Russian Air Force procurement plans

The last month or so has seen a number of good overviews in the Russian press of recent procurement and future plans of the Russian Air Force. The Russian Air Force has been substantially modernized and upgraded as part of the current State Armament Program (SAP-2020). The table below summarizes procurement in tactical aviation over the last ten years, as compiled by Moscow’s CAST think tank.

Type earlier 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 Total Contracted
Su-34 15 10 14 18 18 16 16 107 129
Su-35S 2 8 24 12 12 10 68 98
Su-27 SM3 12 12 12
Su-30 SM 2 14 21 27 19 17 100 116
Su-30 M2 4 3 8 3 2 20 20
MiG-29 SMT /UBT 28/6 3/2 11/0 42/8 50
MiG-29 KR /KUBR 2/2 8/2 10/0 24 24
Yak-130 12 15 18 20 14 10 6 95 109
Total 77 29 61 101 89 70 49 476 560

Much of this procurement reflects the need to replace aging Soviet aircraft with new airframes with modern electronics and weapon systems. Nevertheless, many Soviet-era airframes remain in service. These include approximately 100 Su-27 and Su-27SM and approximately 150-170 MiG-29S fighter aircraft, approximately 150 MiG-31 interceptors, and over 200 each of the Su-24 bomber and Su-25 strike aircraft.

Most of these aircraft are expected to be either replaced or modernized over the next 10 years. According to Ilya Kramnik, who recently published a comprehensive summary of Russian aircraft procurement plans, the Russian Air Force is planning to have at least 700 fighter aircraft in active service. The bulk of these (around 450) will be designed by Sukhoi. These will include 66 additional Su-30SM aircraft, with 16 of these to be delivered in 2018 based on an existing contract signed in 2012 and the other 50 by 2022 based on a new contract to be signed in the near future. These aircraft are being built at the Irkutsk aircraft plant. This will bring the total number of Su-30SM and Su-30M2 aircraft to at least 186 by 2027, with approximately 50 of these in naval aviation.

In addition, approximately 130 Su-35S aircraft are to be delivered over the next 10 years, with 30 still remaining on an existing contract from 2015 and another 100 expected to be procured on a new contract to be signed as part of SAP-2027. When added to the 68 aircraft already delivered, the Russian air force should expect to have approximately 200 Su-35S fighters by 2027. The new fifth generation Su-57 fighter aircraft will be procured in limited numbers, with reports indicating that 12 aircraft will be delivered by 2021 and around 50 more by 2027. Delays in deliveries of these planes may be covered by an increase in purchases of Su-35s and perhaps Su-30s.

There is still a lot of uncertainty about the extent to which the Russian Air Force will procure the new MiG-35 multi-role fighter jet. Some sources have stated that 170 MiG-35 aircraft will be purchased over the next 10 years, while Kramnik quotes unnamed experts who believe that the number purchased will be limited to 70-80 units. I expect the lower number to be closer to reality, given the general lack of enthusiasm in the Russian MOD for the MiG-35. In the meantime, the air force is continuing to modernize its existing fleet of Soviet era MiG-31 aircraft, with as many as 150 of the 250 units in inventory expected to be modernized by 2027. Of these, around 30 will remain assigned to naval aviation. The 50 MiG-29SMT and UBT variants procured between 2009 and 2016 will also remain in the force, while older MiG-29 versions are likely to be phased out over the next ten years.

Carrier-based naval aviation will consist of the 17 remaining older Su-33 fighter planes, currently undergoing an expensive modernization, together with 23 MiG-29KR aircraft delivered in the last few years.

Strike aviation will consist of modernized versions of the Soviet-era Su-25, with a total of 120-140 aircraft to be converted to carry precision-guided munitions. The venerable Su-24 bombers, on the other hand, will be entirely replaced by the new Su-34s, which performed quite well in Syria in recent years. In addition to the 114 Su-34s already in service, Kramnik expects the Russian military to sign a contract in the next two years to purchase an additional 90-100 aircraft, with perhaps additional units earmarked for naval aviation to replace its current stock of Su-24s.

Prospects for long range aviation are relatively clear, with serial production of a modernized version of the Tu-160 expected to start in 2021. While exact numbers of aircraft to be procured have not been revealed, some early estimates suggested that as many as 50 new Tu-160s will be procured over the next decade. In the meantime, existing Tu-95 and Tu-160 aircraft are in the process of receiving new engines, avionics, and weapon systems.

Transport aviation is in much worse shape than combat aviation, with relatively few new aircraft procured in the last ten years.  The Il-76MD is expected to remain the heavy transport workhorse of the Russian Air Force. These aircraft were built in the 1980s and were relatively underused in the post-Soviet period, so that they could serve another 15-20 years in their present form. In 2013, the MOD ordered 39 aircraft of a modernized Il-76MD-90A variant, although only five have been delivered through the end of 2017, including two units that will be developed into the A-100 AWACS aircraft. According to Vladimir Moiseev, the main need for modernized aircraft is as a platform for the A-100 and for the Il-78 refueling aircraft, rather than for new heavy transport aircraft themselves. Moiseev notes that given the issues with organizing timely production of the modernized Il-76, development of a next next generation heavy transport aircraft has been put off into the distant future.

Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force desperately needs a new medium transport aircraft, since the remaining 60 or so An-12 aircraft were built in the 1960s and early 1970s and are rapidly approaching the end of their service lives. The various projects to build a new multi-role transport aircraft that have been under discussion for more than 15 years have been united only by their continued failure to produce an aircraft. The current plan is to have a design finalized this year and test flights to start in 2023. Given that most An-12s will have to be retired by 2024, this gives little margin for error and in fact almost guarantees that the Russian Air Force will either face a gap of at least a few years without a medium transport aircraft or (more likely) will have to do what it can to keep as many An-12s as possible airworthy for as long as it can.

The situation with light transport aircraft is a little better. Although the 40 existing An-26 aircraft will also have to be retired soon, the design of the new Il-112 replacement aircraft is relatively far along, with initial test flights expected in late 2018 and serial production possibly ready to start no later than the early 2020s.

Finally, the Il-114 is expected to become the main platform for special aviation, including variants for maritime patrol (to replace the Il-38), electronic warfare, AWACS, and reconnaisance. About 50 aircraft of this type are expected to be produced for the Russian military over the next ten years.

Based on this overview, we can make a rough estimate of what the Russian Air Force and naval aviation will look like in 2027. I am excluding the various types of specialized aircraft, such as AWACS, tankers, maritime patrol, etc, from this table, just to keep it manageable. The table includes aircraft in both the air force and in naval aviation.

Type Category Number
Su-25 Strike 120-140
Su-27 Fighter 60-70
Su-30 Fighter 190-200
Su-33 Carrier-based fighter 17
Su-34 Bomber 210-230
Su-35 Fighter 200
Su-57 Fighter 50-60
MiG-29 Fighter 60-80
MiG-31 Interceptor 150
MiG-35 Fighter 70-80
  Total Tactical 1100-1200
 
Yak-130 Trainer 110-130
Yak-152 Trainer 150
  Total Trainers 260-280
     
Tu-22 Bomber 69
Tu-95 Bomber 60
Tu-160 Bomber 66
Total Long Range Aviation 190-200
   
Il-76 Heavy transport 100-150
An-12 Medium transport 30-60
Il-112 Light transport 40-50
Other types (mostly Antonov) Transport 40-50
Total Transport 210-300

As can be seen from this overview, Russian military aviation is set to build on its core strengths in combat aviation while improving its strike and long range bomber capabilities. Transport will remain a weakness, with little progress being made over the next decade to address continuing problems in that sphere that have only been exacerbated by the end of defense cooperation with Ukraine and its Antonov design bureau.

Overall, Russian aircraft procurement has followed the path of buying more of what Russian defense industry is good at producing, rather than basing procurement on a programmatic assessment of Russian defense needs. In addition, the MOD has to some extent succumed to pressure to support defense industry and will be procuring aircraft such as the MiG-35 that it is not particularly excited about. As a result, the air force will be faced with a proliferation of combat aircraft types, with the attendant higher maintenance and training costs. In the meantime, the long-term weakness in transport aviation will persist, limiting the improvements in military mobility that have been one of the core aspects of military reform efforts over the last decade.

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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.

 

 

Future prospects of the United Aircraft Corporation

In today’s VPK, Ilya Kramnik discusses the prospects of the UAC. Here are some highlights. This is in the context of the removal of Aleksei Fedorov as the company’s director and his replacement by Mikhail Pogosian, the general director of the company’s Sukhoi and MiG divisions.

Military Aircraft

Kramnik notes that the prospects of the Sukhoi division are much better than those of MiG. Sukhoi’s strength is based on the success of its Su-27 fighter plane, which has not only become the mainstay of the Russian air force, but has been exported to 17 countries. These planes are used by countries as diverse as Angola, Eritrea, China, and Indonesia, as well as several former Soviet states. Kramnik argues that delays in the production of NATO’s F-35 will ensure continued exports for the Su-27 in the coming decade.

Sukhoi’s future success in the domestic market lies in the 4++ generation Su-35 fighters and Su-34 bombers, as well as orders of Su-30MKI fighters, which were previously manufactured exclusively for export. Down the road, Sukhoi will be building the fifth generation fighter aircraft (known variously as the PAK FA or T-50), both for the domestic market and for export to India. In addition to the construction of new aircraft, Sukhoi will be busy modernizing existing Russian air force planes, including the Su-25 close air support planes, Su-24 bombers, and the older Su-27 fighters. After modernization, these planes may be expected to serve another 15-20 years.

Compared to Sukhoi, MiG is in fairly poor shape. Few of its MiG-29 fighters have been sold abroad in the post-Soviet period, while the Russian air force has focused on modernizing Su-27s rather than its MiG-29s. The crashes of two MiG-29s in 2008, which led to an investigation that revealed serious corrosion in the tail sections of 80 percent of existing MiG-29s, was a further blow to the aircraft’s reputation.

MiG is now betting on two projects. The MiG-29K is the naval version of the MiG-29, and will be used on the Indian Vikramaditya carrier and most likely on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. The MiG-35 is a 4++ generation fighter aircraft that is in the running in the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. Prospects for victory in the tender seem somewhat poor, given rumors that MiG-35 was not on a list of finalists. Without a victory in this tender, its prospects are unclear, given that the Russian air force is focused primarily on procuring Su-35 and PAK FA fighters. Unless the MiG-35 wins the MMRCA tender, UAC may well fold the Mikoyan division into Sukhoi.

Passenger Aircraft

Kramnik argues that UAC’s prospects in building commercial aircraft are relatively poor. UAC no longer builds long range commercial aircraft, while the construction of the Tu-204 mid-range aircraft was recently in crisis with the possibility of a construction freeze under discussion until recently because of production problems and a lack of orders. A recent order by a Russian airline for 44 Tu-204SM aircraft has revived this plane’s prospects. Its production is scheduled to end in 2014 in favor of the MS-21 aircraft currently in design, though there is little confidence that the new plane will be ready by then.

The joint Russian-Ukrainian An-148 regional jet has achieved significant popularity, with 237 planes ordered by companies and governments in nine countries. However, only eight planes have been delivered since the An-148 first went on the market in 2009 and slow production continues to be a problem.

The An-148 may be displaced by the SSJ regional jet, which is being built by a joint venture between Sukhoi and an Italian company. This plane is currently undergoing certification but may be ready for operations sometime in the next year. Over 180 planes of this type have been ordered by airlines from seven countries.

Despite the relatively high number of orders for UAC’s regional jets, production delays and the lack of a viable long range commercial airliner products has clouded the prospects for UAC’s commercial aviation division.

Cargo Aircraft

Existing Russian cargo aircraft are getting old. Most of the fleet are Antonov planes, built in Ukraine. The largest and most modern of these are the An-124, which have been in the fleet since the 1980s. An-12, An-22, and An-26 aircraft are much older, with many dating from the 1960s.

UAC’s Ilyushin division will fill the bulk of the Russian air force’s cargo plane needs in the coming decade. The Il-76, built by UAC, is the mainstay of the Russian air force and common in civilian use as well. The average age of these planes, however, is 30 years, so they are rapidly approaching the end of their useful lives. The air force is planning to modernize about 100 of its Il-76s, including the installation of new engines, which would allow them to last another 20-30 years. Kramnik believes that it’s possible that some could be used for as long as a total of 80-100 years, with suitable maintenance and occasional engine replacements.

In addition, UAC is planning to build a modernized version of the Il-76, labeled the Il-476, with digital flight controls, new avionics and new engines. 30-40 of these will be purchased by the Russian air force beginning in 2014.

UAC will also build smaller cargo planes, including the light Il-112 and medium Il-214, though neither is expected to enter serial production before 2015.  Some experts believe that neither of these planes will be built because of excessive cost increases. If these planes are canceled, the air force will have to order planes from abroad. Kramnik suggests that the Ukrainian An-178 could be a substitute for the Il-112, while the Italian C-27J Spartan might be bought instead of the Il-214.

Seaplanes

UAC’s Beriev division builds Be-200 special purpose amphibious aircraft designed for search and rescue operations, maritime patrol, and fire fighting. Several Be-200 planes are operated by the Russian and Azerbaijani Ministries for Emergency Situations, with another 10 on the way for the Russian MES.

Assessment

Though the situation in the Russian aircraft industry is better now than it was a few years ago, many problems remain. Most importantly, the average pay of workers and engineers at Russia’s main aircraft plants is lower than of sales people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while the technical education system is much worse at preparing new workers for this field than in the Soviet period. Furthermore, most of the main plants have not been substantially modernized. As a result of these problems, we are likely to see continued production delays for most of the aircraft described above.