Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fighter Order Rekindles Russian Air Force

By Douglas Barrie and Alexey Komarov

Russian air force ambitions stretch far beyond the $2.65-billion Sukhoi fighter order at the MAKS 2009 show. Aspirations include fielding an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) alongside its fifth-generation fighter and developing a next-generation strategic bomber.The fighter deal is a fillip to the air force and Sukhoi. The military will acquire 48 Su-35S fighter aircraft from 2010-15, along with 12 Su-27SMs and four Su-30M2s. Delivery of the last two versions of the Flanker should be completed by 2011.

Securing an air force order bolsters Sukhoi’s export aims for the Su-35, while also providing production work for its Komsomolsk-on-Amur site. Maj. Gen. Oleg Barmin, chief of procurement for the Russian air force, says the Su-35S offer was particularly attractive to his service. “We are not bearing any development costs, and it is saving us money,” he told a press briefing here last week. If MiG is able to do the same with its MiG-35 development of the MiG-29 Fulcrum, this would benefit a possible purchase, he noted.

The S-35S will operate with the air force’s fifth-generation fighter, known as PAK-FA, when it enters service. The PAK-FA’s radar design was unveiled at the show, with Russian manufacturer NIIP showing a prototype of the active, electronically scanned array (AESA) device. The radar had initially remained covered on the company stand, since government clearance was needed to show the design.

The 1,500-element array is a slight ellipse, likely reflecting the cross section of the PAK-FA nose. While NIIP officials say they have looked at an AESA design in which the antenna face can be moved, the approach being taken with PAK-FA is for a fixed antenna. Test flights of the radar are due to begin in 2010. The first PAK-FA prototype is still expected to fly before year-end. The aircraft design also could use secondary conformal array antennas to provide additional angular coverage.

NIIP previously developed a variety of passive, phased array radars; however, the shift to an active array poses a leap in technology—not least of all in manufacturing the transmit/receive modules. The air force procurement chief maintains that fielding the Su-35S will provide his service with a near-term counter to the U.S. Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. In addition to the PAK-FA, the air force is looking at its UCAV needs. Barmin suggests it will carry “the same weapons as the fifth-generation fighter.”

MiG and Sukhoi are already working on UCAV developments. Two years ago, MiG unveiled its Skat project and showed a mockup of the design. The company is continuing its UCAV work, although its exact status is unknown. Sukhoi General Designer Mikhail Pogosyan, who also leads MiG, suggests the development of a UCAV could be the first common effort between the two fighter manufacturers. Both are to form the combat aircraft business unit of Russia’s United Aircraft Corp (UAC), with Sukhoi as the dominant element.

MiG is struggling with considerable debt, and this is hindering bringing it within the ambit of UAC. The financial malaise at MiG may be hampering UCAV work. The government has already provided MiG with 15 billion rubles ($470 million). During the show, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said discussions are underway covering an additional 15 billion rubles. Pogosyan says the air force is now drawing up its requirements for a UCAV. This initial work may be concluded during 2010. Alongside looking at unmanned strike platform needs, the air force is considering long-endurance reconnaissance requirements.

While a full-blown UCAV development and program may appear ambitious for an air force that has struggled with chronic underfunding for nearly two decades, this pales beside what would be required for a next-generation strategic bomber program to replace the Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear. The nascent bomber project is known as PAK-DA .Barmin says work is underway on a replacement for the Blackjack and the Bear. But he declines to say whether any funding to support the PAK-DA will be included in the government’s 2011-20 defense acquisition program. Some form of preliminary research and development contract has been concluded with Tupolev, according to a company executive.

Whether Tupolev has the technical resources—even when it becomes part of the UAC—to sustain development of a next-generation strategic bomber remains an open question. Tupolev is involved in implementing staged upgrades for the air force’s small number of Tu-160s and for the larger Tu-95MS fleet. The aim is to improve both types’ strategic and tactical strike capabilities and extend their useful service lives. Having signed the Su-35S deal, Barmin says the air force is now preparing the contract for an associated weapons purchase. This is part of a wider and badly needed effort to refresh the service’s air-launched weapons inventory.

“There are over 20 types [of new weapons] in different stages of development,” says Barmin, and some of them will provide “high precision” and “long range.” Some of the systems to which Barmin is referring were displayed by Russia’s Tactical Missile Corp. during the show.Boris Obnosov, Tactical Missile’s general director, said at a press briefing that the company’s “new systems” on display “were required not only for foreign but also for Russian customers.”

The company unveiled upgraded versions of the R-77 (AA-12 Adder) radar-guided air-to-air missile and R-73 (AA-11 Archer) infrared-guided dogfight missile. Known for export as the RVV-SD and RVV-MD, respectively, these two weapons will likely form part of the package for the Su-35S. Obnosov says he hopes contracts covering the Su-35S package will be “signed very soon.” He adds that while domestic orders are increasing, exports have declined, and this is proving a challenge in the current economic environment.

Along with the likely improvements to the air force’s air-to-air missile inventory, the Su-35S weapons procurement will also include a “new weapon capable of precision strike against ground targets outside of surface-to-air missile engagement zones,” the air force procurement chief asserts. A prototype Su-35 was on static display, and weapons fitted included a mockup of a version of the Kh-38M air-to-surface missile family that is now in development.

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