Shortcomings of the Air Forces

Su-30MKI (photo: http://www.irkutavia.ru)

Recent months have seen a spate of press items criticizing the Russian Air Forces, their capabilities, and plans.

Writing for Pravda-KPRF on 17 December, retired Colonel Robert Bykov notes that Russia’s tactical aviation consists of about 1,800 aircraft, almost all of which are more than 20-30 years old.  The service life of the Su-24 has been artificially extended to 40 years.  Problems in 80 percent of Russia’s MiG-29s have reportedly been fixed.  He quotes General Staff Chief Makarov from late 2008 to the effect that only 5 of 150 Air Forces regiments had their complement of 24 aircraft, while others had pilots and practically no flyable aircraft, and this resulted in the degradation of pilot skills. 

Whereas in Soviet times, the Air Forces received a reported 400-600 aircraft per year, for 15 years, the Russian Air Forces have received only a handful or none.  Bykov notes that the plans announced at MAKS-2009 amount to only 67 aircraft to be acquired by 2015–only about 15 per year.  He goes on to describe deficiencies in the Su-34–only two aircraft so far, and they supposedly lack an air-to-air weapons system.  The Su-35 has not been accepted yet, after one crashed and burned during runway tests in April 2009.  Then he plugs for what he calls one true success–the multirole Su-30MKI.  Bykov says Russia could get 50-60 of these per year right now from the Irkutsk Aviation Production Association (IAPO), five years sooner and for half the price of the Su-35.  He concludes that, if the fiasco with the Su-34 and Su-35 continues, Russia will be left without tactical aviation in the future.  He blames Mikhail Pogosyan, general director of Sukhoy, as well as those who can’t straighten out the Bulava SLBM mess and want to buy Mistral from the French, for blocking acquisition of the Su-30MKI for Russia’s Air Forces.

In Forum.msk, Lieutenant Colonel Yuriy Karnovskiy notes that the ‘new profile’ for the Air Forces means only 1,000 of the newest airplanes and helicopters will be put into the new organizational structure, and the rest will be written off.  The idea of the reform for the Air Forces is to concentrate the most combat capable forces into a small number of air bases to allow for more intensive training and to conserve resources. 

However, pilots of the Domna-based 120th Fighter Aviation Regiment have written him to describe how they’ve been reformed into a squadron and subordinated to an air base in Chita commanded by a helicopter pilot.  They described the mixed group as complete bedlam, lacking a normal flight schedule, but they have to fly anyway.  Mid-ranking ground support personnel have been cut.  The squadron has no trainers.  General Staff Chief Makarov’s mantra about one pilot per operational aircraft is becoming reality.  The next step in the reform will make squadrons into detachments.  Karnovskiy concludes, when there’s only one aircraft per theater of military operations, the president will announce that the armed forces have completely introduced the ‘new profile’ and the housing problem for pilots has been solved.

Another good analysis on this issue came from Mikhail Rastopshin in Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye on 23 October.  He notes that the Air Forces received no new aircraft between 1994 and 2003, and only three since then–a Tu-160 and two Su-34.  He reported that ‘experts’ conclude the Air Forces probably have only 500 combat aircraft capable of taking off.  Air Forces CINC Zelin has politely noted that his service’s rearmament rate is inadequate.

Rastopshin explains how Long-Range Aviation’s old Tu-160, Tu-95MS, and Tu-22M3 can’t be modernized to serve as particularly effective bombers against a robust air defense.  He sees the loss of 4 aircraft officially, or 8 or 10 unofficially, against Georgia as evidence of the Air Forces’ problems.  He explains how many of Russia’s missiles have a short launch range that leaves aircraft in range of enemy air defense weapons.  Russian smart bombs can only be used against a fully suppressed air defense.  Aircraft like the Su-24, Su-25, and Su-27 have been modernized, but not sufficiently to operate against serious defenses.  Old ordnance and anti-radar missiles don’t allow aircraft to stay out of the enemy’s tactical air defense zone.

One last one of interest.  In Sovetskaya Rossiya, Colonel I. Ivanov writes that only 30-35 percent of the Air Forces’ inventory is operational.  Regiments have only 30 percent of requisite supplies, and shortages of equipment and personnel for airfield maintenance exist.  Defense Minister Serdyukov’s new logistics corporation, OAO Oboronservis and its affiliate OAO Aviaremont, will now run the Defense Ministry’s aircraft repair plants.  Ivanov complains that Aviaremont’s main concern will be profit rather than combat readiness.  He doubts current aircraft can continue to fly for another 5-7 years while waiting for new ones.  He claims average flight hours per pilot have increased because more fuel is available, but also because there are now fewer pilots to share the hours.  Like Karnovskiy above, he lampoons Makarov’s comment about cutting pilots down to the number of operational aircraft and increasing their flight hours.  If Russia has only one airworthy aircraft and one crew, the Air Forces can report 100 percent combat readiness.  Ivanov says most training is limited to three aircraft at a time, so there’s little chance for regiment-level command and control training.  Pilots don’t get enough practice missile firings.

He concludes that the U.S. has a great advantage in ALCMs, while the Russian munitions inventory has seen little improvement in the past 15 years.  The new Kh-555 and Kh-90 with conventional warheads are accurate, but are not being produced in quantity for the Air Forces.

Ivanov claims only 2-3 Tu-160s are getting flying time, so they don’t make for much of a leg of the nuclear triad.  He says getting 2 Tu-160s to Venezuela required an enormous and expensive effort.  His bottom line–the Air Forces can’t safeguard Russia against the colossal advantage enjoyed by U.S. and NATO aerospace forces.  Serdyukov’s reforms aren’t helping this situation either.

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