However, Boris D. Bregman, first deputy general director of Sukhoi, said the talks with China are still only at the consultation stage. While confirming that contacts were ongoing, he said no official negotiations had been initiated so far.
The information that China intended to import 14 Sukhoi Su-33 fighters came from the Russian military industry delegation attending the Zhuhai Air Show in 2006. Members of the delegation said China had indicated it would eventually require about 50 Sukhoi Su-33s to arm several aircraft carrier battle groups.
China had initially requested only two fighters, then raised its request to 14, to be procured in two groups of seven, a Russian military-industry source said. However, given its past record of copying Russian technology, suspicions were high that the Chinese intended to produce their own version of the fighter plane, using the Sukhoi Su-33 as a model.
A Russian official told United Press International that producing only seven aircraft in one batch was not feasible, as production of the Sukhoi Su-33 had already been suspended and the cost of reconstructing the production facilities was too high for such a small order.
However, Bregman told the author that his company could produce an upgraded variant of the Sukhoi Su-33 for export, according to the purchaser's requirements, if the deal was right.
Some reports have suggested that a version of the aircraft specifically designed for China -- referred to as the Sukhoi Su-33K -- could be built to the standard of the Sukhoi Su-30MK2, which has upgraded electronics that support anti-ship missiles, or even fitted with Irbis or Bars phased-array radar systems. The former is currently installed on Sukhoi Su-35 fighters.
However, these modifications seem unlikely. The Irbis has a maximum power output of 20 kilowatts; therefore, the Sukhoi Su-33's power supply would be far from enough to support it.
The Bars passive phased-array radar is mainly employed on the Sukhoi Su-30MKM/MKI fighters currently in use by the Malaysian and Indian air forces. The Russian Defense Ministry has not yet officially approved the export of this type of radar system to China.
China and Russia have not yet been able to reach agreement on the procurement of the Sukhoi Su-33 fighters. Negotiations on the deal are still only in the initial stages, and China will place its priorities elsewhere in 2009.
The Chinese navy will continue its work on constructing an aircraft carrier; at the same time, it will consider its options with regard to the selection of shipborne fighter aircraft. Since the aircraft carrier construction is likely to take at least another five to six years, it is not impossible that China may develop a shipborne variant of its own J-10A and J-11BH fighters during this period.
However, Sukhoi may eventually restart its Su-33 production line because the Russian navy is about to resume its own "grand aircraft carrier program."
Aviation weapons observers based in Moscow say that a more realistic purchase order of Sukhoi Su-33 fighters would be 24 or more in order to make the start-up of the production line cost-effective. Therefore, China may either have to increase its order or find another solution to the problem of procuring shipborne fighter aircraft.
(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)