The Buzz

The Russian Air Force Has A Problem (And It's Not NATO or ISIS)

Russia’s air campaign in Syria has demonstrated that the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily has made great strides toward recovery since its near collapse in the mid-1990s. However, while the Russian air force is receiving much needed new hardware, the service’s modernization plans could create some challenges in the years to come.

Instead of standardizing on two or three common airframes, Russia is buying an eclectic mix of jets including Sukhoi Su-30M2, Su-30SM, Su-35S Flankers and the Su-34 Fullback. In addition to those four types, Russia has also ordered modernized MiG-29SMT and MiG-35 Fulcrum-F fighters. It’s also planning on buying new-build Tu-160M2 Blackjack strategic bombers.

Meanwhile, the Russian Navy is hoping to buy twenty or so MiG-29K Fulcrums to replace its ageing Su-33K Flankers in addition to its own shore-based Su-30SMs. While those orders keep Moscow’s aircraft production lines going, it also massively complicates Russia’s logistics. That’s because while those aircraft are based on two types of airframes, the different individual variants don’t have a lot of commonality.

Moreover, Russia has embarked on multiple different next-generation warplane projects including the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA fighter, the Tupolev PAK-DA bomber, the PAK-PD interceptor, the PAK-TA transport and potentially even a new lightweight fifth-generation fighter to replace the MiG-29.

In short, the Russia’s modernization program would be extremely ambitious even if the country were not economically suffering from European sanctions and low oil prices. But it is not clear how the Russian government hopes to pay for the development of so many different planes at the same time. Nor is it clear that it has the technical or industrial capability to do so. Indeed, there are indications that it doesn’t—the PAK-DA has been delayed past 2023.

Modern Russia is not the Soviet Union; it doesn’t have the wherewithal to place as much money into its military industrial complex as the USSR once did. Nor does it have the industrial base the Soviet Union used to. Russia’s current State Armament Program (SAP-2020) is probably not sustainable. Moscow most likely needs to develop a more feasible plan, which might mean scaling back the number of different aircraft types its is either purchasing or developing.

For example, it might be advantageous for the sake of logistics to dispose of the Su-30M2, Su-34 and the MiG-35. The Su-30SM and Su-35S can more than cover any of the mission sets performed by those aircraft. The MiG-35 is short-ranged and doesn’t offer the capabilities offered by either advanced Flanker variant. Meanwhile, the Su-30M2 is the least capable of the current Flanker variants and is more or less superfluous. The same is true of the Su-34, which is an excellent strike aircraft—but it does not offer much more in terms of range, payload or overall capability than a Su-30SM, which is a multirole combat aircraft with excellent strike capability. Thus, Russia should consider necking down production to two types—the Su-30SM and the Su-35S.

Meanwhile, the PAK-FA program seems to have run into technical difficulties. Particularly, the current engines—borrowed from the Su-35—are not sufficiently powerful enough. The Russian are developing a new engine—but that takes time and money. They’ll eventually get there, but until Russia gets the PAK-FA up and running, it’s ill advised to dilute funding over a multitude of programs—some of which are superfluous.

Russia should consider scrapping some of its myriad fifth-generation projects and focus on getting one or two of them operational first. The PAK-FA is probably the most important project, but Russia can afford to scrap the PAK-PD. The next generation interceptor is largely superfluous given that the T-50 could easily fill such a role. Moreover, such an aircraft would hold little prospect as an export success.

A new lightweight fighter might be a useful—especially as a product geared for export. But it is probably difficult to start another expensive project in the middle of an economic crisis. Nonetheless, a low cost fifth-generation aircraft would have more export opportunities. Russia should try to leverage the technology from the PAK-FA if it does embark on such a project. The PAK-DA bomber can probably wait if Russia is seriously going to restart the Tu-160 production line.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitry Zherdin/CC by-sa 3.0.