Algeria Orders Russian Su-57 Jets, Does Morocco Need the F-35?

The Su-57 has long been Russia’s hope for aerial dominance and Algeria could use the jets to gain an edge on rival Morocco.

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Rabat – Algeria last month announced it intends to buy 14 Su-57 fighters which have just become operational, threatening regional military balance. The Su-57 has long been Russia’s hope for aerial dominance and Algeria could use the jets to gain an edge on rival Morocco. 

Algeria’s announcement in November came while the Su-57 was not yet fully operational; Russia only integrated the fighter in its air force last week.  With the Su-57 now a practical reality, Algeria is set to gain a distinct edge over Morocco once it receives 14 of the powerful new jet.

Algeria’s new jet fighters

Russia’s Su-57 is a fifth generation fighter jet with stealth capabilities that is designed to compete with the best military hardware coming out of the US and China.

Produced by iconic Russian weapon manufacturer Sukhoi, the new jetis built to compete with the most advanced fighters produced by the US and China. The SU-57 is one of only four operational fifth-generation fighter jets, competing with the US’ F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. China’s Chengdu J-20 is the only other jet in this new generation. 

According to the Russian military, the SU-57 exceeds many of the capabilities of NATO’s F-35, although the two fighters were developed for different purposes. The F-35 is being integrated in NATO member’s air forces as a multirole fighter with a speciality in air-to-ground missions. Russia Su-57 focuses less on bombing missions and aims to realize aerial superiority.

Doubts remain as to whether the Su-57 is as good as Russia claims, yet it is almost certain it is superior to the F-16 fighter jets used by the Moroccan air force.

Regaining balance

Replacing Algeria’s current outdated and expensive– to-maintain Mig-25, Mig-29 and Su-30s will take time. Yet, Algeria is the first country outside of Russia to purchase the Su-57 jets and could gain a significant aerial advantage over its regional allies. Russia is likely to start delivering its advanced jets in 2025, giving Morocco a brief window to consider its options.

Morocco is similarly upgrading its air force. While Algeria will spend a reported $2 billion on its 14 new SU-57s, Morocco is spending $4.8 billion to upgrade its F-16s. Morocco’s planned upgrades are likely the reason Algeria chose to bet on the costly purchase in the first place.

Morocco is spending more than twice of Algeria’s planned air defense purchases,  but the SU-57 could still provide it with a military edge. If the fifth-generation stealth fighter lives up to Russia’s promised capabilities, it could eclipse the F-16 and provide Algeria with a capable response to Morocco’s upgraded jets.

Costly options

For Morocco’s military leaders, this development presents a conundrum. The strengthening of ties with the US in recent weeks could mean Rabat can become eligible to purchase the F-35 that rivals Russia’s Su-57. Yet, the F-35 costs an eye-watering $110 million per unit and would require replacing recently upgraded F-16s.

Responding to Algeria’s new military hardware could be tricky however. Algeria’s close military ties with Russia could mean it doesn’t limit its purchases to the SU-57. Algeria could, for example, also consider buying Russia’s world-class S-400 missile system that could feasibly take down even the F-35. If Morocco would lobby the US to buy F-35s, Russia is likely to offer the S-400 to Algeria.

Any acceleration in an arms race between Morocco and Algeria could cost both countries dearly. While investing more in public welfare is in the best interest of both nations, each dollar spent on military hardware cannot be spent on socioeconomic development priorities like education and healthcare. 

In the end, the most cost-efficient military deal Morocco and Algeria can make is not in purchasing new military equipment, but by making a concerted effort to realize a sustainable peace. Reopening the border between Algeria and Morocco can restart economic activity and limit the need for advanced and costly new military technology.

If Algeria and Morocco were to choose the path of peace and brotherly relations, their current combined air forces would make it the most advanced military power in the region without the need for new investment. 

Instead of embarking on an extravagant and uncalled-for arms race, peace, dialogue, and a resumption of amicable relations appear to be the smartest military option available for the two neighbors.

Read also: UAE First Arab State to Deploy F-35 After Massive US Arms Deal