The Russian Air Force modernization process is boosted up in order to make up for lost time for the past 20 years. First of all, the tactical aircraft – the “first line” of Air Force - are undergoing refit.
By Alexander Yermakov, independent military expert
The production of combat aircraft is likely to reach the world’s highest rates. According to open sources data for the past years, the number of combat aircraft sent over to the Russian Air Force has reached nearly 100 aircraft per year; in 2014 - 81 aircraft (including a dozen of the Su-35S jet fighters planned to be put into service in 2013); in 2015 - 77-80 aircraft. These statistics do not include the Yak-130 training aircraft.
As for the Western countries (Europe and the USA), the USA has reached similar figures related to the matter, but now we can see a period of recession in the U.S. combat aviation production – the production of the 4th generation fighter aircraft is actually scaled down (only small amounts of the deck-based F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet” aircraft are manufactured); the last series-produced F-22A “Raptor” was assembled in December 2011. The production of the F-35 “Lightning II" aircraft is gaining momentum, although last year Pentagon received a significant amount of the aircraft that belong to this series – 43 aircraft totally.
Substantial Range of Products
For now, the largest range of aircraft is the key feature of Russia’s combat aircraft acquisition program in comparison to such programs in other countries. In better years, all available defense industry capabilities and production facilities were used to enhance the refitting of combat aircraft. At the same time, the Russian Air Force is purchasing the Su-30M2 and Su-35S models produced by Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Building Plant (KnAAZ, or often called KnAAPO, its previous name), the Su-30SM produced by Irkutsk Aircraft Building Plant (this plant also produces the Yak-130), the Su-34 manufactured by Novosibirsk Aircraft Plant as well as the MiG-29SМТ/UB and the deck-based MiG-29K/KUB deck-based aircraft produced at RAC MiG’s facilities in Nizhny Novgorod (Aircraft Building Plant “Sokol”), in Lukhovitsy in Moscow Region (“Production Facility No. 1”), and at “Moscow Production Facility No. 2”. An amateur may easily get lost in this pile of aircraft designations and code names. That is why let us take a closer look at the aircraft design origin, differences, positions of aircraft in the state defense order, and their future.
It is easier to explain the situation with the Su-34 aircraft. It was initially developed as a frontline fighter bomber to replace the Su-24/24М based on the T-10 (the factory name for the Su-27 series) before the collapse of the USSR. The prototype designated as the Т-10В-1 made its maiden flight on April 13, 1990, but it took two decades for testing and mastering new methods of production in that difficult historical period. No doubt, the Su-34 aircraft is critically important for the Russian Air Force, because this aircraft is the most powerful model of series-produced (and promising) tactical assault aircraft. In comparison to its predecessor, the Su-34 features better flight range and combat load that allow to substitute at lower attitudes even the Tu-22M3 long-range bomber aircraft, which are subject to discard in the foreseeable future. The advanced strategic bomber PAK FA must replace the Tu-22M3 for operations at high attitudes. Taking into account that the series production of a domestic pod-mounted targeting and navigation system has not yet been launched, it is critically important that the Su-34 aircraft is equipped with the “Platan” targeting system that allows the aircraft to use weapons with laser-guided target-seeking devices, without targeting data from an external source.
Procurements Ahead of Demand
For recent years, the Su-34 fighter bomber has been produced not only without delay, but also ahead of schedule – 18 aircraft were put into service in 2015 instead of 16 aircraft as per schedule. Last year, the total amount of the Su-34 aircraft, including prototypes, reached 83 aircraft. Moreover, in 2013 the first large-series procurement contract for 32 aircraft was completed, plus 50 % of the second contract for 92 aircraft to be put into service by 2020. Two wings have already been refitted with new aircraft. In spite of known economic problems, the importance of the Su-34 is so high that we should not expect that plans to continue its acquisition program may be abandoned. The next contract for the period until 2025 is likely to be related to the procurement of modified Su-34M aircraft. No doubt, the future advanced version of the Su-34 fighter would be in many ways based on the experience of the aircraft’s combat employment in Syria. The Su-34 fighter bombers were both the “scalpel” and the “hammer” of the Russian expeditionary force in Syria as these aircraft were responsible for striking the most complicated targets with precision-guided weapons, including satellite-guided bombs. Besides, these aircraft carried the heaviest combat load.
The Su-30SM aircraft also took part in the overseas military campaign. This airplane has a quite unusual history – it's a model of the Su-30MKI/MKM aircraft initially developed as an export version for the Russian Air Force (according to available data, it is similar to the Malaysian version of Su-30MKM). Such origin allowed for a number of advantages – R&D, tests and mastering of new production methods were conducted at the foreign customer’s expense while the Russian Air Force received a ready-made aircraft that may be produced in large lots. Signed in 2012, two procurement contracts for 60 aircraft for Russia’s Air Force are almost completed. Another contract to procure additional 36 aircraft for the Air Force in the period of 2016-2018 has been signed. At the same time, Russia’s Navy maritime aircraft are also undergoing refit. In particular, naval Su-30SM aircraft are delivered to the Crimea in order to replace the Su-24. In the whole, the Russian Naval Force is planning to purchase nearly 50 aircraft by 2020. It appears that the Su-30SM will become the main tactical aircraft for the Russian Naval Force, replacing both the Su-27 and Su-24/24М.
Moreover, the Su-30SM is likely to be the main fighter for the SCTO members – this aircraft is being purchased by Kazakhstan and is expected to come into operation in Armenia and in the Republic of Belarus. These decisions are feasible because this aircraft combines a low price (that does not include development and mass production costs) and high performance. The upgrade capabilities of the Su‑30MK fighter are not depleted. At least, advanced modernization of the Indian Su-30MKI aircraft has been discussed for a long time. First of all, equipping these aircraft with the airborne radar with the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) is being discussed.
The Su-30SM is the only 4+ generation series-produced Russian multirole fighter combining fighter’s high performance and strike aircraft’s capabilities. High capabilities of the Su-30SM as a strike aircraft are enabled due to its two-pilot aircraft design. This is crucial for long-time flights and/or operations involving precision-guided weapons (PGWs) with a target self-seeking option. In fact, this aircraft is our response (though, slightly delayed response) to the U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighter, the concept of which has proved successful in many local conflicts. The Russian Su-30SM fighters have already gained their first operational experience in Syria; besides, as video reports show these aircraft have been used as strike aircraft.
Speaking of many advantages of this best solution (in the author’s opinion) for refitting the Russian Air Force in terms of the quality-price ratio, we should also mention its disadvantages. Despite the announced substitution of import components with domestic ones, until recently the Su-30SM models have been produced using a number of foreign-made components, in particular, the components made in France. It is not necessary to explain how inconvenient this approach may be nowadays. Only new aircraft are likely to be free of these disadvantages because they will be manufactured under the above-mentioned 3-year contract. At least, the export version of the Su-30SME (it's quite ironical, taking into account the history of origin of the Su-30SM itself) was demonstrated at an air show in Singapore. This version indicates the final rejection of French components represented as a distinctive feature in comparison to the Su-30МKI/МKМ.
Another modification of the Su-30 used by the Russian Air Force is the Su-30M2 model manufactured by KnAAZ. 20 aircraft have been purchased totally. These aircraft are based both on export versions that belong to the subseries produced by Komsomolsk-on-Amur aircraft building plant rather than by Irkutsk branch, i.e. on the Su-30MK aircraft exported to such countries as China, Vietnam, and Venezuela. The Su-30MK2 aircraft are simpler and less expensive than the Su-30MKI/MKМ – they are not equipped with engines with the controlled thrust vector or with a noseplane; they feature simpler avionics, in particular, airborne radar. Visually, these aircraft differ from the Su-27UB due to a higher vertical fin with a direct leading edge instead of an aft swept edge. Actually, dual control aircraft with the more intense use of service life in comparison to line aircraft may replace the Su-30M2 while operating together with the overhauled Su-27SM. Some experts say that although the Su-30M2 will be useful for the Russian Air Force, the purchase of a small amount of aircraft with lower performance than the competitors may offer as well as a quite unusual “integration” of these aircraft was probably a form of financial support of KnAAZ that was not satisfied with the terms and conditions of the first contact for the Su-35S.
As for the Su-35S, this aircraft is the crown jewel of the Russian aircraft building industry, the fighter with performance similar to the 5th generation and also the best Russian fighter able to ensure air supremacy due to a combination of excellent maneuvering capability and advanced avionics, in particular, the most powerful "Irbis" airborne radar system. However, the single-pilot configuration somehow constrains the operational capabilities for striking ground targets as well as its endurance. Anyway, the developers promise that the electronic “co-pilot” system will be able to fully compensate the absence of a real co-pilot in the same manner as it is implemented for the 5th generation fighter aircraft.
“While speaking to workers in an assembly shop I have recalled that we are planning nearly 25% of the total amount of funds for the state defense order to be spent for refitting our air force units. As you know, the state defense order’s total amount is 20 trillion rubles, therefore, one forth of this amount totals - 5 trillion rubles; it’s big money, really. It is planned that the amount of advanced aviation equipment operated by the Russian Air Force will reach 70% by 2020. For now, we have only 20%, unfortunately.”
President of Russia V. Putin on State Armaments Program-2020. 2013.
However, advanced avionics complicates mastering of new production methods and operations in the field. The first air unit equipped with the Su-35S fighters took up the air alert status only in late 2015. Although the newest fighters were ferried to Syria, this ferry was completed after the main Russian troops had been deployed, i.e. in late February 2016 (while the Su-30SM air unit had already been deployed after the commencement of the campaign). Moreover, instead of regular air unit’s aircraft newly produced aircraft were ferried to Syria after a few months of training at Archangelsk combat employment and training center. These aircraft were fitted with equipment and weapons that had never been installed on the regular unit’s aircraft, i.e. with the “Khibiny-M“ electronic warfare pods and the RVV-SD missiles. Therefore the Syrian campaign has become the continuation of the test phase in many aspects.
Another side effect associated with high performance is a high price of the aircraft and, therefore, a lower number of procurement contracts in comparison to the above-mentioned Su-30SM. Until recently, the aircraft have been delivered for the Ministry of Defence with delay. We hope the suppliers have managed to overcome such delays. The production of the 48 Su-35S aircraft under the first contract is complete; the second contract for additional 50 aircraft is signed and now in progress. Therefore, the amount of the Su-35S fighters operated by the Russian Air Force will reach 100 aircraft by the end of the decade. It is doubtful that large-lot aircraft procurements would continue after 2020 because by this time the main objective of KnAAZ will be the full-scale production of the PAK FA system.
MiG Fighter Acquisition Program: Is It Worth It?
The MiG fighter acquisition program is the most troublesome and questionable task. The plans for deck-based MiG-29K/KUB fighters are clear - it turned out that the naval versions of the Sukhoi aircraft were not developed (although there were some interesting models such as the Su-27KUB/33UB) – so, the MiG fighters are the only solution for refitting an air wing of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. However, the future of “land-based” fighters developed by Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG is still unclear. In 2014-2015, procurement contracts for 16 MiG-29SMT single-pilot aircraft and four MiG-29UB combat training aircraft were signed. The acquisition of such a small amount of products may be interpreted as the manufacturer’s financial support only. Negotiations on signing a contract for procurement of the MiG-35 aircraft for the Russian Air Force have been conducted (and constantly postponed) for many years. It is planned to purchase at least 30 aircraft after 2018.
The design of the advance MiG-35 model has passed a lot of re-design stages and is still undefined; therefore, experts often ask whether the MiG-35 is the actual development project or just a versatile label stuck to the highly ungraded MiG-29. Taking into account the fact that at least the first series-produced MiG-35 aircraft will not be equipped with the airborne radar with the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) that was promised to be installed for the Indian MMRCA tender, it would not be a figure of speech if we assume that the MiG 29М/М2, similar in design to the today's MiG-29K/KUB models, is offered to the Russian Air Force as an aircraft with a new codename. It is a questionable decision to launch the production of a 4+ generation reliable aircraft with average performance capabilities at the end of this decade – with regard to the time required for familiarization with new equipment in the field, this aircraft will come into operation together with the 5th generation fighters, i.e. the F-35 aircraft in NATO countries and the PAK FA system in Russia.
It is evident that procurement contracts for small amounts of the MiG aircraft do not contribute to the strategy for standardization of the traditionally diverse combat aircraft fleet – of course, the Su-30, Su-34, and Su-35 aircraft are different in design and components, but at least they have some common features that somehow facilitate training of pilots and ground personnel. The production of a small amount of new MiG fighters in order to replace obsolete MiG-29 aircraft that are actually taken out of service (the problems with their service life have resulted in refusal from a large-scale upgrade program similar to the upgrading of the Su-27SM) will “freeze” the problem associated with aircraft type diversification.
The more critical issue is the funds scattering with regard to the actual complicated economic situation. Procurement prices and service costs for the MiG aircraft produced in small lots, plus R&D and modifications at our expense cannot attract buyers in comparison to the large-lot Sukhoi aircraft. In terms of combat capabilities, lighter MiG fighters are evidently outperformed by the Su-30SM and Su-35S fighters that are coming into operation, not to mention that these aircraft will be improved in the future. Is it reasonable in a situation like this to scatter funds that have been limited even in better days instead of investing them in more important programs?