The Belarusian Air Force received its first Su-30SM heavyweight fighters from Russia in 2019, which today represent the heaviest fighters in Europe built for air to air combat and boasts advanced ‘4+ generation’ capabilities. The Su-30SM is the most advanced variant of the Su-30 to have entered service anywhere in the world, and benefits from decades of modernisation since the first Su-30s entered service in the 1990s, with the yet more capable Su-30SM2 currently in production as a successor. The fighters are the only ones Belarus has acquired since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and are fielded alongside two squadrons of lighter MiG-29 jets which have been modernised domestically. The future of the Belarusian fighter fleet has been cause for considerable speculation, with retirement of the MiG-29s expected in the next decade. As Russia’s only close defence partner in Europe, and amid rising tensions between Minsk and the Western Bloc, the strength of the Belarusian Air Force to conduct both air defence and strike missions has significant implications for the balance of power in the region and for the security of both the country and of Russia. Russia and Belarus moved in 2021 to establish three joint training schools for aviation, while the Russian Military appears set to have favoured the Su-30SMs for deployment to Belarus for exercises.
As neighbouring NATO member states move to acquire a new generation of combat aircraft, a notable example being Poland’s orders for F-35A stealth fighters from the United States, the light and medium weight fighters Belarus could consider include the Chinese J-10C, the Russian MiG-35 which is a direct successor to the MiG-29, or the upcoming Checkmate stealth jet. With Belarus’ close ties and growing integration with the Russian Military, however, an acquisition of non-Russian fighters remains unlikely, while the MiG-35 program’s very small production run and its perhaps questionable ability to engage a new generation of high performance Western fighters, means it may not be chosen. The Checkmate program, still in its very early stages, has an uncertain fate and may not be ready before Belarus seeks to retire its MiGs. Thus acquisition of heavyweight fighters to replace the MiG-29 remains a very significant possibility, particularly considering their much greater parts commonality with the Su-30s Belarus already fields. The Su-30SM, which is the least costly and most widely used heavyweight fighter in production in Russia, could well be chosen for future purchases.
Belarus perviously operated 22 heavyweight fighters, namely Su-27 Flankers which had higher maintenance needs and operational costs than the Su-30SM. These were placed in storage to reduce the fleet’s operational costs. With these retired, the initial 12 Su-30s which began deliveries in 2019 are thought to have been replacements and formed the country’s new elite. Advantages of the Su-30SM over the original Su-27 include a considerably higher endurance, more powerful sensors and electronic warfare systems, and access to a range of new weapons including R-37M active radar guided air to air missiles and a range of standoff strike and anti ship missiles, providing much greater versatility than the older fighter which was highly specialised in air to air combat.
Although the MiG-29 and Su-30 are from deferent weight ranges, acquiring the latter to replace the former would be far from unprecedented with the Russian Air Force having itself done so when retiring its own MiG fighters. With Russia potentially willing to offer Su-30s on highly favourable terms, or even on a loan basis to strengthen collective security with Belarus, the aircraft could potently be much more affordable than would otherwise be the case. With Belarus’ defence budget remaining low, however, the possibility of acquiring higher end aircraft such as the Su-30SM2, Su-35 or Su-57 remains slim without an unprecedented degree of Russian support being provided.