Author’s disclaimer: For the purposes of narrative flow, certain Air Force sub-units have been lumped with the Military Space Force for those are unfamiliar with the organisational divisions in the armed forces. When this is not clear, the article mentions the parent branch.
Russia in the Air
When it comes to Russian air power, the operative word is shortage. The number of flight hours are closer to 75% or 50%, or between 70 and 120 hours, of what is considered the normal rate for NATO nations. Based on admissions by the VKS, flight hours for bomber crews are considerably under the 150-hour mark considered to be the standard for adequate performance in NATO air fleets.1.“Общий налет летчиков ВКС в 2016 году составил 340 тысяч часов” : RIA Novosti On the military district, the situation isn’t much different for fighter and multirole groups, with some units being congratulated for hitting an average of 70 flight hours.2.“Летчики авиационного полка ВВС и ПВО ЮВО совершили в 2017 году более 2000 учебно-боевых вылетов” : TV Zvezda Naval aviation figures are severely obfuscated even in non-carrier-based units, as pilots this year have reportedly increased flight time by 60% despite only having 2200 flight hours.3.“Летчики авиационного полка ВВС и ПВО ЮВО совершили в 2017 году более 2000 учебно-боевых вылетов” : TV Zvezda Yet the figure for the entire year of 2016 was reported to be 5500 hours.4.“Морская авиация Черноморского флота пополнилась эскадрильей Су-30СМ” : RIA Novosti The Navy’s carrier air group is perhaps the worse faring in this regard from all the units with flight hours with actual carrier take offs severely limited. In the early 2010s, there were articles showcasing a possibility for an increase in performance, but that never materialized.5.Twower blog. The result of these shortcomings was seen during the Syrian deployment. When it comes to training new replacements, the flight hours of incoming cadets are higher than active duty pilots at 160 vs 110 hours on average. This must be viewed from the lens of how many pilots the Russian order of battle is missing, and based off statements by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu the number is 1300 pilots at the end of 2016.6.“Шойгу: дефицит военных летчиков в ВКС в 2016 г. составлял 1300 человек” : Ahtubinsk Pilot
The short term solution for this is a five-year increase in the service length for these men. Moreover, it’s unlikely that the problem will be solved quickly as the number of new pilots that graduated in 2016 was only 65, and the number of pilots that the MOD was hoping to train in 2017 was 150.7.“Шойгу: дефицит военных летчиков в ВКС в 2016 г. составлял 1300 человек” : Ahtubinsk Pilot The issue with trained pilots is much deeper in Russia, and it’s unlikely that the private sector could help remedy it. It too is facing a severe shortage, forcing some firms to hire foreign pilots for local commercial airlines.8.“Russia’s Rossiya airline runs out of Russian pilots” : BNE IntelliNews After the Transaero and VIM Airlines collapse, most pilots chose to leave Russia, following employment in the state corporation Aeroflot, which took over Transaero’s assets.9.“‘Почти зомби’. Пилотов хотят лишить отпуска, чем это грозит пассажирам” : Svoboda The state civil aviation giant is also facing a staggering shortage of pilots due to retirement and the exodus of skilled staff, and it is unlikely that the course will be reversed given the difficulties pilots faced with license renewals in 2014 and 2015 and the unfavorable treatment that came with it. At that time, people were threatened and had their license renewals stalled purposefully to prevent them from leaving Russia for a foreign employer, yet little was being done to find them alternative employment.10.“Побег из “одной из старейших и самых известных” авиакомпаний мира” : SCPA Online11.“«Коммерсантъ» сообщил об утечке российских летчиков в Азию” : Vedomosti
This has to been seen from the perspective of what civilian pilots can add to the service in times of crisis and what flight hours mean. Starting with flight hours, at 30-50 per year, pilots generally make fairly basic flights, practicing take-offs, landings, and nav-point traversal. These may seem like mundane skills but they also have to be practiced and intermixed with pairs of planes while doing patrols. A higher number of yearly flight hours allows for joint drills with other nations where mock combat is practiced on a greater scale. Equally important are drills to coordinate complex air combat communication and “command and control” systems. It might sound simple to many people, but considering how even a simple project can be beset by disagreements and conflict, such coordination becomes complex. Other niche procedures that also have to be practiced purposefully are the use of weapons with narrow application and long refueling missions to sustain the number of planes in flight. All of these drills have to be done on at least a semi-frequent basis to retain skills or to train new pilots. However, if the baseline is below 100 flight hours, some of these tasks are sidelined or never performed, which means these units cannot effectively perform complex interactions or work as a large unit. In a fight with a major adversary, Russia’s Air Force is at a significant disadvantage, as the bulk of its units will devolve into isolated flights, whereas the enemy will have a significant force multiplier advantage. The lack of civilian pilots would also add to this problem as that is the reserve pool you can draw from to man valuable support planes that provide logistics, command an control functions or patrol the airspace.
It also seems that there is no longer a comprehensive program for advance fighter combat training. While photos of individual Russian fighters painted in aggressor squadron colours, that is to say the colours of potential adversaries, pop up from time to time, it’s more an exception that proves the rule. In the Soviet Union, the two airbases Marah 1 and Marah 2 in present day Turkmenistan used to house such an advanced training center where drills in more sophisticated combat maneuvers were common.12.Russian Air Force forums online discuss this. It seems that Turkmenistan continued flying some of the Mig-29s used by the Turkmenistan Air Force and even kept their unusual paint scheme, perhaps a sign of the deteriorating financial situation in the former Soviet republics in the 90s as a whole.13.Russian Air Force forums. It seems that the combination of these factors showcase that the Russian VKS has struggled to retain or reintroduce advanced air combat drills on the institutional level after the decline.
When it comes to modern Russian planes the situation is eerily similar. The VKS has to replace, overhaul, or modernise over 1,000 fighters, multirole, and light bomber planes over the next decade. Yet, its domestic procurement has rarely exceeded 50 planes per year of all types. The current number of modern planes is closer to the number built over the last 12 years. Around 350 have been procured but even there lies a difference in quality. The most infamous example are the Mig-29s that were rejected by Algeria and were later acquired by Russia.14.“Алжир сложил российское оружие” : Kommersant In this case, two senior executives at Mikoyan were later jailed for utilising old parts in the construction of the planes. A second batch of 16 of the same Mig-29 model was later produced for the MOD, and while much newer, these planes were already far behind their contemporaries. Combined with other Mig-29 variants in use, these represent a good 25% of the fighters Russia has in active service and close to 15% of all the planes its VKS classifies as modern. It seems that Russia will procure at least another 6 Mig-29 derivatives, with former VKS chief Bondarev claiming as many as 170 to make use of the lower cost due to the Egyptian contract with Mikoyan.15.“Истребитель пошел на второй алжирский круг” : Kommersant
The Su-30, 34 and 35 series represent the more capable and more modern fighters in the service but they are also not too numerous and are more costly to acquire. To this day, they have not fully replaced their predecessors, and some of the earlier planes are now facing considerable overhaul in the next decade. The replacement of the two engines, a full revamp of the airframe, and the replacement of the electronics with more modern additions like the S-109 suite will cost no less than half the price at which these planes were procured. The remaining older Su-27s, except for some that were modernised more recently, will also be nearing the end of their service life without extensive investment. There are suggestions that the Yak-130 might be selected as a possible replacement of the even older Su-25, given the model’s relative age. While, smaller, less protected, and unable to use as wide a variety of fuels, it is a much less costly option and one way to return production to a more respectable rate at the Yak-130 plant, which seems to have been drastically reduced as of late.16.“Замена для «Грача»: каким будет российский штурмовик будущего” : TV Zvezda
That being said it, has to be understood that Russian fighters even of this pedigree are laggards in regards to air-to-air engagements. The newer missiles that were seen on Russian planes in Syria, while adequate for modern engagements, are equivalent to earlier AMRAAM-C missiles, which are beginning to be superseded by AMRAAM-D missiles in inventories. Moreover, there appears to have been close to 1000 ordered based on the contract price of 13 billion rubles, and it’s unknown how many have been delivered.17.Sourced from Russian MoD purchase billing published recently. In a typical engagement, when the missiles are fired, modern planes can maneuvre to evade the enemy missile fire while transferring the targeting control to a wing mate who will help guide the missile to the target. Thus, a sophisticated data link adds an advantage. This is reliant on two factors: the ability to mount the more advanced missiles, and the existence of a digital interface with the airplane’s system radars and a sufficient data link, one above the usual TKS-2 or TKS-2M. In that regard, only the newer Su-30 and Su-35 planes can really fight on par with modern NATO planes in multi-plane beyond visual range (BVR) engagements. Looking beyond just abstract technical stats, it’s important to remember that in organisations who have modern, old, and legacy equipment at all times, there must also be common doctrine or else bottlenecks can occur on multiple levels.
The Mig-31 was recently showcased using the new Iskander-derived Air-to-Surface missile, thus reminding us that it is still a mainstay of the Russian Air Force. However, equally important to remember is that a bulk of the fleet will likely be retired rather than modernised despite the modernisation program’s decade old announcement. Initially there were 519 built, and while many are no longer fit to be used, the number of modernised airframes is an even smaller cross section of about 130 that have been modernised to the BM, BMS or K standard. It is very likely that the 100 or more planes currently in storage will remain there until they are decommissioned. The 10 planes that have been upgraded to a K standard could potentially be the 10 Mig-31s airframes allocated to the VKS’s test center. If that is the case then even if the planes were relocated to Astrakhan on a permanent basis, they would be lacking in other combat related upgrades and would face limited adoption.18.“МиГ-31К. Минобороны модернизировало носитель комплекса ‘Кинжал'” : Topwar.ru The acquisition of the Su-57 has been staggered by similar issues, with the initial order being downgraded to 12 planes that lack the full capabilities of the envisioned fighter and being closer to an upgraded Su-35-S model and more recent stories are suggesting a further downgrade to 4 planes.19.“Russia’s Defense Ministry to Ink Contract for 12 Su-57 Stealth Fighters Soon” : The Diplomat20.“Су-57 оказался дорогой и бесполезной игрушкой” : Vzglyad This is a far cry from the promises of orders of over 150 planes that VKS generals were talking about in interviews.21.“Новый мотор для пятого поколения” : Izvestia It is a combination of the costs, the insufficient speed at which the program progressed for foreign partners, and the necessity of such partners, namely India, to help lower the cost of acquisition. It is also unknown whether a change to the current Russian military budget can account for the cost of operating this many planes.
Other VKS Services
Another service that saw some promise but also has a significant portfolio to cover is the VTA. Transport vehicles have been considerably active in supplying troops to Syria and are key in the support of air operations by the VDV, Russia’s paratrooper force. While a significant order of new Il-76s are on the way and the Volga Dniepr fleet can be utilised in some ways to augment transport capacity, the new Il-76 airframes that will arrive through 2025 only account for 10% of the active strength. This is considered a troubling development as over the same period more older planes will have to be retired as for the past 20 years, almost no planes were being built and the program is only delivering a plane a year, failing to deliver the 39 contracted in 2012.22.Information on the Il-76 on russianplanes.net.23.Ilyushin press release. Recent investigations have shown that the problems in the Il-76 program might be even more dire, suggesting a little over half of the VKS’ Il-76 fleet is actually flightworthy and photographic evidence shows Chinese Y-20 aircraft missing engines, which could be caused by production issues with the engine the two aircraft share.24.https://twitter.com/dafengcao/status/105392724555788288125.“Контракт безжизненного цикла” : VPK News In addition to that out of 26 AN-124 airframes kept by the VTA only 4 appear to be flightworthy at this point.26.“Контракт безжизненного цикла” : VPK News It limits Russian strategic airlift options, but more importantly reduces the ability to drop VDV elements with their BMD vehicles to a couple of battalions, as each plane can carry only up to 4 vehicles, and a contested combat drop could lead to crippling losses in planes, which are far more precious than paratrooper units.
Long range bomber aviation has been plagued by different issues. For a fleet of its size and importance, it has seen a significant number of incidents as of late. Even more troubling is that some of these incidents involved planes that were recently refurbished and modernised by the factory.27.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_MhECex_mc It is also the branch that will have the most difficulty acquiring replacement aircraft, as bombers of this size seem to be a more of a luxury than a necessity. The use of Tu-22M3s in Syria partially showcased that, as it resorted to using FAB-250 and 500 bombs, and didn’t present a significant advantage over what planes like the SU-24, Su-25 and Su-34 could do. This is also unsurprising as that was not the main role of the plane when it was envisioned, something that is less applicable to the Tu-95 and the Tu-160, which both perform tasks in which they could be less easily replaced.
Helicopters, similarly, are not without fault. The distinct rivalry between Kamov and Mil, and the use of clout in the procurement process complicated the adoption for both companies’ gunship design programs. Kamov finally found a market in both domestic and foreign sales with the modern design of the Ka-52. Mil also managed to find orders for its Mi-28 gunship, but it’s had its share of troubles despite finding a market. There are suggestions that most variants of the helicopter essentially have a defective gearbox, or to be more precise a gearbox that in certain conditions is hazardous to the crew and could lead to severe malfunctions and even death of the crew, a problem that recent articles suggest is yet to be solved despite a number of crashes.28.“Итоги работы “Роствертола” в 2013 году” : BMPD29.“Сердюков — РБК: «10–15 лет назад такого и во сне нельзя было представить»” : Ros Business Consulting The avionics and personal equipment the pilot uses has also drawn criticism and is described by pilots as being behind the curve or even able to endanger the crew.30.“Су-57 оказался дорогой и бесполезной игрушкой” : Vzglyad According to several experts on the subject, the design team was unable to remedy this issue and models were shipped out with the issue outstanding.
When it comes to other duties, the Russian VKS has to take care of the country’s air defence. While most articles focus on the S-400 system, it’s important to remind readers that those rely on the IADS, or Integrated Air Defence System, and in that regard, Russia has been trying to replace its radar net but has an uneven fight against the amount of real estate it has to cover with new stations. Having said that, key areas have seen new installations built over the past year, and their command centers often feature on state armament promotion shows. As for the S-400, it is perhaps telling of how limited it can be in an environment where situational awareness is lacking given its performance in Syria. Another potential reason for the lack of its use is that it is far easier to counter by air forces like those of France, Israel, or the United States. Furthermore, it will still be the preferred long range air defence system for Russia’s traditional buyers because of political and diplomatic limitation on procurement. The other two often talked about air defence systems are sort of oddities in regards to their use and adoption. The Tor, which falls under Army Air Defence, and the Pantsir system, represent impressive SHORAD, Short Range Air Defence, classified systems that are part of the divisional and corps order of battle. However, because their performance entitles a cost, it’s perhaps missing the point of such systems. SHORAD is intended not to destroy but to dissuade or limit enemy air activity over the groupings that they are protecting. Spending about as much as an airplane on a single system represents a cost that is hard to justify given that the equipment these systems are supposed to protect are usually a lot less costly than them.
It is also unwise in Russia’s case as the defence minister recently applauded the results of the Russian VKS in Syria and said that 90% of the service’s pilots and crew took part in the drill. Contrary to his statement, the operation saw limited flights by Tu-95s, a perplexing set of flights by Mig-31s, and rarer sightings of older Mig-29s and Su-27s.31.“Новые подробности о присутствии МиГ-31БМ в Сирии” : BMPD Journal 32.https://twitter.com/yarinah1/status/94171628431994470633.“Применение истребителей МиГ-29СМТ ВКС России в Сирии” : BMPD Journal. The smaller aircraft utility and liaison aircraft were underrepresented and the helicopters were limited to search and rescue Mi-8 variants and occasional shows of gunships. Based on the aircraft seen in Syria, only 1/3 of the inventory listed as active saw any significant service.34.“Применение истребителей МиГ-29СМТ ВКС России в Сирии” : BMPD Journal If these represent 90% of the Russian Air Force’s worthwhile assets, it would be fair to say that Russia is refusing to acknowledge a sense of troubling inferiority, both numerically and technologically.
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