The Indian Air Force (IAF) is to dispatch six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft to Japan for joint exercises in the coming months as the two nations seek to strengthen their security and diplomatic ties under the four-nation Quad pact. Analysts suggest it is no coincidence that Tokyo was keen for the Russian-built fighter jets to take part in the drills as Japanese fighters have come up against Su-30s flown by China over the East China Sea and by Russia close to disputed islands, and Japanese pilots will hope to get a better understanding of these aircraft during the drills in case they ever meet in combat.
The Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) first conducted exercises with IAF units in India in December 2018, although those drills and similar manoeuvres the following year solely involved transport and logistics. The two governments had planned drills with fighter jets in India in June 2020, but that was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan now is for the Indian aircraft and crews to travel to Japan before the end of March and to pit Indian Su-30s against American-built JASDF F-15 Eagle fighters in exercises from a base in Ishikawa Prefecture, on the north coast of Japan.
The Chinese Air Force is understood to have as many as 97 Su-30s still in service, according to a Japanese Ministry of Defence report published in March. A Chinese Su-30 was tracked close to Okinawa Prefecture in 2016, with another spotted the following year over the Sea of Japan. The Chinese Navy also operates the Shenyang J-15 fighter from its carriers, an aircraft based heavily on the Su-30 but with modifications.
“The Su-30 – which NATO designates as the Flanker – was an absolute world-beater when it first came out 30 years ago and is still a very capable aircraft,” said Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University and an authority on defence issues.
“It’s fast, it has a long range and it can carry a wide variety of payloads for a range of missions, it has a faster rate of climb and is more manoeuvrable than the F-35,” he said.
“I would say that the two areas where the F-35 comes out on top are its stealth characteristics and its ability to network with other ground and air networks, which enable it to ‘see’ much further.”
There have, however, been safety concerns. India has seen nine crashes involving the fighter, and even grounded its entire fleet of 268 in 2014 after an accident.
Determining how best to tackle the Su-30 in combat will be at the top of the JASDF pilots’ agenda during the drills, Mulloy said, although it is unlikely they will learn all its secrets.
“All air forces like to do what they call dissimilar air combat exercises, meaning that they train against aircraft used by other countries so they can gain insight into how good they are or any weaknesses.”
But when the IAF carried out similar manoeuvres with the British Royal Air Force, Russia insisted that not all of the Su-30’s avionics capabilities be used so that some of its electronics and advanced radar could be kept secret. India, which relies heavily on Russia for its weapons systems, acceded to that request and Mulloy expects Moscow to have made a similar demand this time.
“Nevertheless, this exercise looks like a very good example of the two governments using exercises to cement the security relationship and deepen diplomatic ties at the same time as improving training capabilities,” he said.
There has been a notable uptick in military exchanges between Tokyo and New Delhi in recent months, both bilaterally and under the Quad alliance, which groups Japan and India with Australia and the United States.
Units from the ground and naval forces of Japan and India have carried out a number of joint exercises, with the air forces now looking to strengthen their cooperation.
China is a shared concern. Tokyo is in dispute with Beijing over the sovereignty of Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea called the Diaoyus in China and Senkakus in Japan. And New Delhi and Beijing disagree on their border in the Himalayas, with a deadly clash taking place last year.
“These stepped-up exercises are important as they allow the two militaries to improve their knowledge and capabilities, but it is also an opportunity for the governments to deepen their relationship and present a united front against a shared security threat,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.
“I have spoken with counterparts in India and, frankly, they have been frustrated with Japan’s attitude on closer security and diplomatic relations until relatively recently, so it is good to see that is changing and that both countries – which are significant powers – can work more closely together,” he said.
“In the circumstances we see in the Indo-Pacific region at the moment, with all the challenges to stability and peace, exercises such as this are absolutely necessary and I think this could be a breakthrough event in the bilateral relationship,” he said.