The Sudanese Ministry of Defense is said to have started negotiations to acquire China’s J-10C fighter jet. If the deal is successful, this will be the most powerful squadron in Africa.
After years of uncertainty about the East African nation’s choice for its new generation of fighter jets, the J-10C was arguably the most suitable choice. Sudan was previously said to be interested in Russian Su-35S and Su-30SM heavy fighters. The Sudanese government has been strengthening defense and economic ties with Russia since 2017, but political instability and economic slowdown have changed the direction of the new government.
The Sudanese Air Force currently relies on two classes of combat aircraft – including improved variants of the Russian MiG-29 armed with modern R-77 air-to-air missiles, and the longer-range attack fighter Su-24 purchased from Belarus. Sudan also operates Russian Su-25 ground attack jets, and continues to be the main customer for Russian helicopters including the Mi-24 and Mi-35.
However, the most recent aircraft acquired by the Sudanese Air Force is the Chinese JL-9 fighter jet, which is arguably the most modern in its fleet. Sudan ordered the JL-9 in 2017 and is operated as a light attack aircraft. The Sudanese air force played a key role in counter-insurgency efforts in the 2000s against anti-government militias in the western and southern regions.
While Sudan has emerged under the leadership of Al Bashir as one of Africa’s leading aviation powers and defense manufacturers, delays in making new purchases have weakened its position. Neighboring Egypt purchased more advanced MiG-29M fighters while Ethiopia signed a contract with China to acquire L-15 fighters. After the second coup in November 2021, the government in Khartoum was again in a position to seriously consider buying new fighter jets and expanding defense 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. 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 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 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.