Parlous State of VTA

Oleg Falichev wrote recently for Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer on the parlous state of Russia’s VTA — Military-Transport Aviation. The one-time Krasnaya zvezda correspondent laid out a less-than-convincing “infomercial” supporting renewed production of the Soviet-era An-124 heavy transport by Ilyushin.

An Endangered Species the An-124

Endangered species?

That said, Falichev made points worthy of attention. Still some of his numbers are irreconcilable. But the thrust of his report is significant and grim for the VTA.

The current condition of the VTA inventory isn’t up to its missions, according to Falichev. Those missions include transferring troops between theaters, delivering large-diameter equipment, medical evacuation, other logistical support, and, most importantly, carrying the VDV to the battlefield.

VTA workhorses — the An-124 and Il-76 — are in dire need of replacement and/or modernization. The issue, Falichev says, is what needs to be done to keep them flying.

The majority of Russian transport aircraft were made in Soviet times or the 1990s, and the service life of most is expiring. Falichev reports that Moscow has only four An-124, 46 Il-76, and one An-22 heavy transports in a combat ready state. He says Russia has 26 An-124, but only four in a serviceable, flyable condition.

Other sources report a nominal (not necessarily operational) inventory of nine An-124, 89 Il-76, and five An-22 aircraft.

In NVO recently, Aleksandr Khramchikhin concluded VTA has about 15 An-124 and An-22 and about 90 Il-76 transports along with some 160 medium transports (mainly An-12 and An-26).

DIA’s recent Russian Military Power pub said virtually nothing about VTA as a power projection resource (probably wise), but it wrote that Russia has “122 heavy transports” which pushes the outer limit of reality.

The USAF has 45 C-5, 222 C-17, and probably 350 C-130 transports in various configurations.

Khramchikhin puts this in context:

“The enormous size of American transport aviation is explained by the global missions standing before the U.S. Armed Forces, especially since all these missions have to be carried out beyond North America. We have no such scope although, as events in Syria show, it fully well may appear sooner or later. But the scale of our own country in conjunction with the configuration of Russian territory (strongly stretched in a latitudinal direction in distinction from the almost square U.S.) and the difficulty of accessing most of it requires a very large VTA. We can have 6-7 thousand km between point A and point B inside our own country and point B can be in such a place where literally ‘it’s only possible to go by plane.’ So 250 transport planes (of which the larger half are medium and light) is little for us since the majority of them (all An-12 and An-22, a signficant part of Il-76 and An-26) have gotten very outdated. In addition, our VTA is very strangely deployed on the country’s territory — in gigantic Siberia and the Far East, which are almost entirely inaccessible regions, there is only the 257th Transport Regiment with 12 aged An-12 and 5 An-26 medium planes located in the very extreme south-east ‘corner’ of this super-region! The largest VDV in the world also require a much larger quantity of more modern transport aircraft.”

But back to Falichev . . . .

Falichev concludes that even optimal production of the Il-76MD-90A (Il-476) won’t replace the existing Il-76 inventory in the new future. There is, he claims, a replacement for the An-124 contained in GPV 2018-2027. Nevertheless, there remains a “real risk of a sharp decline” in the numbers of Russian VTA aircraft. And in combat readiness also. Syria and other contingencies, he continues, demonstrate the is high demand for the capabilities of a transport like the An-124.

News photo purportedly showing offload of S-300P TEL from An-124 in Syria

News photo purportedly showing offload of S-300P TEL from An-124 in Syria

With due respect to Messrs. Falichev and Khramchikhin, Moscow might live without new VTA aircraft. It’s not able to acquire everything to modernize its armed forces. Trade-offs are inevitable. VTA might be one. Russia’s rail network provides good internal lines-of-communication. Russia is more likely to fight regional conflicts along its periphery than far-flung wars. That its military could operate without new VTA is a debatable proposition, but one that should be, and likely is being, debated in Moscow.

Supposedly the PAK TA will be able to transport Russia’s new generation armor — Armata, Kurganets-25, etc. It might be ready for series production in 2027 in an optimistic scenario. In a realistic one, there are lots of obstacles.

Former Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar, now Deputy PM and arms tsar, Yuriy Borisov has not only rained on renewed An-124 production, but also said R&D for PAK TA wont even begin until 2025. Its PD-35 engines won’t be ready before 2027. He has said modernized An-124s could fly until almost 2040.

So Falichev and others are left largely in the same place — modernizing the existing inventory of transports.

Here are some of his more squirrelly figures. He says the VTA maintains the fitness of the inventory at 56 percent — more than 131 of 200 aircraft are serviceable, 41 percent of Il-76s, 36 percent of An-124s, 17 percent of An-22s. None of these numbers track with the foregoing. Suffice it to say that readiness, serviceability, and OOB figures are notoriously spongy. It’s hard to say who’s counting and what they’re counting.

Falichev writes that Russian transports are simply being overworked. In 2016, the Il-76 force reached its annual flight hours target of about 24,000 in June and went on to get 150 percent of the goal for the year. This tracks with lots of past reports indicating that VTA pilots have no problem getting their flight hours.

VTA isn’t getting nearly enough maintenance money in the state defense order. In 2016, it paid for only 9 percent of the necessary parts and components. Less than that was actually received, according to Falichev. That amount was reduced in 2017 when there were plans to refurbish only nine transports.

The production and repair of D-30KP-2 engines for Il-76s is insufficient. Falichev says the annual requirement is 120 of them. He claims there’s a plan to acquire more than 500 of them by 2024.

Falichev claims Russia’s An-124s get only two percent of the financing needed to service them. Their D-18T engines are a problem since they’re now a foreign product (Motor Sich in Ukraine). And AO UZGA in Yekaterinburg hasn’t mastered their repair. Perhaps because they aren’t getting paid to do it? Obviously an import-substitute is needed here.

So he sums it up:

“As we see, the problems are serious enough that they can’t be solved with a wave of the hand. It’s no wonder in Rus they say: the peasant doesn’t cross himself until it thunders.”

In other words, Moscow may have put off action on VTA until it’s too late.

To remedy VTA’s woes, Falichev calls for GOZ financing sufficient to maintain transport aircraft, their engines, and components at an acceptable level. He advocates funding to repair 12 D-18T, 8 NK-12MA (for An-22), and 112 D-30KP-2 engines. He says the quality of Il-76 maintenance at Novgorod’s AO 123 ARZ needs to improve. His entire “to-do” list is longer.

Falichev concludes:

“These are only the most essential measures. The state needs a long-term, systematic aviation development program, not just for military but also civilian aviation. Without it, Russia will stop calling itself an aviation power and will continue flying in ‘Boeings’ and ‘Airbuses.'”

And this is really the crux. Moscow doesn’t seem to have a priority on fixing VTA, but it won’t give up on it either because that would imply giving up on its larger aviation industry to some degree.

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Su-34s Practice Anti-Ship Strikes

Yesterday RIA Novosti ran the headline “Pacific Fleet Fighters Launch Newest Kh-35U Anti-Ship Missiles.” Сiting a Russian MOD press-release, the news agency said they were Su-34 fighter-bombers.

It’s curious because Russia’s neglected Pacific Fleet air component doesn’t have Su-34s. The closest are 26 belonging to the VKS based in Khurba, Khabarovsk territory (277th Bomber Regiment).

The Su-34 has been produced in good numbers now, but it’s still a system from the 1990s . . . a major update of the 1970s-vintage Su-24.

The Russian Navy has only a regiment of MiG-31 interceptors at Yelizovo outside Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. But it also operates assorted land-based ASW aircraft, transports, and helos.

Capture

Khurba’s a long way from the open ocean

The unknown number of Su-34s apparently fired eight missiles, and all struck derelict vessels imitating enemy ships.

The Kh-35U — or AS-20 / Kayak air-launched variant — has a 260-km range, and has been in Russia’s inventory since the early 2000s. As the MOD reminds, it can be fired from a number of combat aircraft, Tu-142 ASW aircraft, helos, or land-based Bal launchers (SSC-6 / Sennight).

The “U” might be for improved (usovershennyy) or multirole (universalnyy), but it’s still not really the latest thing as RIA Novosti said.

Neither RIA Novosti nor the MOD indicated where the practice strikes occurred, which is interesting.

Add the combat radius of the Su-34 to the missile’s range and the Russians don’t get much protection for ships out of Vladivostok or for the Kuriles.

Capture

Not much reach

Almost any exercise is good for a military, but it’s hard to see the point in this one unless Russian Naval Aviation gets its own Su-34s. Or the VKS bases them closer to the sea.

Just an example of the deconstruction required when the press (Russian or American) hyperventilates about the rising Russian military threat.

Will Rosneft Boost Russian Naval Construction?

Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft is turning Shipbuilding Complex (SSK) Zvezda into the country’s first large tonnage shipyard. TASS recently published a backgrounder that detailed what’s been happening there.

Located in Bolshoy Kamen near Vladivostok, SSK Zvezda is supposed to produce the ships and equipment Rosneft needs to explore and exploit offshore oil and gas. However, it also has potential to boost Russia’s naval ship and submarine construction and repair in the Far East.

Rosneft took over Zvezda in late 2015 in consortium with government holding company Rosneftegaz and Gazprombank. The effort to expand its civilian shipbuilding capacity began in 2009 as a partnership between state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK) and South Korea’s Daewoo. The latter quit the project in 2012.

Having displaced OSK, Rosneft became principal holder of Far East Plant (DVZ) Zvezda and some small affiliated shipyards. DVZ Zvezda is the only Russian shipyard in the Far East capable of repairing and modernizing nuclear-powered submarines and ships up to 13,500 tons displacement. It began modernizing two project 949A Oscar II-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarines in 2013.

Zvezda complex in Bolshoy Kamen

Zvezda complex in Bolshoy Kamen

This image shows the naval shipyard at top with its grayish roof, launch basin in front, and a submarine in drydock alongside if you look carefully. The SSK Zvezda facility is pretty much everything else — the reddish roof of the monstrous production building and the whitish buildingway with its yellow cranes visible.

SSK Zvezda will produce a range of medium and large tonnage vessels, up to 350,000-tons displacement, and other sea-going equipment to support offshore hydrocarbon development in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. It includes LNG carriers, tankers, drilling platforms, and transport, supply, and seismic survey ships.

The shipyard currently has one 1,200-ton gantry crane made in China, two 320-ton gantry cranes, and four 100-ton tower cranes on its open buildingway. In July, the shipyard took delivery of a 40,000-ton transport-transfer dock built by the Qingdao Beihai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Company. Rosneft expects SSK Zvezda’s development to cost $2.4 billion.

Capture

It reportedly will begin construction of medium-sized ships in 2019 with a workforce of 1,500 employees. By 2024, it expects to have a large-ship drydock and full-cycle fabrication facilities in operation with 7,500 workers. The shipyard’s order book already includes ten 80,000- to 120,000-ton tankers, ten shuttle tankers, and supply vessels. Leveraging DVZ Zvezda’s nuclear expertise, SSK Zvezda will also build three Lider-class nuclear-powered icebreakers, according to a September 14 announcement by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov.

President Vladimir Putin visited the shipyard on September 10 to lay the keel of a tanker. In 2017, he inaugurated the buildingway and transfer dock for medium-sized ships and participated in the keel-laying for four multipurpose ice-class supply ships. The Russian president personally commissioned a module production building in 2016.

The development of SSK Zvezda may increase Russia’s capabilities for naval ship and submarine construction and repair in the Far East. DVZ Zvezda has struggled for years without modernization funding. However, it may be able to leverage the flow of Rosneft investment and Chinese shipbuilding technology, equipment, and experience into SSK Zvezda to improve its own production capabilities. A steady stream of large civilian projects next door may increase of quantity and quality of personnel available to DVZ Zvezda, and moderate the boom or bust cycle of shipbuilding that makes it difficult for Russian workers to stay in the Far East.

Strategic Maneuvers

Russian General Staff Chief Valeriy Gerasimov told foreign military attachés this week that Vostok-2018 is not a strategic command-staff exercise (KShU) like other major annual drills of past years. He called Vostok-2018 strategic maneuvers.

Army General Valeriy Gerasimov

Army General Valeriy Gerasimov

Gerasimov explained:

“This is the distinction: strategic exercises, as a rule, are conducted with one military district in one strategic direction under the Genshtab chief’s leadership. Maneuvers are on several strategic directions, take the participation of several military districts, in this case the Central and Eastern military districts, Pacific and Northern fleets, units of central subordination [usually Moscow-based MOD or other headquarters-level elements — ed.], and are conducted under the RF defense minister’s leadership.”

He said the choice of maneuvers is not sensational:

“It’s nothing special, their turn just came up. This is the annual training cycle for the RF Armed Forces, and this year they decided to combine two military districts.”

“There’s no other subtext.”

The Genshtab chief said such large-scale maneuvers have never been conducted on RF territory. Closest in scale, he noted, was the Soviet-era Zapad-81 exercise in the Belorussian, Kiev, and Baltic Military Districts and the Baltic Sea.

But Vostok-2018 will be much larger than its distant predecessor. Counting all personnel in the Central and Eastern MDs, the Russian MOD says 297,000 troops will take part. Tens of thousands of armored vehicles, helicopters, aircraft, and UAVs will be used.

Gerasimov concluded:

“‘Vostok-2018’ will exceed ‘Zapad-81’ in spatial scale and depth of regrouping.”

Moscow will proclaim that Vostok-2018 is not related to current international events and situations, but these “strategic maneuvers” are, in fact, a rehearsal for mobilization, deployment, and operations in a multi-theater, if not global, war.

The “strategic maneuvers” beginning on September 11 will be a military effort not attempted by Russia. They are designed to show average Russians that rubles spent on the military (not on health care, science, education, infrastructure, or pensions) are well used. As a RUSI commentator puts it:

“Putin’s narrative for the past decade has been that hardship is necessary in the short term, enabling the resurrection of Russia as a great power. The demonstration that Russia can conduct exercises at a scale comparable to the Soviet Union is presented as proof that the privations of recent years have allowed genuine and substantial progress in revitalising Russia’s military.”

Despite the skepticism often expressed on these pages, Russia’s military has been revitalized over the past five years. Big questions remain, however.

Can Russian conventional forces really stack up with their peers (U.S., NATO, China) in the unlikely event of conflict? Will they in ten or twenty years? Is it even necessary given Moscow’s nuclear modernization efforts? Have privations in favor of the military eroded the economic, social, and political bases of Russia’s potential greatness?

Promotion List

President Vladimir Putin issued his latest general and flag officer promotion list on June 11 for Russian Federation Day.

The MOD promotees included six two-stars (5 general-lieutenants and a vice-admiral) and 17 one-stars (14 general-majors and three rear-admirals).

Putin’s rebranded National Guard (ex-MVD Internal Troops) got three two-stars and 8 one-stars.

General-Lieutenant Zhidko wearing his previous rank

General-Lieutenant Zhidko wearing his previous rank

The MOD promotions included:

  • General-Lieutenant Gennadiy Zhidko, now a deputy chief of the General Staff. He served not long ago as chief of staff for the Russian group of forces in Syria. He got his first star in early 2016.
  • General-Lieutenant Yuriy Grekhov, deputy commander of Air and Missile Defense Troops of VKS.
  • General-Lieutenant Igor Krasin, deputy commander of the Southern MD’s 8th CAA. He got his first star exactly three years prior to this one.
  • Vice-Admiral Igor Osipov, chief of staff and first deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet. He became a one-star three and a half years ago. He’s just 45.
Vice-Admiral Igor Osipov

Vice-Admiral Igor Osipov

Also among the promotees are the chief of the General Staff’s topographic directorate, deputy chief of staff of the Eastern MD, and commanders of the 41st and 44th Air Defense Divisions, and Novorossiysk Naval Base. Others include the deputy commander for logistics of the Group of Forces and Troops in the North-East (Kamchatka), and personnel chiefs for the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

As usual, several military educators were promoted; notably the chief of the MOD’s Military University received his second star.

Five promotees could not be identified in a specific billet at present.

Anti-Ship Iskander-M?

Russia may view the Iskander-M as an effective weapon against high-value ships and aircraft carriers in particular. There is, however, no openly available information indicating the Russians have actually tested it as an anti-ship ballistic missile.

In late July and early August, the Russian Army conducted two exercises for the first time featuring notional launches of the land-based mobile 9K720 Iskander-M (SS-26 ‘Stone’) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) against ships in the Black Sea. Reports on the drills appeared on Mil.ru and government-controlled newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta.

The 1st Missile Brigade of the Krasnodar-based 49th Combined Arms Army departed garrison in late July for combat readiness drills under the personal control of Southern Military District commander Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov. The brigade performed the Iskander-M launch drills at some point before they were reported on July 27 and August 2 respectively.

The MOD press-releases stated that the Russian forces “delivered an electronic missile strike on notional enemy ships and shore facilities” and conducted “electronic launches on notional enemy targets detected in the Black Sea and ashore.”

An “electronic” launch likely means a field combat simulation where the missile unit prepares and performs all procedures for a real-world launch without firing a live missile.

Exactly which ships the Russians used as notional targets for the Iskander-M is unknown. However, the annual NATO Sea Breeze exercise took place in Black Sea waters during mid-July. Forces from 13 alliance members as well as Georgia, Moldova, Sweden, and Ukraine participated in the multinational training. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain high since Moscow seized Crimea and sent forces to fight in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The Iskander-M has the capability to attack moving targets including ships. Its 9M723 missile flies a low, semi-ballistic trajectory at Mach 6-7 with possible maneuvering in the terminal flight stage. It has inertial navigation as well as active radar or electro-optical terminal guidance. Active radar would be employed against ships at sea. However, a successful SRBM strike on a moving naval target would likely also depend on real-time inputs and updates from space-based surveillance and intelligence systems.

The deployment of the Iskander-M as a possible anti-ship system comes just months after Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. The Kinzhal uses a modified Iskander-M missile and has also been advertised as an anti-ship weapon and “carrier killer.”

Compared to the relatively long-range Kinzhal, the 500-km declared range of the Iskander-M makes it less threatening to foreign aircraft carriers and battle groups which could remain outside its reach. However, combined with existing sea- and land-based anti-ship cruise missile systems, Iskander-M’s hypersonic speed would be a major contribution to Russia’s robust anti-access/area denial strategy on the approaches to its four fleet areas.

Non-TO&E Reconnaissance Troops

LPR-4 laser rangefinder made by the Kazan Optical-Mechanical Plant

LPR-4 laser rangefinder made by the Kazan Optical-Mechanical Plant

Russian news agency TASS noted yesterday that the Eastern MD’s 35th Combined Arms Army will train several hundred soldiers to serve as scouts in addition to their usual duties.

This ADDU training will occur during the balance of July in 35th CAA motorized rifle sub-units (battalion and below). Between 800 and 1,000 troops will learn to serve literally as “non-TO&E reconnaissance men-observers.” In English and U.S. Army parlance, perhaps scouts is close.

In a 10-day course, trainees will learn the “rules” of conducting reconnaissance, how to choose terrain, and to establish an observation post. Experienced “reconnaissance men” will teach them to detect minute changes in the situation, hide listening devices, and recognize “telltale signs” of targets day or night. Separate lessons will be dedicated to aerial recon, observation on the move, and camouflage, concealment, and deception (CC&D) measures.

The new scouts will learn to employ night vision and other optical equipment including LPR-5 laser rangefinders.

The scout-trainees will broaden their military qualifications, and they could conduct reconnaissance in cases when TO&E “recon men” aren’t attached to their forces.

The Eastern MD spokesman said the scout training is the result of the growing role of reconnaissance in recent military conflicts.

In some respects, the Eastern MD is the Russian “poor man’s district.” It doesn’t sit opposite Moscow’s major concerns — NATO, militant Islam, and Central Asia. It faces China (the threat “which must not be named”). 

At times, it seems the Eastern MD gets fewer real resources. The Kremlin has already fielded full-fledged independent reconnaissance brigades — the 96th in the Western MD’s 1st Tank Army, the 100th in the Southern MD’s 58th CAA, and the 127th in the BSF (Crimea). The Eastern MD doesn’t merit one apparently, and will have to get along with ADDU scouts at least for now.

Back in the day, Soviet divisions had a dedicated reconnaissance battalion, while armies had Spetsnaz battalions or companies.

It’s likely the requirement for more recon is another lesson the Russian military is taking from its intervention in Syria.