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 having estimates at the lower end of the range and 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.

Ground force missile procurement plans

I’m working on part two of air force procurement plans, but just came across a brief article in NVO on plans for conventional missile system procurement for the ground forces. This is from a statement by General Dmitry Bulgakov, deputy minister of defense. As with all official statements about procurement plans, these should be read as intentions, rather than any kind of statement of what will actually happen, especially in regard to delivery timelines.

  • 9K720  Iskander ballistic missile systems: 6 systems received in 2010. Plans to purchase a total of 120 by 2020.
  • 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missiles: 18 missile systems purchased in 2010. Plans to purchase 180 missile systems by 2020.
  • S-300 medium range missiles: 120 to be purchased by 2020 (not clear if these are to be S-300VM for the ground forces or S-300PMU for the air defense forces).
  • 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzers: 36 purchased in 2010. Total of 574 to be purchased by 2020.

Again, given the history of procurement delays, I would treat these numbers as aspirational, rather than realistic.

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, 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.

Problems of Post-Communism Announcement

The publisher of Problems of Post-Communism is pleased to announce that Dmitry P. Gorenburg has been appointed editor of the journal to complete the editorial term of the late Robert T. Huber of NCEEER. Problems of Post-Communism is a peer-reviewed publication that has always aimed for accessibility to a broad readership both inside and outside the academy. It offers timely coverage of the communist and post-communist world and is currently hoping to expand coverage of East and Southeast Asia in addition to its traditional strength from Central Europe to Russia to Central Asia. The journal invites online submissions and suggestions for future issues at