Why Kazakhstan Just Joined Algeria Rejecting French Rafale Fighters to Buy Enhanced Russian Su-30s

On November 30 Kazakhstan’s Deputy Commander in Chief of the Air Defence and head of the main armaments department Yerzhan Nildibayev stated that his country had chosen to acquire Russian Su-30SM fighters over a competing offer from France to supply Rafale jets. He added that the Kazakh Defence Ministry planned to acquire ten Su-30SMs in 2023-2024, emphasising that the Su-30 had a better “quality-price” ratio compared to the French aircraft. France’s Dassault Aviation has been promoting the Rafale to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for several months, with both countries fielding older classes of Soviet fighters that are expected to be phased out of service in the coming years – namely Kazakh MiG-27 strike fighters and Uzbek Su-27 air superiority fighters. The Kazakh Air Force is already considered by far the most capable in Central Asia, and received its first Su-30SMs in 2015 with three separate contracts for the aircraft already having been signed providing a current fleet size of 23 fighters. The benefits of expanding usage of fighters from a class already in service, over integrating entirely new aircraft which require different training, spare parts, infrastructure and weaponry, already placed the Su-30SM at an advantage in bids for further contracts. Alongside Su-30s, the backbone of the Kazakh fleet is currently formed by 32 MiG-31 interceptors split between two squadrons, which have much longer engagement ranges and carry significantly larger radars than the Su-30.

Kazakhstan’s decision to select the Su-30 over the Rafale follows a similar decision by Algeria in the mid-2000s, when the French aircraft was similarly strongly marketed to the country but failed to gain significant interest. The Su-30SM is closely related to the Su-30MKA acquired by Algeria, with both produced at the Irkutsk Aviation Plant and based on the Su-30MKI ‘4+ generation’ fighter design originally developed to meet Indian Air Force specifications. These Su-30s integrate thrust vectoring engines and phased array radars providing a far superior performance in air to air combat over cheaper Su-30 models produced at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant, and integrate a number of technologies from the cancelled Su-37 air superiority fighter. One of the primary benefits of the Su-30 for both very large countries far wider area it can cover, as while the Rafale has a relatively long range for a lightweight fighter it was still far shorter than heavyweights such as the Su-30 or F-15. The area the Algerian Air Force needs to cover is roughly equivalent to the areas of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Greece combined, while Kazakhstan’s  territory is 14 percent larger still. 

The Su-30 can not only fly much further and with a much greater weapons load, but its situational awareness is also considerably greater with its radar being approximately twice the size of the Rafale’s RBE2. The Su-30SM variant uses the more modern N011M Bars phased array radar with a maximum detection range 400 km. The Rafale’s relatively weak M88 engines – the weakest for any fighter in production in the world – also restrict its speed and operational altitude. The Rafale’s primary advantage remains its much lower operational costs and maintenance needs as a much lighter fighter class, although this is partly compensated for by the Su-30’s much lower acquisition cost. Newer variants of the Rafale also integrate more advanced sensors and air to air missiles that are more comparable in sophistication to those on Russia’s Su-57 fifth generation fighter, although these technologies are expected to be made available in upgrade packages for the Su-30 in future. 

Longstanding trends among Western arms suppliers to impose embargoes on spare parts and otherwise seek to restrict how their assets can be used abroad, is a further major drawback of the Rafale. another is the French fighter’s lack of compatibility with Kazakhstan’s existing Russian and Soviet equipment and likely inability to operate in joint networks with Russian forces. With Kazakhstan and Russia closely integrating their air defences, which increased further with the creation of a joint Collective Security Treaty Organization air defence network in November, integrating very short ranged and non-compatible French fighters into the network would have been highly troublesome. The importance of interoperability with Russian forces was highlighted in January 2022 when Astana requested the Russian Military be deployed to support local forces countering a short lived Turkish-backed insurgency which saw local security forces take significant casualties.