Why Uganda Needed Sukhoi Fighters
And other case studies in seemingly weird warplane-purchases
Combat aircraft are among the most important single weapons systems in any country’s arsenal. They are not only the most lethal, but also the most flexible – and most visible – form of military power.
More often than not, combat aircraft can be highly effective alone due to their sheer presence – without firing a single shot. Unsurprisingly, aircraft and air forces not only gobble apparently disproportional chunks of defense budgets, but also provide disproportional effects relative to their number.
Most people don’t differentiate between air forces that function within frameworks of firm and proven defense treaties, and are thus custom-tailored for combined and joint operations – and those air forces that function within their very own context.
Air forces equipped for combined operations are usually equipped with intention of operating within a coalition. For example a coalition of military forces led by the United States or NATO. In such a coalition, their aircraft perform specific, usually specialized tasks.
However, the majority of air forces around the world do not exist within such a context. On the contrary, a majority of small air forces exist within a rather unilateral set of circumstances. With relatively few exceptions, air forces of such countries face a number of major obstacles.
The most paramount of these is the lack of funding or various other sorts of budgetary pressures. This results in a situation where such services must maintain a credible force – a force capable of performing a wide range of functions – but lack the money to meet all the requirements. Most such air forces shape themselves according to local threat perceptions.
Threat perceptions vary widely from country to country. For an entire host of reasons related to its international position and domestic politics, a military of a country that’s geographically isolated is never going to have threat perceptions even roughly similar to a country neighboring several other countries.
At top — Algeria placed its orders for Su-30s to match Moroccan F-16s. K.A. photo via Tom Cooper. Above — in the late 1970s, Peru placed a large order for Su-20/22s from the former Soviet Union – because it faced a threat of war with Ecuador, and because the United States and other Western powers turned down all Peruvian requests for similar types. Photo via ACIG.info
Indeed, very often even two different countries surrounded by oceans don’t have similar threat perceptions. For example, New Zealand and The Philippines are both surrounded by oceans. However, New Zealand isn’t dealing with multiple insurgencies nor any overseas neighbors seeking to bring parts of the sea relatively close to its coast under their control.
Similarly, a military of a country completely destroyed in decades of civil war or foreign invasions, or that are under military occupation by foreign powers, cannot have similar threat perceptions – nor the freedom of choice – as do militaries of countries experiencing decades of relative stability and peace. Afghanistan isn’t in the same position as Botswana.
Furthermore, every military service has its own favorites when it comes to sources and types of arms. Some militaries follow specific Western patterns in regard to doctrine, strategy and tactics, and thus in regard to recruitment, training and equipment. Others follow Russian or Chinese patterns. There are a number of militaries that use a mix of two or three of these. For example, the Iranian military reflects a mix of U.S. and Russian military standards.
However, an even larger number of smaller militaries – and thus small air forces, too – have their very own experiences, resulting in their own strategy, tactics, training and equipment.
Back in the 1960s, the Iraqi air force was dominated by a number of high-ranking officers known as the “Hunter Mafia” after the British-made Hunter fighter they favored. In the 1970s, another group of officers dominated the service and became known as the “Sukhoi Mafia” after their favorite Soviet jets.
The Hunter Mafia was convinced that no Soviet-made fighter-jet could outmatch such Western types as the Hunter, F-4, Mirage and Hawk. Correspondingly, they attempted to acquire such types for years – without much success.
The Sukhoi Mafia was convinced that Sukhoi-made fighter jets were far more survivable, could carry more weapons and would be simpler to maintain and operate than any other type would be. Their influence resulted in Iraq purchasing large numbers of Sukhois in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Sukhoi Mafia strongly opposed the Hunter Mafia’s drive to buy French Mirages F.1, arguing that they would be much too easy to shoot down. When the Hunter Mafia placed a second order for Mirage F.1s in 1983, the Sukhoi Mafia very nearly staged a coup against Saddam Hussein.
Qatar placed its orders for F-15s, Rafales and Typhoons in order to circumnavigate a blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies and gain political influence in the most important Western capitals. U.S. Air Force photo
In far too many cases, procurement projects of specific militaries are driven by the personal experiences of their top military and political commanders. If the top ranks of specific air force were trained in the USA or somewhere else in the West, they are likely to develop a strong predilection for U.S. and Western aircraft.
Finally, there are nations and air forces unlikely to receive aircraft from any other but specific sources. A good example in this regard is Syria. Multiple and often intensive attempts to obtain aircraft of Western origin – from Great Britain and Italy in the 1960s and 1970s – all proved fruitless.
Even a strong drive to establish closer ties with Czechoslovakia was spoiled alone by the fact that the latter country was unable to offer the aircraft Syria demanded. Damascus was thus left without a choice but to continue buying from Moscow.
The public, sensation-hungry media and many think-tanks or other foreign observers, tend to ignore all of these factors. This results in a situation where operational requirements of certain air forces remain unknown and are grossly misreported and misinterpreted. In the worst case, reports related to orders for specific types of aircraft are followed with the question, “What for do they need such expensive planes for?”
The answer usually lies in the operational history, combat experiences and threat assessments of the air forces in question.
Uganda was the first African country to buy Su-30 fighter-bombers from Russia. While this acquisition was often explained by the possible requirement to protect oil sources that might – or might not be – be found in the south of the country, the local air force made the decision to buy Su-30s, for a host of different reasons.
Most of these were related to the Ugandan involvement in the Congo Wars fought between 1996 and 2003 and, more recently, Uganda’s pursuit of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Both experiences showed that the Ugandan air force needed a long-range, multi-role fighter-bomber – simply because of the requirement to hit targets that were hopelessly outside the range of existing jets.
With Ugandan pilots already trained on such Eastern types as the MiG-21 and L-39 and the necessity of replacing a miscellany of combat types already in service, the Su-30 was actually a logical choice.
Angola followed in fashion and placed an order for Su-30s for similar reasons, including the requirement to replace old and worn-out MiG-23s and Su-22s, it own experiences in the Congo Wars and also its own wars against local insurgents. Angola also needed to outmatch Botswana’s CF-5s in the event of a border dispute.
Perhaps the best example of an entire set of very specific political, economic and security interests influencing procurement-related decisions … is Qatar. When the country was isolated by four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, its wealth enabled it to place sizeable orders for F-15s, Rafales and Typhoons – all at once.
While apparently random in nature, this acquisition secured the Doha’s influence in the most important Western capitals for at least a decade.