Limits and Challenges to Moscow’s Military Airpower Ambitions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 10


In recent years, Moscow has placed growing emphasis on procuring modern and advanced platforms to increase the combat capability of its Air Force, subsumed within the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS). Many of these new aerial platforms have also been tried and tested in military operations in Syria, where the VKS played the leading role in Moscow’s efforts to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime. In addition to gaining invaluable combat experience for pilots and being able to experiment with the use of airpower, the VKS seeks to capitalize on this to receive additional advanced assets, ranging from fifth-generation fighters to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Earlier in January, this was illustrated by a media frenzy surrounding the sighting of an experimental heavy UAV, Okhotnik (Hunter), hailed by its designers as the “future of aviation” (Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 24, 2019). Despite these breakthroughs, there are critical limits and challenges likely to check Moscow’s longer-term airpower ambitions.

The Okhotnik is referred to as an autonomous strike drone and seems closely linked to the combat functions of the advanced fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jet—the mass production of which has been repeatedly delayed (TASS, January 16, 2019). The UAV’s specifications are not publicly known, only emerging in some photographs on social media this month. It is estimated to have a take-off weight of 20 tons, with its “central horizontal section” around 97 square meters; the distance from the front to the landing gear is about 6 meters. Reportedly, the drone can carry six different ammunition payloads, including high-explosive fragmentation bombs. According to an anonymous source, the main task of the Okhotnik is to break through enemy air defenses, while the manned Su-57 accompanies and works from the perimeter. These strike drones will work in conjunction with the Su-57 and would be remotely piloted by the fighter’s crew. Flight tests are scheduled to commence this spring (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 26, 2019; Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 24, 2019).

Russian military journals and media frequently contain articles examining the role of airpower in modern warfare. But they also pay considerable attention to the theme of countering a massive air attack. Some articles criticize the lack of long-term planning to counter such threats, with R&D and procurement priorities placed in the wrong areas. Indeed, an underestimated approach, according to some specialists, is how to achieve and maintain air superiority against a high-technology enemy. Additionally, in a recent article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, the author argues that there is currently too much emphasis placed on procuring “heavy” rather than light fighters or light multi-purpose aircraft (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 21, 2019). The ratio of procurement in favor of heavy fighters as opposed to light is not only wrong, according to the author, but the whole theme is largely overlooked in public discussion: the need to form a two-component operational-tactical aviation structure that includes a light, multi-purpose, front-line aircraft.

In the published works of Russian military specialists, airpower divides into two clear categories: issues of fighting in circumterrestrial space are addressed by scholars in the Zhukov Military Aerospace Academy in Tver, while the subject of attaining air superiority in a single sphere of combat actions are covered by experts from the General Staff Academy in Moscow. However, in such analytical publications, the subject of gaining and maintaining air superiority on a national scale is absent (Voyennaya Mysl, January, March 2017).

An assessment of these longer-term systemic challenges to boosting Russian airpower on this level was published in August 2018 in Voyennaya Mysl by Colonel (ret.) V. N. Dybov and Colonel Yury Podgornykh. The authors highlight the fact that winning air superiority depends on several interrelated factors: doctrine, science and technology, military-economic issues, engineering, organizational structure, as well as socio-political and personnel-related factors. In fact, Dybov and Podgornykh argue that Russian defense planners could benefit by learning from the United States’ approach to airpower (Voyennaya Mysl, August 2018).

The authors also note that Russia’s Federal Space Program to 2025 is comparatively modest, funded at a level of $4.2 billion dollars (on par with the European Space Agency’s spending levels), but in danger of being cut by as much 50 percent due to economic factors. The planning in this area is complex, and the timescales resemble those for the aircraft industry. Here, the authors highlight the sensitive issue of using foreign circuitry in the defense industry, which in producing air- and space-borne platforms has reached up to 70 percent. “People became aware of the problem when Russia was subjected to sanctions by the United States and its NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies. At the moment, we are actively trying to introduce import substitution technologies. But again, this takes quite a lot of time, for obvious reasons, and extra funding, too” (Voyennaya Mysl, August 2018).

Moscow’s ambitious airpower plans are, in part, limited by the deeper issue of personnel challenges within the wider defense industry. The authors argue that these present long-term inhibiting factors in developing the basis for fresh approaches to modern airpower, and on a national scale. Dybov and Podgornykh argue, “At present, there is a shortage of professional engineers and researchers; the interconnection between educational institutions training specialists and their ‘consumers’ has been broken; accidents and failures of air and space hardware are fairly frequent. Most of those were caused not by faulty design, but by errors during production of carriers and their elements, their assembly, and operation.” They add, “The standards of training pilots, engineers, and technicians are clearly not up to the necessary requirements. Besides, the number of specialists with higher education has been almost halved, while that of experts with academic degrees is one-third of the former amount.” Although a powerful indictment of the capacity of the defense industry to meet ambitious goals set by the state, the authors do admit that there has been personnel improvement, such as raising wages and attracting younger specialists (Voyennaya Mysl, August 2018).

The Russian defense industry continues to try to point to a range of products meant to indicate that the country is achieving its goals of improving airpower capability. However, many systemic challenges remain. As the authors of the above-cited Voyennaya Mysl article indicate, one of the biggest problems may be an absence of thinking about a “national scale” application. And while the Okhotnik or Su-57 could prove to be success stories for Russian airpower, areas such as countering the enemy’s stealth capability may counterbalance these Russian advances.