The Sudanese Defence Ministry has reportedly begun talks for the acquisition of Chinese J-10C fighter jets, which follows years of uncertainty regarding the East African state’s choice for its new generation of combat aircraft. Sudan was previously reported in 2017 to be discussing the purchase of Russian Su-35S and Su-30SM heavyweight fighters, which went far enough that a Su-35 contract was erroneously widely reported in November that year. A Su-30 acquisition continued to be considered a high possibility into the 2020s, despite some military officials indicating an interest in switching from Russian equipment to return to a reliance on Western fighters. The Sudanese government moved to strengthen both defence and economic ties with Russia from 2017, when then-president Omar Al Bashir claimed there was a conspiracy by Western countries to further partition his country which he said Russian support would be vital to preventing. The overthrow of the Sudanese government two years later in a Western-backed military coup, however, has resulted in a long period of instability, hyperinflation and sharp economic decline leaving the orientation of the new government in Khartoum, and the state of the military budget, both in serious question.
The Sudanese Air Force currently relies on two fighter classes – namely enhanced variants of the Russian MiG-29 armed with modern R-77 air to air missiles, and heavier longer ranged Su-24 strike fighters which were acquired from Belarus. It also uses Russian Su-25 ground attack jets, and has continued to be a major client for Russian helicopters including Mi-24 and Mi-35. Its most recent acquisition and by far its most modern class of combat jet, however, are Chinese JL-9 fighter/trainers which were ordered in 2017 and are operated in Sudan as light attack aircraft. The country’s air force played a significant role in counterinsurgency efforts in the 2000s against anti-government militias in its western and southern regions, which were widely reported to be receiving Western support in their fight against the central government. The following decade it gained considerable experience operating as part of joint network with Western-built fighters, altering some communications equipment accordingly, when assets including reconnaissance variants of its Su-24 strike fighters deployed to support Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen.
While Sudan emerged under the presidency of Al Bashir as one of Africa’s leading air powers and defence manufacturers, delays in making new acquisitions have resulted in a fall in its standing, with neighbouring Egypt having acquired more advanced MiG-29M fighters while Ethiopia contracted modern Chinese L-15 fighters in January. These delays are speculated to be largely a result of a failure to gain access to the Su-30 at a favourable price as part of a deal to grant Russia the right to construct naval facilities on the Red Sea, with the April 2019 coup and subsequent realignment of the Sudanese government towards the West having disrupted the basing deal. It was only after a second coup in November 2021, which removed key European and U.S. backed figures from power, that the government in Khartoum was again in a position where it could seriously consider new fighter acquisitions and expansion of defence ties with China or Russia.
Other than the American F-35, the J-10C has widely been considered the most capable single engine fighter in the world since it entered service in 2018. The fighter is in production on a larger scale than any other except the F-35, with China alone estimated to already field over 200 while Pakistan began to form its first unit in February 2022. Some of the fighter’s most prized features include its reduced radar cross section, powerful AESA radar, and access to the very long ranged AESA guided PL-15 air to air missile. Its PL-10 short ranged missile is also a close contender for world leadership in its field, while the fighter itself benefits from formidable electronic and network centric warfare capabilities. The fact that the fighter has been sold to Pakistan, which otherwise relies heavily on Western fighters such as the F-16, indicates that the J-10C may have options allowing it to more easily network with allied units such as Saudi F-15s or UAE F-16s. A high degree of customisability for export variants has also been widely speculated after a modified J-10 airframe with an expanded spine, possibly housing electronic warfare equipment, was seen in July. The aircraft’s formidable air to ground and anti-shipping capabilities, with access to a range of standoff missiles such as the YJ-91 as well as rocket pods for low altitude strikes, could make it a viable replacement for Sudan’s Su-24 or Su-25 units alongside the MiG-29s.
If acquired by Sudan the J-10C will be a close contender for the title of the most capable fighter on the African continent, particularly as Egypt appears to have stalled plans to receive Su-35 fighters from Russia and as its Rafale fighters have not been equipped with Meteor air to air missiles. The fighter’s superiority in sensors, electronics and missiles over Russian aircraft may have been demonstrated in exercises pitting it against the Su-35 – a twin engine aircraft over twice its size with much higher operational costs – where the J-10 reportedly came out on top. The fighter would revolutionise Sudanese aerial warfare capabilities and provide the benefits of greater ease of maintenance and lower operational costs to the MiG-29 and Su-24, while bringing Sudanese avionics and network centric warfare capabilities up to the latest standards which are seldom fielded in the region. Politically the fighter will be less objectionable to Western interests at a time of high NATO-Russian tensions, and unlike Russian jets acquisitions from China will not trigger American sanctions under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The far greater volume of Sudanese-Chinese trade also potentially opens the possibility of J-10 purchases being partly paid for in commodities or other Sudanese exports.
Where previous iterations of the J-10 were considered unremarkable, and behind the standards of their closest Russian and Western competitors, the C variant’s very significant improvements have made its induction an important milestone in the modernisation of China’s defence sector resulting in more foreign interest than its predecessors had. Sudanese interest may well be only the first sign of expansion of the market share of China’s manned combat jets, coming in the wake of the country’s emergence as a leading combat drone exporter in the 2010s and potentially displacing both Russia and Western powers in many of their traditional markets. It follows reports in February of plans for the UAE Defence Ministry to acquire its first ever Chinese fighters – 48 L-15 jets – and is expected to be followed by further opening of new markets across Africa and the Middle East in particular.