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A traditional Russian ally snubbed Moscow's latest fighter jets for competitors from Pakistan and Turkey

Paul Iddon   

A traditional Russian ally snubbed Moscow's latest fighter jets for competitors from Pakistan and Turkey
  • Azerbaijan's biggest arms supplier has been Russia but it will likely acquire jets from elsewhere.
  • The rumored deal suggests the longtime ally is detaching more from Moscow, a defense analyst said.

The small, oil-rich South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan has big plans to upgrade its modest fleet of fighter jets over the next decade. However, rather than turn to Russia, its traditional arms supplier for decades, Baku will likely acquire modern fighters from Pakistan and Turkey.

The turn away from Russia shows that longtime allies like Azerbaijan are finding effective arms sellers who aren't afflicted by the problems of Russia's newest fighter jets.

Unconfirmed reports in Azerbaijani and Pakistani media surfaced in late February claiming Azerbaijan reached a deal with Pakistan to buy an undisclosed number of JF-17C Thunder fighter jets for $1.6 billion. Azerbaijan officially joined Turkey's TF Kaan fifth-generation fighter program last July, strongly suggesting it will acquire that jet. The Kaan made its maiden flight in February.

Russia previously marketed the 4.5-generation Su-30SM, Su-35, and MiG-35 fighters to Azerbaijan in the late 2010s. Azerbaijan's president said in 2018 that his country had spent $5 billion on Russian military hardware. But now it doesn't seem likely Baku will turn to Moscow for 4.5-generation aircraft. Azerbaijan is even less likely to invest in Russia's troubled 5th-generation Su-57 or Su-75 "Checkmate" jets.

Russia has been Azerbaijan's largest arms supplier until recent years, said Frederico Borsari, a defense expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

"However, things have progressively changed as Russia launched a reckless war of aggression against Ukraine and started to lose influence among countries in the Caucasus amidst growing difficulties in Ukraine and financial constraints," Borsari told Business Insider. "Turkey, among others, has exploited this situation from a security standpoint and started to expand its military cooperation with Baku, including through weapons sales."

Consequently, Turkish sales to Azerbaijan began increasing in 2017, while Russian arms exports halted around 2019.

"Against this backdrop, the rumored JF-17 purchase from Pakistan further consolidates this trend of progressive detachment from Moscow's fold and may also be the result of the poor performance of Russian aircraft (and the air force overall) in Ukraine," Borsari said.

Sebastien Roblin, a widely published military-aviation journalist, says it is understandable if Azerbaijan decides to use its oil wealth to overhaul its manned fighter fleet until the Kaan begins rolling off production lines "in quantity" around 2033.

"Given close relations with Turkey and ambivalent ones with Russia, its preference for the latter is understandable, particularly given Russia's own problems bringing Su-57s into service," Roblin told Insider.

Roblin noted that Azerbaijan faces "tricky considerations" when weighing a "politically reliable vendor" for new fighters.

"Neither Russia nor Western democracies are ideal suppliers, even though Russia has historically sold arms to Azerbaijan," Roblin told Insider. "Pakistan and Turkey, and through Pakistan, China, may seem like more reliable partners for Baku unlikely to cut off deals due to upset over human rights issues or future potential wars with Armenia."

Borsari said Azerbaijan's participation in the Kaan project is "first and foremost the natural consequence of a long-standing and growing security partnership" between Ankara and Baku that stems from their close political and diplomatic ties. Turkey provided training and arms that enabled Azerbaijan to defeat Armenia's armed forces in the 2020 war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

"For both countries, this appears to be a win-win solution," Borsari said. "This choice would allow long-term and robust cooperation that ensures the sustainability of Baku's air force in terms of logistics, training, maintenance, etc, with a close ally while providing Turkey with a long-term contract and client in the defense sector."

The CEPA analyst noted that "prospective problems" in the Russian military aircraft industry, the "huge disappointment surrounding the Su-57," and the "poor performance" of other Russian fighters in Ukraine are other possible factors that pushed Baku "to opt for Turkey's project."

While Russia has promoted the Su-57 as its answer to America's F-22 and F-35, the fifth-generation fighter has exhibited some severe shortcomings. Analysts have noted it lacks fifth-generation engines, and its body panels are not placed tightly enough together to reduce the aircraft's radar cross-section — a key feature in any stealth aircraft.

An Azerbaijani acquisition of the JF-17, which the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China's Chengdu Aircraft Corporation jointly developed, would also be significant.

Azerbaijan's neighbor and rival Armenia acquired four Su-30SMs in 2020. The Su-30SM is more advanced than Azerbaijan's MiG-29s, although they did not face off against each other in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

"The JF-17 is a modernization of the MiG-21/J-7 airframe with 4th-generation technology," Roblin said. "It doesn't outmatch the bigger, faster, heavier-payload lifting Su-30 twin-engine fighter in terms of raw performance and maximum radar search range."

Nevertheless, the Block III version Azerbaijan is set to acquire has significant advantages. Roblin noted its newer systems could give it an "electronics edge" over the Su-30SM, especially its powerful and purportedly jam-resistant KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array radar. Furthermore, if paired with China's PL-15E air-to-air missile, it could match Russia's equivalent.

"So, while not strictly an overmatch, JF-17Cs could hold their own against Armenian Su-30SMs to the extent that it would depend on tactics and training used by both sides in the event of an air war," Roblin said. "By contrast, Azerbaijan's Soviet-vintage MiG-29s purchased from Ukraine, while sound aircraft broadly speaking, have older electronics than the Su-30SMs and much inferior radar."

These latest rumors of Azerbaijan's interest in the JF-17 signal that Baku wants the former aircraft to replace its aging MiG-29s and serve as a stopgap solution until the Kaan is available.

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