Russian Air Force Receives New Batch of Su-35S Fighters: Why Aren’t Any Being Exported?

The Russian Air Force has received a new batch of Su-35S heavyweight air superiority fighters from the Gagarin Aviation Plant in Komsomolsk on Amur, according to a report from state arms conglomerate Rostec on October 24. Rostec First Deputy CEO Vladimir Artyakov stated regarding the delivery: “Our aircraft manufacturers have reached a good pace of rolling out combat aircraft and timely deliver them to the Russian Aerospace Forces. This is not the last delivery of aircraft this year. The Su-35S is one of the basic fighters in service with the Russian army and enjoys merited success. This supermaneuverable aircraft can accomplish a broad range of objectives and employ an entire spectrum of existing and future aircraft armaments.” The Air Force received a previous batch from the far eastern production facilities in late September 2023, which was the third batch delivered in under three months. The September batch was delivered alongside a batch of Su-57 next generation fighters, which are also in production at Komsomolsk on Amur in parallel on a smaller scale. The preceding batches were delivered in late June and again in mid July.

Although for much of its production run capacity has been divided between the Russian Air Force and foreign clients, the Su-35 is today being built for domestic use exclusively. This has been due in large part to American threats to implement economic warfare measures against any state which acquires the aircraft. These threats forced both Indonesia and Egypt to back out of prior contracts to acquire the fighters, and have forced many more potential clients to reconsider acquisitions, leaving China and Iran as the only two clients. Although Russian sources were initially optimistic that China would acquire the Su-35 on a large scale, after it was by far the largest client for the Su-27 and second largest for the Su-30 in the 1990s and early 2000s, the East Asian state’s development of multiple much more capable fighters further seriously cut Russian markets. Competition from Russia’s own cheaper Su-30SM and higher end Su-57 also being a major factor undermining Su-35 exports, with the former being similarly capable in the large majority of roles other than high end air to air engagements, while the latter is considered more cost effective due to its very significantly superior capabilities in all mission types. 

With Su-35 having performed effectively in air to air combat in the Russian-Ukrainian War, including in major air battles against Ukraine’s top fighter classes, the aircraft may well gain export orders in future with Iran in particular being a leading potential client. The Iranian Air Force is reportedly considering expanding orders to enlarge its Su-35 fleet to around 64 fighters, with much depending on its evaluation of the first fighters which are expected to be delivered by mid-2024 once personnel training is complete. Russia’s ability to deliver the fighters quickly, and potentially by that point to entirely cut off domestic orders, is a key attraction of the Su-35 over the more advanced Su-57. The newer fighter is still being produced on a smaller scale and will be in high demand domestically and reportedly from the Algerian Defence Ministry as well. Without Iranian orders, an early termination of Su-35 production remains likely as the Russian Air Force moves to focus investments on expanded Su-57 acquisitions in the second half of the decade.