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 This means that not only were the planes physically old, but their designs were outdated when compared to Russia’s main military rivals.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.