighters.

"There have not been any classified briefings [with the UAE on the F-35]. There will not be any discussions [on the F-35] this week," Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, told reporters on Nov. 16, 2019, according to Defense News. "We do not have ongoing with the Emiratis right now. We are, within the U.S., discussing how we might end up in those."

On Nov. 18, Defense News' Valerie Insinna Tweeted out that Clarke Cooper, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, had reiterated "that there are no ongoing discussions with the UAE on the F-35." Under Secretary of Defense Lord had also said that the focus with regards to the UAE had shifted to discussions about modernizing its already advanced fleet of F-16E/F Desert Falcon fighter jets, aircraft that you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone story.

Lord did not elaborate on the reasons why the UAE had apparently moved away from its years-long push to acquire the F-35 or whether that decision originated with that country or the United States, or both parties mutually. Past reports often cited general security concerns about the export of the Joint Strike Fighters to the UAE, as well as the potential risks they might pose to Israel's regional military edge, as reasons why the U.S. government was reticent to approve such a deal.

However, the Joint Strike Fighter, with its integral back-end cloud-based network, which is essential for key operational and sustainment tasks, offered an unprecedented potential export control mechanism, as The War Zone explored in detail back in 2017. The ability to remotely cut off vital software updates and network access, and perhaps even disable it entirely, could have helped assuage U.S. and Israeli fears to some degree. Beyond that, the UAE and Israel have found increasingly common ground over shared concerns about Iran and its malign activities in the region.

It's also not clear whether a major spat between the United States and Turkey over the latter country's purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system played any part in this movement away from work on a prospective UAE F-35 deal. The U.S. government ejected Turkey from the Joint Strike Fighter program earlier this year and the Turkish defense industry is on track to lose billions of dollars worth of related contracts. The Turkish government is now at risk of further sanctions, as well.

Anadolu Agency

The first F-35A intended for Turkey at a rollout ceremony in 2018. The U.S. government has now removed Turkey from the Joint Strike Fighter program.

It's not hard to see how the UAE might not have been thrilled about subjecting itself to such significant restrictions, not to mention the additional potential hurdles of Lockheed Martin retaining its own extensive control over the operational and sustainment of the aircraft, intellectual property rights issues that even the U.S. military and its NATO allies have chafed at. That the jets could have second-order impacts on other defense procurement decisions, as Turkey has found with the S-400, and open up new risks for automatic sanctions may not have been appealing, either.

The Su-57 is certainly not equivalent to the F-35, but it does have a number of interesting and unique features that make it a very capable design if everything works as it's supposed to. You can read more about these capabilities in detail in this past War Zone feature.

Whatever the case, Russia is clearly aware of the UAE's decision to back away from an F-35 purchase plan, at least for the time being, and it's not surprising that the Kremlin is already presenting itself as an alternative. Prior to 2017, there had already been regular reports that the Russians were working on a deal to sell Su-35 Flanker-E fourth-generation fighters to the UAE, though some had speculated this was part of an effort to pressure the United States into selling the Joint Strike Fighter.

Russia's messaging to the UAE seems very similar to what it has done with regards to Turkey following the S-400 sale. Moscow now says a potential sale of fourth-generation Su-35s to Ankara is in the works and Chemezov has previously proposed a sale of Su-57s for the Turkish Air Force. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offhandedly indicated interest in earlier this year. The "localization" offer could make such a future deal more appealing for Turkey, especially given the loss of F-35-related contracts.

Beyond all this, Chemezov's comments make clear that Russia is still very eager to find foreign partners to help spread out the cost burden of the Su-57 program. There have been persistent questions about whether or not the Kremlin will be able to afford its own purchases of the jets, as well as the development of new, more powerful engines for them, amid contracting defense budgets, the result of international sanctions and other economic issues. A partner that agrees to make a substantial purchase of the jets could drive down unit costs for Russia, as well, and help underwrite the development of future upgrades and new weapons.

India, the other country he mentioned by name, had long been involved in the development of the Su-57 with the potential for local assembly and other industrial cooperation opportunities being part of that deal. However, the Indian government reportedly ended cooperation on the advanced combat jet in 2018, though Russia has been trying to bring them back into the program

India has made significant industrial cooperation a core part of the latest iteration of its effort procure more than 100 advanced fourth-generation fighter jets and has also said that it will expect the winner of that tender to help support work on its own indigenous fifth-generation stealth fighter. India is also notably buying S-400s, which may close off its path to the F-35 for the foreseeable future and could put it in danger of getting hit with U.S. sanctions. Still, many experts believe that it will receive a waiver for certain sanctions from the U.S. government, which has been keen to increase military and economic cooperation with the world's largest democracy in recent years. 

Sukhoi

A now extremely dated infographic from the Su-57's manufacturer Sukhoi detailing early plans for variants of what was then known as the T-50 or PAK FA, including potential versions for India, Iran, and South Korea.

Russia has also reportedly approached China about joining the Su-57 effort, though it is less clear how interested that country might be given that it has already fielded one stealth fighter, the J-20, and is developing another, the FC-31. This is not to mention the significant resources the Chinese have been investing in stealthy unmanned combat air vehicles. That being said, China may be looking to buy more Russian Su-35s, despite making its own Flanker derivatives domestically, and could see the potential for some useful technology transfer as part of Chemezov's "localization" offer.

It remains to be seen if the UAE – or Turkey, India, China, or any other country – actually moves to purchase Su-57s, with or without the promise of getting additional industrial cooperation deals. What is clear is that Russians are looking for additional prospective customers for these advanced combat jets and are looking to find ways to make the pitch more enticing.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com