Words fly as old rivals do battle in the market: Robert Fisk reports from Dubai where the US and Russia are trying to sell their jet fighters

Robert Fisk@indyvoices
Sunday 20 September 2015 21:06

THE Top Guns skulked next to their hardware, sullenly ignoring their old Cold War enemies. The US crews chatted beside the F/A-18 Hornet with their ubiquitous grins and Tom Cruise haircuts while the Russian ground crews sweated over the Sukhoi-35 in drab, Afghan-era fatigues. Forget about the demise of the Soviet Union; at Dubai this week, Washington and Moscow were up to their old tricks.

'We make it a policy never to comment on our competitors,' a senior executive of one of America's largest aerodynamics corporations said. 'So all this is off-the-record, deep background, OK? Well look, an F/A-18 airframe lasts for 8,000 hours and the airframe on that Sukhoi lasts for 1,200 hours. General Electric give a 4,000-hour guarantee on their engines. You have to throw the Russian engines out after just 400 hours' flying time.'

Take a walk down the line of jet fighters, however, and there is Mikhail Seemonov holding forth, general designer of the Sukhoi, a big plump man with grey-brown hair and sparkling, watchful eyes, humorous, friendly, cynical, straight out of a Bond movie. He too would never - ever - comment on his competitors. Or would he?

'Listen to this: the engine of the Pratt & Whitney F-100 BD-100 has a thrust of 11 tons, 340 kilograms - and this engine has also had problems with the stability of its compressors. As a result, five F-15s and 11 F-16s were lost when the aircraft was first sent to the US Air Force. But it's not polite to get into the troubles of other people. Let's just say that from the beginning, the thrust of our Russian Su-27 engine is 12 tons, 500 kilograms. And we have had no problems with our engine. We didn't lose a single aircraft.'

Perhaps. But then how many aircraft do Mr Seemonov and his buddies have for sale? The Americans suspect that Moscow has only prototypes in existence, that the Sukhoi-35 is one of a very exclusive breed for which there are virtually no replacements.

Pity the arms salesman. Poor Steve Stylianoudis, president of Group Vector Inc of America, in a press hand-out pushed into our press pigeon- holes at Dubai Dunai this week says: 'I, like others, knowing that the Russians are cash-poor, invested time and financial resources to promote the Ka-50 (Russian attack helicopter) based on a good faith belief that agreements were binding. Belatedly I have come to learn that appearances are not what they seem.'

So back to Mr Seemonov. How many Su-35s did he have? It was 'a secret at the moment'. Well, how much would he sell a Su-35 for? 'We can offer very good prices because our industry is very cost-efficient,' he chortled. 'We could give you a good discount.' More laughter. 'Tell me, have you ever seen an F-15 perform like the Su-35.'

Never - but what fighter pilot would ever want to commence a combat mission by flying his jet into a vertical stall then slide back towards the ground with smoke streaming from the tail fins? This uncharitable question did not go down well with Vassily Kobtchenko, bespectacled father of the Su-35, whose 'Cobra' manoeuvre had so amazed the Arab buyers. 'In these particular manoeuvres,' Mr Seemonov boasted, 'there is a great deal of turbulence in the air intakes. The instability of their engines is the reason why Western aircraft cannot perform such manoeuvres.'

But this very month, according to Mr Seemonov, Sukhoi and Pratt & Whitney had held talks on how to co-operate on a new engine. 'We would like Pratt & Whitney to develop a system of digital control for the engine. We are open for all proposals from them. Please cross out all I said about this good firm. Just say that Russian engines are not worse than American engines.'

He continued: 'We know Libya would like to buy our planes and they would like to buy a lot of them. Why do we not sell to them? Because of the UN's decision to stop weapons sales to Libya. But other countries who want our weapons - well, they want them for defensive purposes. We are competitors now in a free market. We are ready to sell aircraft to those countries not on the UN list. The trade of armaments should be under international control but it is not. How many aircraft has the US sold to Taiwan? The answer is 80 F-16s - and this is just the latest delivery . . . '

At which point Mr Seemonov's voice was utterly drowned out by an American F/A-18 that streaked over Dubai airport, rolling and looping the loop all at the same time. Up went the Russian Su-29 aerobatic aircraft, its 360hp engine thrusting the little two- seater vertically into the sky, until the plane fell back with a kind of exhaustion. It seems to be Russia's manoeuvre of the year - straight up and straight down again, to the satisfaction of their American competitors.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments