Russian Air Power on Display: A Comprehensive Buildup


By Richard Weitz

08/23/2011 Despite the heavy involvement of India in the T-50 project, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is now the main buyer of Russian-made aircraft. After its surprising ineffectiveness in the 2008 Georgia War, the Ministry plans to revitalize the Russian Air Force by raising the level of new or upgraded planes in the active fleet to 70 percent by 2020.

The planned purchases would include as many as 100 Sukhoi fighter jets, 100 Su-34 fighter-bombers, up to 70 fifth-generation T-50 fighters, 29 MiG-29K carrier-based fighters, and 30 Su-30MKI multirole fighter jets adapted for the Russian Air Force. The MiG-31 air defense interceptors are also being upgraded to prolong their service lives. The Su-34 is replacing the Su-24 swing-wing strike aircraft, currently the most numerous types of combat aircraft in the Russian inventory. The goal is to have 70 of the planes, which can carry 8,000kg (17,600lb) of weapons, in operation by 2015.

The Russian Mi-35 Attack Helicopter otherwise known as the Flying Tank

At the 2011 International Aviation & Space Salon (MAKS-2011) air show, held at Zhukovsky airfield outside Moscow from August 16-21, the head of the Russian Air Force, Gen. Aleksander Zelin, said that his service eventually wants to acquire 120 of the two-seated Sukhoi Su-34 front-line bombers aircraft, enough to equip five squadrons of two dozen planes each.

The MoD will purchase 12 Su-34s this year, though output at Sukhoi’s NAPO plant in Novosibirsk is expected to increase in coming years. The goal is to have 70 of the planes, each of which can carry 8,000kg (17,600lb) of weapons, in operation by 2015. The Su-34 is replacing the Su-24 swing-wing strike aircraft, currently the most abundant type of combat aircraft in the Russian inventory.

The MoD is also negotiating to purchase as many as 40 Su-30MK fighters, with 28 aircraft under a base contract expected to be signed in 2012, and an option for 12. The Su-30 was originally designed for export. More than 270 of its variants have been sold since 1997. Customers include Algeria, China, India, Malaysia, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

For use in the Russian Air Force, the Su-30MK plane will be “Russified.” This new variant, which may be called the Su-30SM, will substitute Russian parts for European and Israeli components and convert the display from English to Russian.

Since the planes will cost around $50 million each, a total buy of 40 fighters would cost around $2 billion. Aleksey Fedorov, president of the Irkut company that manufactures the plane, sees decreasing demand for the Su-30MK series and aims to end production during the next decade, manufacturing only the Yak-130 trainer for the MoD as well as the MS-21 regional passenger jet.

Russian analysts consider the Su-30s as a bridging plane until the Air Force acquires a large quantity of Su-35s, which is still undergoing final development and yet to enter the Air Force’s inventory. The MoD aims to purchase 48 Su-35s multi-role fighters.

The Su-35 is considered a “four++” generation plane, with only some fifth-generation capabilities.  It will serve alongside the approximately 200 fifth-generation T-50s the MoD plans to acquire.

The MoD plans to backload some of the new technologies developed for theT-50, especially the AESA Radar, as mid-life upgrades onto its existing fleet of Su-35BMs, Su-30MKIs, and Su-30MK2s, which are all manufactured by Sukhoi as part of the United Aircraft Corporation, the massive aviation holding company established by the government to include both military and civilian aviation enterprises.

The MoD has already resumed purchasing helicopters from a similar state holding corporation, Russian Helicopters, JSC. Combining 11 regional helicopter manufacturers that often engaged in destructive competition with one another created this joint-stock company. This consolidation was completed last year.

Russian Helicopters displayed several of its top-of-the-line line products at MAKS 2011, including the Mi34C1, Ka-226T, Mi-26T2 and Mi-17. The corporation now possesses approximately 13% of the world helicopter market, with sales divided roughly equally between the Russian domestic market and foreign buyers.

But having recently completed its integration of all the previous Russian military and civilian helicopter manufacturers, its managers now want to increase this share.

Russian Helicopters manufactured 214 combat and transport helicopters last year and is expected to produce 260 helicopters this year and 300 helicopters in 2012. Whereas in previous years Russian helicopter manufacturers exported most of their helicopters to Asia, the Russian armed forces has now begun buying large numbers as well.

Dmitry Petrov, the corporation’s general director, expects the Russian MoD to purchase more than 1,000 new military helicopters under the 2011-2020 State Armament Program–equivalent to120-160 helicopters annually, starting next year.

According to the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), which has the best publicly available information on this topic, the Air Force purchases will include:

  • 220 Mi-28N
  • 40 Mi-35M attack helicopters,
  • 120 Ka-52 “Alligator” reconnaissance/attack machines,
  • 26 Mi-26 heavy transports,
  • 100 Ka-60 training/electronic warfare,
  • 30 Ka-226 training helicopters,
  • as many as 70 Ansat training helicopters,
  • and 500 Mi-8 transport helicopters.

Furthermore, the Navy is expected to buy more than one hundred helicopters for anti-submarine warfare, transport, training and search and rescue; including 70 Ka-27M and Ka-29M, and as many as 30 Ka-52 and 20 Ka-226.

The MoD has met the request of Russian defense companies to make more multi-year buys rather than rely solely on one-year contracts.

In the case of Russian Helicopters, the MoD will make long-term purchase agreements with five final assembly plants in Arseniev, Kazan, Kumertau, Rostov-on-Don and Ulan-Ude.

The first such deal with the Rostvertol plant in Rostov-on-Don will result in the purchase of Mi-26, Mi-28N and Mi-35M helicopters. Petrov added that the Kamov design firm has already begun developing a new helicopter for the Russian Navy, with the expected delivery in 2017-18.

In the interim, Kamov will manufacture Navy versions of its Ka-52 reconnaissance/attack and its Ka-226 utility helicopters. Russian Helicopters is also developing a Mi-171A2 transport helicopter as well as technologies for unmanned helicopters.

The Mi-35M has been introduced into Brazil for counter-drug missions.

Analysts still expect that around half of Russian Helicopters’ sales during the next decade will come from overseas buyers, mostly in Asia. To address previous complaints about poor after-sales service, Russian Helicopters has been establishing a network of dedicated service centers in its best foreign markets and has created a new enterprise that will focus exclusively on this issue.

The MoD also plans to resume purchasing transportation aircraft. During the Soviet era, the Air Force had some of the largest transport planes in the world such as the An-22. Since the Cold War, even NATO countries have leased these planes for special operations.

But the Russian Air Force has not received a single new transport plane since 1992, and the existing fleet of 300 transport planes is rapidly showing its age in terms of both technological obsolescence and service life exhaustion.

The problem was that the main Soviet design bureau for transport aircraft, the Antonov design bureau, was located in Ukraine, while the TAPO plant in Uzbekistan manufactured the long-serving Ilyushin Il-76 heavy-lift military transport aircraft.

Both former Soviet republics became independent countries after the USSR disintegrated. This change ended the tightly integrated (and heavily resourced) Soviet military industrial complex, in which Moscow could orchestrate a suitable harmony among its components regardless of their location.

Although the Russian MoD has suspended funding on the Il-112 light transportation plane to replace the An-24/26, it plans to purchase as many as 100 Il-76MDs during the next decade to replace the existing fleet of aging Il-76s.

Russia’s Aviastar aircraft factory, which has replaced the Uzbekistan-based TAPO plant that can no longer produce enough air frames, hopes to sell the plane to India, China, and other foreign buyers.

Russia also plans to produce an updated version of Il-76, called the Il-476 by 2013. It would use PS-90 turbofan engines, which are more fuel efficient and quieter than the D-30 engines on the original Il-76, as well as updated avionics and flight deck systems, which require fewer crew members.

Russia has agreed to work with Ukraine’s newly cooperative government on an An-70 propfan transportation plane and an updated version of the An-124, the world’s largest heavy military transport plane. The UAC hopes that the MoD will purchase ten An-124s under the current 2011-2020 SAP. Russia might also collaborate with India on a joint Medium Transport Aircraft project that would replace the Antonov An-12.

The state-owned Vega Corporation, Russia’s leading developer of drones and some other high-tech weaponry, used the MAKS 2011 to show off Russia’s first unmanned aerial combat vehicle, the Lutch medium-range UACV.

According to the company, the Lutch has a maximum take-off weight of 800 kilograms and can reach speeds of 270 kilometers per hour. It can carry up to 170 kilograms of ammunition and weapons control systems, including precision-guided weapons on fuselage pylons or in a fuselage weapons bay.

Depending on its load, the Lutch has a 250-350 km surveillance range, which can be doubled when its weapons are replaced by extra fuel tanks. Its maximum flight time is normally 18 hours, but extra fuel supplies can increase this duration to 30 hours with appropriate refueling.

In addition to strike operations, Vega claims Lutch can also conduct optical reconnaissance, radar, radio-relay and electronic reconnaissance missions. Until now, the MoD, not trusting indigenous defense technology in this area, has relied on UAVs imported by Israel. But Vega was established as a sort of mini-DARPA designed to spur innovation in the military’s use of electronics.

The Air Force also aims to develop a new airborne warning and control system (AWACS) plane by 2016. These A-100 aircraft would be constructed on the basis of the Il-476 transport plane and its more efficient PS-90 engines. The A-100 would have an advanced active phase array capable of detecting and tracking airborne and land-based targets.

The Russian Air Force currently flies around 20 A-50 Mainstay AWACS planes, which are based on the original Ilyushin Il-76 transportation plane. The A-50s are equipped with the large Liana surveillance radar antenna, which is located in an over-fuselage rotodome. The plane can control as many as ten fighter aircraft for either air-to-air intercept or air-to-ground attack missions.

The MoD has even begun implementing plans to develop next-generation, long-range strategic bombers and has started funding new precision-guided weapons for these planes.

In the interim, it is modernizing its Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers and equipping them with a conventionally armed version of the Kh-55 nuclear-tipped cruise missile, the Kh-555. The Navy’s Tu-22M3 heavy supersonic bombers, armed with Kh-22 missiles, now operate under joint strategic commands that combine air and naval headquarters in a single geographic region.

This transformation could result in their receiving higher priority in terms of funding compared to when they were a subordinate and neglected part of the Air Force.