A number of clients including China, Algeria, Vietnam, and India have reportedly shown considerable interest in the Su-57E due to its unique capabilities. While discussions for India and Vietnam are reportedly ongoing, a new and unexpected potential client for the jet has emerged in Southeast Asia – the air force of Myanmar.
Reports of a possible sale came amid fast-growing defence ties between the two countries, and following comments from Myanmar’s ambassador to Russia Ko Ko Shein regarding interest in the platform.
However, when Myanmar’s ambassador to Russia indicated that they would be interested in the Su-57, it came as a surprise to many defense watchers.
While not tiny, Myanmar’s air force doesn’t have many modern jets. Older variants of the Russian MiG-29 medium weight multirole fighter currently form the bulk of the Myanmar Air Force’s fleet, complemented by older third-generation Chinese J-7 jets and a small but growing fleet of JF-17 lightweight fourth-generation fighters.
The Myanmar Air Force’s modernization program, however, appears to be placing an unprecedented focus on high-end heavyweight fighters – ordering six Su-30SM Flankers in 2018 and reportedly planning follow-up orders for several more.
While the Su-30 has ‘4+ generation’ capabilities, it may not be sufficient to seriously contest air superiority as neighboring powers modernize their fleets – particularly considering the massive quantitative disadvantages Myanmar’s fleet is almost certain to face.
The recent nature of the Su-30 order is probably why Myanmar is interested in the Su-57. If the government has money earmarked for additional Su-30 orders, this could be easily transferred into Su-57 orders. Surprisingly, the price of the Su-30 is roughly similar to the Su-57.
Russian military expert Michael Kofman mentions that most sticker price estimates of the Su-57 are at between 45 to 54 million dollars per unit, though Russia has spent significantly more on the program, per aircraft.
Comparatively, Myanmar’s Su-30SM’s cost between 35 to 50 million dollars per unit. 35 million is at the low end of the price range, and presumably, a Su-30SM ordered in 2018 would have some level of upgrades to stay competitive with newer Su-35 models. It’s likely that Myanmar’s Su-30SMs cost is closer to 50 million for this reason.
The Su-57, which is widely considered the world’s most capable fighter for air to air combat, could even in smaller numbers provide a far more formidable addition to the country’s defences. In particular, due to its considerable range and access to high-end standoff munitions from the Kh-47M2 hypersonic ballistic missile to the R-37M Mach 6 air to air missile, the fighter will provide Myanmar’s forces with a very long reach. Indications of interest in long-range strike capabilities were given by the country’s previously strong interest in acquiring North Korean ballistic missile technologies.
As Myanmar has not operated high-end Russian fighters in the past, a Su-57 purchase will require considerable investments in maintenance infrastructure and training for operating crews. While the manufacture of Su-30 fighters for Myanmar has already begun, these could serve in a complementary role to the Su-57 in the future.
The ‘4+ generation’ jets are both cheaper to operate, and notably configured with twin seats meaning they can be used to prepare pilots to operate the more capable Su-57. The Su-57 notably comes only in a single-seat variant, although India has reportedly sought to commission a specialized twin-seat variant for its own fleet.
Myanmar has also ordered a dozen Yak-130 twin-seat trainer jets, which were developed specifically to train pilots to operate high-end Russian fighters such as the Su-30 and Su-57.
While the Su-57 is expected to cost approximately 40% more per aircraft than the Su-30SM and has a higher operational cost, the very significant discrepancy in capabilities could make it a better investment. Even placing a relatively small order for under a dozen fighters, Myanmar could potentially emerge as the first overseas operator of the Su-57 – with an order coming just as unexpectedly as that for the Su-30 did.
With a defence budget of approximately $2 billion annually, much diverted to sustaining a sizeable ground force amid ongoing internal conflict, orders are unlikely to be too large unlike those of Vietnam, Turkey, India and other interested clients. It is also possible that, like Vietnam, Myanmar will wait until the mid-2020s to place an order for the Su-57 jets – and that interest expressed by the ambassador could refer to the long term.