Warplanes: June 19, 2005

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  When one talks about Russian aircraft, one of the first arguments is that they are underrated. This is often due to the fact that in most of the well-known wars over the past 25 years, Russian aircraft, including modern ones like the MiG-29, have usually suffered very lopsided kill ratios (like the 40 to 0 ratio in Desert Storm, and the 82 to 0 ratio in the aptly named Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot). The losers in those engagements were the air forces of Iraq and Syria, respectively. This happened despite the Russian aircraft being quite impressive, at least on paper. 

Now, the pilots of the Iraqi and Syrian air forces were admittedly not top-quality. Nor were they given some of the advantages that their American and Israeli adversaries had (like airborne radar aircraft). It certainly raises the question of how much of the poor performance can be laid on the Russian-built aircraft. This is doubly true given the results of COPE INDIA, in which Indian Su-30s (a different model of the Su-27) were able to defeat U.S. Air Force F-15s. Indias doctrine is closer to the U.S. Air Forces in terms of the flight hours Indian Air Force pilots get for training.

The family of Su-27 aircraft  has been accorded a great deal of respect by the U.S. Air Force. The likely use of Su-27s by a potential adversary (China), has the United States wanting the F-22. The Su-27 has proven to be capable of some amazing maneuvers (like the Pugachev Cobra, where it reaches a 120-degree angle of attack). Also, the Su-27 is armed with the AA-10/R-27 Alamo, the AA-11/R-73 Archer, and the AA-12/R-77 Adder (or AMRAAMski), which gives it a superb collection of air-to-air weapons.

Su-27s scored at least five and as many as seven kills in the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In that same war, Eritrean MiG-29s scored four kills of their own (albeit none against the Su-27). This is a glimmer of hope for Russian aircraft. India, having operated both Su-27s and MiG-29s, is going to fly MiG-29Ks from the Vikramaditya (the carrier formerly known as the Admiral Gorshkov).

But Indias experience with Russian aircraft has shown some problems. The intensive training schedule has pushed Indias MiG-21 fleet beyond endurance (the planes will be retired by 2015). From 1996 through 2000, 81 MiGs were lost to various accidents. This was an average of 16 a year. In Fiscal Year 2000, the United States Air Force lost 14. India, it should be noted, has about 700 combat aircraft on inventory in 2000. The United States Air Force has 1,343 F-15C/D/E and F-16A/B/C/D in its combat-ready inventory (with numerous others in test/development, reserve, or maintenance).

When it comes down to it, the most important factor in a fighters performance is the pilot. Good pilots can get the most out of their aircraft at least two of the Ethiopian kills were achieved by Russian mercenaries, who probably are better than most African pilots. In 1977, Israeli mercenaries achieved at least seven kills flying Ethiopian F-5As against Somali MiG-21s. American pilots train hard, and 1991, often commented that flying in Desert Storm was like the Red Flag exercises, only the Iraqis were not as good. The training pilots receive will be what determines how well a Russian-built airplane (or any airplane) does in combat. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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