Friday’s NVO ran an interesting story on the procurement problems facing the Russian Air Force. The picture painted by the report contrasts starkly with the glowing promises made by Alexander Zelin, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Air Force, in a series of interviews back in August. The key points can be summarized as follows:
As a result of attrition of old aircraft combined with a lack of new acquisitions, the Russian Air Force currently has fewer than 500 combat airplanes that are capable of flight. From 1994 to 2003, the Russian Air Force did not receive any new combat airplanes. From 2004 to 2009, the Russia Air Force received only three new combat airplanes — one Tu-160 strategic bomber and two Su-34 strike aircraft.
This contrasts with General Zelin’s claims that by 2020 fully 70 percent of Russia’s aircraft will be new or modernized. New types of aircraft have faced numerous production delays. Sukhoi’s PAK FA, the next generation of Russian strike aircraft, is a good example. Design on this aircraft began in 2002, with a goal of beginning test flights of a prototype aircraft in 2007. In 2007, it was announced that there would be a delay, but three prototype aircraft would be constructed and flying by 2009. As I write this in late October 2009, official estimates indicate that one prototype may be ready for flight in 2010, though continuing problems with engine design may lead to further postponements.
The Su-34 strike aircraft has faced similar problems. The introduction of this new aircraft, originally designed in the 1980s, has been mired in delays. The first test flight of the prototype took place back in 1990, but due to lack of financing and construction problems the first unit did not actually enter service until August 2007. Since then, mass production of the aircraft has been continually pushed back and few have actually entered active service. Given this history of construction delays, the goal of having 70 Su-34s in the air force by 2015 and 200 by 2020 appears more and more unrealistic.
Most of the numerous modernization programs for existing aircraft that have been mentioned by air force officials over the years have either never happened or have been ineffective in improving the aircrafts’ capabilities. For example, the recent modernization of SU-24, SU-25, and SU-27 aircraft was mostly focused on new electronics, while retaining old armaments developed largely in the 1970s and not really suitable for combat against more advanced opponents. Furthermore, new electronics may not help if the aircraft in which they are placed have a limited lifespan due to age and suffering from limited maintenance and exposure to the elements during the 1990s.
All of these problems with modernization and procurement are the result of a broken and decaying military industrial complex. In the 1990s, the physical plant of most Russian defense industry enterprises decayed as the result of a lack of financing. At the same time, most of the best-qualified specialists retired, were laid off, or left for other fields with better economic prospects. Because of the lack of qualified personnel, defense enterprises have had difficulty keeping to production timelines and the end products have often had significant defects. This has been a particular problem with advanced weapons and weapon platforms, such as aircraft and combat ships. (The most well-publicized example is the Bulava SLBM, which has repeatedly failed test launches due to substandard components.)
The end result is that, much like the Russian Navy, the Russian Air Force is facing the likelihood of further decay in its capabilities, to the extent that its commander in chief is raising the possibility that in the near future it will not be able to fulfill the missions delegated to it by the General Staff.