Algeria has for over a decade consistently been the second largest client for Russian arms exports after India, and has by far the largest defense budget on the African continent over double that of its rival Egypt. The country’s armed forces have consistently ranked in the world’s top fifteen, and the Algerian Air Force has for decades been considered the most capable on the African continent with a high quality and quantity of both manpower and equipment. The country’s fleet of combat jet aircraft is comprised exclusively of Soviet and Russian designs, namely the light weight MiG-29 and medium weight Su-30MKA fighters, the MiG-25 interceptor and the Su-24 strike fighter.
With the largest landmass on the continent, and the need to potentially launch retaliatory strikes against adversaries far beyond its borders, the Algerian Air Force has long emphasized deployment of long range heavyweight aircraft, and even its short ranged MiG-29s have been replaced by the much longer ranged MiG-29M variants and new long range Su-30 units from 2020. It has long been speculated that Algeria could be a future client for the Su-35 heavyweight fighter, with Russian media reporting multiple times over several years that discussions for orders for the jets were being held.
The availability of the Su-30MKA, its possibility to be upgraded with the same AL-41F engines and Irbis-E nose mounted PESA radar as the Su-35, and expectations that Algeria would purchase the more advanced Su-57 in the mid-2030s, are all thought to be factors which led Algeria to overlook the Su-35. According to Algerian military analysts, however, the performance of the Su-35’s sensor suite was a primary cause to avoid purchasing the fighter which cost approximately 60% more per unit than the Su-30MKA.
Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radars
The ability to spot an enemy and maneuver into advantageous position, while denying the adversary those same advantages has historically proven the most decisive edge a pilot can have in air-to-air combat. That’s why a superior radar—and greater discretion—can wind up being a deadlier advantage than, say, a higher maximum speed.
The latest Russian Su-35S jets feature Irbis-E passive-electronically scanned array (PESA) radars claimed capable of detecting an aircraft up to 268 km away. But the Irbis is also extremely conspicuous when active, meaning leveraging its capabilities can leave the operator even more vulnerable to being detected first and jammed by modern electronic warfare equipment.
The current gold standard in sensor technology is the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which has greater range, higher resolution and better capability to maintain multiple tracks than its predecessors. Perhaps most importantly, AESA radars are much harder to detect—making it possible to search for targets without necessarily giving one’s presence away. That amounts to a huge advantage in managing situational awareness.
The Su-35 has a Passive Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) each away is connected to a single transmitter AESA have multiple transmitters which can be using different frequencies which makes it harder to jam.
Russia is yet to field an aircraft with AESA
Algeria’s requirements for a high performance air superiority aircraft included integration of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which Russia has yet to integrate onto any fighter fielded at squadron level strength. Such radars is were first fielded by Japan from 2002, but became standard for all major fighters produced outside Russia by the mid-late 2010s reflecting a lagging industry in Russia itself.
This was despite the USSR having fielded phased array PESA radars for air-to-air combat more than 20 years before any other country with the MiG-31’s Zaslon radar, and reflected a degree of industrial decline in Russia after 1991.
AESA radars avoid the need for mechanical scanning, are much less vulnerable to electronic warfare, provide greater power, and provide a range of greater opportunities for offensive electronic warfare. AESA radars have been a requirement for fighter tenders around the world for some time, a notable example being Singapore’s selection of the F-15 in 2005 largely of an AESA radar fitted into the aircraft.
Other than the MiG-31’s Zaslon-M radar, the Su-35’s Irbis-E radar is considered as Soviet-era non-AESA radar on any fighter or interceptor, with a 268km detection range. Nevertheless, the fighter’s lack of an AESA radar has reportedly undermined its appeal to Algeria, and possibly to other foreign clients. The deployment of growing numbers of fifth-generation stealth aircraft by NATO, in particular, was reportedly cause for Algeria to insist on an AESA radar, as particularly since the NATO war on Libya in 2011 a Western assault has been seen as the most pressing potential threat.
Should Russia fail to develop an AESA radar for its future fighters shortly, Algeria may consider looking to other sources. China could potentially provide either a complete fighter with such a radar, or a Flanker-compatible AESA for Algeria’s Russian-built aircraft. China has notably fielded AESA radar-equipped Flankers since at least 2014 with the J-16 and in the future possibly the J-11D should it enter service. It currently offers the very potent lightweight J-10C for export which also deploys an AESA radar. Russia’s market share overseas for heavyweight aircraft has largely been preserved by the fact that China has not offered its own Flanker derivatives for export, although current trends towards a growing Chinese technological lead could lead Algeria and others to look to Chinese fighters.
Egypt, Indonesia and Algeria reject Su-35
The Algerian Air Force’s reported rejection of the Su-35 due to its radar could well be an early sign of this. There have been multiple reports of Algerian plans to acquire the Su-35; however, it now appears the nation plans to upgrade its Su-30MKAs with Su-35 technologies while waiting to acquire the more advanced Su-57.
There have been multiple reports of Algerian plans to acquire the Su-35; however, it now appears the nation plans to upgrade its Su-30MKAs with Su-35 technologies while waiting to acquire the more advanced Su-57.
The Egyptian Air Force was set to become the first customer for the Su-35 in the Middle East area; however, concerns have been raised regarding the capabilities of the Su-35’s Irbis-E radar.
The economic sanctions have targeted Russia’s oil industry, defense, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies imports from the USA, South Korea, Europe, and Israel.
This has caused a block on the import of modern components required to manufacture the Su-35 fighters; in particular, there has been a failure to replace scanned array radar and avionics.
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