Leadership: A Tradition Of Whatever Works

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August 20, 2021: In Russia a blog operated by a politician who used to be an air force fighter pilot revealed that pilots in Su-34 fighter-bombers operating in Syria added an American Garmin GPS receivers to their cockpits. The defense ministry later confirmed this and Russian pilots say it is allowed because Russian fighter pilots had learned years ago that commercial GPS equipment, especially from Garmin, were often more reliable than the satellite navigation systems built into Russian fighters. Russian commanders consider this sort of improvisation a useful military tradition, especially when it makes Russian warplanes safer to operate in situations that require precise location information. In Syria the handheld Garmin unit in the cockpit continued to operate effectively in situations (heavy clouds, nearby mountains) when Russian GLONASS satellite navigation systems did not.

This sort of thing is not new and was noted back in 2015 when cell phone photos were taken by a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber pilot, demonstrating how his aircraft went about aerial refueling with a Russian Il-76 aerial tanker. The photos revealed the presence of a Garmin GPS receiver sitting in a handmade cradle placed in front of the pilot, just like in the Su-34. It wasn’t just a Russian thing either. Such improvised GPS receivers were common in Western warplanes in the late 1990s, before they all got GPS built into their navigation systems. Russia has not been able to upgrade the navigation systems on all their older aircraft, or even more recent ones, and improvisations like this are allowed and even encouraged, but not officially publicized.

In 2015 the Russian Air Force was adapting as best it could after two decades of sharply reduced budgets. That means the elderly (1970s) Su-24 has had to wait longer than expected for a replacement. So far Russia has only been able to buy 136 new Su-34 light bombers to replace hundreds of Su-24s. Currently only about a hundred Su-24s are still active with the Russian air force, and these are upgraded versions of those built in the late 1980s and 1993, when production ended.

The Su-34 had its first flight in 1990 and finally entered service in early 2014. While most nations using Su-24s have retired them by now as too expensive to operate and maintain, Russia had to keep many of their Su-24s in service until it had enough Su-34s to replace them. Given all the budget shortages, the Russians had to improvise because even the refurbished Su-24s usually lacked built in satellite navigation devices. That’s because Russia wanted its aircraft to use a Russian built satellite navigation system called GLONASS. Russia, without much publicity, was quick to copy the American GPS system even before the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This became another problem because the government had been trying for decades to create a Russian version of GPS.

GLONASS was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1995. The end of the Cold War in 1991 because of national bankruptcy meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. With no money for that, at the end of 2002 only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, the Russian economy recovered at about the same time. This made possible rebuilding the GLONASS network. By the end of 2007 there were 18 GLONASS satellites active. Russia had 24 GLONASS satellites in orbit by 2011, and the system was fully operational in 2012. In theory it is widely used in Russia and most smart phones adapted for the Russian market have GLONASS. But most GLONASS equipped gear retained its GPS capability as well.

The money for GLONASS is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are still combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia has put billions of dollars into GLONASS since 2012 to keep the system fully operational. Now lower oil prices and growing economic sanctions mean there may not be enough money to maintain the satellite network. GLONASS will probably be declared an essential system and the money found. But something will have to be sacrificed and new aircraft for the Russian Air Forces are more vulnerable to cuts than GLONASS. Russian military pilots had already adapted and have been using portable GPS receivers in their cockpits because they noted American pilots doing it in the 1990s. Whatever works.

 


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