Why Algeria Rejected France’s Rafale and Preferred the Russian Su-30MKA to Modernise its Fighter Fleet

Su-30MKA (top) and Rafale Fighters

France’s Rafale fourth generation lightweight fighter had a troubled early history, entering service a full 15 years after its first flight due difficulties in development and faring poorly on export markets in the aftermath. The fighter’s early failed bids included possible contracts in South Korea and Singapore, where it lost to the American F-15, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, where it lost to the F-16, Kuwait where it lost to the F-18E, Brazil where it lost to the Swedish Gripen E, and Saudi Arabia and Oman where it lost to the British-German Eurofighter. Another notable but less well known failed bid in the 2000s was to supply the Algerian Air Force, which was retiring its MiG-23s acquired in the waning years of the Cold War and considering options for a replacement. Algerian law stipulated that all new aircraft must be tested in the country itself, and Rafales from France were dispatched to the country for evaluation.

The Algerian Air Force, like all other possible Rafale customers at the time, rejected the French fighter for a number of reasons. While most Rafale deals were thwarted by other lightweight or medium weight aircraft such as the F-16, Algeria rejected the fighter in favour of a much heavier and higher end aircraft much as South Korea and Singapore did. Its choice was the direct analogue to the F-15 produced by Russia, the Su-30, which was in many ways considered even more capable than its American competitor. The benefits of selecting the Su-30 over the Rafale were considerable, and Algeria’s choice could well have been predicted. One of the primary reasons for selecting the Su-30 was the far wider area it could cover, as while the Rafale has a relatively long range for a lightweight fighter it was still far shorter than heavyweights such as the Su-30 or F-15, which was a major disadvantage considering the vast area of Algeria’s territory. As the largest country in Africa since 2011, the area its air force needed to cover was roughly equivalent to the areas of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Greece combined. The Su-30 could not only fly much further and with a much higher weapons load, but its situational awareness was also considerably greater with its N011M BARS being approximately twice the size of the Rafale’s RBE2 and the two technologically having a similar level of sophistication. The Rafale’s relatively weak M88 engines – the weakest for any fighter in production in the world at the time – also restricted its speed and operational altitude, allowing the Su-30 to respond to threats more quickly.

Another major factor in the favour of the Su-30 was that Algeria had a long history of operating Russian combat aircraft, and the fighter would be compatible with other equipment in the country’s inventory. With the primary threats to the country’s security coming from Western and Western-aligned parties – a perception which only increased following a French-led offensive campaign against neighbouring Libya – acquiring arms from a reliable non-Western source was in many ways advantageous. France had on many occasions in the past provided detailed information on the specifications and weaknesses of its combat aircraft and air launched weapons to its Western allies – most notably to the U.S. and Britain during the 1991 Gulf War and to Britain during the Falklands War. The Rafale’s only strong selling point was that, as a lightweight aircraft, it was much cheaper to operate than the Su-30 as it required less maintenance and fuel. This was partly compensated for, however, by the Su-30’s much lower acquisition cost, as despite the Russian fighter’s heavier weight the French defence sector’s much lower efficiency compared to major producers such as the U.S. and Russia, as well as the much greater scale on which the Su-30 was being produced, made it a much cheaper to purchase.

The Su-30 variant acquired by Algeria was based on the Su-30MKI developed for India, and was the most capable Russian fighter marketed for export at the time which built on the advanced capabilities of the Soviet Union’s top fighter the Su-27 Flanker – an aircraft from which it was directly derived and which was considered more even more capable than the F-15. The Su-30MKA provided Algeria with the most capable fighters in Africa or the Arab world by a considerable margin, and ensured that a Libya-style Western assault on the country would not be viable. The fighter boasted a range of advanced armaments including Kh-31 missiles for suppression of enemy air defences and for anti-shipping – which were far more capable than any European equivalent. The fighters also had an air to air engagement range of up to 130km were the Rafale, using the very limited MICA missile, could only engage targets up to 80km away. The size of the Algerian Su-30 fleet is currently a little under 60 fighters, and expected to reach over 70 by 2024 with new batches of the Su-30MKA reportedly boasting significant performance advantages over the originals. Fielding the Su-30 in large numbers exponentially increased the capabilities of the Algerian Air Force and was key to its emergence as the most capable on the African continent.

The Rafale would see no export contracts signed until November 2014, by which time the fighter had been improved considerably with the integration of the first fighter-mounted AESA radar in Europe which largely closed the gap in situational awareness with the Su-30. The fighter would also begin to integrate Meteor long range air to air missiles from 2021, which revolutionised its long range performance, although due to the considerable cost fo these upgrades they are not expected to rapidly be applied to the French fleet. New avionics and sensors have helped to compensate for the Rafale’s below average flight performance, and made the aircraft more attractive for export with Egypt, Qatar and India all making purchases, although they have also drastically raised the fighter’s cost meaning the aircraft is unlikely to gain any large contracts. India, for one, cancelled a plan to purchase 126 fighters and reduced its order to just 36, while investing heavily in acquiring more Su-30MKI and MiG-29 fighters from Russia, while other parties which have shown an interest in the Rafale has sought to acquire second hand aircraft at a much reduced cost. Following Algeria’s rejection of the Rafale, neighbouring Morocco notably also rejected the fighter in favour of the American F-16 Fighting Falcon – which much like the Su-30MKA was widely seen to be much more cost effective than the French fighter.

Su-30MKA (top) and Rafale Fighters
F-15 (left) and Rafale
Algerian Air Force Su-30MKA