Russia: April 13, 2001


RUSSIAN AIR FORCE: HEADED FOR A CRASH: The Russian Air Force is in a sorry state, and may be more of a liability for the nation than an asset. There are 2,000 aircraft in the force, of which about 900 can fly (sometimes) with the rest little more than scrap metal. And it isn't going to get any better. The available money would support an Air Force of no more than 500 aircraft, which would reduce Russia to the state of a regional power that would only be able to operate in one of its many regions at any given time. 

Hopes for modernization are faint as there is no money for new aircraft. If the new Su-37 is a threat to US air supremacy, it will be Chinese pilots, not Russians, who fly it. The Russian air force cannot afford to buy the new Su-37, but the Chinese can. 

The Russian Air Force is getting only half a million metric tons of fuel per year, about 20% of what it needs. Flight hours have sunk to a new low, with fighter pilots getting 10 hours per year (barely enough to remain qualified to take off and land), bomber and attack pilots getting 30 hours per year, and transport pilots getting 50 hours per year. But the numbers are misleading as they are averages. Some fighter pilots get more than 50 hours per year while others have not flown in two years or more. Bomber pilots (100 heavy bombers are operational and they get first crack at the money) and those attack pilots assigned to Chechnya often get 50 hours per year or more, while others are reduced to simulators and a couple of flights per year. The use of simulators is all but worthless as Russian simulator technology is equivalent to what the US had in 1965. 

The Russian Air Force probably has the equivalent of two or three wings (regiments) of combat-capable aircraft and pilots, and as those pilots get older and move into staff positions, they will be replaced by pilots who never had the extensive Soviet-era training and did not get enough "peacetime" training to achieve, let alone retain, the necessary skills to survive in combat. Should the Russian Air Force have to go to war, their accident rate will be as high as their effectiveness rate is low. 

The Russian military is increasingly forced to resort to outright lies about its readiness and ability to function. Even worse, the salesmen for Russian aircraft export agencies are also forced to lie (even when they will be caught instantly in those lies) about the purchase of new designs by the government and about how useful they have proven to be in combat. Russia is, for all practical purposes, limited to two reliable export customers (India and China) which would have an impossible time buying top-level aircraft from other sources. 

Russian companies are shipping defective and fake spare parts to previous customers, which goes a long way toward convincing previous customers to buy their next aircraft from the West. Only Sukhoi (thanks to its export sales to China and India) remains a viable company, and those export sales do nothing for the Russian Air Force, which cannot afford new aircraft. MiG is selling its MiG-29s so cheaply ($11 million each) that it loses money on each sale. Corruption and constant personnel turnovers in the export agencies do nothing for sales; contracts signed by one official are often ignored, broken, or dismissed by their replacements. 

President Putin recently combined the arms export agencies and replaced their leadership, claiming this would fix the problem, but previous reshuffles did not do so. Putin succeeded in removing Military Space Command (MSC) from the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF). The SRF had, basically, stolen the MSC's budget for the last decade, leaving Russia without an effective satellite missile warning, photo-recon, radar-recon, or eavesdropping capability. If the Strategic Rocket Forces are forcibly absorbed by the Air Force, Russia may be able to field an effective Air Force only by allowing its strategic missile force to suffer. Putin has tried to give the new Russian Security Council control over such military reorganizations, but the powerful military staff and commanders have blocked this effort. 

Russian fighter and bomber tactics have advanced little. Very few pilots have used the new guided bombs, and their tactics are primitive compared to the US. While the US Air Force and Navy plan their attack runs to minimize collateral damage, Russian pilots have no interest in "broader effects" and make their attack runs from any convenient direction. 

If the proper amount of cash suddenly appeared, it would take the Russian Air Force a decade to field an effective force with trained pilots. All of this factors into President George W Bush's plans for no sudden increase in the defense budget.--Stephen V Cole


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