The Russian Air Force: Pride without Prejudice

MAKIENKO, Konstantin
Valdai International Discussion Club
10/08/2012

The history of the Russian Air Force dates back to the decree of Tsar Nicholas II on the establishment of the first aircraft command under the Main Directorate of the General Staff. In fact, this decree created a new branch of the armed forces in Russia – the Imperial Air Force.

The Russian Air Force gained its first combat experience in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. A squadron deployed to Bulgaria was formed with civilian volunteer pilots since the defense minister banned military pilots from participating in combat operations. The squadron operated successfully during the siege of the Turkish fortress Andriapol and during the Battle of Catalca. Russian pilots conducted reconnaissance, dropped leaflets and facilitated communications. They also conducted a test of small bombs weighing about ten kilograms that resulted in pockets of fire in the castle. Enemy rifle and artillery fire forced them to fly at altitudes of 1,000 meters or more (initially, 600 meters was considered a safe altitude). The Russian Army monitored the resulting combat operations and the air force began to prepare for war.

At the time of the First World War, the Russian Empire had the largest air fleet in the world – 263 aircraft. At first, airplanes were only used for reconnaissance and to direct artillery fire, but the first air battles soon began. By October 1917, Russia had 700 aircraft, which was much fewer than other countries in the conflict. The Imperial Air Force ceased to exist after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Most of the first Russian pilots were killed in the civil war or emigrated.

The Red Army Air Force had a total of about 17,500 combat aircraft by the beginning of World War II, of which more than half were fighter jets, 40% were bombers and attack aircraft, and just over 3% were spy planes. By this time, the Soviet aircraft industry manufactured 50 combat aircraft per day, which is much more than Germany and all its allies around the world produced during this period. By the end of 1941, production volume reached 100 combat aircraft per day.

However, Soviet aircraft lagged significantly behind their German counterparts technically. On the first day of the war, the Luftwaffe surprise-attacked Soviet airfields located in close proximity to the border, where 65% of the aviation capability of the western military districts was based. On June 22, 1941, more than 800 items of military hardware were destroyed on the ground, including over 400 aircraft. And over the first few weeks of the war, the Red Army lost another 9,000 aircraft. Therefore, the Luftwaffe had strategic air supremacy over the Soviet Union at the beginning.

The morale factor became very important – only the heroism and devotion of Soviet pilots allowed them to regain control of the skies during the war.

Air battles during World War II (until November 1942) were purely defensive in nature. The German combat fighter Bf. 109 had a much higher speed and altitude capabilities which the Soviet I-16 and I-153 could only counter with good maneuverability. The struggle in the air reached its greatest intensity in the spring of 1943. Dogfights blazed in a confined space over the Kuban, growing into major air battles. There were up to 50 air battles with 50 to 80 planes on each side every day from May 26 until June 7 alone.

The turning point in the struggle for air supremacy began with the Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad. However, the enemy still held the advantage in the air battles over the Kuban region, and finally began to loose it only at Kursk in the summer of 1943.

The Soviet Air Force gained strategic air supremacy along the entire Soviet-German front toward the end of the war (January 1944 – May 1945).

The Russian Air Force is now undergoing a period of profound organizational transformation and radical technological modernization on the eve of the centennial of the establishment of the military aviation and aeronautics command within the Russian army.

The Russian Air Force currently has approximately 1,050 tactical aircraft, including more than 640 fighters (130 MiG-31s, 250 MiG-29s and 260 Su-27s), and more than 200 bombers (190 Su-24s and 16 Su-34s) and 200 Su-25s.

Despite the impressive size of the arsenal, the vast majority of these fighters are obsolete not only in terms of technology, but also physically. In other words, their service life has expired and they must be overhauled or written off.

The five-day war with Georgia of August 8-12, 2008 helped identify serious deficiencies in training and technical equipment. Among other things, it revealed poor inter-service coordination with the ground troops, which resulted in aircraft suffering substantial losses from friendly fire, as well as the unwillingness of the Russian Air Force to conduct a suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations. As a result, one assault regiment in Budyonnovsk lost a quarter (six out of 24) of its vehicles in the five days of the war.

After the war, the Russian Air Force and the entire Russian army entered a period of radical reform. A major component of the current stage of development of the Air Forces of Russia is the transition to the mass purchase of new and modern hardware. As of December 2008, contracts for the purchase of the following new equipment had been signed:

• 32 Sukhoi Su-34s (December 2008)
• 34 MiG-29SMT/UBT multi-role fighters
• 12 Su-27SM3s
• 4 Su-30M2s
• 48 of the latest Su-35 multi-purpose fighters
• 92 Su-34 frontline bombers (late 2011)
• 30 Su-30SM multi-role fighters (late 2011)
• 55 Yak-130 training aircraft

The Russian Air Force has signed contracts for the purchase of 252 tactical combat and 55 training aircraft over four years, which exceeds that of any other air force in the world except the U.S. and, possibly China. Altogether, according to unofficial data, in the course of implementing the State Armament Program to 2020, up to 600 tactical aircraft and 1,200 helicopters are scheduled to be purchased. The contracts have not only been signed, but in many cases, this new and modern equipment, especially front-line Su-34 bombers, has already been delivered. For example, in 2010, the Air Force received 21 aircraft and 37 helicopters. In 2011, 28 planes and 82 helicopters were delivered. Deliveries for 2012 will exceed these already impressive figures.

Flight crew combat training has greatly intensified in parallel with the procurement of the new equipment. In 2011, the average training time for a pilot was 90 hours, and soon this figure will be raised to 130 hours. A higher level of training will be achieved in combination with the heavy use of simulators. This will enable the Russian Air Force to compete with any potential adversaries on Russia’s borders, as well as the air forces of the Eastern European NATO countries, and Turkey, Japan and the Chinese Air Force. In general, in two to three years, the Russian Air Force will be able to effectively perform its tasks in any hypothetical conflict – from the defense of the Kuril Islands to supporting counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus to deterring NATO.

Konstantin Makienko is a Deputy Director, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club’s, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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