Algeria has for over a decade consistently been the second largest client for Russian arms exports after India, and has by far the largest defence budget on the African continent over double that of its rival Egypt. The country’s armed forces have consistently ranked in the world’s top fifteen, and the Algerian Air Force has for decades been considered the most capable on the African continent with a high quality and quantity of both manpower and equipment. The country’s fleet of combat jet aircraft is comprised exclusively of Soviet and Russian designs, namely the medium weight MiG-29 and heavyweight Su-30MKA fighters, the MiG-25 interceptor and the Su-24 strike fighter. With the largest landmass on the continent, and the need to potentially launch retaliatory strikes against adversaries far beyond its borders, the Algerian Air Force has long emphasised deployment of long range heavyweight aircraft, and even its short ranged MiG-29s have been replaced by the much longer ranged MiG-29M variants and new long range Su-30 units from 2020. It has long been speculated that Algeria could be a future client for the Su-35 heavyweight fighter, with Russian media reporting multiple times over several years that discussions for orders for the jets were being held.
The availability of the Su-30MKA, its possibility to be upgraded with the same AL-41 engines and Irbis-E nose mounted radar as the Su-35, and expectations that Algeria would purchase the more advanced Su-57 with stealth capabilities in the mid-2020s, are all thought to be factors which led Algeria to overlook the Su-35. According to Algerian military analysts, however, the performance of the Su-35’s sensor suite was a primary cause to avoid purchasing the fighter which cost approximately 60% more per unit than the Su-30MKA. Algeria’s requirements for a high performance air superiority aircraft included integration of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which Russia has yet to integrate onto any fighter fielded at squadron level strength. Such radars is were first fielded by Japan from 2002, but became standard for all major fighters produced outside Russia by the mid-late 2010s reflecting a lagging industry in Russia itself. This was despite the USSR having fielded phased array PESA radars for air to air combat more than 20 years before any other country with the MiG-31’s revolutionary Zaslon radar, and reflected a degree of industrial decline Russia after 1991. AESA radars avoid the need for mechanical scanning, are much less vulnerable to electronic warfare, provide greater power, and provide a range of greater opportunities for offensive electronic warfare. AESA radars have been a requirement for fighter tenders around the world for some time, a notable example being Singapore’s selection of the F-15 over European competitors in 2005 largely because no European fighter had an AESA radar at the time.
Other than the MiG-31’s Zaslon-M radar, the Su-35’s Irbis-E radar is considered the most powerful non-AESA radar on any fighter or interceptor in the world, with a 400km detection range surpassing many AESA radars in power particularly those deployed by smaller fighters such as the Rafale, F-16V and F-5TH. The fighter is among the world leaders in terms of situational awareness due to its use of triple radars, including two L-band radars in its wings, which provide greater electronic warfare capabilities and high situational awareness against stealth aircraft. Nevertheless the fighter’s lack of an AESA radar has reportedly undermined its appeal to Algeria, and possibly to other foreign clients. The deployment of growing numbers of fifth generation stealth aircraft by NATO in particular was reportedly cause for Algeria to insist on an AESA radar, as particularly since the NATO war on Libya in 2011 a Western assault has been seen as the most pressing potential threat.
Should Russia fail to develop an AESA radar for its future fighters shortly, Algeria may consider looking to other sources. China could potentially provide either a complete fighter with such a radar, or a Flanker-compatible AESA for Algeria’s Russian-built aircraft. China has notably fielded AESA radar-equipped Flankers since at least 2014 with the J-16, J-11BG, J-15B, and in future possibly the J-11D should it enter service. It currently offers the very potent lightweight J-10C for export which also deploys an AESA radar. Russia’s market share overseas for heavyweight aircraft has largely been preserved by the fact that China has not offered its own Flanker derivatives for export, although current trends towards a growing Chinese technological lead could lead Algeria and others to look to Chinese fighter’s. The Algerian Air Force’s reported rejection of the Su-35 due to its radar could well be an early sign of this.