By Dr. Richard Weitz
08/27/2011 – Until a few years ago, the Russian military aviation sector, like many other Russian defense firms, simply struggled to keep Soviet-era weapons platforms operational through upgrades of their computers or ordinance. The Russian military-industrial complex rarely produced any new sophisticated weapons systems. When it did, it would most often manufacture a few prototypes, but then resource constraints would prevent their mass production. Trying to modernize old airplanes, tanks and missiles that were designed in the 1970s and 1980s proved more costly and ineffective than anticipated.
The bankrupt Russian government forced its Ministry of Defense (MoD) to live off the massive weapons inventories Russia inherited from the Soviet Union. Many Soviet-era weapons designers and manufactures went bankrupt, while others gave up on the defense sector.
Those that remained were able to survive only through aggressive foreign sales campaigns. These resulted in record sales to India and China, which during the last few decades of the Soviet Union was not permitted to buy any Soviet weapons legally. During the 1990s, China, India, and other countries were able to buy more sophisticated aircraft than the Russian Air Force from Russian defense firms.
According to the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), which arranged for me to meet senior Russian MoD and defense industry executives when I was in Russia this spring, Russia exported more than 450 Su-27/30 and almost 200 MiG-29 fighter jets from 1999 to 2010, at a time when the MoD could afford to buy only a handful of warplanes from Sukhoi and MiG.
Sales to foreign air forces still account for about a half of Russia’s annual arms sales, which amounted to $8.35 billion in 2008. Exports of Sukhoi’s planes account for about half of these sales, or one-quarter of the annual total.
There was a slight rebound in state orders during the mid-2000s, but then the global financial crisis of 2008 again sent the industry into a tailspin. That year, the authorities had to adopt additional emergency support measures for Russian defense companies as part of a crisis-response package that had already seen the government support the troubled military-industrial complex with low-rate loans, flexible contract terms, and quick cash infusions.
Russian officials now provided the military industrial sector with a subsidized 100 billion ruble guaranteed state bank loan, authorized multi-year contracts that enable companies to purchase raw materials and other inputs at opportune times on world markets, and gave 50 billion rubles directly to struggling defense firms.
Much of the alarm focused on the MiG Corporation, the venerable but then ailing manufacturer of Russia’s world-famous fighter aircraft. The company lost some 11 billion rubles in 2008, and had a debt of about 45 billion rubles ($1.25 billion), mostly to its chief suppliers. It had fallen into a distinctly inferior position compared with its traditional rival, the Sukhoi Corporation, whose fighters have become Russia’s most valuable export item.
Sukhoi’s bid defeated MiG’s entry a few years ago for the highly coveted contract to produce Russia’s fifth-generation fighter.
The MiG Corporation’s international reputation has also suffered from persistent problems, especially in the area of after-sales services such as the timely provision of spare parts and repairs. Although MiG planes, like those of other Russian defense firms, typically carry cheaper sticker prices than comparable Western models, potential buyers must factor into their decisions these probable higher operating costs and lower reliability.
On February 11, 2009, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov visited MiG’s Moscow headquarters and announced that the government would allocate 15 billion rubles ($417 million) to the corporation to allow it to increase its charter capital by issuing additional shares. The Russian government also front-loaded state orders to the corporation, giving MiG 11 billion rubles ($308 million) in the first quarter of 2009 as part of its 17.3 billion-ruble ($485 million) state defense contract for the year.
In another move to support for the MiG Corporation, the MoD agreed to buy 24 MiG-29s that the Algerian government, in an unprecedented decision, refused to accept due to alleged quality control problems. The Ministry offered to pay 25 billion rubles ($690 million) for the two dozen MiG fighters. In March 2006, Russia’s state arms export monopoly Rosoboronexport signed a $1.28 billion contract to deliver 28 one-seat MiG-29SMT fighters and six two-seat MiG-29UB combat trainers to Algeria as part of an $8 billion military cooperation agreement. After obtaining 15 of the planes, the Algerian government, in May 2007, declined to receive further deliveries. In October 2007, Algiers froze all payments to Russia until Moscow consented to take back the planes, which Russia did in April 2008.
Although Russian authorities claimed that the planes were in good condition, the December 2008 crash of a MiG-29 in East Siberia, the second such mishap in two months, forced Defense Ministry sources to acknowledge that most of Russia’s own fleet of 281 MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, acquired between 1983 and 1993, could no longer perform combat duties due to obsolescence and age.
The Ministry permitted only some 30% of the MiG-29s, which are now only manufactured to export from assembly kits inherited from the Soviet Union, to resume operations following their month-long suspension.
Rather than try to overhaul its MiG-29 fleet, the Russian Air Force decided to gamble on obtaining a superior fifth-generation plane with stealth technologies, supersonic cruising speed, and other advanced features then available only in the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor.
In October 2007, Sukhoi Corporation, which had been seeking a foreign partner for five years, and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited signed an intergovernmental agreement for the joint development and production of the so-called T-50 PAK FA Advanced Frontline Aviation Aircraft System: a single-seat variant for the Russian Air Force and a two-seat version for India’s.
In addition to a revival of government purchases, the Russian aviation sector appears to have benefitted from the decision to consolidate its remaining design bureaus and manufacturing plants and production units, many of which were privatized in the 1990s, into a single state holding company, the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). The UAC includes MiG, Sukhoi, and Russia’s leading civilian aircraft manufacturers. It received extensive government subsidies and assistance with rescheduling its loans until its recent upsurge in orders.
The consolidation may have enabled MiG to more easily draw insights from Sukhoi’s superior performance. It also may have helped decrease the time required to transition a prototype from the R&D stage to production as well as enhanced oversight of subcontractors, though both issues still remain a problem.
Under the UAC’s tutelage, MiG Corporation is now manufacturing a lightweight, low-cost but sophisticated fighter, the MiG-35. It is a “4++ generation” plane that incorporates some fifth-generation technology. It has an active phased-array Zhuk A radar (Zhuk AE in exports) unit and vectored-thrust engines. Since the Russian Air Forces has yet to commit to acquire a new light-weight fighter, the MiG-35 is designed primarily for export.
The UAC displayed the MiG-35 at MAKS 2011 to several potential buyers. Although the plane was down-selected early in the competition for India’s medium multi-role combat aircraft, the UAC hopes especially to sell this updated version of the MiG-29M to potential customers in Asia and Africa whose air forces already have the MiG-29M or its earlier variants. A twin-seat variant, the MiG-35D, should also soon be available.
According to UAC, the MiG-35 has more reliable airframes, engines and avionics than the MiG-29M, which will lengthen its service and reduce its average flight-hour costs by increasing the mean time between engine overhauls. The plane now has Klimov RD-33MK engines, a new Optical Locator System, and the Phazotron Zhuk-AE active electronically scanned array radar.
Its superior defensive systems include radio electronic reconnaissance and electronic counter measures, optronic systems for detecting incoming missiles, and decoy dispensers to confuse adversary radar systems.
Its open architecture makes it easier to install new equipment and weapons, including non-Russian made systems.
UAC and Russian Air Force leaders claim that the MiG-35 is a potential competitor to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 since the MiG-35 is projected to cost less and meet the needs of many foreign air forces that have purchased Soviet planes in the past.