Venezuela Buying SU-30s, Helicopters, etc. From Russia
There have been a series of reports from a number of sources that Venezuela has finalized a deal with Russian arms manufacturers. Those reports have now shifted the total from $1 billion to around $3 billion, and expand its focus beyond SU-30MK2 (Mnogofunktzionniy Komercheskiy 2-seat) long-range multi-role fighters and various Russian helicopters to include other equipment as well. The final deal is reportedly still being negotiated.
Russian deals are extremely non-transparent, and often there are conflicting reports with no official confirmation of announced reports or additional details released. Based on news reports from various sources, however, here’s what DID can tell you about the likely shape of the deal and the nature of the equipment in question, aside from the USA’s predictably futile requests that Russia not go through with the sale.
DID’s coverage today includes updated information regarding the deal, and adds sources that have emerged sicce this article was first published on July 24, 2006. The latest news is the claimed crash of a Mi-35 – but DID explains why that story may be problematic…
- Venezuela-Russia 2006: Deal, Updated
- The Fighters: Sukhoi’s SU-30MK2s
- The Helicopters: Plans for 33 Coming to Fruition?
- Venezuela-Russia 2006: Follow-on Events & Milestones [NEW]
- Appendix A: DID Analysis & Op/Ed (July 31/06)
Veneuela-Russia 2006: Deal, Updated
The Vedomosti business daily quotes Rosoboronexport’s CEO Sergei Chemezov claiming that Venezuela would sign deals worth $3 billion. On top of an expected deal to buy at least 24 Russian Sukhoi-30 jets, reports said Chavez will buy helicopters (up to 53 helicopters has been suggested), surface-to-air missiles and possibly even a submarine.
Kommersant’s hilarious July 28, 2006 article “The Kalashnikov Buyer” is an instructive tale of cultural mismatches at the highest levels of diplomacy. It also includes additional details re: the structure of Venezuela’s weapons purchases:
- 38 Russian military helicopters for $484 million, deal signed on July 15 (38 + 15 previously-ordered = 53). Types not broken down, but a RIA Novosti article on July 31 cited them as Mi-17V5 and Mi-35Ms only – no more Mi-26s;
- 24 Su-30MK planes, deal signed on July 17 (RIA Novosti would later say SU-30MK2 on July 31).
“A high Kremlin source said that new shipments of weapons were discussed at yesterday’s talks. “Work in that direction is continuing,” the source said.
It can be suggested with great confidence that they are now talking about medium-range ballistic missiles. In addition, Venezuela dreams of conquering space. Chavez considers it his duty to launch the first Venezuelan into space (as if he wouldn’t go himself). Russian specialists understandably want it to be a commercial launch but, unfortunately, it will be a political decision.”
While DID respects Kommersant’s superior local sources, we would suggest that armored vehicles, surface-air missiles, and submarines are far more likely buys. Russia has learned a thing or two about medium range ballistic missiles and Latin American countries over the last century, and is unlikely to repeat the experience. Nor is it wise to sell a potentially lucrative repeat buyer the defense procurement equivalent of a hara-kiri kit.
The Fighters: Sukhoi’s SU-30MK2s
DID has covered Venezuela’s thwarted $100 million attempt to upgrade its 1980s-vintage F-16s with more modern systems, which failed thanks to US pressure on Israel to abandon the sale. Long before that setback, however, Venezuela had also been talking about buying Russian fighters. Most speculation concerned the MiG-29, but some reports mentioned the much larger, longer-range, and more expensive SU-30s. There was even some talk about Chinese J-10s. Meanwhile, as DID pointed out, spare parts were still being delivered to keep its F-16A/B fleet operational.
While reports vary, it seems apparent that Venezuela has now bought between 24-30 SU-30MK2s, a multi-role 2-seat variant with substantial air-air and air-ground capabilities. The SU-30MK2 is not the most advanced Russian fighter developed; it lacks the canard foreplanes or thrust vectoring of more advanced variants like India’s SU-30MKI, or Sukhoi’s new variants the SU-34 strike aircraft or SU-37 fighter that are waiting for procurement orders. Having said that, SU-30MK2s as a base platform are the equal of China’s most advanced SU-30MKKK2s, and equal to or better than most SU-30 variants currently serving in Russia.
DID would add that the likely contract value is over $1 billion, as these aircraft traditionally sell for about $60 million per aircraft, and support deals also factor in. A sale of 24 aircraft at $60 million each is $1.44 billion all by itself. Hopefully, future reports will bring some clarity to this aspect [N.B. They are beginning to, suggesting that the purchase will be more like $3 billion].
One-one-one, and with other things being equal (both of which rarely apply in tactical situations), the SU-30s match up well against US aircraft. Where the US “teen series” fighters like the F-16, F-18 and F-15 are built around 1970 designs, the Sukhoi jets are late 1980s designs that apply many of the lessons from America’s teen series aircraft, plus some of their own twists. The result is an improved airframe with a large and capable radar and a higher-performance design; one capable of unique maneuvers and remarkably adaptable to modernization via canards, thrust vectoring, and other advanced features. Indeed, Sukhoi’s fighters have become the baseline against which most twin-engine western fighters are measured. Their only major weakness is the design’s inherent lack of stealth.
In air-to-air combat, many observers consider the SU-30 to be superior to both the F/A-18 and F-15 variants, on even footing with the Rafale, outclassed by the Eurofighter, and very much outclassed by the stealthy F-22A. In terms of air-ground combat, however, their range, payload, and performance means their only western equal may be the F-15E+ Strike Eagle variants, with the F-22A excelling the SU-30s in specific missions like air defense suppression but unable to carry their weight or versatility of armament.
With that said, one should add that the fighter sale is only the first part of any military capability. Venezuela’s SU-30 fleet will depend on advanced missiles like the short-range AA-11/R-73 Archer and long-range AA-12/R-77 ‘AMRAAMski’ to give it real air-air punch – modern SU-30s include the ability to fire the R-77s in addition to the older R-27/AA-10 Alamo. In the strike role, possession of smart bombs and missiles (esp. antiship missiles) will make a significant different to the fighters’ full striking power. Paying attention to whether or not Venezuela buys those “ancillaries,” therefore, is as important as the aircraft sale itself.
The Helicopters: Plans for 33 Coming to Fruition?
In 2005, Venezuela signed a $201 million contract for 15 Russian helicopters. According to Novosti, the deal consisted of 6 Mi-17 (probably Mi-17v5) “Hip” armed troop transports and 8 Mi-35M2 “Pirana” armored helicopter gunships. The Piranas are a modernized version of the “Mi-24 Hinds” used by the Soviets in Afghanistan, with a Venezuelan name and improved day/night capabilities, avionics, and weapons. One super-giant Mi-26T “Halo” transport and cargo helicopter was also included.
According to MosNews, Army commander Gen. Raul Baduel said in April 2006 that the military planned to buy a total of 20 Mi-17s, 10 Mi-35s and 3 super-giant Mi-26T helicopters from Russia. “This year, we should have 15 helicopters of the 33 that are expected in our country,” Baduel reportedly told state television. This was close, but Moscow Defence Brief would later report that:
“[On the eve of a July 2006 state visit] a new contract for 18 helicopters was signed, including 14 Mi-17B5, two Mi-35M and two Mi-26T. In addition, it appears as though another contract for the delivery of 20 Mi-17, including two VIP versions, was agreed upon. The cost of all 38 helicopters amounts to $484 million. Thus, the total size of Venezuela’s helicopter programs, which includes the delivery of 40 Mi-17, 10 Mi-35M and three Mi-26T amounts to $685 million.”
With many reports of the fighter deal also referring to “30 helicopters” and only $1 billion given as the deal figure, DID considers it likely that the deal actually involves buying the additional 14 armed Mi-17V5s, 2 Mi-35 gunships, and 2 Mi-26T machines to round out Venezuela’s purchase target [N.B. newly-reported deal figures of $3 billion may change this assessment, and there are reports of 38 new helicopters in the deal].
The Mi-26T is the world’s largest helicopter, with a 20-tonne (44,000 pound) capacity that matches a C-130 Hercules medium transport plane. It is excellent for handling oversize loads, and some Russian and Ukranian Mi-26s have even been contracted by US CENTCOM to perform missions that need their unique capabilities. Venezuelan Mi-26Ts could well find infrastructure-related employment in the country’s oil and gas industry, or on the 6,000-8,000 mile Latin American pipeline that occupies Chavez’ fancies.
Of course, a quick conversion also allows this helicopter to carry up to 80 troops, or a mix of troops and small armored vehicles. It just can’t carry them to the same kinds of ranges managed by smaller American choppers like the CH-47 Chinook, because a helicopter its size with Russian engines drinks fuel like there’s no tomorrow. The addition of up to 4 external fuel tanks can offset this problem, however, and if there’s one thing Venezuela has in abundance, it’s oil.
Veneuela-Russia 2006: Follow-on Events & Milestones
May 4/09: A helicopter crash, kills all on board, leaving a death toll of 18 Venezuelan soldiers that includes Brig. Gen. Domingo Alberto Feneite. Reports describe the helicopter as an Mi-35, and say that the local military base lost contact shortly after mid-day. The military helicopter crashed near the town of El Alto de Rubio, near the Colombian border. Associated Press.
The problem with the story is that 18 troops would be far, far above the Mi-24/35 type’s generally understood troop capacity of 8. It would be around the maximum for the Mi-17V5 model in hot conditions, however, and photos clearly show that Venezuela has armed those machines as well. If reports referred to an “attack helicopter,” and unwarranted assumptions were made, the mistake is conceivable.
In a country like Venezuela, of course, darker explanations for such mistakes are also possible.
Aug 3/08: AHN reports that “At least 24 Russian-made Sukhoi-30 fighter jets were delivered to Venezuela on [this day] as part of the country’s defense capability build-up.”
Dec 21/06: A Rosvertol release appears to confirm the figure of 10 Mi-35s and 3 Mi-26s:
“A batch of helicopters consisting of four combat Mi-35M and one multi-purpose transport Mi-26T helicopters is ready to be sent to Venezuela. Four Mi-35M helicopters (upgrade of Mi-24(35) type helicopters which have perfectly recommended themselves in more than 30 countries of the world) were delivered to this Latin American country in July 2006…Helicopters produced by Rostvertol Plc (Rostov-on-Don, Russia) will be sent to the Republic of Venezuela according to the earlier signed contracts. In total, ten Mi-35M and three Mi-26T helicopters will be delivered. Also, Venezuelan specialists passed flying and technical training and obtained appropriate certificates.”
Nov 30/06: According to MosNews, the first 2 Venezuelan SU-30s are delivered on this day to the Luis Del Valle Garcia naval base in Barcelona, some 230 km (145 miles) east of Caracas. Hat tip to DID reader Vincent van neerven.
Appendix A: DID Analysis & Op/Ed (July 31/06)
Russia and Venezuela had already signed earlier contracts for Russian helicopters, and a $54 million contract for the supply of more than 100,000 AK-103 rifles (an AK-47 Kalashnikov variant), and on licensed production in Venezuela of the rifles and ammunition. With this new procurement, however, Chavez is taking his relationship with Russia to the next level while acquiring a suite of capabilities expressly designed to intimidate neighbouring states.
The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Carlos Mendoza, who was Venezuela’s ambassador to Russia until last year and is now an adviser to Venezuela’s Central Bank. He noted that Russia is investing $1 billion in an aluminum plant in southeast Venezuela, that Russian companies are investing heavily in Venezuelan oil and gas fields, and that if Chavez dream/fantasy of a 5,000 mile pipeline through South America were to become a reality, Russia’s expertise with long-distance pipelines would likely play a role. In terms of the broader strategic relationship:
“There is no ideological affinity, because Russia nowadays certainly embodies capitalism at its most savage… But Putin is one of the spokesmen for the cause of multipolarity, and Venezuela hopes that Latin America becomes one of those poles… I don’t know the secrets of the (bilateral) military negotiations, because those are conducted through other channels, but Russia is a key element of Venezuela’s ambitions to become a global player on many levels.”
The question is what “global player” means, not only in larger geopolitical terms but also on the regional level.
The order provides some answers via its choice between MiG-29 and SU-30 aircraft. A posture that sought to defend Venezuela above all else would arguably have been better served by buying a larger quantity of MiG-29 lightweight fighters – perhaps even the new thrust-vectoring, multi-role MiG-29OVT/MiG-35 – for the same amount of money. This would still have given Chavez the best combat aircraft in Latin America, with the ability to carry the same sophisticated air-air armament as the SU-30s, and greater air-air combat capabilities than any carrier-borne US fighter. The ability to conduct precision attacks locally would be retained, but MiG-29s have an operational range that would restrict their ability to carry out long-range attacks, as well as limiting their carrying capacity on missions outside of Venezuela’s territory. This would have made for a more clearly defensive and hence regionally stabilizing force.
Instead, Chavez chose to buy fewer aircraft, but with the capability to launch long-range strikes carrying much larger amounts of ordnance. The SU-30MK2 has up to 6 hardpoints for strike weapons (each of which can potentially hold more than one weapon, depending on type), and the Russians claim that its range is 3,000km/ 1,800 miles on internal fuel. This will not be a stabilizing force in the region, especially given many of his neighbors’ complaints of hostile Venezuelan meddling in the region’s internal affairs, and efforts to export revolution to their countries.
The helicopters are also an important factor, but their importance lies inward. Even after this purchase, Venezuela lacks the transport capability and combat punch to conduct ground operations at a distance that go beyond guerilla warfare. Nor would helicopters serve well against a full-fledged opponent like the USA. Helicopters’ mobility and versatility make them a critical component of counter-insurgency operations, however; and when its 33 aircraft buy is complete, Venezuela will have what is arguably the best and most heavily-armed helicopter force in the region.
This is a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it can provide a welcome capability to a major oil exporter that allows it to protect its infrastructure with rapid-reaction forces. On the other hand, this assortment of Russian helicopters (and especially the Mi-35s) make it nearly perfect as a pocket force for the violent and decisive crushing of civil unrest. Much depends on one’s evaluation of Chavez and his intentions, and on how he has dealt with dissent in Venezuela and met his obligations to democracy and liberty.
With other concerns preoccupying the USA, however, Latin America is no longer seen as important strategic terrain. Which means that many of these issues are likely to be left to the region itself to sort out.
Whether Chavez’ moves will trigger regional counter-moves, or even a local arms race, remains to be seen. Brazil’s military is showing growing concern over Chavez’ moves, especially given his meddling in Bolivia where Brazil gets a significant percentage of its natural gas. Brazil’s temporarily-shelved fighter modernization program in particular may represent an excellent bellwether in terms of regional reaction – giving observers one more reason to follow that competition closely.
fn1. Many of these assessments are based in part on a mid-1990s British DERA(Defense Evaluation Research Agency) study, though the performance of SU-30s against US aircraft in COPE India 2004 and COPE India 2005 has tended to strengthen those general views. In all cases, however, one must stress again the sheer number of variables involved, the imprecision of any estimate, and the importance of situation and other factors beyond just the aircraft themselves when attempting to determine relative advantage.
Additional Readings & Sources
- Sukhoi Company – The Su-30MK2 Double-Seat Fighter
- Sino Defence – SU-30MKK/MKK2 Multirole Fighter Aircraft. SU-30MKK2s are the most modern fighters in China’s arsenal, and have improved anti-ship capabilities that include the ability to carry the supersonic Kh-31/Kh-17A Krypton anti-ship missile.
- GlobalSecurity.org – SU-30MK
- Air Force Technology’s “Projects” section is also good place to go for data on various fighters, including the SU-30MK… but DID believes some of their information confuses India’s unique version with the class as a whole, and is wrong.
- Air force Technology – Mi-24P (Mi-25 and Mi-35) Hind Attack / Transport Helicopter, Russia
- Sino Defence – Mi-17 Multirole Helicopter. Unlike other summaries, it includes details re: the newer Mi-17V5 version.
- SAORBATS – Proyecto “Pemon,” Mi-17-V5 del Ejercito de Venezuela. In Spanish; has lots of good photos of the Venezuelan Mi-17V5s.
- Rostvertol – Mi-26t Transport Helicopter
- DID – Brazil Embarking Upon F-X2 Fighter Program. And doubling its defense budget, including an Mi-35 buy of their own.
- DID – Colombia’s Defense Modernization
- DID (Nov 11/07) – Russia Looks to Triple Arms Exports to Venezuela. To about $12 billion; other deals are said to be in the pipeline.
- Moscow Defense Brief #1 (7) 2007 – The Venezuela Contracts. Includes Algeria in the overall Russian arms & policy overview.
- RIA Novosti (July 31/06) – Weapons for Venezuela: Nothing personal. Cites the 38 helicopters as Mi-17V5 and Mi-35M, and the fighters as SU-30MK2s.
- Kommersant (July 28/06) – The Kalashnikov Buyer. Very illuminating and at times quite funny in its personal profiles of Chavez & Putin’s interactions. MRBMs?!? Uh, ask the Cubans about that one…
- Reuters (July 27/06) – Russia’s arms sales to Venezuela may total $3 billion
- Novosti (July 27/06) – Venezuela’s Chavez hopes for Russia aid to build $20bln pipeline
- Voice of America (July 25/06) – US Urges Moscow to Reconsider Venezuela Arms Deal
- M & C News (July 25/06) – Venezuela’s Chavez pursues arms deals in Russia, Belarus (Roundup)
- RIA Novosti (July 24/06) – Russia signs $1bln aircraft contract with Venezuela-Ivanov
- Brazil’s DEFESA@NET (July 23/06) – Brasil-Venezuela: Relaciones peligrosas. “Babelfish” translation available via a link on the page. Brazilian defense planners and various political sectors are beginning to take notice of Venezuela’s new arms purchases and activities, and concern is growing.
- San Francisco Chronicle (July 23/06) – Chavez forging his own links: Venezuelan president makes arms deal with Russia, strengthening his agenda to counterbalance U.S. influence
- Agence France Presse (July 20/06) – Russia Breaks Into Venezuela with Fighter Sales: Newspaper. Places the deal at 24 SU-30MK2s.
- Interfax (July 19/06) – Yesterday in Brief for July 19, 2006
- MosNews (April 4/06) – Venezuela to Buy 30 More Russian Helicopters, Eyes Combat Fighters
- DID (Feb 14/06) – Love on the Rocks: CASA’s $600M Venezuelan Plane Sale In Heavy Turbulence
- DID (Jan 19/06) – US Tech-Transfer Laws Freeze Spain-Venezuela Aircraft Deal. They would also freeze Brazil’s planned sale of Super Tucano aircraft, which can be used as trainers but also make fine counter-insurgency aircraft – for instance, in Colombia’s battles against FARC narco-terrorists et. al. Columbia accuses Chavez of supporting FARC, a charge he naturally denies.
- DID (Nov 22/05) – F.I. Looks At Latin American Arms Market, Sees Venezuelan Buildup. That’s their forecast for the next decade, anyway; the rest of the market is forecast to be relatively quiet during this period, unless things change.
- DID (Oct 26/05) – US Roadblocks re: the Venezuela-Israel F-16 Upgrade: Politics or Protectionism?
- Aviation Week & Space Technology (May 24/02) – Su-30MK Beats F-15C ‘Every Time’ In a set of USAF simulations, using a specified set of tactics that include taking a shot with a BVR missile and then turning into the “clutter notch” of the F-15’s radar.