My Mauser Is Bigger than Yours The arms race in the South Caucasus
The arrival of four recently acquired Russian Su-30SM heavy multifunctional jet fighters in Armenia is far from being defined as ‘turning the chessboard on one’s opponent’, but it definitely triggers a new stage in the arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Eight more jets of this kind are expected, bringing the total number to 12. The deal marks Armenia’s ambition to deconstruct Azerbaijan’s long enjoyed air superiority over the frontline and beyond.
For years, the superiority of Azerbaijan’s Air Force in numbers and professionalism of pilots have been parts of strategic military thinking and vision of the Azerbaijani command. Indeed, with more than 30 modernized Mig-29 fighters and Su-25 close air support (CAS) aircraft, as well as 10 Italian Aermacchi M-346 training jets, Azerbaijan’s air superiority had been hardly contested by the Armenian Air Force, which was until recently symbolic (in numbers and variety of aircraft). Su-30SMs however, are heavy and multifunctional generation 4+ jets. Their superiority over Mig-29s, even over those which are modernized, comprising the bulk of Azerbaijan’s jet aircraft park, cannot be contested. The balance is still in Baku’s favor, bearing in mind strength comparisons in attack helicopters (11+ in Armenia vs 38+ in Azerbaijan). But when the number of Armenian Su-30SMs reaches 12, as is expected, things will change.
It is worth mentioning that the acquisition of Su-30SMs by Armenia is not a standalone deal. The Armenian side has also received from Russia TOR-M2KM air defense systems, together with IGLA-S and VERBA portable surface-to-air missile launchers to increase air defense capacities on operational and tactical levels, while strategic air defense is provided by S-300s, also received from Russia long before. With both, Armenia herself and territories under Armenian occupation in Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby, as well as large parts of Azerbaijan, can easily be hit by ballistic missiles (Iskander-E and Polonez in Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively); this shift in air force balance is highly undesirable for Baku.
Su-30SMs air-to-surface strike capabilities are particularly worrisome in this context. The jet’s X-59MK air-to surface missiles can hit ground targets as distant as 285 km away – enough to threaten the opponent deep in his rear, without even flying close to the frontline – a capacity the Azerbaijani Air Force exclusively enjoyed after acquisition of Turkish-made SOM air-to surface missiles with maximal range of around 200 km.
An assertive policy on Nagorno-Karabakh and references to force, including military option ‘in case peaceful process is fruitless’, have been part of Azerbaijan’s diplomacy for years. And a shift in balance, which would make Azerbaijan’s military options too risky in terms of air superiority, is unacceptable for Baku.
What next? Azerbaijani military experts have been discussing perspectives for renovation of the jet fighter and CAS aircraft park of the Azerbaijani Air Force for quite a long time. The issue has been considered as a mid-term priority, with much time for analysis of possible options Baku could go for – analysts were mainly discussing the possible acquisition of Pakistani JF-17 Block III. Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan has called the Su-30SM acquisition the ‘deal of the year’ in Armenia. Azerbaijan’s response, on the other side, must be not only prompt, but refer also to a broader regional security context – with reference to events in the Middle East and the country’s diplomatic positioning among major regional actors.
Finally, in order to respond symmetrically, the Azerbaijani side will have to acquire not less than three dozen planes. The expected price of the Pakistani JF-17 Block III is not less than $ 30 million per aircraft. Thus, the financial side of the problem Baku faces cannot be neglected either, with the possible deal’s cost skyrocketing over $ 1 billion for the acquisition alone and not counting the lifetime system cost.