Paris Air Show

Russian Air Force Modernization May Not Be As Fast As Claimed

 - June 16, 2017, 4:20 PM
The fifth generation Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA/PFI fighter is a key part of modernization plans for Russia's air force. [Photo: Chris Pocock]

In early January, the Russian air force (VKS) announced that the long-awaited delivery of the fifth generation Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA/PFI fighter would take place this year. According to the Putin administration’s statement at the time, these aircraft would be part of a delivery schedule for “more than 100 new combat air vehicles to be received in 2017.”

The announcement, made by VKS commander-in-chief, Col.-Gen. Viktor Bondarev, continued to state that the aircraft types to be received this year include more than 20 Sukhoi Su-30SM models, modernized and overhauled Tupolev Tu-95 and Tu-160 bomber aircraft that are already in service, plus what was an unspecified number of Mil Mi-28 and Kamov Ka-52 combat helicopters.

However, the numbers and the tone of the announcement could be somewhat misleading, according to specialists familiar with the situation in Russia’s defense industrial base. To begin with, said one Russian combat aviation analyst, “the announcement sounds like the T-50s that are coming are going to be aircraft coming straight off the [Komsomolsk-na-Amur] Knaapo production line.  Instead, these five T-50/PFI aircraft will be the same flight test aircraft that have been completing the program’s initial flight testing phase at the Gromov Flight Research Institute (LII) in Zhukovsky.”

The Same Five Aircraft

These five aircraft have been operating out of the LII facility for several years now, having made some of their first public appearances at the 2013 MAKS Moscow Air Show. They will now be transferred from the custody of Sukhoi and the parent corporation, UAC, and will be entered into the inventory register of the VKS, but they will not be moving to an operational unit.

These aircraft will instead be transferred to the Chkalov VKS State Flight Test Centre base No. 929 at Akhtubinsk. They will then enter a second phase of their flight test program in which Sukhoi company test pilots will first instruct a cadre of VKS active-duty test pilots in operating the aircraft while completing a set of validation exercises in the process. In the process, the VKS test pilots will be qualified to pilot the T-50 and the Sukhoi test pilot team will cycle out to permit the military team to complete the testing phase.

This part of the flight testing process can take a year or more, which means that there would no new-build T-50s delivered until after this year. For these and other aspects of the program, subsequent statements by the VKS are that new aircraft from the production line would not enter service before 2018 and deliveries would then be completed by 2025.

The other aspect of the announcement that gives a false impression, said the same combat aviation analyst speaking with AIN on condition of anonymity, is that some of the aircraft that are counted as 100 “new” models to be delivered are actually these older model Tupolev bomber aircraft that are being modernized.  Prior to Bondarev’s announcement the first deputy commander of the VKS, Lt. Gen. Pavel Kurachenko, stated that by the year 2020 the force will have received more than 900 new-build aircraft and helicopters, and would also have taken delivery of more than 900 additional overhauled and modernized platforms.

Future Force Structure

At present the Russian Air Force has several primary missions that need to be addressed by the procurement of new aircraft. The most visible of these has been the mission to conduct air operations in support of the Syrian government from the base that the VKS have established in Latakia. This mission has revealed one of the force’s shortcomings, which is a limited number of aircraft that can deliver precision-guided munitions (PGM).

The most capable and effective of the platforms available for this mission would be the Su-34 theatre-range bomber aircraft.  Other model aircraft used in the Syrian mission, such as the Tu-22M3 Backfire have been shown dropping unguided, “dumb” bombs almost B-17 style on targets in Syria, as the aircraft has never been assigned a PGM-type mission in the past.

For these and other reasons, the Russian deputy defense minister for procurement, Yuri Borisov, announced earlier this year that 16 of the Su-34 aircraft would be delivered to the VKS from the Novosibirsk NAPO plant and that the MoD has a total of 92 of this type on order.  The VKS also has a longer-range plan for continuing to upgrade the Su-34 with progressive introduction of new on-board systems, as well as new weapons as they come on-line.

Borisov described the Su-34 as having “enormous growth potential as it is modernized and it eventually will be–for all practical purposes–a next-generation aircraft.”  Sukhoi representatives state that despite its smaller size in comparison with the much larger Backfire that its “full-authority engine controls (Fadec) and the option(s) of extending its range with additional external fuel tanks or air-to-air refuelling put it in the class of a medium-weight strategic bomber.”

In addition to the Su-34, the VKS will continue to depend on two other aircraft currently in production, the Su-35, produced at the Knaapo facility and the Su-30SM produced at Irkut. These two fighters, plus the Napo-built Su-34, are essentially becoming the backbone of the Russian air force’s tactical and theatre-level force.

Having these three aircraft built in three different plants that are widely separated from one another also fulfills another Russian strategic requirement of not having more than one mainstay aircraft built at the same plant,” said a Washington, D.C.,-based Russian military analyst.

Invisible Weaponry

However, none of these aircraft are stealthy designs and there is no firm date yet by which the VKS would receive the T-50 in any large numbers. Therefore, the VKS now needs to rely on another Russian, but unseen specialty in order to enhance the survivability of these aircraft: electronic warfare (EW).

Russian capability in EW has continued to improve in recent years, according to U.S. and NATO specialists who are familiar with the different models of airborne jammers.  Several of these are designed at the Kaluga Scientific Research Institute for Radio Technology (KNIRTI).

All three aircraft are fitted with a variant of the Khibiny EW system that can employed in one of three modes: radar reconnaissance in a passive mode that records the electronic signals of adversary radar systems, an active jamming mode that protects the aircraft and an escort jamming mode that can cover a group of several aircraft.

The Su-34 is equipped with the L-174V model, the Su-35 with the Khibiny-M L-265 and the Su-30SM with the Khibiny-U model. Variations in these designs depend on the power available to generate the EW signals, the internal space in the aircraft available and the mission requirements.

Even if the T-50 program proves to be a new-age platform in terms of its capability, these three aircraft will continue to be the mainstay of the VKS for the foreseeable future,” said the Russian combat aviation analyst. “For the VKS senior command, the near-term emphasis – as well as funding – is going to be focused on these three programs.