Twelve years after Moscow began a major modernization campaign for its armed forces, a new report published by the Center for Naval Analysis highlights the improved capability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and naval aviation.
According to the report’s author, analyst Leonid Nersisyan, between 2009 and 2020 Russia’s armed forces received roughly 460 brand-new fixed-wing combat aircraft, 110 Yak-130 jet trainers and 360 attack helicopters.
Furthermore, an estimated 320 older combat aircraft have been heavily modernized, including around 150 MiG-31 interceptors, and significant numbers of Su-24 and Su-25 attack jets and Su-27 and Su-33 fighters.
The modernization drive began after the poor performance of Russian military aviation in the brief Russo-Georgia war in 2008 due to years of neglect following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While procuring new aircraft, the VKS retired over a thousand outdated Soviet-era aircraft, resulting in a net decrease from 2,000 fixed-wing combat aircraft two decades ago to around 1,200 today, and from 700 to 400 attack helicopters.
“Despite that, the overall capacity of Russian combat aviation has increased significantly in recent years,” Nersisyan wrote to me in an email. “It is much more flexible in case of available missions and targets.”
That’s because today roughly 75% of VKS fixed-wing combat aircraft are new or modernized, which typically means they integrate satellite navigation, digital flight computers, support for new guided weapons, and improved sensors and self-defense jammers. Furthermore, modern multi-role fighters can capably perform missions formerly undertaken by multiple single-role Cold War-era aircraft.
Likewise, older Mi-24 Hind gunships have been mostly replaced with more modern designs with guided weapons, night-vision and self-defense capabilities.
Just as importantly, the VKS and its pilots have gained extensive combat experience over Syria which has been used to improve doctrine.
“Russian combat aviation became capable for local and even regional conflicts,” according to Nersisyan, “but is still far behind of U.S. and NATO air force.”
For instance, the report notes that Russian aviation will likely continue to primarily rely on unguided rockets and bombs (often dropped with assistance from the Gefest SVP-24 satellite-based targeting system on Russian bombers) due to a lack of low-cost precision guided munition kits like the JDAM kit used by the U.S. Air Force. Russia is also having difficulty scaling up production of beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles.
The aerospace industry broadly suffers from a “lack of optimal management at many enterprises and regulatory issues related to the Ministry of Defense.” For example, the VKS spreads its scarce resources to support redundant aircraft types just to keep specific factory lines afloat.
In fact, majority state-owned United Aircraft Corporation, which encompasses all Russian military aerospace companies, is 530 billion rubles ($7.2 billion) in debt. Reportedly, the Russian government is expected to take on 250 billion rubles and restructure another 150 billion of the debt.
Let’s now take a look at the major military aviation procurements Russia is expected to pursue in the 2020s.
Su-57 Stealth Fighters…Finally?
In December the Russian military finally received a production-model Su-57 stealth fighter, after the first was lost in a crash on December 2019.
Critical to Moscow’s efforts to mitigate NATO air superiority, the Su-57 (formerly PAK FA) program suffered numerous delays and setbacks in the 2010s, and the design still awaits uprated engines and radar.
The twin-engine Su-57 is faster and more maneuverable in close-range encounters than F-35 stealth fighters operated by NATO, but is believed to be significantly more visible in radar, particularly from the side or rear aspect. Time will tell if Russia can finally scale up Su-57 production for the 76 currently on order, and procure the improved engines and avionics needed for the stealth jet to achieve its full potential.
More Sukhoi Flankers…and not so many MiGs
Due to the delays and high costs of the Su-57, Russia will continue to procure more 4.5-generation (ie. non-stealth) fighters in the 2020s—most importantly, Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E fighters and Su-30SM2 strike jets.
The Su-35S is a top-tier 4.5-generation fighter with excellent agility and payload characteristics thanks to its thrust-vectoring engines. It’s only major shortcoming is its lack of AESA-class radar, which is stealthier and more resilient to jamming. The Su-30 Flanker is a two-seat strike fighter similar in concept to the F-15E.
However, prospects for Russia’s MiG-29/MiG-35 line of aircraft are less promising. The MiG-29 was a Soviet counterpart for the light and low-cost U.S. F-16 fighter—but the twin-engine design lacks the range, flexibility and service life of the Flanker and has largely been supplanted by the Sukhoi aircraft family. Still, the naval MiG-29K variant has carved out a minor niche serving on Russia’s accident-plagued carrier. According to Nersisyan, tepid orders for the latest MiG-35 variant mostly serve as a state intervention to keep the Mikoyan i Gurevich firm on life support.
Cold War Resurrection: New Blackjack Bombers
Russia is expected to modernize its trifecta of Cold War strategic bombers for nuclear, conventional and maritime strike roles, as well as outfit them with stealthier, longer-range cruise missiles to launch attacks from a safe distance. The Tu-95MSM and Tu-22M3M upgrade models feature heavily improved avionics and engines.
Furthermore, Moscow has restarted production of a modernized variants of its colossal Tu-160 global strike bombers. Currently 10 (out of as many as 50) new Tu-160Ms are on order. The Tu-160’s gigantic NK-32 turbofans are the most powerful engines in military service anywhere, and can boost the large bomber to Mach 2 speeds.
Fullbacks to Replace Fencers
The VKS is gradually replacing its Soviet-era Su-24 ‘Fencer’ swing-wing supersonic bombers (similar in concept to the retired U.S. F-111 Aardvark) in favor of new Su-34 Fullbacks derived from the Flanker. These beefy two-seat fighter-bombers are faster, more capable in air-to-air combat, and can lug a heavier 13-ton payload on long-endurance missions.
Even more importantly, the Fullback boast improved self-defense systems and formidable sensor arrays. Over Syria, the VKS found its Su-34s to be effective assets thanks to the combination of payload, range and its built-in Platan electro-optical targeting system, allowing the aircraft to land precision strikes without requiring lasing assistance from another aircraft.
Looking forward: Combat drones? Competition from China?
Two next-generation aircraft programs—the PAK DA stealth bomber and the MiG-41 interceptor—are only likely to enter production after 2030. But before then, Moscow may seek to rectify its complete lack of armed drones (UCAVs) in service.
A number of designs are in the wings: notably the almost operational short-range Orion, and further along, the long-range Altius UCAV and the high-end Okhotnik stealth UCAV. Time will tell whether Moscow will invest in building a substantial UCAV force, or continue focusing on manned combat aviation.
Russia’s prominence as a military exporter could well be at stake. In 2019, a report by the British RUSI think tank argued that increasingly capable Chinese military aircraft could threaten Russian exports of military aircraft in the 2020s.
Nersisyan wrote in an email that he agreed: “Maybe there is a little risk in believing Chinese official performance data. But anyway, at least they have large operational UCAVs (like Wing Loong-2 or Rainbow series), which Russia will have only after 3-4 years, not earlier.”
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