Russia to expand military aviation fleet by 2020
Russian Air Force
By SERGEY IVANOV
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 6)

The Russian government has officially announced plans to modernize and significantly expand the national military aviation fleet by 2020, according to recent statements of the Russian Ministry of Defence. This expansion of the country’s national military aviation fleet is deemed an acute need due to a combination of existing geopolitical tensions and ongoing military conflicts. 

To accomplish such expansion, the Ministry intends to complete modernization of the already existing platforms, and will also start massive purchases of new fighters and military helicopters. 

Implementation of these goals falls under the existing state armaments program, which was approved as far back as 2011 and continues until 2020. Expansion of its aviation fleet will be carried out in addition to the ongoing modernization of the existing fleet. A significant part of these funds will be invested in the design of new aircrafts for the national Air Force.

Sukhoi Su-34, a Russian-made twin-engine, twin-seater, long-range strike fighter. Media reports suggest it has been offered to India, China, Vietnam, Morocco, and Algeria.
Sukhoi Su-34, a Russian-made twin-engine, twin-seater, long-range strike fighter. Media reports suggest it has been offered to India, China, Vietnam, Morocco, and Algeria.

Prior to 2010, technological backwardness had been the main problem of the Russian Air Force, however the situation has significantly improved in recent years. The collapse of the USSR resulted in a shortage of combat aircraft to the Russian Army and Air Forces – the average age of fighters in the Russian Air Force is in the range of 10-15 years.

According to Russia’s leading military paper, Voenny-Promyshlenny Kurier (VPK), despite the increase of the military budget and the massive supplies of new weapons and fighters to Russia’s Air Force in recent years, there is still a shortage of modern aircraft weapons for tactical aviation, particularly air-to-air missiles with active radar guidance systems; guided bombs with satellite guidance systems; and precision cruise missiles. A lack of modern electro-optical containers as well as the potentially poor development of EW systems has also been identified as a problem. 

According to VPK analysts, the very low level of operational-tactical training and technical equipment in the Russian Air Force, as observed during the “five-day war” in Georgia in August 2008, were a key factor resulting in the excessive losses (five combat aircraft) in such a small campaign.

Still, there is a possibility that the current situation will be improved in the coming years due to the forthcoming supplies of new combat equipment for the needs of Russian Air Force. In accordance with the state armament program, this includes purchases of up to 600 combat aircraft and 1,100 helicopters by 2020. 

At the heart of the plans are purchases of the new domestic T-50 fighter, the most modern Russian fighter, which was developed more than 10 years. 

Yuri Borisov, Deputy Defence Minister, Russia
Yuri Borisov, Deputy Defence Minister, Russia

According to Yuri Borisov, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, signing of the contract with Sukhoi Company (a major Russian aircraft manufacturer and the designer of the T-50) is scheduled for 2017, with the first aircrafts to be delivered to the Russian AF in the second half of 2017.

The new fighters can reach speeds of up to 2,100 km/h and cover a distance of 5,500 km. They will be equipped with modernized aircraft missiles such as the Vympel R-73, a short-range air-to-air missile that first entered service in 1984. 

According to Yury Klishin, head of Duks enterprise, the Russian company that designed the Vympel R-73, the new missile will have expanded capabilities in terms of its range, angle of attack, and versatility. It will be able to hit targets at a height of 5-20 kilometres, moving at speeds of up to 2,500 km per hour.

Development of the new T-50 aircraft began in 2002, however the initiative for its design was first put forward during the Soviet times in the early 1980s. The eighth airframe underwent its first flight test in June 2016, and the ninth has reportedly just joined the flight test program in September.

Colonel General Viktor Nikolaevich Bondarev has been the the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force since 2012.
Colonel General Viktor Nikolaevich Bondarev has been the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force since 2012.

Described as a “sophisticated design” by former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA fifth-generation fighter features low visibility in the optical, infrared and radar band; the ability to take off and land on short runways; the use of a wide range of weapons (including precision-guided); supersonic flight without using the afterburner (to save fuel); and improved manoeuverability. 

As many as 70 of the T-50 aircraft will be initially ordered for the Russian Air Force. Colonel-General Viktor Bondarev, Chief of the Russian Air Forces, is looking forward to the addition to the fleet. “The new aircraft is really great in terms of piloting, navigation and other characteristics. It detects other aircrafts at a very great distance and will be one of the most modern fighters in the Russian Air Force.”

It is planned that the Su-34 fighter, which is currently being widely used by Russia in Syria, will be the most purchased combat aircraft for the Russian Air Forces until 2020. So far, a contract for the purchase of 100 new Su-34 aircraft has been signed between the government and Sukhoi, and there is a possibility that the numbers may significantly increase in the coming years. There are also plans to continue purchases of Su-35 and MiG-35 fighters. 

Sukhoi T-50
Sukhoi T-50

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the existing state program does not involve purchase of new long-range bombers. It is planned that Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers will continue to form the basis for Russian long-range air forces until at least 2020. Instead of designing new strategic bombers, the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to purchase up to 30 tankers based on the Il-476 transport aircraft. 

In the meantime, the domestic transport requirement is of particular concern. Purchases of up to 20 An-124 heavy transport aircrafts, 39 Il-76MD-90A, and 60 An-70 transport aircrafts are part of the plan. 

Finally, the Russian Ministry of Defence has announced plans to expand its fleet of military helicopters. Plans call for up to 300 new helicopters to be purchased. To augment its fleet of Mi-28N attack helicopters, modernized versions of the Ka-50 Black Shark and Ka-52 Alligator military helicopters will be added by 2020. 

Part of the overall plans include designing a special reconnaissance aircraft for strategic operations, and will be used in Russian military operations in Syria. In addition, particular attention will also be paid to the design of new unmanned aerial vehicles.

Russia’s new Altius-M long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was recently spotted at the airfield in Kazan, southwestern Russia. It is expected to enter service in late 2017.

The volume of Russia’s investments in the implementation of the program is estimated at RUB 4 trillion (US$70 billion). 

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Sergey Ivanov is a Russian defence analyst.

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