Russia’s Air Force and Aviation Industry Lag Far behind His Ambitions

Russian president Vladimir Putin is full of plans – or talk of plans. Opening the largest air show in his country’s post-Soviet history this week, he promised to make aircraft manufacture a national priority after decades of falling behind the West.

Putin ushered in the resumption of large-scale manufacture of civilian planes, while stressing, “Russia has a very important goal which is to retain leadership in the production of military equipment.”

Last week, Putin decided to resume the long-range missions of strategic, nuclear-capable long-range bombers, interrupted by the fall of the USSR. And for the first time since 1992, the Russian air force resumed patrols over three oceans, the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic. Now that the Russian Air Force was again flying “combat missions”, said the president’s aides, its aviation industry would shortly resume production of the Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic nuclear bombers – as “a means of strategic deterrence,” according to Alexander Burutin, presidential adviser on strategy and military industry.

Putin is re-emphasizing Russia’s military clout at a time when his government’s relations with the West are in free fall.

How much of his talk is psychological propaganda and clever marketing and how much is real?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts estimate that Russia will need many years to restore its status as a military superpower and revive the threat of a Cold War in the skies against the West. The Russian president’s militaristic bombast was therefore not realistic but rather subtly attuned to more practical goals.


1. A psychological coup. This was successfully achieved. His order for the long-range Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear nuclear bombers to take to the air close to US Pacific bases and the North Sea facilities of Britain and Norway was swallowed whole by the Western media. Their headlines trumpeted a totally unreal proposition: “Russia Steps up Military Expansion.”


2. A marketing push for Russian civilian aircraft. This gimmick was contrived by Putin and Burutin to deliberately smudge the line between the manufacture of military and civilian aircraft. The announced resumption of strategic bomber manufacture, which is unrealistic in the present sorry state of Russia’s aviation industry, was smoothly blended with the reference to Russia’s civilian aircraft manufacture, as a device to generate a sales dynamic for the latter.

Moscow sells civilian planes at prices at least 20% under those of US aviation companies. The Russians are competing hard for a share of the civilian aircraft market, while its military aviation production is in the doldrums (for reasons listed later in this article).


3. Getting Air Force crews back in training. This was the only authentic military consideration behind the Russian president’s pose – say DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources.

Budget shortfalls, dwindling crews for lack of fresh blood and a dire shortage of flight instructors have virtually grounded the Russian Air Force.

Pilots are allotted no more than 30-45 flying hours a year, compared with 120-150 in the US, Israeli and other world-class air forces. Lack of practice is a prescription for accidents, erodes the skills of air crews and shrinks the numbers of experienced trainers for the next generation of aviators.


Strategic bombers recycled as training craft


Russian Air Force planners have warned the Kremlin that the force will have completely run out of experienced flying crews within two or three years if nothing is done. Putin realized that the cheapest and shortest way out of this vicious circle was to revive the missions of long-range strategic bombers and so give pilots and flight instructors the experience they need to train new air crews.

That is why these flights are being carried out as training missions – and therefore without nuclear armament, a fact hardly noticed by Western media.

As for the parlous state of the Russian Air Force and aviation industry, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts provide some facts and figures:

One: The Russian Air Force consists of 78 strategic nuclear bombers, of which 64 are Tu-95 Bears manufactured from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. No more than 25 are operational.

The military aircraft industry is in no shape to resume manufacture any time soon. The two key factories Samara in the Samara region and Kazan in Tatarstan, both on the Volga south of Moscow, are half closed and the staff of engineers, technicians and trained workers is gone, pensioned off or deceased.

Two: The 14 Tu-Blackjack 160, are newer and in better shape. All are operational and came off the production line from the mid-1980s until the present at the rate of one per year.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s aviation experts say “production” is a misnomer. The craft are assembled from components left in storage from the Soviet era. When the stocks are exhausted, the Blackjack will die.


Air support infrastructure – gone


The US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was therefore spot on when he ironically called Putin’s announcement on bomber patrols “interesting,” adding that the move to take “some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again” was Russia’s decision.

Three: The Russian president’s specification of 20 bombers per formation means that the jets will be flying in pairs to cover the following areas:


  • North Atlantic and northern Scotland
  • Greenland
  • North Pole
  • Indian Ocean, including the US base at Diego Garcia
  • The Pacific and the US base on Guam.


Given the bomber fleet and crews at their disposal, the Russians would have to fly the dual shifts every 24 hours, keeping one team flying for 12 hours at a stretch, while the other rests, refuels and carries out repairs.

Western aviation experts told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that this schedule is unworkable. It is either just a dream, or destined to break down in short order.

Four: In the fifteen years since the strategic bomber flights were on the ground, most of the support system which kept the Russian Air Force flying has fallen into ruin, compared with the American facilities which are constantly expanded and improved.

One example is the network of Air Force bases Moscow maintained in the Russian Arctic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, consisting of airfields from which the strategic bombers took off, and dozens of small air installations for gathering data on the weather, managing flight communications, collecting and sending out intelligence, and housing special air force rescue teams. All these installations have vanished.


An air industry that cannot meet its export orders


For the Russian Air Force to live up to President Putin’s ambition to restore Russia’s strategic nuclear flights to their 1992 level, it will need new aircraft and infrastructure and a fresh intake of trained crews. Given the right resources, this project would consume at least five years and probably ten.

The ruinous condition of their air industry is attested to by these cases:

The Russians contracted to deliver 34 Il-76 jets and 4 Il-28 refueling craft to China in the course of 2007-2008. There is not the slightest chance of them meeting these dates.

Moscow’s potential warplane market is huge. There are 5,500 fighters of Soviet manufacture in the service of the armies of 58 countries, not including helicopters.

More than 70 percent of these craft are in poor repair. A renovation and upgrade industry could generate multibillion revenues for Moscow, but this field is left entirely to Chinese and Israeli military manufacturers. Russia’s neglect of this lucrative source of income is ample evidence that it lacks the right manpower and technical resources.

Another case is that of India, Russia’s top client for weapons and warplanes. Deliveries have fallen so far in arrears that New Delhi has said enough is enough and demanded licenses for manufacturing the airplanes and weapons systems itself.

They were granted although the profits on such transactions are substantially less than for the finished products.

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