Warplanes: The Radically Reduced Red Air Force

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May 26, 2015: The Russian Air Force has fallen on hard times and is having great difficulty rebuilding. The Russian Air Force had over 10,000 military aircraft when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Because the 14 new states formed from the Soviet Union took possession of whatever warplanes were stationed within their borders, the “Red Air Force” instantly lost nearly half its strength. There followed two decades of sharply lower budgets that cut maintenance and eliminated all but a few purchases of new aircraft. Thus by now, even with growing budgets since 2000, Russia can only put into action about ten percent of the warplanes the Red Air Force could at its 1991 peak. To make matters worse growing development problems with the new T-50, a Russian “stealth” fighter, means that the Russians have to depend even more on late Cold War designs (Su-27/30, MiG-29, Su-25,  and some older heavy bomber and recon aircraft designs) and upgrades made to those aircraft (mainly for export customers) since 1991. 

Some of these aircraft are quote capable, even if expensive to buy and operate. The 37 ton Su-30 is roughly equivalent to the 25 ton U.S. F-15 and was an improved version of the earlier Su-27. The Su-30 can carry more than eight tons of bombs and hit targets over 1,500 kilometers away. The 33 ton Su-27 entered service in the 1980s. Developed near the end of the Cold War, the Su-30 is one of the best fighters Russia has ever produced. The government helped keep Sukhoi alive during the 1990s and even supplied money for development of an improved version of the Su-30. Meanwhile the Su-30 proved to be an outstanding aircraft and is the main one Sukhoi produces. There are now several Su-30 variants and major upgrades. While only about 700 Su-27s were produced (mostly between 1984, when it entered service, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), adding Su-30 production and you have over 1,000 aircraft (including license built ones in China and India).

Russia began building the 45 ton Su-34 fighter-bombers in 2008 to replace the Su-24 light bomber. The Su-34 is yet another variant of the Su-27 and is very similar to the thirty-six ton U.S. F-15E (a two seat fighter bomber version of the 31 ton F-15C). But Russia still has a few hundred Su-24s in service and only 60 Su-34s. It appears that the new Su-34s will not arrive quickly enough to replace most of the elderly Su-24s. The Su-34 has a full set of defensive and offensive sensors (radars, targeting cameras, laser designators) and electronic warfare gear, it also can carry eight tons of missiles and smart bombs. Russia is currently buying less than a hundred Su-34s to replace three-hundred older Su-24s (most of these are not fit for service). Most of the Su-24s were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Su-35 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the original, 33 ton, Su-27, and has much better electronics. It can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs at least fifty percent more than the Su-27. That would be some $60 million (for a barebones model), about what a top-of-the-line F-16 costs. The Su-27 was originally developed to match the F-15, which is larger than the single engine F-16. The larger size of the Su-27/35 allows designers to do a lot more with it in terms of modifications and enhancements.  The Su-35 has some stealth capabilities (or at least be less detectable to most fighter aircraft radars). Russia claims the Su-35 has a useful life of 6,000 flight hours and engines good for 4,000 hours. Russia promises world-class avionics, plus a very pilot-friendly cockpit. The use of many thrusters and fly-by-wire will produce an aircraft even more maneuverable than Su-30s (which were Su-27s tweaked to be extremely agile). The Su-35 was in development for two decades before it was declared ready for production in 2005. But even then there were problems with the new engines that gave it its superior performance. Russia says the engine problems are solved, but only time will tell if that is true.  The Su-35 is not meant to be a direct rival for the F-22 because the Russian aircraft is not nearly as stealthy. The Su-35 carries a 30mm autocannon (with 150 rounds) and up to eight tons of munitions, hanging from 12 hard points. This reduces stealthiness, which the F-22 and F-35 get around by using an internal bay for bombs and missiles. But if the maneuverability and advanced electronics of the proposed Su-35 live up to the promises, the aircraft would be more than a match for every fighter out there except the F-22. Since the Su-35 is to sell for well under $100 million each, there should be a lot of buyers.

Russia also updated its MiG-31 recon aircraft and its Tu-160 heavy bombers. Efforts were made to develop improved AWACS and aerial tankers. None of these ever caught up with their Western counterparts during the Cold War and despite the upgrades have fallen further behind.

Another major expense you don’t hear much about is the cost of upgrading many of the 150 airfields the air force uses. Most of these were built during the Cold War and few got refurbished after the Cold War ended in 1991. Emergency repairs were made as required, but that does not deal with long term decay which, apparently has to be fixed now or lots of airfields become unusable.

 


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