Final Gift From the Soviets: How China Received Three of the USSR’s Top Fighters Weeks Before the Superpower Collapsed

The Soviet Union began to introduce its first fourth generation combat aircraft into service from the late 1970s, with the Su-24M strike fighter joining the fleet in 1979 followed by the MiG-31 heavyweight interceptor in 1981, the MiG-29 medium weight fighter in 1982, and the Su-27 Flanker heavyweight air superiority fighter in 1985. Of these the MiG-29 was produced on the largest scale, had the lowest operational costs, and was designed largely with export in mind. While over 800 were operational in the Soviet Military by the end of 1991, hundreds more were sold across the world not only to communist countries such as Cuba, North Korea and East Germany, but also to neutral states such as Iraq, Iran and India. Although the USSR had in the Cold War’s early years been willing to widely export its most capable fighters, the secrecy surrounding the MiG-31 and Su-27 programs meant these were never sold abroad, and the only heavyweight fighter/interceptor exported was the older third generation MiG-25 Foxbat which proved popular in India and the Arab world. Despite this policy, however, the USSR did export a very small number of Su-27s after the Cold War’s end and just months before its collapse to a single client, which presaged the Flanker’s emergence as one of the most popular weapons systems in post Soviet Russia on international arms markets.

China in December 1990 became the only country ever approved by the Soviet Union to acquire Su-27 fighters, with an agreement signed on the 28th of the month for 24 airframes. Discussions regarding a sale of fourth generation Soviet fighters to China had begun in 1988, with the MiG-29 and Su-24 that had been offered to export clients worldwide being marketed as the potential future backbone of Chinese fighter fleet which was at the time close to three decades behind those of the USSR and United States technologically. The most capable fighter in the Chinese inventory at the time was the J-7, a derivative of the MiG-21 that had joined the Soviet fleet in 1959 albeit with less advanced capabilities than the latest Soviet MiG-21 variants. Even this aircraft operated in only limited numbers in China, with the bulk of its fleet formed by derivatives of the ageing MiG-19 that had first flown in 1952 and was barely considered a second generation fighter. This meant that whichever fourth generation aircraft China did acquire would represent a very significant technological leap, although Chinese negotiators nevertheless insisted on the Su-27 which had the longest range, greatest versatility, and was overall considered the most sophisticated. 

The Soviet rationale for approving Su-27 exports to China has been widely speculated. Some reports claimed that during talks Soviet and Chinese officials who had studied in USSR recalled years of fraternal cooperation in the 1950s, influencing the former with sentiment to approve in principle Su-27 sales. Another emphasised that the USSR’s geopolitical situation and need for cooperation with China led it to concede on the issue. With Beijing’s relations with the West having begun deteriorating from 1989, the possibility of China compromising the Su-27’s technologies to Moscow’s potential adversaries remained slim, in contrast to clients such as Egypt and Indonesia which had provided the United States with their most capable Soviet built fighters in the 1970s. The sale was speculated by some at the time to be a first step towards closer cooperation and interoperability between the two communist powers, with China at the time already considering license production agreements for Soviet fighters on its territory which could from Moscow’s perspective both bolster a valuable partner and provide an important source of funds for the Su-27 program. This cooperation never materialised, however, with the Soviet Union disintegrating in December 1991 after just three Su-27 fighters had been delivered to China – the only three it ever exported – with Russia subsequently completing the contract and signing several further Flanker export agreements into the mid 2000s. 

Flanker production was cut sharply after the Soviet collapse due to a near total collapse in orders from Soviet successor states, leaving the program very heavily reliant on Chinese support. The state of the Russian Air Force during the 1990s, at a time when pilots gained flying hours below minimum safety standards much less sufficient to hone a meaningful combat capability, meant even with common reliance on the Su-27 there was little room for joint exercises or a strengthening of cooperation in the field of fighter aviation other than in manufacturing and production. China would emerge as the leading operator of the Flanker, producing advanced derivatives of the Su-27 today considered in many ways more capable than those in the Russian Air Force with features such as stealth coatings, AESA radars and high off boresight air to air missiles among others.

Although the Su-27 and its derivatives would be very widely exported worldwide by Russia, China’s ability to gain Soviet permission to purchase the aircraft signified what may have been the beginnings of a formidable security partnership had politics domestically in the USSR not deteriorated sharply in the year following the signing of the contract. Both China and Russia have largely phased the Su-27 out of service, the latter in favour of newer Flanker derivatives such as the Su-35S, and the former in favour of a wide range of fighters including fifth generation J-20 stealth jets.

Having been three decades behind in 1991, China by the late 2010s was in a league of its own with the United States in fighter aviation with its J-20 being one of just two fifth generation fighters in production and fielded at squadron level strength alongside America’s F-35. The Soviet Union’s own promising fifth generation program the MiG 1.42 by contrast collapsed in the 1990s, and its replacement the Su-57 has progressed slowly as a result of the erosion of the Russian economy and tech sector after the Soviet collapse. The result has been a sharp reversal of roles between Russia and China as the former has failed to move past the fourth generation for 40 years, while the latter became a leader in fifth generation technologies far faster than anticipated.