Russian stealth fighter will enhance air force capabilities

In June 2015, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the capabilities of new Russian aircraft. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT:The Russian T-50 fighter and PAK DA bomber.

SIGNIFICANCE:In early June, a series of high profile crashes involving Russian military planes led to Moscow grounding the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber fleet. Additionally, on June 4, a Su-34 strike fighter crashed near Voronezh and a MiG-29 crashed near the Caspian. Military leadership is hoping that the air force’s reliance on old systems will be solved by two new programmes: the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA and the PAKDA bomber.


  • Russia will continue high frequency of air activity over Baltic and North Sea regions.
  • Increasing numbers of European air forces will look to procure fifth-generation fighters to maintain approximate parity with Russia.
  • Shortage of refueling planes will be a concern for the Russian air force and may prove to be an Achilles’ heal.
  • One of the primary targets of the air force is a stealth fighter, in order to to maintain parity with the United States, a role which is sought for the T-50.


The Russian Air Force has been developing a fifth-generation fighter aircraft since the late 1980s. The PAK FA T-50, has been under development at Sukhoi for about 15 years. The first flight of a prototype aircraft took place in January 2010. A total of five prototype aircraft have been delivered over the last five years. It is expected that the jet will enter service in 2016.

Stealth abilities

This aircraft will be the first operational stealth aircraft operated by Russia. It is expected to be built at least in part out of composite materials, highly manoeuvrable, with supercruise capability and advanced avionics. It will initially use a variant of the Saturn 117 engine currently installed on the Su-35S. A new engine, Product 30, is to be ready for production no earlier than 2017 and will become the standard engine in the 2020s. This engine is supposed to provide 17-18% more thrust, improved fuel efficiency, and higher reliability than the existing engine.

While recently constructed prototypes have been equipped with advanced avionics, reports indicate that the T-50’s electronic components are likely to be upgraded further before serial production begins. The need for continued work on avionic equipment and engines means that the initial production run of the aircraft will retain fourth-generation characteristics and will be comparable to earlier US F-16/18s. The Russian air force will therefore not have a complete fifth-generation fighter until 2020 at the earliest.

F-22 and F-35 comparison

Russia generally compares the T-50 to the F-22, rather than to the F-35. The T-50 has cruising (Mach 1.7) and top (Mach 2.5) speeds that are comparable to the F-22, though it is designed to be significantly faster than the F-35, which has been tested to a top speed of Mach 1.6. The maximum range without refueling is also comparable to the F-22, at 2,000 kilometres, and slightly inferior to the F-35’s 2,200 kilometres. Service ceiling is also relatively comparable, at 20,000 metres for the F-22 and T-50 and over 18,000 metres for the F-35.

There are extensive debates among aviation specialists regarding the relative merits of the three aircraft. These debates are complicated by the lack of reliable information on the characteristics of final versions of various T-50 components, including in such key areas as engines and avionics. At the same time, there is some consensus that the T-50 is more manoeuvrable but less ‘stealthy’ than the F-35 and F-22. Because of this characteristic, the T-50 is expected to be slightly superior to US aircraft in air battles but less successful in attacking ground targets. However, these comparisons are being made based on real data about Western aircraft but only statements regarding the T-50. Given Russian officials’ track record of hiding problems and exaggerating the capabilities of new technology, it is possible, perhaps likely, that the T-50’s performance may not match expectations.

Cooperation with India has stalled

Since 2007, the T-50 project has included a two-seater version designed for the Indian Air Force and commonly known as the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). Original plans called for the production of 500 aircraft, with serial production to begin in 2015. Disagreements between the two sides have resulted in serious delays. The Indian side has complained that the aircraft’s engine is underpowered and unreliable, that problems with the airframe reduce the aircraft’s stealth features, that radar and other electronic systems are inadequate, that construction quality is poor, and that as a result of these defects the per unit cost is too high. As a result of these delays, India is expected to receive only three prototypes by 2017.

Procurement plans

Original plans called for the air force to receive 52 T-50 aircraft by 2020 and a total of 250 by 2030. However, officials have announced that due to the deteriorating economy, only twelve of these aircraft will be procured during the next five years. Four planes are expected to be produced during 2015, though these will still be considered prototypes. Therefore, the T-50 will not become a mainstay of the Russian air force in the foreseeable future.

Overall, it is unclear whether the Russian defence industry will be able to produce some of the advanced features on this aircraft, particularly in the areas of stealth technology, avionics and fifth-generation engines. Furthermore, the cost of the aircraft, estimated to be at least 50 million dollars per unit, may make large-scale procurement unaffordable given Russia’s current economic problems.

PAK DA bomber

Development of what is known as the PAKDA bomber began in 2007. Tupolev won the initial tender to design the new long-range bomber. By 2009, company officials were anticipating that the research and development phase would be complete in 2012, the engineering phase would be finished in 2017 and the Russian air force would have 100 PAK DA aircraft by 2027. Subsequently, there have been debates regarding the need for such a plane and its capabilities. In August 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin stated that any new strategic bomber will need to possess hypersonic technology to avoid falling behind the United States. This idea was later rejected in favor of a subsonic flying wing design with a long range and the ability to carry a heavy payload of weapons.

Long range

Given the lack of a prototype, there is little certainty about the plane’s design features. Experts believe that it is likely to have an initial weight of around 120-130 tons and a range of approximately 12,000 kilometres. Early indications that the two aircraft (T-50 and PAK DA) may also share engines appear to have been rejected in favour of an updated version of the engines found on the Tu-160. Last year, Russian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev said that the miltiary would start receiving the PAK DA in 2023. However, there have been indications that the timeline for developing a new bomber could possibly be pushed back, with some air force officials stating a potential in-service date range for the new plane of 2025 to 2030. The project is currently at the prototype design and construction stage.

CONCLUSION: The requirements of the air force will provide further stimulus to Russia’s defence industry import substitution scheme. As a result of Western sanctions and broken defence cooperation with Ukraine, Russia is embarking on an ambitious programme to make its defence industry self-sufficient within three years. However, increasingly the defence industry may be forced to retrench, returning to old designs and recycling components as it is unable to meet this ambitious target. The high cost of the T-50 fighter will eat into the overall budget, sapping chances for full-spectrum reforms.

Russian Air Force capabilities and procurement plans

And here is the last installment of my three Oxford Analytica briefs on Russian military procurement plans. This one was originally published on October 20, 2014. As with the others (on the Navy and Ground Forces), I have not updated the content, though I have restored some material that was cut from the published version due to space constraints.


As part of the State Armament Programme (SAP-2020), the Russian Air Force is set to receive a large number of new aircraft and to modernise at least half of those aircraft that are not being replaced. The service is strongest in combat aircraft, while transport and refuelling aircraft remain a weak point. Russia was relatively late in starting to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), though some progress is now being made in this area. Increases in transport capabilities will increase the mobility of the Russian military, though they will continue to lag well behind those of NATO competitors and will only be sufficient to make part of the Russian military a mobile force capable of rapid response.


  • The next generation of Russian combat aircraft will be broadly comparable to fifth-generation US fighter planes
  • Russian long-range bombers will continue their recently increased deployment patterns, patrolling near the borders of NATO states
  • Greater in-air refuelling capabilities will extend bomber ranges but will be insufficient fully to meet all Russian tactical aviation needs
  • Violations of NATO and other Western airspaces to test response times and radar/intelligence capabilities of host countries will increase

ANALYSIS: Despite the decay of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian Air Force remains the second largest in the world. It has approximately 2,500 aircraft in service, 75-80% of which are operational. Since the 2009 reform, the Air Force has been divided among over 60 bases, each of which reports to one of four operational strategic commands. The Russian Army and Navy are undergoing similar rearmament/reform programmes.


Throughout the post-Soviet period, Russia’s air combat forces have consisted primarily of six types of aircraft:

  • The venerable Su-24 strike aircraft was introduced into the Soviet Air Force in 1974. It is gradually being replaced by the Su-34, though approximately 100 remain in service.
  • The Su-25 close air support aircraft was introduced in 1981; about 150 are in service.
  • The fourth-generation Su-27 fighter was introduced in 1984; about 350 are in service.
  • A modernised version of the Su-27, the Su-30 was introduced in 1992; about 45 are in service.
  • The fourth-generation MiG-29 fighter was introduced in 1983; about 250 are in service.
  • The MiG-31 interceptor was introduced in 1982; about 130 are in service and operational.

New aircraft have been received as well, primarily 35 Su-35 ‘fourth-plus-plus-generation’ fighters and 46 Su-34 strike aircraft. These planes will remain the primary combat aircraft in the Russian Air Force for the next decade.


The current inventory of long-range bombers consists of three types:

  • The 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers are supersonic long-range bombers designed in the 1980s that have been in limited service since the 1990s. They have a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a range of over 12,000 kilometres (km). They can be armed with either conventional cruise missiles or nuclear missiles.
  • The 32 operational Tu-95MS strategic bombers are turboprop planes that have been in service since the 1950s, though the version currently in service was built in the 1980s. These have a maximum speed of 920 km/hour and a range of 15,000 km. They are armed with conventional cruise missiles.
  • The 41 operational Tu-22M3 long-range supersonic bombers, built in 1970s and 1980s, have a maximum speed of 2,000 km/hour and a range of 6,800 km.

Bombers’ resurrection 

Russia’s bombers were virtually inactive until 2007, when continuous patrols resumed. Since then, they have averaged 80-100 hours’ flying time per year. Overall, Russia’s existing long-range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least the next two decades.

Currently, 4-6 Tu-95s and 2-3 Tu-160s are being modernized each year, primarily including improvements in targeting and navigational systems. Overall, Russia’s existing long range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least next two decades, so the air force certainly has time on its side in developing a new design for a next generation long range bomber.

Military transports

The transport aviation branch has been expanded in recent years. In addition to its traditional transport function, it now operates airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes and is responsible for transporting airborne troops. The mainstay of the existing transport fleet is the Il-76, with approximately 100 operational. These still have 2-3 decades of life, so there is no need for wholesale replacement, especially with a planned modernization that will include new engines and improved electronics. Thirty-nine modernized Il76-MD aircraft are on order. 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 and are likely to be canceled given the suspension of military cooperation between Russia and Ukraine.

Transport aviation now operates 18 A-50 AWACS aircraft, including three that have been modernized. In the medium term, the military plans to produce a new generation A-100 AWACS plane based on the Il-76MD body.

Refuelling shortage

The big problem is a severe shortage of refuelling planes, with only 20-25 Il-78 tankers available. Most of these planes are committed to serving long-range aviation, which limits their ability to train with combat and transport aircraft. An additional 40 planes are on order, which will help somewhat to reduce this limitation.

Procurement plans

SAP-2020 contains an ambitious agenda for modernising Russia’s military aircraft, allocating over 4 trillion rubles (130 billion dollars) to re-outfitting the Air Force. The investment would result in the acquisition of more than 600 modern aircraft, including fifth-generation fighters, as well as more than 1,000 helicopters and a range of air defence systems.

Over the last four years, Russia’s aircraft industry has been relatively successful in meeting the targets set by SAP-2020 for combat aircraft. In just the last two years, it has built 28 Su-35S and 34 Su-30 fighters, as well as 20 Su-34 strike aircraft. Future plans call for the production of an additional 13 Su-35S and 83 Su-34 aircraft over the next six years, as well as the start of serial production of the T-50 fifth-generation fighter.

If all plans are carried out, by 2020 Russia will have 50 T-50, 90 Su-35 and over 60 Su-30 fighters, as well as 120 Su-34 strike aircraft. This will allow the Russian Air Force to retire all of its old Su-27 and Su-24 aircraft. Russian analysts believe that 50-55 MiG-35 fighter jets may also be ordered, starting the replacement of aging MiG-29s.

Sukhoi’s T-50 fifth-generation fighter

Russian strike aircraft are of fairly high quality, with the main problems revolving around the age of the air frames rather than their capabilities. Although it is a formidable aircraft, some questions have been raised about the feasibility of the development time-lines for the T-50 and how genuine are the capabilities of its fifth-generation technology. Nevertheless, the Russian military will have a fifth-generation strike fighter in serial production sometime in the next decade.

Ending cooperation with Ukraine

More significant is the revitalisation of less glamorous parts of the aviation industry, especially transport and refuelling aircraft. The construction of new production lines for these types of aircraft will go a long way towards the government’s stated goals of making the Russian military more mobile and extending the range of its attack aircraft through aerial refuelling.

However, gaps in both transport and refuelling capacity will remain a problem well into the next decade, due in part to the end of military cooperation with Ukraine.

UAV development

The military is also likely to benefit from relatively rapid growth in UAV capabilities as new designs reach the production stage. However, Russia’s UAV capabilities are likely to remain well behind those of its Western competitors for the rest of the decade.

CONCLUSION: Future development will focus on a new long-range bomber, which may be capable of hypersonic speeds, with production expected to start around 2020. Serial production of the T-50 fighter jet will continue to expand, with expectations that a total of 250 aircraft of this type will be produced over the next 15 years. Finally, Russian aircraft designers are currently developing a strike UAV that they hope will be ready to enter production by 2020.

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

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-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 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.