Category Archives: Air Forces

Parlous State of VTA (Revisited)

A reader’s query for more on VTA elicited this response from yours truly. It goes beyond transport aircraft and might be worth sharing.

The An-124 was devised at a time when Moscow wanted to compete with Washington throughout the Third World. The Il-76 was more generally useful. Built to service the VDV but good for lots of uses. Just limited in what it could carry. Falichev had surprisingly little to say about the Il-76MD-90A or Il-76MDM — programs that may be struggling. As if there weren’t way too much on the plate already, VTA also has to think about a new medium transport possibly the Il-114 or Il-214 (Il-276). And lots of Il-112V to replace An-12s and An-26s.

With all the attention on S-400s, Kinzhals, and 100-megaton nuclear torpedoes, it’s easy to overlook basics of military power that can be used — things like transport aircraft. Fact is Russia having trouble coming up with the money and industrial capability to produce nuclear subs, new tanks, the Su-57, transports, etc. At least on any reasonable timetable. Hence all the media focus on wonder weapons to deter the U.S. Today’s Kremlin may very well find itself headed for the same dead end as in the 1980s — unable to find the resources for full-spectrum superpower arms racing.

This isn’t to say Russia can’t be a smart effective competitor. It definitely can, witness Syria and Ukraine. But as it continues the greater the danger its reach will exceed its grasp. Have you seen the transport ships it has used on the “Syrian express?” It’s nothing short of miraculous that an An-124 or Il-76 hasn’t crashed. But one will.

But there has to be some net assessment here — we ain’t in no great shape ourselves.

Nevertheless, Russia defense industry seems to have hit a wall in many respects. How many times can you modify the same old anti-tank gun from 1984? Each mod is only marginally more effective in combat. But it supports an illusion of progress.

Saying the Russians can’t do everything isn’t sexy but it is a necessary tonic. They can do plenty but there isn’t much focus on their problems and limitations because they themselves don’t speak about them (at least out loud and to us).

Advertisements

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.

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.

Su-57

Su-57

The Russian Aerospace Forces celebrated the 105th anniversary of their founding today.

From VKS CINC General-Colonel Viktor Bondarev, we learned yesterday that the Future Aviation System Frontal Aviation (PAK FA or ПАК ФА) will be officially known as the Su-57.

At MAKS, it was announced that state joint testing of the “first phase” fighter is concluding. Sukhoy is beginning production of 12 fifth generation Su-57 fighters which will reach front-line units in 2019. But OAK President Yuriy Slyusar admitted publicly that the first 12 will have the “first phase” engine.

PAK FA first flew at Komsomolsk-na-Amure on January 29, 2010.

Interfaks-AVN offered the following recap of Su-57 capabilities: a fundamentally new and deeply integrated avionics system providing a high level of automated control and decisionmaking support to the pilot, supercruise without afterburners, low observability from radar, optical, acoustic, and other detection means, supermaneuverability, and relatively short take-off and landing.

Not Necessarily New

Rossiyskaya gazeta reports the first Russian Tu-160M2 airframe has reached final assembly at Tupolev’s Kazan Aircraft Plant (KAZ). But it may not necessarily be new or significantly different from the last Tu-160 / Blackjack produced at KAZ.

RG picked up the story of the first Tu-160M2 from Kazan-based news service Biznes Online which follows plant newspaper Vpered.

The fourth series Tu-160 Valentin Bliznyuk (photo PAO Tupolev)

The fourth Tu-160 Valentin Bliznyuk (photo: PAO Tupolev)

Assembly of bombers at KAZ ended in 1992 with four airframes “in reserve” in various stages of production. Two were completed in 2000 and 2008 with two left unfinished at the factory.

The “Reserve”

For many years, Russian defense industries depended on their Soviet “reserve” [задел]. The “reserve” could be anything from materials to parts to money to technical know-how that helps an enterprise survive lean times. In many instances, they were wartime mobilization supplies. The “reserve” grew out of the Soviet command economy in which a factory would hoard extra resources to use against future production plans. But, over the years, defense industries steadily depleted whatever Soviet-era “reserve” they had. Another classic case of the “reserve” is Sevmash using unfinished Akula-class SSN hull sections to build the first three Borey-class SSBNs.

KAZ management readily admits the bomber bearing factory number 804 is not a full-blooded Tu-160M2. It’s a chance for the factory and its personnel to prove they can renew production of what is surely one of the most complex Russian weapons systems.

The plant has reestablished its vacuum annealing and electron beam welding processes to fabricate Tu-160 airframes. But the Tu-160M2 will depend on many subsystems, components, and parts from a large number of suppliers.

New avionics, navigation, weapons control, and electronic warfare systems aren’t due until series production. The bomber’s principal weapon, a new long-range, high-speed “smart” cruise missile known as Kh-BD, remains in development.

Production of updated NK-32-02 turbofan engines, which has only just begun at PAO Kuznetsov in Samara, could be the most difficult task. In early 2016, Biznes wrote that the company needed to make five engines that year, and 22 per year starting this year. However, it reported that Kuznetsov is “not in very good condition.”

For these reasons, KAZ workers themselves are skeptical about successfully resurrecting bomber production, according to Biznes.

RG indicated Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov stated in early 2017 the initial Tu-160M2 would come from the factory’s “reserve” and be ready for flight testing in 2018. Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Yuriy Borisov has also said early 2018. According to Interfaks-AVN, Tupolev announced an “experimental” Tu-160M2 would fly in 2019.

Biznes indicated completely new Tu-160M2 bombers — not Soviet legacy airframes — might not appear until 2020, reaching a rate of three per year by 2023. 

Interviewed by Krasnaya zvezda while visiting KAZ in early May, Borisov fully reiterated Russia’s plans for its strategic bombers: all existing Tu-160, Tu-95MS, and Tu-22M3 will be modernized, 50 Tu-160M2 will be produced, and the prospective PAK DA will fly in 2025-2026 and enter production in 2028-2029.

For its part, in its recent “Russia [sic] Military Power” publication, U.S. military intelligence notes:

“. . . all existing Tu-160s will be upgraded to Tu-160M1 or M2. Russia has announced that it will resume production of Tu-160M2 bombers and complete development of a new generation bomber (Russian designation: PAK-DA) within a decade . . . .”

The report allows that “timelines for both programs may slip if financial difficulties arise.”

But such troubles arose two or three years ago and Moscow’s economic woes make ambitious, if not grandiose, strategic bomber programs unaffordable. The burden of upgrading every existing bomber while developing a new one like the B-2 will be incompatible with declining defense budgets.

Yet strategic nuclear forces are an undeniable priority for the Kremlin and bombers figure as something of a hedge against U.S. missile defense systems.

Russian President Vladimir Putin loves the impression bombers make. In 2007, he restarted regular strategic bomber patrols along NATO borders to signal Russian intent to become more assertive abroad.

Well-worn shot of Putin before his 2005 flight in a Tu-160 (photo Kremlin.ru)

Well-worn shot of Putin before his 2005 flight in a Tu-160 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

He has also sent Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela and Nicaragua in a show-the-flag campaign. The Tu-160 flew its first combat mission over Syria in 2015.

Taking Stock of Russian Acquisition

Novyye izvestiya interviewed Ruslan Pukhov last week.  He has some perspectives on Russian military procurement we’ve heard before, and some we haven’t.

NI asked the CAST director if the U.S. Tomahawk strike on Shayrat would hurt Russia’s exports of air defense systems.  He said no, for all the obvious reasons.

More interestingly, Pukhov said air defense equipment typically represents 10-20 percent of Russia’s annual arms exports.  This could rise in coming years, he stated, due to future sales of the S-400 to “China and other countries.”

Ruslan Pukhov

Ruslan Pukhov

Asked how Russian weapons have performed in Syria, Pukhov responded:

“The Syrian campaign has made a good advertisement for Russian arms, particularly for new types of Russian combat aircraft (Su-30SM, Su-35 and especially Su-34) and helicopters (Mi-28N and Ka-52), but also for precision munitions — cruise missiles and aircraft ordnance.  Therefore it’s possible to expect growing interest from foreign buyers and growing sales in these segments.  The negative side one can draw from the actions of the Russian grouping in Syria is, first and foremost, the insufficient capability of its technical reconnaissance systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles and space systems.  The quantity of precision weapons is still insufficient.  The precision arms themselves in a number of cases require additional development.  There is still a lot of work ahead, but the main thing is that the Syrian campaign has allowed for revealing these deficiencies and partially eliminating them.  Meanwhile the cost of acquiring this priceless experience has been relatively low.”

Of course, the cost is only low if you’re not in the crossfire in Syria.

NI asked Pukhov if Russian weapons are better today or are they still based on old Soviet ones.  He answered:

“There is progress, but a large part of equipment, including what is being produced and bought now, still depends precisely on the Soviet legacy.  The weapons systems of a really new generation (the T-50 fighter, ‘Armata’ tank, new generation armor) remain in development and still haven’t gotten to the serial production stage.  But we have to understand that the creation of new generation armaments in any case involves many years – the cycle is 10-15-20 years from the start of R&D to the real achievement of combat capability in series models in troop units.  Considering that in Russia significant financing of defense and the OPK began only after 2005, and on a really large-scale only after 2010, then you really can’t expect any other result.  If there’s success in financing at the necessary level, then after 2020 the arrival of platforms and systems of a really new generation will begin.”

And how have economic problems and sanctions affected the OPK?

“The crisis still doesn’t directly affect the OPK.  Even with a sharp contraction in federal budget revenue and eight years of economic stagnation, state defense order financing has been preserved at a high level, and it will begin to drop only from 2017.  But not because of economic difficulties, but in connection with saturating the troops with new and modern equipment.  From another side, sometimes the conditions of GOZ price formation turn out so severe for enterprises that it sometimes leads to GOZ contracts being fulfilled at the limit of profitability.”

“The full action of sanctions began to be felt from 2015.  Because the non-supply of a number of components from Ukraine and Western countries already caused a shift in the completion of a number of programs, the most well-known instances are connected with the construction of project 11356 and 22350 frigates, but also project 20385 corvettes, on which Ukrainian gas turbines and German diesels, in turn, were replaced.  In addition, sanctions complicated the purchase of Western-produced equipment by Russian enterprises, and, most importantly, its licensed maintenance. And as practice has shown, analogues from China and other countries don’t always meet the quality standards we need.  By 2018, the import substitution program will allow for covering 80-90% of imported items, and finally, imports will be replaced by 2020.”

The State of VTA

News on the Il-76MD-90A program provides an opportunity to look at the state of Russia’s VTA, or Military-Transport Aviation.

il-76md-90a-prototype-prepares-for-takeoff

Il-76MD-90A prototype prepares for takeoff

The Il-76MD-90A is a new aircraft, an updated version of the venerable Il-76 transport produced by the Soviets in large numbers during the 1970s and 1980s.

According to most sources, the VTA is supposed to acquire 39 Il-76MD-90A transports by 2020 [or 2021?].  This may have been slashed to 30, others say.  Manufacturer Aviastar-SP reports it has ten of the aircraft in various stages of assembly.

The new transport was at TsAGI in Moscow recently for static structural testing. Prior to that, it conducted flight tests from the Aviastar-SP production facility at Ulyanovsk-Vostochnyy.

Besides new PS-90 engines, the Il-76MD-90A has an all-glass digital cockpit, new flight controls, navigation, and communication systems.  The airframe and landing gear have been reinforced.  It lifts 60 tons while reportedly consuming less fuel.

The original Il-76 had slightly greater cargo capacity than the U.S. C-141.  It’s critical to the mobility of Russia’s Airborne Troops (VDV) and their air-droppable equipment.  Civilian versions of the Il-76 remain in use worldwide.

At present, VTA may operate about 100 Il-76M or Il-76MD, and perhaps ten An-124 transports.  But the number of operational aircraft could be as low as 60 Il-76 variants and a handful of An-124. 

At the outset of the current GPV in 2011, the air forces hoped to procure 100 or more new and updated heavy transport aircraft.  The current inventory needs complete replacement in the 2020s and early 2030s.  But they have relatively little to show well into 2017.

Together with 39 (or 30?) Il-76MD-90A transports, VTA plans to acquire 30 Il-76MDM aircraft.  It’s a renovated Il-76MD with its original engines but the glass cockpit and other updates from the Il-76MD-90A.

Cooperation with the Antonov design bureau and its production facilities is off the table now that military-industrial ties with Ukraine have been severed. Observers once looked for Russia’s VTA to buy 30-50 An-70 transports and the same number of Il-76MD variants and updates.

They also anticipated that Moscow would buy 20 new An-124 aircraft and modernize quite a few existing ones.  No alternative for replacing the super-heavy transport has been proffered.

The PAK TA (future aircraft system — transport aviation) remains a mirage. Moscow could mobilize Aviastar-SP to renew production of the An-124, but it would require a lot of resources and time, plus the facility will already have its hands full with the Il-76MD-90A, etc.

There is also the question of VTA’s smaller transports which are ancient and in dire need of replacement.  The MOD has settled on procurement of 48 turboprop Il-112V aircraft in GPV 2018-2025 to replace some of its aged An-26 fleet.  This decision came after it abandoned efforts to get Antonov’s An-140.  The Russians reportedly will continue to develop the turbojet Il-214 medium transport despite India’s decision to bow out of the once joint effort.  But there’s little tangible in this program to date.