Russian Air Force Modernization Linked to Future U.S. “Threat”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 160

Colonel-General Aleksandr Zelin

In a series of interviews this month, the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the Russian Air Force (VVS) Colonel-General Aleksandr Zelin outlined reform plans to enhance air power. Throughout his public statements, Zelin linked the main driving force to reform and modernize the VVS, including developing a new S-500 air defense system, to the "threat" posed by the United States and the possibility of Russia facing future local conflicts on its periphery. Overlooking the vast range of obsolete or aging platforms in the inventory, Zelin said on August 11 that Russia will respond to the creation of the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command by developing new strike systems.

In rhetoric curiously reminiscent of Russian objections to U.S. ballistic missile defense, General Zelin said that Moscow is concerned about the capability being developed by the U.S., which might result in Russia being vulnerable in the future to air strikes anywhere on its territory using air and space-based weapons. Zelin said that the VVS will form air and space defense brigades equipped with the S-400 and the new S-500 systems. "These are the means that we will have to address the air and space defense tasks," he commented, adding that the Almaz-Antey company is currently developing the S-500 (ITAR-TASS, August 11).

Zelin provided more detail on reforming the VVS, which in essence prioritizes personnel restructuring and "gradually" equipping it with modern aircraft by 2020; he offered no suggestions on what flight crews should do in the meantime with aging or moribund platforms. However, he alluded to the enormity of the multiple challenges that this will present, confirming that during the recent winter training period the VVS had only managed to complete 56 percent of its scheduled command-post exercises, which he said reflected the organizational and personnel changes being implemented in line with the reform agenda. Referring to these exercises, he reported that 60 percent had achieved a "good" assessment, though he was keen to emphasize that the tactical proficiency of units and subunits had improved. Despite the VVS clocking up "95,900 flight-hours" during this training period which represented a 13 percent increase on the same period in 2008, Zelin admitted serious deficiencies. In 2008 frontline fighter unit pilots clocked up an average of 60-65 flight hours, which compares unfavourably with their NATO counterpart where the minimum is 180 annually. Also in 2008, "a young crew commander had 20.6 [annual flight] hours on average," he admitted. "The training of a 1st class frontline aviation pilot takes between seven and eight years and costs approximately $3.4 million, while the training of a sniper-pilot takes 10-12 years and costs $7.82 million," he said. The future introduction of modern platforms will raise both the costs and timescale for pilot training (Interfax, August 12).

Zelin was clearly defensive concerning his branch of service. He pointedly defended the right of the VVS to maintain operational control of army aviation and dismissed the argument that it should switch back to the ground forces. He said that the failings of the VVS in the Georgia war had resulted from the failure to suppress Georgian portable surface-to-air missile systems, which he claimed was not the responsibility of the air force (Interfax, August 11, 12).

The financial pressures of the reform and modernization process have become more prominent in recent comments by the top brass. Although none of them question that the reform is ongoing and will continue over the next twelve years, the challenges stemming from modernizing equipment and weapons is playing on the minds of the military leadership. Nonetheless, given the sizeable costs involved in developing and introducing the new generation of aircraft and additional expense accruing from their assimilation by flight crews, Zelin doubted whether the central aim of the air force reforms will succeed: "manned aviation will not by 2025 be in a position to accomplish the requisite quantity of missions in a local war" (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 10). In 1999 the then C-in-C of the VVS Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov said that the air force, undergoing reforms from its Soviet legacy force structure, had achieved the required level to efficiently meet the goals of "repelling local and regional scale aggression with the use of conventional arms" (RIA Novosti, August 11, 1999).

It is likely that General Zelin was attempting to publicly campaign for the VVS to receive a greater share of the defense budget. He may also have been incensed by rumors in the French media that the Russian navy is exploring procuring an aircraft carrier from France (which seems beyond present defense spending plans), and sensitive to the issue of the military having to rely on foreign acquisitions in areas such as UAV’s (Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 5). However, by questioning whether the VVS will be better placed to prosecute an air campaign in a local war by 2025, he has become the first service commander to question whether Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s reforms will prove successful for the air force.

This gap between image and reality was highlighted only four days after the celebration of Air Force Day. On August 16 two Su-27 "Flanker" fighter jets from the elite Russian aerobatics group Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) collided in mid air during a rehearsal for the MAKS-2009 air show near Zhukovsky airfield, east of Moscow (RIA Novosti, August 17). Several were injured, including civilians on the ground, while one pilot Colonel Igor Tkachenko died in the accident. In June 2005, Tkachenko had warned about the safety standards of Russian aircraft: "The planes that the air force sent us could not be used by the combat forces," he explained (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, June 3, 2005).

Zelin’s assessment of the future development of Russian airpower, particularly his negative comment concerning its inability to adequately conduct operations during a future local conflict, will no doubt stimulate calls for army aviation to be re-subordinated to the ground forces. Many of the critical themes in the VVS commander’s thinking are rooted in inter-service rivalry and unease over bypassing Russian defense industries in favor of foreign competitors. However, this might also be driven by the recognition that defense spending priorities are fixed on the strategic deterrent, enhancing intelligence gathering capabilities and on acquiring naval platforms; leaving many wondering how its conventional force capabilities will be sufficiently enhanced from the carcass of the defense budget.