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.

How many nuclear weapons does Russia need?

This is the question posed by Ilya Kramnik in a recent article on the Voice of Russia radio website. Kramnik argues that Russia’s nuclear posture has been based on the notion of matching the United States, something that is patently impossible given that Russia’s GDP and yearly government budget are tens of times smaller than those of the US.

To this end, Russia has announced a plan for the rapid construction of a total of eight Borei class SSBNs by 2018, with one new submarine to be commissioned every year starting in 2013. While Kramnik argues (correctly, IMO) that this plan is somewhat overoptimistic, he believes that all eight will be completed by 2020 or 2021. But the fact that these submarines can be built (while new ICBMs are being built concurrently) does not negate the question of what is the opportunity cost of spending a huge percentage of this decade’s military procurement budget on new nuclear weapons that are unlikely to ever need to be used.

He argues instead that Russia’s posture should be based on having enough nuclear weapons to deliver a counterstrike that would inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. This would allow for the Russian nuclear stockpile to drop from the current goal of 1550 warheads on 700 delivery platforms  (i.e. the limits set by the New START treaty) to 900-1200 warheads on 300-400 delivery platforms.

Kramnik notes that Russia’s defense industry is perfectly capable of maintaining the current posture. But limitations on the overall size of the defense procurement budget mean that this level of procurement of strategic nuclear forces can only be accomplished by neglecting the modernization of Russia’s conventional armed forces. And these are the forces that are desperately in need of new equipment in order to be able to successfully carry out missions in the regional and local conflicts that pose a much more likely short-term threat to Russia than the possibility of nuclear war with the United States.

This includes major platforms and systems such as multipurpose nuclear and diesel submarines, fighter aircraft, surface ships, air defense systems, tanks, and artillery. But it also includes more basic needs, such as modern precision-guided munitions, personal combat and communications equipment, etc. Kramnik points out that until such weapons are equipment can be procured in needed quantities, Russia’s position in the world will continue to weaken while its soldiers sustain a higher rate of casualties. And, he argues, this will all be done in the name of maintaining nuclear parity with the United States.

Needless to say, I find this to be a very prudent and realistic assessment of misplaced Russian military procurement priorities. I’m encouraged that Russian commentators are increasingly focusing on this imbalance, rather than supporting the MOD’s drive to maintain nuclear parity out of some sort of continuing sense of desire to maintain great power status. I wonder how Russian planners will change their force posture once the potentially quite significant cuts in US defense spending come into effect over the next couple of years.

 

The problems facing Russia’s defense industry

A couple of weeks ago, Ilya Kramnik had Viktor Murakhovsky on his show on the radio station Govorit Moskva. Murakhovsky and Kramnik are both relatively well known experts on the Russian military and the discussion turned out to be highly informative. The whole 45 minute conversation is available here in audio form, while a Russian language transcript of the first 10 minutes can be found here.

There’s a lot of interesting material here, mostly on the state of Russian defense industry and specifically on the State Armaments Program. The key point for me comes near the end, though. Murakhovsky spells out the four top priorities of SAP 2020 as follows: 1) Strategic Rocket Forces, 2) Space Forces, 3) Air Defense and 4) Command and Control. Murakhovsky argues that these are derived directly from the military doctrine, which lists NATO and its enlargement as the most significant threat facing Russia. However, since these threats have nothing to do with the actual conflicts that Russia might be engaged in in the coming years, the army is in essence spending money on armaments that it will never use (new missiles, air defense, advanced fighter planes, etc).

The Russian military’s real needs relate to the types of war in which the Russian military HAS fought in the last 20 years — local and regional wars. For this, Russia needs to procure new tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns, better personal armor, modern artillery, PGMs, etc. But the modernization of the ground forces is last on the list of priorities for the SAP. No new tanks are to be procured until 2015 or 2016. Modern ammunition will only be procured starting in 2014. Until then, 1980s era tanks will get by with 1980s era ammunition.  This is not to say that the ground forces are not getting new tanks or other armaments. They are. But what they’re getting is new equipment based on old designs, which are not truly modern weapons by any means.

A second point made by Murakhovsky is that when MOD officials talk about goals for procuring modernized weaponry over the next 10 years, they never define their terms. There’s no denominator for the percentages. In other words, 30% modern weaponry could be achieved just by scrapping a lot of old equipment, without actually producing all that much new equipment. More seriously, there’s no list of what types of armaments are considered modern. Some officials describe systems that are based on 20-50 year old designs (Msta, Akatsiia, Gvozdika) as modern. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the MOD is implicitly defining modern equipment as any equipment that was procured in last few years, rather than equipment actually based on new designs.

Third, Murakhovsky addresses the likelihood that the SAP will actually be carried out. The problems revolve around simple arithmetic. If the total amount to be spent on rearmament over the next 10 years is about 20 trillion rubles, it is fairly simple to figure out that the MOD should be spending approximately 2 trillion rubles a year. However, the total amount spent in 2011 was 721 billion. In 2012, procurement spending may reach 1.1 trillion. And of this, only 60-65 percent goes to actual procurement of new equipment, while the rest goes to R&D and modernization of existing equipment. These are obviously quite significant sums, but the difference between the plan and actual spending is clear to see. If this persists, then the current SAP is likely to fail in much the same way as the last three SAPs failed.

In addition to the discussion of the armaments program, Kramnik and Murakhovsky also discussed the state of the Russian defense industry. A lot of the discussion focused on the successes and failures of specific companies, but several general points were made as well.

First of all, the companies that are currently in the best shape are those that were able to adjust to the post-Cold War conditions by focusing on exports. They developed modern marketing and information departments, were able to produce new designs, and were able to retain a large part of their workforce. Some examples include Russian Helicopters, Irkut, and Sukhoi, as well as several lesser known companies. On the other hand, even these companies are dependent on sub-contractors for their supply chains, and these subcontractors are often in much worse shape.

Many companies are continuing to lose skilled workers because the civilian sector can pay higher salaries. This is in addition to the disappearance of an entire age cohort (ages 30-50) who didn’t go into the field because of its lack of financing from the late eighties until the mid 2000s.

The modernization of the industry has not really begun, because the three-year federal program dedicated to this task has yet to be adopted. It is difficult to understand how the State Armaments Program can be fulfilled without the modernization of the defense industry. Until this program is adopted, it will be difficult to recruit workers with the necessary qualifications, or to modernize the equipment of many defense sector companies.

One topic that was not addressed was the extent to which the defense industry’s problems are caused by government’s refusal to allow some defense sector companies to fail. The creation of vertical sectoral holding companies has been described by some analysts as an effort to make the better-performing units support other units that are effectively bankrupt. This may be a reasonable solution if the goal is to minimize social disruption to the companies’ remaining employees, but it inevitably drags down the more successful units and makes the production of needed technology more expensive. I would have been curious to hear Murakhovsky’s take on this problem.

Of course, no one can address all the problems that face Russian defense procurement in one 45 minute radio show. The topics that were addressed make clear the depth of the problems facing Russia’s defense industry and reinforce the sense that concrete procurement targets should continue to be taken with a grain of salt.

 

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.