Thursday, August 20, 2009

Russian Air Force Rekindles Upgrade Goals

Moscow is on the brink of concluding its largest fighter aircraft order in almost 20 years, with the Russian air force's leader setting far-reaching procurement and restructuring plans. Funding, however, is a fundamental concern.

Col. Gen Alexander Zelin, the air force chief, says the overhaul is intended to improve operational readiness and give the service what it urgently needs to counter future threats. All elements of the air force will be affected: organizational structure, aircraft, weaponry, training and infrastructure.

Existing divisions will be replaced by operational commands that will oversee the air force, air defense, strategic aerospace defense, long-range aviation and military air transport. Command of army aviation support units, including rotary-wing and light transport aircraft, will be transferred from the air force.

Zelin's ambition is for the air force fleet to comprise mainly upgraded or new combat types by 2020. As a first step toward this goal, a double-digit fighter order for Sukhoi could be sealed at this week's Moscow air show. A MiG-35 order is also increasingly likely, although funding has not yet been secured.

The intent is to considerably improve the air force's overall combat capability at the tactical and strategic levels. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian air force has suffered from inadequate funding.

In terms of Moscow's nuclear triad of land-, submarine- and air-launched missiles, the air force's strategic capability is built on a limited number of Tupolev Tu-160s Blackjacks and the Tu-95 Bear. The primary air-launched nuclear weapon is the Raduga Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent), which was developed in the 1970s.

Zelin confirms that his service is studying a strategic platform known as the "PAK-DA." "Active research work, aimed at outlining the advanced bomber's features and its general specification, is taking place," he says.

Whether the air force will ever be able to support development of the PAK-DA--even in the long term--is questionable. However, in the near term, efforts are continuing to bolster the air force's air-launched cruise missile capability. Alongside the Kh-555, a conventionally armed variant of the Kent that is now in service, senior government officials also suggest that funding for the Kh-102 cruise missile would be included in the 2010 defense budget. This long-range weapon is the replacement for the Kh-55. The Blackjack and Bear are also the focus of avionics, radar and defensive-aids upgrades.

While Washington may use the proliferation of Russian systems to partly justify its military spending, Zelin explicitly identifies the U.S. in discussing the need to bolster Moscow's air and space de*fenses. "Air forces of foreign states, primarily that of the U.S., will in the next 20 years gain the opportunity to make coordinated, high-precision strikes on a global scale at practically all targets on the territory of the Russian Federation," Zelin asserts.

In terms of air defense systems, the air force has already begun to deploy the Almaz Antey S-400 (SA-21 Growler) and development is underway of the S-500. The latter system will provide a greater engagement capability at extended ranges against ballistic and high-speed targets.

While the Russian air force will buy the Sukhoi Su-35--and potentially the MiG-35--to bolster its current fighter fleet, its medium-term ambitions remain vested in the PAK-FA, which is being developed by Sukhoi.

Three PAK-FA prototypes are already in production, including one airframe for static test. Zelin says prototypes will be flown in November or December. (The aircraft also is known as the T-50, an internal Sukhoi designation.)

In interviews with the Russian press, Zelin also alluded to a requirement for a high-altitude reconnaissance platform, suggesting that a type could be brought into the inventory within the next few years. But he declined to provide details on the nature of any project. Moscow's last foray into developing an aircraft in this class was the Myashichev Mi-17, of which only two prototypes were built in the 1970s.

The air force's reconnaissance capabilities will also be bolstered by the acquisition of additional UAVs. The service recently purchased a number of Israeli systems for evaluation. And while Zelin does not rule out repeating such an exercise, he signaled that domestic manufacturers should take the lead next time.

"From 2011, new vehicles--which will be able to perform not only reconnaissance but also strike missions--will start to enter into service," he notes. Upgrades of current tactical reconnaissance systems could provide a weapons-delivery capability.

Eventually 40% of the air force fleet could consist of unmanned systems, says Zelin. Industry has been working on unmanned combat air vehicle designs--including MiG's Skat--although the status and adequacy of funding for such projects are uncertain.

Mirroring a debate that is also underway in the Western military, Zelin maintains that unmanned aviation is and will remain an integral part of the air force.

A further motive for broadening the use of UAVs is that they could provide relief from Russia's pilot training problems. A shortage of fully trained pilots persists, with the air force also still falling well below the annual target figure for flight hours. While the goal is to provide 100-120 hr. annually, in 2008 the average figure for air force pilots was just 60-65 hr.

Along with the pending order for 48 Su-35s, the air force also expects to take delivery of 36 Su-34 strike aircraft by the end of 2012. Transport aviation is earmarked to receive the Ilyushin Il-112 twin-turboprop to replace the Antonov An-26. The An-12, meanwhile, is due to be replaced by the Multirole Transport Aircraft, a codevelopment with India.

Not surprisingly, a lack of funding could thwart Zelin's ambition. Whether the government will be able to provide even nearly adequate resources to underpin his plan is far from clear. (Previous efforts have foundered over a lack of money.)

According to Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Russia will spend about $15 billion on arms, equipment and support in 2010, a 1.2% increase compared with 2009. In a special cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin identified these priorities for the armed forces: "The maintenance and development of the nuclear capability and missile and space defense forces; providing troops with modern offensive weapons, as well as command-and-control, communication and intelligence systems; and strengthening military infrastructure in key strategic sectors."

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