The 5 Most Powerful Russian Weapons of War in the Sky

The Russian bear has wings.

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works from our “Weapons of War” series including the Five Best Weapons of War from the Soviet Union, Russia’s Military is Back, and Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union established the largest air force in the world. Fed by a number of energetic state aviation design bureaus, particularly Mikoyan-Gurevich, Sukhoi and Tupolev, the Soviet Air Force was a powerhouse that enjoyed not only numbers and high technology but also that rare commodity in the Soviet bloc: innovation.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the new countries that sprung up to replace it inherited thousands of fighters, attack planes, bombers and transports. Russia inherited the lion’s share of the old Soviet Air Force. Some of the old design bureaus survived—barely—the lean years of the 1990s and early 2000s.

After nearly a quarter century, Russia is clawing back as an air power. The air force is finally taking deliveries of new multirole aircraft, and Sukhoi is on the verge of fielding a brand new fighter. These planes, as well as upgraded older planes, will form the backbone of the Russian Air Force for decades to come.

PAK FA Fighter

Russia’s most ambitious aviation project since the end of the Cold War, the PAK FA, is the country’s first fifth-generation fighter design. PAK FA stands for Perspektivnyi Aviacionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviacii, or Advanced Frontline Aircraft System. A product of the Sukhoi bureau, responsible for such stalwarts as the Su-17 Fitter and Su-27 Flanker, PAK FA began development in April 2002 after Sukhoi won the development tender for a new fighter design.

Resembling a Su-27 Flanker with flattened and facet surfaces, PAK FA will be stealthy. Supercruise, the ability to cruise above mach one without the use of afterburners, will be achieved through engines currently under development. The aircraft will have both an active electronically scanned array radar and an electro-optical sensor to track and engage targets. An internal weapons bay capable of carrying up to six long-range missiles, air-to-ground weapons, or a mix thereof will help reduce PAK FA’s radar signature in a combat mission.

PAK FA’s first flight was on January 29, 2010, when it flew for forty-seven minutes from the Yuri Gagarin aircraft factory in Russia’s Far East. Currently five prototypes are flying, with more than 450 test flights as of late 2013. Production for the Russian Air Force is set to begin in 2016. A variant of the fighter, the T-50, is being jointly developed by Russia and India.

India, which is contributing $6 billion dollars to the PAK FA/T-50 program, is reportedly unhappy with the state of the program. Poor quality control and performance shortfalls in the T-50 prototypes are making India uneasy. In June of this year, a T-50 prototype experienced an engine fire. The fire was extinguished and the plane was to be repaired. Sukhoi stated in a press release the incident would not affect the timing of the T-50 program.

Russia intends to purchase between 400 and 450 PAK FA fighters between 2020 and 2040.

Su-25 Frogfoot close air support aircraft

Although the Soviet Union fielded the very popular and capable Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft during the war, the Soviets did not pursue the development of a dedicated anti-tank aircraft in the postwar period. Nagging doubts about the usefulness of such aircraft on the nuclear battlefield delayed the development of a successor for nearly thirty years.

The Soviet Air Force announced the intention to field a battlefield close air support aircraft in the late 1960s, and by 1972 the Su-25 prototype had taken to the skies. Like the American A-10, the Su-25 was designed to operate over hyper-lethal modern battlefield from nearby, often improvised bases.

Like the A-10, the Su-25 prioritized payload over speed. The Su-25 is best described as a bomb truck with ten hard points for the attachment of bombs, rocket launchers, air-to-surface missiles and air-to-air missiles. The Su-25 is equipped with a pair of GSh-30-2 30mm cannons for engaging ground targets.

The Su-25 has served in a variety of conflicts, starting with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the post-Soviet wars in Chechnya, the Persian Gulf War, and now the conflict in the Ukraine. The latest version, the Su-25SM, incorporates airframe upgrades, a heads-up display, GLONASS satellite navigation, and a radar warning receiver.

Roughly 180 Su-25s are thought to still be in Russian service, with eighty to be upgraded to the Su-25SM standard by 2020.

Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber