Reviving the Russian Air Force

The Russian Air Force appears to have turned a corner on procurement, having received 40 new airplanes and 127 new helicopters in the last year. For the first time, the entire aviation procurement plan appears to have been fulfilled. The winged aircraft include 10 Su-34s, 6 Su-35s, 2 Su-30SMs, and over 20 Yak-130s. There’s no detailed breakdown of helicopters, though the bulk are probably Mi-28N and Ka-52s. This is an improvement on 2011, when 31 fixed-wing aircraft and over 50 helicopters were procured. Given that in 2010, the numbers were 23 and 37, respectively, we are seeing a positive trend in procurement of military aviation. It will probably still be tricky for the aircraft industry to reach the stated State Armament Program goal of delivering 1,120 helicopters and 600 fixed-wing aircraft by 2020, but reaching 70 percent of that target by 2020 seems quite doable, with the rest arriving by 2025 at the latest.

Ilya Kramnik has recently analyzed what the recent success in procurement means for the Russian air force. He notes that with the new aircraft, the Russian air force will have greater range, both because of the characteristics of the aircraft themselves and because they will all have the capacity for in-flight refueling. The new aircraft will also increase the air force’s ability to attack targets on the ground, as they will all be capable of using high precision weapons against ground targets. This capability will be augmented by an increase in the procurement of precision-guided munitions in coming years. Kramnik also notes the modernization of education and training for air force pilots, including the acquisition of modern flight simulators and an increase in average flight time to 100 hours per year.

Kramnik notes some remaining problems, including the need to improve infrastructure at air bases and the modernization of critical capabilities for supporting combat aircraft, including refueling, reconnaissance, AWACS, and electronic warfare aircraft. Without such aircraft, even the most modern combat aircraft cannot function effectively. In conclusion, Kramnik advocates the conversion of existing commercial aircraft (such as Il-62 and Il-86 jets currently in storage) into tankers, a process that could be done more quickly than building a sufficient number of new refueling aircraft and could give the air force 30-40 additional tankers by the end of the current decade. He argues that without this type of conversion program, this quantity of tankers could only be reached by the late 2020s, and even then only at the expense of a number of transport and AWACS aircraft. Such a program would allow each air base to have its own detachment of tankers.

All in all, Russia’s military aviation  industry is in pretty good shape. Russian strike aircraft are already of fairly high quality, with the main problems revolving around the age of the air frames rather than their capabilities. Sukhoi and Irkut have already shown themselves capable of producing new aircraft in a relatively timely manner. There are some questions concerning the feasibility of the development timelines for the T-50 fifth-generation fighter plane and the extent to which the plane will be equipped with true fifth-generation components, but every country that has sought to develop a fifth-generation fighter plane has run into delays. The essential point that the Russian military will have a fifth-generation strike fighter in serial production sometime in the next decade is beyond doubt. There are, however, questions about the future of MiG, which did not provide any new planes for the Russian air force last year or the year before.

As Kramnik highlights, what’s most needed is the revitalization of less glamorous parts of the aviation industry, especially transport and refueling aircraft. These are areas in which the air force has struggled to maintain capabilities in the post-Soviet period. The construction of new production lines for these types of aircraft will go a long way toward the MOD’s stated goals of making the Russian military more mobile and extending the range of its attack aircraft through aerial refueling. The MOD seems to be cognizant of this need and is going forward with projects to build these types of support aircraft.

 

Russian air force procurement plans

Not long ago, the Russian Air Force was in really bad shape. Almost all of its planes were 20-25 years old, outdated, and  in poor condition. It’s therefore not at all surprising that the State Armament Program made procurement of new aircraft a priority, with a total investment of 4 trillion rubles in that sector alone. In this week’s VPK, CAST’s Andrei Frolov and Mikhail Barabanov discuss these plans.

Some of the largest investments are in military transport aircraft. Frolov and Barabanov mention contracts in place to purchase 20 An-124 heavy transport aircraft starting in 2015, 39 Il-476 (aka Il-76MD-90A) heavy transport aircraft starting in 2014, 11 An-140 light transport aircraft (2 of which have already been delivered), and up to 30 Czech L-410UVP light transport aircraft (7 of which have already been delivered). In addition, there are plans to purchase up to 50 Il-214 MTA multi-role transportation aircraft, which are expected to be ready for production by 2016, and up to 20 An-148 passenger transport planes. Finally, 41 Il-76s and 20 An-124s will undergo modernization. Frolov and Barabanov mention the possibility of a tender for up to 100 Il-112 light transport planes, though this seems unlikely to me given that the MOD has previously rejected this plane in favor of the Antonov design.

The military is also planning to buy up to 30 refueling planes that will be based on the Il-476. There are also plans to buy an unspecified number of A-100 AWACS planes, which are currently under development, and 4 Tu-204 reconnaissance planes. These will serve in conjunction with 12 modernized A-50 AWACS planes and 10 modernized MiG-25RB reconnaissance planes.

In terms of strike aircraft, the air force is placing a big bet on the T-50 fifth generation strike fighter. Sixty of these planes are expected to be procured starting in 2016 (originally planned for 2014). While four T-50 prototypes are already being tested by the air force, by all indications new engines and advanced electronic systems (and especially its avionics) are not yet ready. This may lead to another round of delays in serial production.

While waiting for the T-50, the air force is receiving new S-35S “generation 4++” strike aircraft, 48 of which were ordered in 2009 for delivery through 2015. Four have been received to date. Barabanov and Frolov believe that an additional 48 or 72 Su-35′s may be ordered once the current order is complete. The air force is also slated to receive 30 Su-30SM fighters by 2015, with an option for an additional 30 planes. The first two of these have already been received. The Russian military has also received 4 Su-30M2s and 12 Su-27SM3s in the last couple of years, but is not planning to acquire any more planes of either type. Older planes are being modernized, including a total of 120 Su-25s (50 already upgraded) and 120 MiG-31s (at least 25 to be completed by the end of 2012).

In addition to the fighters, the air force has ordered 129 Su-34 fighter-bombers to be delivered by 2020, with an option for at least another 18. Fifteen of these planes have already been delivered. In the meantime, the air force is continuing to modernize its existing stock of Su-24s, with 50 already modernized and 50 to be upgraded before 2020.

In terms of training aircraft, 18 Yak-130s have been delivered as of October 2012, with another 49 on order and an option for another 10. The air force is also purchasing 12 Su-25UBM two-seaters that will likely be used for training.

By comparison, long-range aviation will get very little over the next decade. There are no plans to complete the two or three remaining Tu-160 strategic bombers whose production was started back in the Soviet period. Discussions about designs for a new long range bomber are continuing, but it remains uncertain whether the military will decide one is needed any time soon. In any case, production of new long range bombers would not start until after 2020. The only contracts in this sector are for modernization, including 30 Tu-22M3 bombers, 14-16 Tu-160 bombers, and up to 30 Tu-95MS bombers.

In terms of rotary-wing aircraft, there are contracts in place for 167 Mi-28N (45 already delivered),  180 Ka-52, and 49 Mi-35M (10 already delivered) attack helicopters. Transport helicopter orders include 38 Mi-26 heavy lift helos. Six have already been delivered and another 22 may be ordered in the future. Up to 500 Mi-8s of various types will be purchased. These are currently being produced at a rate of 50 per year. There are also contracts in place for 36 Ka-226 (6 already delivered) and 32 Ansat-U (16 delivered) light transport helicopters. Additional contracts for 38 Ansat-U and up to 100 Ka-62 helicopters may be placed in the near term. There is also discussion of the possibility of purchasing 100-200 Eurocopters for training purposes, though I personally find this unlikely.

To summarize all this, here’s a table that shows Frolov and Barabanov’s view of what the air forces will look like in 2020:

  New Modernized Old
Strategic and long range bombers none 16 Tu-160

36 Tu-95MS

30 Tu-22M3

20 Tu-95MS

70 Tu-22M3

Military transport and refueling aviation 39 Il-476

30 Il-478 (refueling)

60 An-70

50 MTA (Il-214)

30 L-410

20 An-148

10 An-140-100

100 light transport

3 Tu-154M

20 An-124-100

41 Il-76MDM

4 An-124

60 Il-76MD

20 Il-78 (refueling)

5 An-22

at least 20 An-26/30

at least 10 Tu-154B

at least 10 Tu-134UBL

Special purpose aircraft 2 Tu-204ON

2 Tu-204R

at least 5 A-100

at least 10 Il-20

at least 10 Il-22

12 A-50U

None
Tactical aviation 60 T-50

120 Su-35S

60 Su-30SM

4 Su-30M2

12 Su-27SM3

34 MiG-29SMT/UBM

140 Su-34

12 Su-25UBM

80 Yak-130

120 MiG-31BM

55 Su-27SM

120 Su-24M/MR

10 MiG-25RB

150 Su-25SM

150 Su-27

100 MiG-29

50 Su-24M/MR

50 Su-25

100 L-39

Army aviation 167 Mi-28N/NM

180 Ka-52

49 Mi-35M

38 Mi-26T/T2

500 Mi-8MTV/AMTSh

100 Ka-62

70 Ansat-U

36 Ka-226

100 light helos

30 Mi-24PN

20 Mi-VMTKO

20 Mi-26T

10 Ka-50

100 Mi-24V/P

300 Mi-8T/MTV

20 Mi-2

For those who read Cyrillic, here’s the (much prettier) Russian language version from their article.

Тысяча боевых самолетов к 2020 году

I would suggest treating this as the upper bound of what the Air Force could potentially have in 2020. Delays in production are almost certain to lead to reductions on the left side of the table, while inability to keep old aircraft in working condition will most likely decrease the numbers on the right side as well.

One final point — the authors of the VPK article argue that the greatest problem facing the air force by the end of the decade will be not a lack aircraft, but a lack of modern armaments for these aircraft. They argue that the air force will continue to lack air-to-air missiles with active radar guidance, smart bombs, and missiles with satellite guidance systems. They also believe that the Russian military will continue to lag well behind in UAV development.

I am actually expecting the Russian military by 2020 to somewhat decrease the gap in both precision guided munitions and UAVs when compared to Western militaries. Its capabilities won’t be anywhere near those of the United States, but they will be closer to it than they are now. This is because Russian defense industry in these two sectors are actually in pretty good shape and have some good designs that could be put into production fairly quickly.

So my takeway from all this is that in eight years the Russian air force will have lots of new planes, though not quite as many as they hope, and that these planes will be somewhat better armed than they are now.

 

Predictions on future Russian air force procurement

In a post on his blog, Ilya Kramnik today made a set of predictions regarding upcoming procurement plans for the Russian air force. Here’s a translation:

Combat aircraft:

  • a second contract for 48 Su-35s in 2014 or 2015, with deliveries in 2016-20.
  • a second contract for 24-32  Su-30SMs for naval aviation in 2013-2014, with deliveries in 2015-18.
  • accepting the option on 16 more Su-34s, in addition to 124 already ordered, with deliveries through 2020. An additional large contract may be concluded after 2015, so that the air force has a total of 180-200 Su-34s by 2025.
  • a contract for 48-72 MiG-35s in 2014-15, with deliveries through 2020. Without such a contract, MiG may have to be shut down.
  • a second contract for 12-16 MiG-29Ks for naval aviation is also likely.
  • a contract for 32-40 Su-25SM(or TM)/UBMs, with deliveries in 2017-22.
  • two contracts for T-50 fifth-generation fighter jets. First one would be 8-12 aircraft for the Lipetsk combat training center. That contract is likely to be concluded in 2013, with deliveries in 2014-16. A second contract for 40-60 aircraft is likely to be concluded in 2015, with deliveries scheduled for 2016-22.

Transport and special aircraft:

  • Contract for 30-40 Il-76MD-90As in 2013, with deliveries in 2016-20.
  • Contract for 10 An-124-300s in 2015, with deliveries in 2018-22.
  • Contract for 30-40 An-70s in 2015, with deliveries in 2019-25.
  • 25-30 special purpose Tu-204/214s, with deliveries in 2015-25.
  • Contract for 100 multi-functional transport aircraft in 2015, with delivery of the first 30 in 2019-25.
  • Contract for 40 light transport aircraft in 2015, with deliveries in 2019-24. Strong possibility that these will be foreign aircraft, such as the Italian C-27J Spartan, assembled in Russia under license.

Kramnik further notes that the recent discussion of delays in fulfillment of the State Armaments Program will most likely affect the air force least and the navy the most. I tend to agree. The aircraft industry is in much better shape than the shipbuilding industry (or the tank/artillery industries, for that matter). And the Russian military is less likely to scale back its ambitions for the air force than it is for the navy, which has already largely been consigned to the role of a coastal protection force for the foreseeable future. A delay in the development and construction of new destroyers won’t really affect the functioning of the navy too much at this point (given its current set of missions), as long as it can get its corvettes and frigates more or less on time and the Borei strategic submarines still get built.

Aircraft sales do provide the largest part of the Russian defense industry’s export earnings, however. So the question that arises for me is whether the industry will have the capacity to build all these aircraft in the expected time frame. Here we should distinguish between MiG, which (as Kramnik indicates) is desperate for orders in the aftermath of losing the Indian MMRCA tender, and Sukhoi, which has lots of orders for both the Russian military and foreign customers. Will Sukhoi be able to build all those planes at the same time? Possibly, but it will depend to some extent on the company’s success in modernizing its production facilities.

The death of Tupolev

To continue the aircraft theme of the last few weeks, I just read a very informative article by Ruslan Pukhov that appeared in last week’s NVO. In this article, Pukhov contrasts the state of Russian aircraft design bureaus that have successfully made the transition to the post-Soviet economic environment, such as Sukhoi and (to a lesser extent) MiG, with those that haven’t, such as Ilyushin and (especially) Tupolev.

One might have expected quite the opposite situation, as MiG and Sukhoi designed aircraft exclusively for the military during the Soviet period, while Ilyushin and Tupolev combined military and commercial aviation. Given the complete lack of government financing for military procurement during the 1990s, one might have thought that a greater diversity of projects and clientele might have helped the latter two companies to come out of the 1990s in better shape than the purely military design bureaus.

Pukhov describes the many false starts made by Tupolev in its efforts to remain competitive in the commercial aircraft industry, including such recent howlers as a proposal for in-flight refueling of passenger aircraft. But the main source of its problems resulted from an inability to launch full serial production of its Tu-204/214 medium-range passenger airliner, which was designed in the late 1980s and has now become somewhat outdated. The situation was made worse by Tupolev’s difficulties in servicing these aircraft. Other potential projects, such as the Tu-334 regional jet and the supersonic Tu-444 business jet have fared even worse. The Tu-334 was recently canceled with only two prototypes built after two decades of effort, while the Tu-444 is unlikely to ever move beyond the concept stage. As a result, Tupolev seems poised to be completely shut out of the commercial airliner market in the very near future

Tupolev’s position in military procurement is not much better. Tupolev’s core military business was in long range and strategic bombers. While there are ongoing plans to modernize existing aircraft, these programs are proceeding very slowly. Pukhov believes that if the military ever decides to develop a new long range bomber, it is unlikely that Tupolev would get the contract for this work. Tupolev’s Soviet-era efforts to develop UAVs is largely useless for the types of missions required of 21st century UAVs. There is no chance that Russian efforts to design UAVs would be based on Tupolev’s experience in this field.

By contrast, Sukhoi in the last decade has not only developed a number of successful new combat aircraft, but has also entered the commercial aircraft market with the SSJ-100. The difference between these manufacturers goes a long way toward explaining the differences in the Russian military’s ability to relatively quickly restore the potential of its combat aircraft, versus the problems it is having in modernizing its transport aviation and developing an indigenous UAV capability. As Pukhov argues in his conclusion, the failure of companies such as Tupolev and Ilyushin to adapt has opened the door for new entrants to take over the commercial and military transport aircraft sectors. In addition to Sukhoi, the leading candidate for this role is Irkut, formerly just a manufacturing concern, which has now entered the design field with a new mid-range commercial airliner currently in developed and expected to enter production in 3-4 years. Tupolev, for its part, is likely to face closure in the next few years as United Aircraft Corporation consolidates its holdings.

 

Air force procurement plans part 3: transport and support aircraft

The Russian air force’s military transport aviation branch has been significantly expanded in recent years. In addition to its traditional troop transport function, it now also operates AWACS planes and is responsible for transporting airborne troops.

The mainstay of the existing transport fleet is the Il-76. The number of these actually in service is very hard to come by. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 86 to 210, with warfare.ru having estimates at the lower end of the range and flightglobal.com at the higher end. These aircraft still have 2-3 decades of life, so there is no need for a wholesale replacement, though they may all receive new engines at some point. There are also plans to buy 35-40 Il-476 planes, which are basically Il-76s with improved engines and electronics. Plans call for serial production of these to start in 2014, though there have been numerous delays as the result of the transfer of manufacturing of these planes from Tashkent to Ulyanovsk.

Transport aviation also operates a variety of Ukrainian-built Antonov planes, largely left over from the Soviet days. Plans to replace them with more modern variants have been in flux over recent years. They include 39 (or less believably 140) An-12s, which were recently grounded after a civilian An-12 crashed in Magadan following an engine fire. Lighter planes include 60-80 An-24/26 variants and around 100 An-2s that were previously subordinated to the Airborne troops. Plans to replace the An-24/26s with up to 70 new Il-112s were suspended in May 2011 in favor of a purchase of just 7 An-140s from Ukraine.

Heavy lift planes include 5-6 An-24s and approximately 15-20 An-124s. While there were previously plans to restart production of An-124s, these have been suspended in favor of modernizing the existing fleet. There has also been some on-again off-again interest in buying medium range An-70 planes from Ukraine. Most recently, this seems to be back on, with as many as 60 planes ordered for 2015-16 delivery.

The Russian military has a severe shortage of refueling planes, with only 20 or so Il-78 tankers available. Most of these are committed to serving long range aviation, which limits their ability to train with combat and transport aircraft. There are currently no known plans to increase this capability.

In terms of AWACS planes, transport aviation now operates 12 A-50 aircraft, including one modernized A-50U variant. A second is currently in the process of being modernized. In the medium term, the military plans to produce a new generation A-100 AWACS plane based on the Il-476.

Finally, I should briefly address the situation with trainer aircraft. They don’t really fit in with transport aviation, but there wasn’t any particularly good place to slot them in. The air force is currently in the middle of replacing its old L-39 Czechoslovakian trainers with Yak-130s. These are considered far superior to the older planes in their capabilities, especially in regard to training pilots to fly fourth and fifth generation combat aircraft. 72 Yak-130s have been ordered for delivery over the next few years, and a total of up to 200 may be built in the long term. Serial production began in 2009 and the first four were delivered in 2010. However, one of these new planes crashed in May 2010 because of a problem with its control systems, which led the planes to be grounded indefinitely and for production to be halted while the problems are resolved. It seems that flights have not yet resumed, though some reports indicate that 11 Yak-130s are now in service in the air force. In the end, there is no real alternative to this plane for the Russian air force.

 

 

Air force procurement plans part 2: Long range bombers

Compared to fighters and ground attack aircraft, the situation with Russia’s long range bombers looks quite dire. The current inventory consists of three kinds of aircraft:

  • 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers. These supersonic long range bombers were designed in the 1980s and have been in limited service since the 1990s. They have a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a range of over 12,000 km without in-flight refueling. They can be armed with either conventional cruise missiles or nuclear missiles.
  • 64 Tu-95MS strategic bombers. These turboprop long range bombers have been around since the 1950s, though the MS version currently in service was designed in the 1970s and built between 1982 and 1992. They have a maximum speed of 920 km/hour and a range of up to 15,000 km. They are generally armed with conventional cruise missiles such as the Kh-55 or Kh-555.
  • 93 Tu-22M3 long range supersonic bombers (with another 90 or so Tu-22M2 and M3 in long term storage. There are also 50-60 operated by naval aviation.) These planes were designed in the early 1970s and built between 1976 and the late 1980s. They have a maximum speed of 2000 km/hour and a range of up to 1800 6800 km and are armed with Kh-22 cruise missiles and/or free-fall bombs.

These planes were virtually inactive between 1993 and 2007, when continuous patrols were resumed. Since then, planes have been getting an average of 80-100 hours of flight time per year. While the 15 years of inactivity has somewhat extended the lifespan of the older airframes, lack of maintenance and aging equipment has made the need for modernization quite urgent. Currently, 4-6 Tu-95s and 2-3 Tu-160s are being modernized each year, primarily including improvements in targeting and navigational systems. Starting in 2013, the Tu-160s are supposed to receive new engines, which may further extend their lifespan. But Russian manufacturers have long had problems with aircraft engines, so I won’t be surprised if this refurbishment is delayed.

Until recently, another problem with Russia’s long range bombers was the lack of conventional guided weapons. The Kh-555 cruise missile, with a stated accuracy of 20 meters and a range of 2000-3500 km, is filling this gap. The Kh-101, with similar accuracy and a range of 5000-5500 km, is currently in testing. Both of these missiles will be used on both the Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers. There are no particular plans for purchases of new types of long range bombers. The PAK DA program is in development but, as Ilya Kramnik recently pointed out, the design has been assigned to the Tupolev design bureau. While it has a long and proud history of designing such bombers in the past, Tupolev has been in crisis for some years and currently lacks the staff and equipment to meet expectations.

Overall, Russia’s existing long range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least the next two decades, and the Tu-160s perhaps for three decades after the engine modernization is complete. So the military certainly has time on its side in terms of coming up with a new design for a next generation long range bomber.

Air Force procurement plans part 1: fighter aircraft

A long time ago, I promised some folks a report on the air force’s procurement plans for the coming decade. Various other projects pushed that to the back burner, but with MAKS 2011 fast approaching, now seems to be the time to resurrect it. The following is largely based on Anton Lavrov’s excellent chapter in the CAST center’s “Russia’s New Army” report. If you know Russian, I encourage you to go read the original. But if not, here’s my summary, with some additions based on developments since the report went to press.

Long term decay

The Russian Air Force received virtually no new planes or helicopters between 1995 and 2008. This means that by the start of the Medvedev presidency, even the most modern aircraft were 15-20 years old, while many were approaching 30. This means that not only were the planes physically old, but their designs were outdated when compared to Russia’s main military rivals. This means that almost none of them were equipped to use guided weapons. Furthermore, lack of money for maintenance meant that many aircraft were no longer in usable condition. Finally, lack of money for fuel meant that pilots did not receive adequate training to maintain or develop their skills, adding to the air force’s overall state of deterioration. These problems were exposed during the 2008 war in Georgia, when six planes were lost in five days. Furthermore, the air force was assessed to be ineffective in combat operations due to a combination of its lack of guided munitions and the pilots’ limited training.

Fighter and Ground Attack Aircraft

Throughout the post-Soviet period, the Russian air force’s combat forces have consisted primarily of five types of aircraft:

  • Su-24: The venerable Su-24 attack aircraft was introduced into the Soviet air force in 1974. According to warfare.ru, around 320 of these aircraft are in service in the Russian air force.
  • Su-25: close air support plane introduced in 1981. Approximately 200 in service.
  • Su-27:  fourth generation fighter plane introduced in 1984. Approximately 260 in service.
  • MiG-29: fourth generation fighter plane introduced in 1983. Approximately 190 in service.
  • MiG-31: interceptor introduced in 1982. Approximately 140 in service.

These planes will remain the primary combat aircraft in the Russian air force for the next decade. Some types have undergone significant modernization.

Between 2003 and 2008, 55 Su-27s were modernized to the Su-27SM variant, including the installation of new engines, which has substantially extended their expected lifespan. The modernized aircraft are based at the 6987th and 6989th air bases in the Far East. An additional 12 new Su-27SM3 aircraft were ordered from Sukhoi in 2009. Eight of these have already been delivered and the rest will be received by the end of 2011.

Relatively few MiG-31s have been modernized to the MiG-31BM version that includes improved avionics and navigation systems and better armament. Recent reports indicate that the defense ministry is preparing a contract to modernize another 30 MiG-31s to the MiG-31BM level.

Substantial purchases of new combat aircraft began in 2008, after a 15 year gap. Initially, the air force bought 28 MiG-29SMT and 6 MiG-29UBT planes, which had been sold to Algeria but were then rejected by the latter ostensibly due to problems with the planes’ quality. Despite these concerns, some analysts consider these aircraft to be highly capable because they are equipped with the most modern electronics and the best weapon systems of any aircraft in the Russian air force. An additional 26 MiG-29K aircraft are expected to be purchased in the next five years.

They are to be supplanted by the Su-35S fighter planes, 48 of which are to be procured in the next five years together with 4 Su-30M2 two-seater trainers. However, there have been significant delays in the development of the Su-35s. The first plane was made available for flight testing in May 2011, five months behind schedule, and the timetable for subsequent aircraft has likewise been extended. The delays have been caused by limited space for final assembly at the Komsomolsk assembly plant, which is busy assembling Sukhoi Superjets for the civilian market. Analysts expect another 24-48 Su-35s to be purchased in the near future.

Down the road, the T-50 is seen as the future of Russian fighter jets. This heavy fifth generation fighter is being developed jointly by Sukhoi and India’s HAL Corporation. The first test flight was conducted in January 2010. The goal is to procure 60 T-50s in the 2016-2020 time period. It is slated to fully replace the remaining Su-27s in the following decade.

However, there is no obvious replacement for the MiG-29 light fighter jets. The MiG-35‘s failure in the recent Indian MMRCA tender has left it with few prospects in either the domestic or export markets. In any case, it is not a next generation aircraft such as the American F-35, but merely an extension of the MiG-29 line.

The situation is somewhat worse for the modernization of Russia’s fighter-bombers. The air force has repeatedly declared that the Su-24 is to be replaced by the Su-34, which began development in the mid-1990s. After the first two aircraft were ordered in 2006, then defense minister Sergei Ivanov stated that 44 would be in service by 2010 and 200 by 2015, at which time all the Su-24s would be retired. However, only 6 Su-34s have actually been transferred to the air force as of the end of 2010, in addition to 5 prototypes that were built prior to 2006. Sukhoi seems to be on track to build 6-8 planes per year, which would allow the company to fulfill the 2008 contract for 32 planes by 2014, only a year or so behind schedule. The Russian press is reporting that contracts for another 80 Su-34s will be signed in the next few months. However, at the current rate of construction, it will still take 25 years to build all 200. Sukhoi would have to gradually double the rate of construction to get them built by 2025.

Because of the delays with the Su-34s, the air force has decided to modernize the existing Su-24Ms, rather than simply replacing them. An initial 30 planes were modernized to the Su-24M2 level, which features improved navigation and weapons control systems and improved armaments, in 2007-09. Further upgrades may occur in the future.

The air force has also been modernizing its Su-25 close air support planes. Between 2006 and 2010, a total of 40 aircraft were upgraded to the Su-25SM variant, which has improved avionics. Rather than buying or designing new planes, the air force has decided to extend the lifespan of its existing Su-25s to 40 years, allowing them to remain in service through 2030. In the meantime, the air force has ordered 16 Su-25UBM trainer planes, which will be received in the next 2-3 years.

However, the experience of the Georgia war has shown that the Su-25 is highly vulnerable to enemy fire, because it is armed with unguided munitions and therefore has to approach within 600 to 800 meters of targets if it is to have any chance of hitting them.  As a result, three Su-25s were lost and four damaged during the war. These losses should not have come as a surprise to the Russian military, as it sustained similarly high casualty rates on these planes in Afghanistan back in the 1980s. In a recent article, Ilya Kramnik argues that the solution is to restart building Su-25T (aka Su-39) aircraft, which are similar to the Su-25SMs but were designed to use guided munitions in any weather or light conditions. The Russian air force currently operates no more than six such planes, built in the 1980s and early 2000s.

Overall, the situation with fighter aircraft seems to be relatively good for the long term. Sukhoi (and to a much lesser extent MiG) is in fairly good shape and can continue to supply the air force with relatively modern planes as long as it continues to receive funding. The joint venture with India’s HAL Corporation may help in developing better electronic systems for the long term.