Op-Ed by Emil Sanamyan, USC Institute of Armenian Studies
On June 17 prime minister Nikol Pashinyan published a photo on his facebook account captioned “SU-31SM (sic), inside one of the world’s best fighter aircraft. Already in Yerevan.”
Soon after an unnamed Armenian defense ministry source confirmed that Armenia had been in talks with Russia to buy fighter aircraft.
Information to that effect first leaked in January 2016, during Armenian-Russian defense talks. Seyran Ohanyan, defense minister at the time, avoided answering a question about the leak when asked at a press conference. All past Armenian governments typically kept weapons purchase plans secret until after they were completed.
Should a deal for Su-30SM fighters indeed go forward it would become the most expensive military item ever bought by Armenia. At $40-50 million a piece, depending on quantity (say 6 or 12), the value of the deal could climb beyond half a billion dollars, exceeding the current size of the annual military budget.
Almost certainly the deal would require further borrowing from Russia, from which Armenia had already borrowed $300 million for other military purchases. Maintenance costs, including pilot training, are another significant consideration. For a country that has not been able to expand its ground support military aircraft or afford a national airline, it seems a particularly odd choice to invest in fighter aircraft.
Beyond financial considerations, is also unclear if Armenia needs to buy this aircraft, considering other technological advances. The purpose of fighter aircraft is to dominate the skies, to shoot down other aircraft and to deliver precision strikes on ground targets. Increasingly, countries are phasing out fixed-winged manned aircraft, as Georgia is doing, replacing them with armed drones and ballistic missiles.
This is probably the reason why the deal, which according to Russian daily Kommersant had been signed in 2012, was never implemented. Instead, in 2015 Armenia purchased the advanced Iskander surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and used some of the new Russian loans to upgrade its air defenses and artillery systems. Since April 2016, Armenia has also stepped up work on development of armed drones.
It appears the talk of Su-30 purchase was revived during Pashinyan’s meeting with Vladimir Putin last week. As Kommersant sources had pointed out, it is in Russia’s interest to expedite the sale that the previous Armenian government managed to postpone to 2024 in order to avoid shutting down one of its Sukhoy production facilities. As an expert cited in the article points out, such a sale would also make it easier for Russia to sell more advanced aircraft to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had sought to buy Russian aircraft in the past, but after Russia apparently refused to sell them, turned to Israel for advanced drone and air defense technology.
Incidentally, the Sukhoy concern – until early 2015 led by Russian Armenian Mikhail Poghosyan – had pitched its products to Armenia before. In 2011, Armavia airlines became the first buyer of Sukhoy’s civilian Superjet-100. The risky purchase likely contributed to Armavia’s bankruptcy in 2013. Russia has since not been able to sell the Superjet to any other foreign client.
The typo in Pashinyan’s photo caption (Su-31 instead of Su-30) is typical for people with superficial knowledge of military technology. The prime minister will need the right briefings to consider the pro’s and con’s of this deal, before locking Armenia into a potentially unnecessary financial obligations.
Emil Sanamyan lives in Washington DC, and specializes in the politics of the Caucasus.