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Posts tagged ‘Sukhoi’

Fast Jets Are Formidable, But Aren’t Magic

By Taylor Marvin

South African Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Photo by Wikimedia user  NJR ZA.

South African Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Photo by Wikimedia user NJR ZA.

In a March piece at War Is Boringjournalist Peter Dörrie examined a number of African states’ ballooning defense acquisitions. In an apparent puzzle given these countries’ impoverished populations and past difficulties maintaining advanced military equipment, these purchases include big-ticket items like advanced fighter aircraft.

While this trend appears to be partially driven by both increased government revenues and recent stability that allow African states the resources to purchase expensive weapons as well as a desire to increase their regional power projection abilities, I recently speculated that these aircraft purchases are also driven by a desire for status and prestige. Militaries’ operational effectiveness is dependent on institutional resources that are often difficult to build. The ability to destroy enemy forces and seize objectives rests on factors like frequent and realistic training, motivated soldiers, sound doctrine, and an educated, independent officer corps as well as equipment like aircraft. But many of these traits take decades to construct, and cannot be simply paid for. Unlike actually building effective, well-trained, and capable military forces, high-profile purchases of impressive fighter aircraft present an attractive shortcut to governments seeking to quickly bolster military status.

Modern multirole fighter aircraft can be awesomely effective weapons, but it is worth remembering that this effectiveness is not guaranteed. Under the right circumstances, they can indeed be a powerful military asset. Fighters armed with air-to-ground weapons can be used for decapitation strikes deep in enemy territory, and interdiction strikes behind the enemy’s front line can substantially complicate enemy logistics and movement. If enemy forces are unable to field their own strike aircraft, it is difficult to overstate how psychologically comforting it is for friendly troops to see the open sky as an ally rather than a danger. (Historian Stephen Ambrose emphasizes this point in the context of the Western Front of World War II in Europe.)

But all these capabilities require fighter aircraft to be used effectively, an effectiveness that has steep barriers to entry. As Darren Olivier writes in a review of Angolan fighter acquisition, airpower is based on equipment, people, and processes, and “shortcuts have not traditionally worked.” Fighter aircraft may be among the most highly visible and prestigious faces of airpower, but if they are treated as a shortcut, short is how they will come up in combat.

First, many of the aspirant regional powers acquiring modern fighter aircraft are only purchasing limited quantities. For example, in Africa on paper South Africa fields 26 Swedish-manufactured Gripen aircraft. Angola has stated that it expects to purchase 12 Russian Sukhoi Su-30K fighters; the Su-30 family is one of the highest performance fighter aircraft in the world, with long range, extreme maneuverability, and aerodynamic performance considered better than any US fighter but the F-22. Algeria has 28 Su-30MKs, with more on order. In South America, Brazil plans to buy 36 Gripens, and neighboring Venezuela currently fields two dozen Su-30MKs and a number of American-built F-16s that as of 2005 were difficult to maintain due to a shortage of spare parts. The Royal Malaysian Air Force flies 18 Su-30MKs, in addition to a smaller number of American F/A-18s. These numbers are not surprising, given the extreme cost of not only acquiring but also maintaining advanced aircraft. Notably, smaller NATO members such as Denmark and Portugal have roughly comparable numbers of advanced fighter aircraft.

But these numbers also raise many operational issues, even for regional powers able to devote their entire fleets to a single-theater conflict. Assuming a fifty percent readiness rate — which I would guess is fairly optimistic — in the event of a conflict Venezuela’s 24 Su-30MKs are, in practice, a dozen aircraft. These fighters can’t be everywhere at once, and this isn’t even accounting for combat losses. The suppression of enemy air defenses mission, or neutralizing air defense systems like surface-to-air missile installations, is notoriously difficult and dangerous for even advanced air branches. Given the proliferation of anti-air weapons, will ill-trained air forces flying advanced jets be able to operate in environments where air defense put them at risk?

Similarly, how effective are these aircraft’s pilots? As Dörrie notes in his piece, South Africa’s Gripens rarely fly due to prohibitive operational costs, meaning that their pilots aren’t getting the flight time to stay sharp, and certainly not the realistic, challenging training necessary for combat effectiveness. If aircraft rarely fly, are maintenance crews getting the practical experience necessary to solve problems and get aircraft flying in wartime? And without practical exercises, how can military doctrine best incorporate advanced aircraft’s real-world capabilities? States unable to bear the costs of routinely flying their prestige fighter aircraft in peacetime will pay a serious price for this lack of experience in combat. While these costs aren’t included in the sticker price of fighter acquisition, for all practical purposes they are a major addition to the barrier to entry blocking states’ access to effective air operations.

Finally, all this assumes that military and civilian leaderships are even willing to risk expensive combat jets. If the acquisition of these prestigious assets is motivated by statues-seeking, this may not be the case. Not only are these aircraft extremely expensive; downing one would be an enormous propaganda coup in wartime. If leaders can realistically assess the risks of flying precious fast jets, they may decide to not use them at all. If this is the case, then the real military value of high-profile fast jet acquisition by aspirant regional powers is close to zero.

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The Ultimate Luxury Good

By Taylor Marvin

Algerian Su-30MKA. Photo by Wikimedia user Ardastos.

Algerian Su-30MKA. Photo by Wikimedia user Ardastos.

Last month, Peter Dörrie took a fascinating look in War is Boring at the weapons shopping spree going on in Africa. Across the continent, a number of countries are spending heightened oil revenue on new, high-profile military acquisitions — for uncertain goals. It isn’t just that countries like Algeria, Angola, and Uganda could better serve their impoverished citizens by spending resource income on bolstering public institutions or development projects. Instead, these acquisitions, which include advanced Russian-sourced fighter aircraft, serve little obvious immediate military need.

Many African states face interstate security concerns, but the conventional, peer-on-peer wars multirole fighters are most suited for remain rare. Instead of immediate defensive aims, Dörrie writes citing SIPRI fellow Siemon Wezeman, these fighter purchases are mostly intended “to build up forces for regional power projection” and that “geopolitical posturing is also a factor.”

But why would African states purchase costly arms that appear out of step with their practical security needs, and that they are unlikely to be able to effectively maintain anyway? Restricting the question to just fast jets — “the crown jewels of Africa’s air arms,” in Dörrie’s words — several explanations arise. The first is the simplest. As Dörrie notes these states do perceive themselves as having real military need for airpower. African military acquisitions are also likely partially due to an arms race dynamic, where one state’s newly-acquired military advantages give its neighbors a powerful incentive to match it on the battlefield. This dynamic can play out even when two states are not rivals. For example, Brazil’s decision late last year to select the Saab Gripen NG as the culmination of a long-delayed fighter acquisition program seems partially driven by neighboring Venezuela’s 2006 purchase of Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighters. Venezuela and Brazil have no serious rivalry; while the Brazilian government may be worried by political instability next door, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose anointed successor is the current Brazilian executive, publicly endorsed Venezuela’s current administration in the last election.

Secondly, while the weak states, internal conflict, and decrepit economies that characterized most of post-independence Sub-Saharan Africa meant that only a few of the region’s countries, most notably apartheid-era South Africa, could afford to build formidable militaries, today this is no longer the case. (It has been argued that these weak states also discouraged interstate war by giving everyone an incentive preserve a norm discouraging territorial conquest and secession, which could further discourage weapons purchases suited to interstate warfare.) Growing economies and resource booms have given more African governments the fiscal ability to invest in expensive weapons — it is no surprise that of the states Dörrie lists Algeria and Angola are major oil exporters, and South Africa was until recently seen as Africa’s largest economy.

This leads to the most interesting explanation for Africa’s fast jet purchases: prestige. Beyond their practical role in credible posturing and power projection, advanced combat aircraft are enormously prestigious military assets, making them a useful tool for status seeking states. Few states have the resources to maintain fleets of modern fighter aircraft, whose allure grants them public attention outsized compared to their military impact. For countries without major navies, it isn’t wrong to view fighter aircraft as flagships. This is particularly true of the Sukhoi Su-27 derivatives highlighted in Dörrie’s report. Sukhoi Su-27 variants and derivatives — in NATO parlance, “Flankers” — are a family of extremely formidable Russian multirole aircraft with its origins in the closing decades of the Cold War. Designed to counter advanced Western fighters over the Cold War battlefield, since dissolution of the USSR the Su-27 and its many, many derivatives (the aircraft family is notoriously confusing) have found wider success on the global export market than their European rivals.

For numerous reasons, the Su-27 family has proven popular among poorer states than its Western rivals: in Africa, the Su-27 is flown by Angola, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and the Su-30 by others. This isn’t to discount the aircraft’s abilities, which by most accounts matches or exceeds Western 4th generation fighters. But the family’s buyers are an interesting demonstration of the role of prestige-seeking in military acquisitions.

Effective military organizations are extremely difficult to build, because military efficacy is not only determined by equipment. Other determinants of a military’s ability to effectively operate, like doctrine, training, an educated, politically independent officer corps, and so on, are far harder to buy. For states that find themselves unable to make the society-wide reforms necessary build these institutional resources, highly-visible acquisitions can provide a shortcut to international military prestige. This shortcut is particularly available for oil states, who are able to channel funds more or less directly from oilfields to arms exporters, and states whose aircraft are piloted by foreigners — during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War aircraft were famously flown by European pilots, for example — where fielding advanced combat aircraft boils down to essentially writing a check.

Of course, buying advanced aircraft without investing the time and resources to build a similarly capable military organization does not translating into combat effectiveness — or “effectiveness” at anything, as the clumsy Malaysian response to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has shown. As Dörrie writes, many African states have had trouble maintaining their air equipment, and training their pilots. But even if African states prove unable to keep sophisticated aircraft combat-capable, these acquisitions are still worrying. Most obviously, prestige military purchases divert funds that could be better spend on development and providing social services. But that isn’t the only worry. When you have a hammer, nails, and so on.

Update: I should add that a comment by Howl at Pluto blogger LFC regarding rumors late last year that Angola would acquire an aircraft carrier is remarkably applicable to this question: “Rulers and govts care about status, and weapons — even if operated on a somewhat token basis due to shortage of trained personnel etc. — continue to confer status.”

Correction: I originally listed Sudan as an oil exporter; after the secession of South Sudan its oil production has fallen significantly.