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. India’s doctrine is closer to the U.S. Air Force’s 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
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 India’s experience with
Russian aircraft has shown some problems. The intensive training schedule has
pushed India’s 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
When it comes down to it, the most important factor in a
fighter’s 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.