Friday, 11 November 2022

Knights Of Yerevan - Armenia’s Su-30 Flankers

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Su-30 was a notable absentee from the air war over Nagorno-Karabakh during the 2020 conflict. Hailed by Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as "our most important acquisition this year" in 2019, many expected to witness the Su-30's participation in the conflict sooner or later, combatting Bayraktar TB2 drones and deterring Azerbaijani Su-25 close air support aircraft from releasing their deadly ordnance on Armenian soldiers below. [1] But as days turned into weeks, it became increasingly clear that the Su-30s were deliberately kept out of the fighting, earning them the title of 'White Elephant' in the eyes of some. This article will attempt to provide a rationale for why the Su-30s didn't participate in the conflict and look into Armenia's decision to acquire the aircraft in the first place.

But before going into detail on Armenia's Su-30 purchase, it is insightful to consider the history of the Armenian Air Force, and how its small inventory of aircraft came to be. Much like Azerbaijan, Armenia inherited little in terms of aircraft and helicopters during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But while Azerbaijan was able to build up a powerful air arm thanks to its oil and gas industry, Armenia was largely reliant on the generosity of Russia and rare opportunities at acquiring combat aircraft cheaply from abroad. Ultimately, the sum total of such occasions consisted of the delivery of eight Su-25s from Russia in 1992 and 1993, and a further ten Su-25s from Slovakia in 2004.

Although the Su-25 is an effective strike aircraft, it is of little use as an interceptor of fast jets. Rather than going through the expensive process of acquiring such an aircraft type itself, Armenia began negotiations with Russia to provide an air intercept capability over its landmass instead. The resulting agreement signed with Russia in 1996 saw Armenia essentially outsourcing the air defence of the country to Russia, which based some twenty MiG-29 fighter-aircraft and S-300V surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems outside Armenia's capital of Yerevan. Although Russian air cover over Nagorno-Karabakh was ruled out under the resulting agreement, this was to be compensated by a vast network of Armenian surface-to-air missile sites covering the depths of Azerbaijani airspace.

Two Russian MiG-29s take off from Erebuni air base near Yerevan, Armenia.

However, as the gap in military capabilities between the two countries began to grow exponentially in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Yerevan began to look for ways to even the playing field with Azerbaijan. This was somewhat of a shift from the country's previous defence procurement strategy, which mostly saw Armenia scouring other (post-Soviet) states for second-hand weaponry that could usually be acquired at extremely low costs. Although most often these acquisitions did little to introduce novel capabilities to the Armenian military, it allowed the country to maintain a standing army that far exceeded the scope of its GDP.
Rather than looking for opportunities where Armenia could outperform Azerbaijan from behind the safety of its extensive trench network in Nagorno-Karabakh, for example through the acquisition of long-range anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), guided artillery rockets, reconnaissance UAVs and loitering munitions, Armenia sought to drastically alter the balance in the region (at least on paper) by purchasing around a dozen Su-30 multi-role fighter aircraft from Russia. Curiously, their costly acquisition came at a time when Armenian companies were struggling to advance the designs of several UAV and loitering munitions types due to a lack of funding from the Armenian Ministry of Defence.
As neighbouring Azerbaijan is able to use the substantial profits from its oil and gas production to fund military acquisitions, it can be argued that any attempt at altering the military balance through the purchase of a major weapon system by Armenia was doomed right from the start. Not only did Armenia use the little funds it had to introduce what would amount to a lackluster capability during wartime, it also only narrowly avoided plunging itself into an arms race with Azerbaijan that it was destined to lose from the onset.
Indeed, rather than following Armenia in its footsteps by acquiring Su-30s or any other modern multi-role fighter aircraft of its own, Azerbaijan pressed on the modernisation efforts of its Su-25 ground-attack aircraft in conjunction with Turkey. Most notably, the Su-25s were modified to carry Turkish and Azerbaijani guided munitions including HGK GPS-guided bombs, QFAB-250 laser-guided bombs and 275+km ranged SOM cruise missiles. The survivability of the aircraft was also enhanced through the addition of Belarusian Talisman ECM pods, which are believed to have saved several Su-25s from being hit by Armenian SAM systems during the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh War.

An early interest in the Su-30

Armenia's interest in the Su-30 reportedly dates back to the period between 2010 and 2012, when the acquisition of at least twelve aircraft was planned but later postponed due to a lack of financial means to afford the expensive planes. [2] [3] It is certain that Armenia's interest in the aircraft remained significant, yet it would only be after a change in government as a result of the 2018 Armenian revolution that Nikol Pashinyan could finalise the acquisition of the first four aircraft. On December 27, 2019, the first of the long-anticipated Su-30s finally arrived in Armenia. [4]

It is possible that Armenia was allowed to purchase the Su-30SMs at a greatly reduced price compared to what other countries have to pay for the aircraft, perhaps approaching what the Russian Ministry of Defence pays for the planes. The Su-30SMs also had the notable distinction of being one of the first brand-new weapons systems acquired by Armenia after the country gained independence in 1991. This feat was clearly appreciated by Pashinyan as well, who went on to claim that ''the Armenian government closed the shameful page of weapons of 80s''. [5] The purchase of 32 1970s-era 9K33 Osa SAM systems from Jordan that occurred at the same time will be forgotten for the sake of this argument. [6] [7]

Acquiring Su-30s - Pashinyan's pet project
Prime Minister Pashinyan was closely involved in the acquisition process of the aircraft, devoting considerable attention towards explaining the supposed value of the Su-30SMs after their arrival to the country. Nikol Pashinyan was also the first Armenian official to inform the public about the country's interest in acquiring Su-30SMs after he posted a picture of himself sitting in the cockpit of a Russian Air Force Su-30 on June 17, 2018. [8] After the aircraft's arrival to Armenia in December 2019, Pashinyan would go on to say the following:

''Today is a very important day as sophisticated multifunctional Su-30 fighter jets have arrived in Armenia, which is our main achievement of this year. That is, the first batch of planes is arriving, and this achievement is of crucial importance for the security of the Republic of Armenia and our people.'' further describing the acquisition of the aircraft as a ''turning point for the security of Armenia'' [9] [10] [11]

At the same time, Armenia's Minister of Defence Davit Tonoyan also confirmed that Yerevan planned to buy eight more such aircraft in the following years. When Tonoyan was asked when the next batch of the advanced warplanes was scheduled for delivery, he replied with ''soon''. [4]

The four Su-30SMs pictured shortly after their arrival to Armenia.

In the months following the arrival of the four Su-30SMs to Armenia, Pashinyan would regularly provide updates on the status of the aircraft in Armenian service, a strong indication of just how important assets the Su-30s were deemed to be to the security of Armenia. Perhaps even more importantly, the messages also served to reassure the Armenian people of the country's supposed readiness to face any threat to its borders and presumably also to act as a deterrent to Azerbaijan:

''Yesterday our Su-30SM jets carried out first training with combat missiles, testing air-to-surface missiles for attack operations. All targets were hit with high accuracy'' (2020-07-03) [12]

''Su-30 go on combat duty to ensure the inviolability of the RA [Republic Armenia] air borders'' (2020-07-15) [13]

Of course, little did the Prime Minister know that in several months these statements would be put to the test when Azerbaijan launched 'Operation Iron Fist' aimed at retaking Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts.

Enter the missile Saga
It quickly turned out that Pashinyan had been overly ambitious with his statements, and that the Su-30s' pilots had not yet been properly trained to effectively use their mounts in combat during the 2020 war. While the admission of this fact would perhaps have been the simplest way to explain the situation, when Pashinyan came under sharp criticism why the Armenian Air Force did not deploy the Su-30SMs during combat, he instead claimed that Armenia did not manage to purchase missiles for the aircraft before the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh War. [14]
This statement sharply contradicted his earlier statement in July 2020, saying that ''our Su-30SM jets carried out first training with combat missiles, testing air-to-surface missiles for attack operations. All targets were hit with high accuracy''. [12] Whilst the Su-30SMs indeed deployed air-to-ground ordnance during the exercise, the ''air-to-surface missiles'' were in fact 80mm unguided rockets. [15] By erroneously referring to the unguided rockets as missiles, Pashinyan mistakingly created the narrative that Armenia had in fact acquired guided air-to-ground missiles. Had Armenia deployed its Su-30s armed with unguided rockets during the war, it is almost certain that all aircraft would have been shot down by Azerbaijani surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems during low-level attacks.

Responding to the criticism of his claims, Pashinyan stated that the missiles (i.e. rocket pods) used during the exercises were in fact already in the arsenal of the Armenian Air Force before the war. [14] But unfortunately for Pashinyan, the public backlash against his statements was about to be escalate, as soon after his statement newly-released photos and satellite imagery depicted one of the Su-30SMs armed with a full load of R-27R and R-73 air-to-air missiles (AAMs) at Gyurmi air base in October 2020. [16] [17] As Armenia did not possess any aircraft that could carry these AAMs prior to the acquisition of the Su-30SMs, they provided unassailable evidence that Armenia had in fact acquired missiles for its Su-30SMs prior to the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

An Armenian Su-30SM with a full load of R-27R and R-73 air-to-air missiles pictured at Gyurmi air base in early October 2020.

 Unrealistic expectations
The Su-30SM missile saga did more than (further) harm Prime Minister's Pashinyan's reputation. The affair also exposed the inherent flaws in how Pashinyan covered the country's defence procurement. Because the vast majority of Armenia's military equipment is old, much public attention was devoted to the acquisition of brand-new military equipment, not in the least by Nikol Pashinyan himself. This exaggerated attention inflates the actual effectiveness of the weapons systems and causes the public to have unrealistic expectations of them. The more the Su-30s began to be hyped up to a larger-than-life standard they could never live up to, the bigger the shock would be if one was shot down. Had Armenia deployed its four Su-30SMs against Azerbaijan's fleet of MiG-29s, they would likely have suffered severe losses in the face of a numerically superior enemy. This in turn could have had drastic consequences on the morale of the Armenian soldier on the frontline and the public at home.
After their induction into operational service in early 2020, the Su-30SMs were stationed at Gyumri air base in northern Armenia, which acts as the hub of all Armenian jet operations. Due to Armenia's small size, Gyumri lays well in range of Azerbaijani ballistic missiles and other precision-guided munitions. Until 2020, the only protection at the air base consisted of a few earth berms, which meant that the shrapnel of a just a few guided rockets or a well-placed ballistic missile (such as the Israeli LORA) could have taken out all but a few of Armenia's combat aircraft in one blow. In anticipation of the arrival of the Su-30s, new tarmac was laid and five shelters were erected adjacent to the apron used by the Su-25s and L-39s. Another option would be to station the Su-30s at the Russian-controlled Erebuni air base in Yerevan, which Armenia did with its Su-25s during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. [18]

Satellite imagery of Gyumri air base clearly shows the new apron and shelters for the Su-30SMs.

In any case, four Su-30SMs is likely an insufficient number to contest the airspace over Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijan's eleven MiG-29 9.13s, whose pilots have all been trained in air-to-air combat through bilateral exercises conducted with the Turkish Air Force. Had Armenia purchased the planned number of twelve Su-30s, Azerbaijan might well have finally pressed on with the oft-rumoured acquisition of JF-17 fighter aircraft from Pakistan. Although inferior in capabilities to the Su-30SM, the acquisition of 24 of these fighters along with beyond-visual-range air to-air missiles (BVRAAMs) would likely have resulted in a superior force through numbers. Although it can be argued that a fleet of up to twelve Su-30SMs also provides some form of deterrent against the Turkish Air Force in the border region with Armenia, twelve Su-30s are unlikely to provide as much as a hindrance to highly trained Turkish pilots flying F-16s armed with AIM-120 BVRAAMs and backed up by three E-7T Peace Eagle airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C).

What Armenia realistically attempted to achieve through its planned acquisition of up to twelve Su-30SMs will likely always remain a mystery. The country can either continue to operate the four aircraft, which will offer limited capabilities but be a considerable drain on funds for the coming years, or invest hundreds of millions of dollars into acquiring more aircraft, with even more money having to be directed towards the acquisition of armament, training, spare parts and fuel for decades of active operations. Another option is to sell the aircraft back to Russia, with the money saved instead used to invest in other areas of the Armenian Armed Forces. Until any such decision is made, the Su-30SMs are likely to continue to be known as the 'White Elephants of Yerevan'.

[1] First batch of Russian-made Su-30SM fighters arrives in Armenia
[2] Russia Plans to Supply Su-30SM Fighters to Armenia
[3] Quantity of weapons acquired in 2019 and conditions of acquisition
[4] Russian Warplanes Delivered To Armenia
[5] “Shameful chapter of 80’s weapons” is over, Pashinyan lauds Armenia’s modern military arsenal
[9] RA Armed Forces equipped with Su-30 SM multifunctional fighters
[10] Armenian Military To Get More Russian Warplanes
[11] Armenia in talks to purchase new batch of SU-30SM fighters 
[12] Armenia’s SU-30 SM jets conducts 1st training with combat missiles
[13] SU-30SM fighter jets go on combat duty in Armenia to ensure inviolability of air borders
[14] Armenian PM Denies Contradictions In Comments About Fighter Jets Purchased From Russia
[17] Հայկական Սու-30ՍՄ-երի նկարներում երևում են հրթիռներ, որոնք, ըստ Փաշինյանի, Հայաստանը չէր հասցրել գնել

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