With the Russian military having drastically increased orders for Su-57 next generation air superiority fighters throughout 2019, planning to field over 70 of the jets by 2025 and opening lines for mass production in July 2019, Moscow has also actively sought to gain export orders for the fighter to help subsidise the costs of large scale production.
A number of clients including China, Algeria, Vietnam and India have reportedly shown considerable interest in the design due to its unique capabilities - which also allow it to function as a strike and maritime strike fighter when suitably equipped. While discussions for with India and Vietnam are reportedly ongoing, a new and unexpected potential client for the jet has emerged in Southeast Asia - the air force of Myanmar. Reports of a possible sale came amid fast growing defence ties between the two countries, and following comments from Myanmar’s ambassador to Russia Ko Ko Shein regarding interest in the platform.
Older variants of the Russian MiG-29 medium weight multirole fighter currently form the bulk of the Myanmar Air Force’s fleet, complemented by older third generation Chinese J-7 jets and a small but growing fleet of JF-17 lightweight fourth generation fighters. The Myanmar Air Force’s modernisation program, however, appears to be placing an unprecedented focus on high end heavyweight fighters - ordering six Su-30SM Flankers in 2018 and reportedly planning followup orders for several more. While the Su-30 has ‘4+ generation’ capabilities, it may not be sufficient to seriously contest air superiority as neighbouring powers modernise their fleets - particularly considering the massive quantitative disadvantages Myanmar’s fleet is almost certain to face.
The Su-57, which is widely considered the world’s most capable fighter for air to air combat, could even in smaller numbers provide a far more formidable addition to the country’s defences. In particular, due to its considerable range and access to high end standoff munitions from the Kh-47M2 hypersonic ballistic missile to the R-37M Mach 6 air to air missile, the fighter will provide Myanmar’s forces with a very long reach. Indications of an interest in long range strike capabilities were given by the country’s previously strong interest in acquiring North Korean ballistic missile technologies.
As Myanmar has not operated high end Russian fighters in the past, a Su-57 purchase will require considerable investments in maintenance infrastructure and training for operating crews. While manufacture of Su-30 fighters for Myanmar has already begun, these could serve in a complementary role to the Su-57 in future. The ‘4+ generation’ jets are both cheaper to operate, and notably configured with twin seats meaning they can be used to prepare pilots to operate the more capable Su-57. The Su-57 notably comes only in a single seat variant, although India has reportedly sought to commission a specialised twin seat variant for its own fleet. Myanmar has also ordered a dozen Yak-130 twin seat trainer jets, which were developed specifically to train pilots to operate high end Russian fighters such as the Su-30 and Su-57. While the Su-57 is expected to cost approximately 40% more per aircraft than the Su-30SM, and has a higher operational cost, the very significant discrepancy in capabilities could make it a better investment. Even placing a relatively small order for under a dozen fighters, Myanmar could potentially emerge as the first overseas operator of the Su-57 - with an order coming just as unexpectedly as that for the Su-30 did. With a defence budget of approximately $2 billion annually, much diverted to sustaining a sizeable ground force amid ongoing internal conflict, orders are unlikely to be too large unlike those of Vietnam, Turkey, India and other interested clients. It is also possible that, like Vietnam, Myanmar will wait until the mid-2020s to place an order for the Su-57 jets - and that interest expressed by the ambassador could refer to the long term.