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.


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.