Satellite imagery that private company Astrium acquired on April 4 shows former Indian air force Su-30K fighters still parked at the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant at Baranovichi in Belarus.
They don’t look like much now, but the second-hand, Russian-made Sukhois could soon form the steely core of a rising power’s new air force. Flush with oil cash, Angola wants an air arm to match its swelling ambition.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the 18 Su-30Ks. The Indian air force bought the twin-engine heavy fighters in the late 1990s as a stopgap, pending New Delhi’s acquisition of better Su-30MKIs.
The Indians returned the 18 Sukhois in 2003. They wound up at the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant for repairs and upgrades—the ultimate goal being to sell them onward for profit. Russia’s Irkut Corporation is helping the 558th with the work.
Rumors pegged Vietnam as a possible buyer. Syria, too. But Angola eventually snagged all 18 in an $1-billion arms deal also including spare parts and other hardware. As part of the sale, Russian or Belarusian pilots could fly the planes until Angola has adequately-trained crews of its own.
That was in October 2013. Six months later, the Su-30s are still in Baranovichi. And Angola’s new air force—potentially one of the most powerful in Africa after the Sukhois are in service—has to wait a little while longer for its debut.
In the mean time, the deal has been in flux.
In February, Angola renegotiated the purchase. Irkut Corporation president Oleg Demchenko told Interfax that Angola would procure just 12 of the Sukhois. The other six would go to another, unspecified country. Demchenko didn’t offer any hints as to the new buyer’s identity.
The April satellite imagery shows what could be the first three Angolan Su-30s—out of a total of 15 of the jets visible in the space snapshot—departing the 558th ARP’s main facilities. The fighters now appear to be at one of the factory airfield’s northeastern dispersal areas, possibly for flight tests.
This could be a sign that these aircraft are almost ready for delivery. Alternatively, the planes in the orbital imagery might actually be Belarus’ decommissioned Su-27s, as they have the same airframes and paint schemes as the Su-30Ks.
But as open intelligence sources suggest the first three Angolan fighters would have taken around six months to refurbish, the timing seems right for the planes in the satellite photos to be the Su-30s.
The former Indian Su-30s will join around half a dozen older Su-27s in Angola’s Força Aérea Nacional Angolana, or FANA. The air arm has other Sukhoi aircraft in its inventory, notably Soviet-vintage Su-22s, Su-24s and Su-25s.
Angola acquired its Su-27s—also from Belarus—in the late 1990s in order to help the government battle the resurgent UNITA rebel movement. Ukrainian contract pilots reportedly flew the jets. Otherwise there is essentially no public information on the Su-27s’ operations in Angola. It’s not even clear they’re still in flying condition.
In any event, Angola is working hard to revamp the FANA. In 2008, the government paid Polish firm WZL-2 to upgrade the Su-22s with new mission computers, an EGI laser designator, new cockpit displays and other systems, according to WZL-2’s public Website. WZL-2 is one of Poland’s oldest aircraft plants—and isn’t too different than Belarus’ 558th.
Last year, FANA also received six new Cessna 172R basic training aircraft and the first three of six new Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano light attack planes currently on order. The Cessna with their low operating cost could conduct surveillance along Angola’s border.
Angola is also investing in its transport and logistics infrastructure, including airfields, as seen here—with the cash coming from the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Fundo Soberano de Angola or FSDEA. With initial capital of $5 billion, Angola has managed to pave 31 runways—and will soon have the largest airport on the continent.
Most African countries use their airports for civilian and military operations. The upgraded Su-22s and Su-30s could have new airfields to match.
The family of Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos plus the state oil company Sonangol control the two-year-old FSDEA. Like most sovereign wealth funds, the FSDEA continues to accumulate value from commodity exports—specifically 100,000 barrels per day of crude oil Angola sells abroad.
The oil helps explains both how and why Angola wants Su-30s. The country is getting richer by the day. It wants military power to reflect, and protect, this status.
In other words, don’t expect the former Indian Su-30s to hang around Belarus forever. They’ve got work to do in Africa.