Kazakhstan Remains Top Post-Soviet Client For Russian Fighters: A Look at Future Acquisition Plans

Of the 15 Soviet successor states formed in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, Kazakhstan was not only the largest by landmass other than Russia but has been among the most socially stable and economically prosperous. 

Maintaining close security ties with Moscow, the Kazakh armed forces are considered by far the most capable in Central Asia or of any Soviet successor state besides Russia itself, with the country not only having inherited a formidable arsenal after the Soviet collapse but also financing considerable new acquisitions, particularly for the air force. 

With an annual defence budget of $1.59 billion in 2019, Kazakhstan has been one of Russia’s most important defense clients in recent years and has been permitted to purchase new armaments at similar rates to the Russian Military itself, rather than at export rates offered to the large majority of foreign countries. 

As treaty allies, Kazakhstan and Russia have cooperated closely in security and maintained a high degree of interoperability between their armed forces. Looking to the capabilities of the Kazakh Air Force it was one of the first in the world to receive Su-27 Flanker heavyweight fighter jets from Russia, which has been the Soviet Union’s prime air superiority fighters and which were sold to the country in 1995. 

Alongside 14 Su-27s, the country also ordered 12 MIG-29s, 14 Su-25 attack jets, and 13 L-39C trainer jets that year, as most of the combat aircraft deployed to Kazakh territory in the Soviet era had been far from state of the art and were quickly retired. These acquisitions were all paid for with deductions from Russia’s considerable debt to Kazakhstan. The country went on to place orders for a number of air defences systems including the S-300P ini 1998 and the S-300PS in 2013, alongside other shorter-range systems. 

Alongside fighters ordered from Russia in 1995, the most capable aircraft for air to air combat in the Kazakh fleet has long been the MiG-31 Foxhound which was deployed exclusively from bases in Russian and Kazakh territory during the Soviet era resulting in Kazakhstan inheriting a considerable fleet. Foxhounds have since been modernized with Russian support to the much more capable MiG-31BM standard and equipped with modern munitions, and two squadrons for a total of over 30 interceptors are currently in service. 

Fielding the Foxhounds made Kazakhstan for many years one of just two countries in the world to deploy aircraft with phased array radars built for air to air combat. Kazakhstan has since moved to acquire more modern Russian combat aircraft and placed its first order for the Su-30SM heavyweight ‘4+ generation’ jets in 2014 with four aircraft delivered in 2015. It went on to order eight more in 2015 and a further eight in 2018 for a total fleet size of 20 new fighters. The last of these were delivered in 2022. 

Russian media outlets have reported that Kazakhstan is set to field more Su-30SM fighters by the end of 2022, indicating that further orders may have been placed possibly to replace losses from accidents. The Su-30SM entered service in the Russian Air Force in the early 2010s and is an advanced much more versatile derivative of the Su-27 Flanker that Kazakhstan previously acquired with significant commonality in parts and maintenance infrastructure. Although the Su-30SM has been Russia’s second most popular fighter for export, with sales made to Belarus, Armenia and Myanmar, Kazakhstan has been by far the largest client and, if Russian reports are confirmed, may have ordered more of the aircraft than the other three countries combined.

 It has been speculated that Kazakhstan will look to make further acquisitions over the following decade to replace its Su-27s, MiG-29s, or its much older Soviet-era MiG-27s, with a number of possibilities considered ranging from new Checkmate lightweight stealth jets to Russia’s top fighter the Su-57, or more conservatively Su-30SM or SM2 aircraft to provide greater commonality with the aircraft already in service.

 Russia is also developing a successor to the MiG-31 under the MiG-41 program, with Kazakhstan considered the leading potential client for the new aircraft which is expected to build on the Foxhound’s already impressive capabilities with a greater focus on space warfare. 

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