Russia’s air corps is a powerful but fading force

March 18, 2015

A Russian air force SU-30SM at the MAKS airshow at the Ramenskoye Airport near Moscow, Aug. 29, 2013. Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia photo

On March 3, seven Russian attack planes took off from Novofederovka airbase in Crimea. They flew out over the Black Sea, right toward two North Atlantic Treaty Organization warships, the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Vicksburg and the Turkish frigate Tugutreis.

Russia’s state-owned media described the mission as a reconnaissance exercise. The planes practiced tracking the ships from a distance while staying just outside the range from which the vessels could theoretically shoot back.

This sort of patrol has become ever more common since the war in Ukraine began. Russian aircraft approach NATO vessels or airspace and practice simulated combat maneuvers or engage in reconnaissance. The rate of Russian fighter and bomber patrols near NATO borders has tripled in a year, though it’s still below the weekly flights common during the Cold War.


A Russian T-50 stealth fighter experiences a compressor stall on one of its two engines during a test at the MAKS air show near Moscow in 2011. Rulexip/Wikimedia photo

Worried? To be sure, the Russian air force is formidable. It’s the world’s second largest in terms of combat aircraft, with roughly 2,500 warplanes, of which more than 70 percent are serviceable. Unlike Russia’s navy, which has been essentially reduced to a coastal defense force, its air force is still capable and deadly by global standards. It has the world’s second-largest strategic-bomber force, capable of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of miles from home.

But Russia’s air force has a lot of problems familiar to other branches of the Kremlin’s military. With few exceptions, its aerial fleet dates to the Cold War and is getting older. Modern and capable fighter jets are entering service, but only in small numbers. Over the long term, Russia’s air force is expected to dwindle further.

The roots of these problems date from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Factories producing aircraft and parts have shut down or became part of foreign, predominantly Ukrainian, territory. Engineers experienced in building jets have immigrated or retired. Moscow put a halt to buying new planes — it bought none until 2003 — and halted most training exercises.

Russia has a lot of catching up to do. The Kremlin now considers modernizing its air force a top priority. This isn’t just acquiring new, modern warplanes but also upgrading existing ones. In 2014, Russia spent more than a billion dollars on newer avionics and electronic warfare systems, which can allow Russian jets to more effectively flood radars and enemy jets with electromagnetic energy.

Russian Air Force Su-34 fighter-bombers take part in a military parade during celebrations marking Independence Day in Minsk

Russian Air Force Su-34 fighter-bombers take part in a military parade during celebrations marking Independence Day in Minsk, July 3, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Altogether, Russia plans to spend $130 billion on modernizing its air force through the rest of the decade, according to research scientist Dmitry Gorenberg’s blog Russian Military Reform.

Russia’s state armament program, which sets out military procurement policies through 2020, heavily emphasizes relying more on domestic manufacturing. “Such an approach is not without its own difficulties,” noted OE Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, “which the Kremlin does not publically discuss.”

Among these problems is that Russia’s domestic industry has serious shortcomings when it comes to building microelectronics. These components are less glamorous than airframes and missiles, which Russia builds quite well, but crucial to modern fighters. The technology enables lethal advantages like night vision and thermal imaging systems.

Building up the domestic aviation industry isn’t just a job-creation program. For Moscow, it’s an absolute necessity. A huge amount of Russian military hardware came from Ukraine until the war between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists put an end to that.

Ukraine’s state-owned military company, Ukroboronprom, for example, produced many of Russia’s helicopter engines until the firm cut ties last year. Russia cannot physically produce enough engines to modernize its helicopter fleet, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense research group, so most of its engines were made in Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine co-built the An-124 heavy transport plane, which relies on Ukrainian factories for more than half its parts. (Though Moscow’s military transports have considerable lifespans.) One of the largest Ukrainian aviation factories that supplied parts to Russia is in Zaporizhia, close to pro-Russian separatist territory.

A Russian Federation air force Su-27 fighter particpates in Vigilant Eagle 13

A Russian Federation air force Su-27 fighter participates in Vigilant Eagle 13. (Photo by Mary Kavanagh, Canadian Forces Artist Program/Released)

“Many of the auxiliary systems, from hydraulics to drogue parachutes, for the Russian Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35 fighters, as well as for Russia’s newest Su-34, are also produced in Ukraine,” the research group noted.

These four planes are Russia’s most modern operational fighters. They are actually all similar, with slight upgrades to their engines and electronics. Yet two different Russian companies, Irkut and KnAAPO, build the airframes. Which is pretty redundant and inefficient, but for a reason.

The Kremlin has had a hard time finding buyers on the international market for the jets. So having two companies produce them for the domestic market keeps their production lines open.

Russia’s advanced, “fifth-generation” T-50 stealth fighter, which is still in development, is also having problems. The Kremlin doesn’t disclose what is the matter with the jet, a potential rival to the stealthy American F-22 Raptor. But we can glean some information. Russia and India are co-developing a version for the Indian air force, so its generals have had an up-close look at the T-50. They don’t like what they see.

India sunk more than $5 billion into the initial design, which is to be compatible with Indian-made missiles and navigation systems. New Delhi wants to eventually buy 200 of the fighters, and has few other options. In the T-50’s class, the only competitors on the international market are the Chinese J-20 and the U.S. F-35.

But India wants stealth fighters to counter the Chinese jets, and an equivalent number of F-35s would be far too expensive. The Indian air force also has a great deal of experience flying Russian-made planes. If New Delhi wants to compete with China, this means it can either buy huge numbers of less-advanced fighters or stick with the T-50.

Two_F-22_Raptor_in_flying (1)

Two F-22s during flight testing, the upper one being the first EMD F-22, Raptor 4001, October 14, 2003. Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

Even India’s generals think the T-50 is still too expensive and has too many shoddy parts. The plane’s “engine was unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered,” according to India’s Business Standard, which acquired notes from a 2013 meeting of Indian air force officers.

The newspaper didn’t elaborate, but the reference to stealth features could mean poorly constructed sections of the airframe. Russia has produced five T-50 prototypes, and slight differences in construction, such as mismatched angles on the fuselage, can expose its features to radar. The planes also have big, round engines, a no-no when it comes to staying stealthy.

But the T-50 is still a powerful, fast and long-range fighter, and the Kremlin wants to arm it with its modern, long-range Kh-58UShE radar-homing missiles. The U.S. F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, and their missiles, are comparatively slower, and the missiles have shorter ranges.

Air Power Australia, an aviation think tank, described the T-50 as being able to potentially win a dogfight against America’s latest-generation fighters, such as the troubled F-35.

But even if this is true, Russia will only be able to build the T-50s in small numbers. Moscow wants 60 operational T-50s by 2020, which is optimistic. The first operational fighter was supposed to enter service last year. It didn’t happen. Now the date is 2016, at the earliest.

Sixty deadly stealth fighters might sound like a lot. But the U.S. plans to build 2,400 F-35s during the next two decades, and has already started delivering them. That’s on top of the U.S. Air Force’s 187 operational F-22s already in service.

Which means Russia’s most advanced planes will be heavily outnumbered.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Kremlin’s fleet will just keep getting older.


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Back in 2008, was modeled after a dogfight between the F-35 and the most advanced at that time, the Russian Su-35 fighter.

The results showed that the probability of winning the American fighter does not exceed 0.28. With a much better maneuverability, the Su-35 are three times more likely to go out in the conditions of use of missiles and 4.5 times more likely these attacks ended with the defeat of the target.

Features of T-50 is much higher than the Su-35.

F-35 aircraft has one motor. He leaves no chance to hold on to the airport in case of breakage or hit by enemy missiles.

T-50 aircraft will be armed with missiles “air-to-air” long range, with a radius of up to 400 kilometers defeat and appropriate means of target detection. While his potential opponents are mostly intermediate and short-range, based on the total invisibility of the same: to sneak up and attack.

Posted by Max_Flin | Report as abusive

Your article sounds like propaganda. All is well. Maybe you missed this. 02/22/russian-fighter-jet-disables-us-mi ssle-destroyer/

Posted by TaterLumpkin | Report as abusive

Dangerous games. It’s not virtual, my friends, take sober look at what you doing and encouraging. Stop insanity at very beginning, otherwise will be no matter who started all this BS. Our Earth is fragile and defenseless as said Israeli astronaut just hours before their international team was perished on board of shuttle Atlantis in 2003. Lets talk and resolve our differences in civilized, peaceful manner. We have no other proper ways after all. Keep your hawks, hotheads and all other morons far away from positions of power, don’t let them play with the fate of our children.

Posted by aklimento | Report as abusive

Math simplified: 50 Borei class submarines each can carry 16 Bulava SLBM’s and each Bulava can deliver up to 10 independent nuclear warheads of 150Kt.
That is 8000 deployed nuclear warheads for price tag of 80 billion US dollars.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

USS Donald Cook incident/////nothing to add

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

The claims are not supported by elementary logic. Where is the cause and the effect in our case? It is obvious that more than a decade was lost between sometime 1987/1988 (when financing of Air Force dropped) and 2002-2003.
The cause is political. The effect: issues with the modern AF fleet.
There is no sense in stating this.
However the pace of re-birth of our Russian technology is quite optimistic.
And the decision to position T-50 between F-22 and F-35 was right.
The engines will be different in serial models.
And after all: who told you that F-22 is invisible? This is a myth. New technologies based on scanning airflows will make the existing stealth technology useless.
Unless the U.S. buys cloaking technology from the Romulans or the Klingons.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

The most biased article about the Russian aviation that I have seen.
The writer was smart enough not to mention 1 thing on how dilapidated the status is of the American Air Force inventory. And a JSF-35 that should have been scrapped years ago but no longer can be because they have nothing replaceable on the drawing boards. The most famous event of the F-22 was that just recently the flew over Syria at 40.000 feet in any absence of any Arial Denial weapons systems to drop a bomb. WOW how impressive is that? And the F-22 design started in 1981 can you still can that new. Air Force desperately wants to scrap the A-10 because there is not enough money to support the JSF-35. Building Air Craft carriers and submarines despite that they really don’t have enough money to equip them as the wanted or to finish them. Need more.

This article was nothing more then propaganda in the hope that they can bamboozle the sheep. Perhaps we can classify this as war time propaganda the way the world is going or being directed by the neocons?

Posted by cynical175 | Report as abusive

This article assumes there will be a conventional war between USA and Russia, which there will never be, as Nuclear Weapons are now a thing. These matchups matter only for selling you hardware to allies – but then you have to factor in the purchase price – you can buy 30 F35 or 300 Su-35 – kinda seems like a simple bu decision to me.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Reuters: “A huge amount of Russian military hardware came from Ukraine until the war between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists put an end to that.”
… With the help of the only sentence, the author gives an unambiguous and precise response to the real reasons of the USA unexpected “love” to Ukraine and the Black Sea.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

I can see that only Russian trolls are commenting here.

Posted by zx81 | Report as abusive

April 12, 2015 the Russian Su-24 close to the “Donald Cook”.
Russian bomber Su-24 was without bombs and missiles.
Under the fuselage had a container with a complex electronic warfare “Khibiny”.
When the plane approached the destroyer complex “Khibiny” disabled radar, military control circuits, data transmission systems.
After that, the Su-24 simulated missile attack on the blind and deaf ship. Then another and another – a total of 12 times.

Posted by Max_Flin | Report as abusive

Russian aircraft are actually more modern than most US aircraft, an F16 is nearly 40 years old.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

You are “democrats” that don’t allow my opinions.
And you write: “Russia’s state-owned media” which is right.
But why don’t you write the truth that USA is a Jew-owned country?

Posted by Ifandiev | Report as abusive

What good is your military aircraft if you lack the radar and satellite coverage to support them globally? Russia’s capabilities are shallow. Their idea of a significant military operation is a border skirmish over Chernobyl. A place they used to own. Not impressive.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Maybe the Russians have figured out what our Pentagon has not – incredibly expensive fighters probably have no real purpose and only a very limited mission in today’s world. Otherwise, why would the US government continue to pour money down the F-35 black hole – the plane that can neither fly nor shoot, just cost taxpayer dollars. 3/f-35-fiasco-marches-on.html

Posted by Twain | Report as abusive

Looks like Max_Fin is a troll paid by Moscow.

Posted by cyberstranger | Report as abusive

Russian trolls are never sleeping

Posted by YS_SLS | Report as abusive

Very good article, Robert. Thank you for the effort.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

How does Putin maintain popular support? He pays the trolls their daily vodka money. And they make him APPEAR to be popular. All the smart Russians left Russia years ago.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

My point of view is different from yours.
If Moscow would have to pay for messages, I would become rich.
My answer is why Putin is popular in Russia. Previous President Yeltsin was a drunk. In a country ruled by oligarchs and bandits.
Gorbachev stupid. Gorbachev led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the army and navy. My father was a military man. The military did not pay allowance, absent any military exercises. Aircraft stood and rusted.
Putin is different from previous leaders and is a strong leader. He invests in defense.
 Unfortunately, there is no clarity who will be the next president. The Russian policy is missing a leader like Putin. This is a problem.
P.S. I can hardly speak English. I produce translation of the text in the program.

Posted by Max_Flin | Report as abusive

Fun opinion. This expert was unable to explain why the Russian Air Force fade. Only in 2014 the Russian Air Force received 250 new combat aircraft. Russia did not wage wars on other continents. Russia has the world’s most powerful air and missile defense system. Therefore, the number of combat aircraft of the enemy does not have a critical value. As a result, Russia needs a system of the Air Force, which is fundamentally different from the US Air Force systems. And Russia is not at war far from its borders. Russia is very rare compared with other major powers, starting the war.
Another interesting fact: 10 years ago, the Americans did not tell tales about the weak Russian Air Force. Apparently, the case of the United States are going from bad to worse.

Posted by M.Voytsekhovsky | Report as abusive

Nice propaganda you got there. That should get the schlubs excited about taking on the russkies.

You shills are going to have a lot to answer for when you successfully bring about a world war for the right of exiled Jewish billionaires now residing with their fellow cultists in US “think tanks” to return to resume stealing Russias resources.

Posted by boosra | Report as abusive

Pathetic US Defense Department propaganda. Neglects to mention what a complete piece of cra_ the F-35 is.

Posted by haggler | Report as abusive

Bunch of BS, amateur journalism ,is this Christiane Amanpour writing from a hotel room in London,keep on shacking in your wet diarrhea pants.

Posted by azsam | Report as abusive

What a lame, smarmy article this was.

Posted by davidfullam | Report as abusive