The Buzz

Russia's Lethal Yak-130 Fighter: The Tiny Terror NATO Should Fear

In the world of Russian jet fighters, Moscow’s finest — such as the Flanker and the fifth-generation Sukhoi T-50 — tend to grab the most headlines.

But the Yakovlev Yak-130, a comparatively non-glamorous twin-seat jet trainer, is quietly turning heads … because it’s obviously more than just a trainer. The twin-engine jet dubbed “Mitten” by Western intelligence is now showing its credentials as a genuine multi-role fighter.

When an air force wants to maximize its combat potential, a trainer — even a jet-powered one — might not be the most obvious choice of aircraft.

But today’s multi-role combat trainers are a viable and comparatively low-cost alternative to conventional fighters — even one that originates from behind the former Iron Curtain.

Like many post-Soviet military projects, it took a long time before any pilots got their hands on the Yak-130. But now the aircraft is showing up at the Russian air force’s advanced flight training schools.

Further, the Kremlin has begun deliveries to Belarus, a close military ally of Moscow. Previously, the Kremlin delivered Yak-130s to Algeria, another established customer of Russian-made warplanes.

The Yak-130 has three hard-points under each wing. That means it can carry up to three tons of air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, precision-guided bombs, free-fall bombs, rockets, gun pods and external fuel tanks.

Another two stations at the wingtips can carry air-to-air missiles or decoy launchers to spoof enemy heat-seeking missiles. That’s not at all. Under its belly, the plane can carry a hard-hitting 23-millimeter cannon.

Recent photographs reveal the next stage in the Yak-130’s maturation to a combat aircraft. In the photos, a Yak wearing the latest Russian military markings has a characteristic “bump” in front of the cockpit. This could house the LD-130 laser rangefinder and TV camera for identifying targets and improving the accuracy of its weapons.

Another option for a future upgrade is a flight refueling probe, which would expand the jet’s range for offensive missions.

A fully armed and fueled Yak-130 tips the scales at 22,700 pounds. That’s only a little more than half the weight of a fully-loaded F-16 Fighting Falcon, the primary multi-role fighter of the U.S. Air Force and many of its allies.

Hang two 500-pound bombs, a gun pod and a pair of fuel tanks on a Yak-130 and it will have a maximum operational radius of 367 nautical miles. That’s fairly respectable compared to the F-16, which will haul two 2,000-pound bombs, two AIM-9 Sidewinders and a pair of external fuel tanks over a radius of 740 nautical miles.

The subsonic Yak-130 belongs to a class of aircraft known as lead-in fighter trainers — or LIFTs. For a modern-day air force, LIFTs allow student pilots to familiarize themselves with the advanced technology they’ll encounter once strapped into a front-line fighter’s cockpit.

For its part, the U.S. Air Force is currently looking to buy 350 copies of a new LIFT to replace its hopelessly outdated T-38 Talon jet trainers. The Air Force calls the multi-billion-dollar program T-X.

But beyond the LIFT role, jet trainers such as the Yak-130 can fly genuine combat missions, too.

For smaller air forces — such as Belarus — the Yak-130 is a low-cost way of flying missions that would otherwise require an expensive multi-role fighter. After retiring its Su-27 fighters due to cost reasons and disposing of its Su-24 strike aircraft, Belarus badly needed to bolster its air combat fleet.

Small and agile, but able to pack a punch, the Yak-130 is also useful in counter-insurgency and asymmetric warfare.

Since the Vietnam War, jet trainers have found a place in counter-insurgency operations. Algeria is very interested in counter-insurgency operations because the nation has been waging a long-running campaign against Islamic extremists.

The Algerian air force’s Yak-130s complement heavier Sukhoi jets and operate alongside upgraded Mi-24 helicopter gunships.

Russian manufacturer Yakovlev — once the country’s preeminent fighter designer — designed the Yak-130. Irkut Corporation bought out Yakovlev in 2008, and shifted its production to Russia’s far east.

Work on a new trainer for the Russian air force — then the Soviet air force — began in 1990, and by the middle of that decade the Yak-130 competed against the much more conventional Mikoyan MiG-AT. A prototype Yak-130 began flight testing in April 1996, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the Kremlin finally selected the trainer instead of the MiG.

During the first decade of the new century, Russia produced four prototype Yak-130s.

The Russia air force placed its first order in 2005 for 12 aircraft, and began receiving the planes in early 2010. The following year, the air force signed a further order for 55 aircraft.