Russia’s top brass have decided that the best way to halt the decline of Russian airpower capabilities is to upgrade equipment and transform some air elements into effective anti-terrorist strike forces. Therefore in 2005 the Russian air force will continue to rely heavily upon extending the service life of its long-range bombers, enhance its technological capabilities, and promote the work of its defense industries on aviation equipment. Unfortunately, little attention is given to morale, training, and professional standards.
Military transport aviation will see upgrades by the summer of 2005, according to Viktor Livanov, Director-General of the Ilyushin Aircraft Corporation. This will entail the installation of new avionics in the cockpit of the IL-76MD-90, improving the current cockpit management system with multi-function LCDs. If successful, the technology will be introduced later in the year into other Russian military transport aircraft.
Experimental technologies are also being prioritized in an effort to strengthen the capabilities of the KA-52 (Alligator) helicopter. After 17 successful test flights in 2004, the first quarter of 2005 should conclude the testing phase for the new Arbalet airborne radar system. The radar system itself shows high-quality images with a wide range of detection ranges, making its creators, Fazotron Research Corporation, believe it superior to the radar system aboard the U.S. AH-64 (Long Bow) in terms of detection range, precision, and image quality (Interfax, December 21, 28). Such advances also enhance the appeal of Russian aviation technology exports.
Moreover, a modernized Tu-160 (Blackjack) long-range bomber will also be added to the inventory of long-range aircraft by April 2005. The modernizing of this aircraft, carried out at the Kazan aircraft plant, has included avionics upgrades, as well as weapons capabilities. Lieutenant-General Igor Khvorov, commander of the 37th Air Army, confirmed that work is continuing on upgrading precision cruise missiles with a range of 3,000 km (Interfax, December 20).
The mainstay of Russian long-range aviation consists of the Tu-160 (Blackjack) supersonic strategic bombers and Tu-95MS (Bear) and Tu-22M3 (Backfire) strategic bombers. Khvorov emphasized that only one in three of these aircraft is used regularly, thus allowing many to pass their service life of 25 years while remaining in good condition. He therefore believes that the service lives of some aircraft could be reasonably extended based on an assessment of their actual state.
Such signs of progress in the Russian air force, placing its emphasis on cost-cutting and greater reliance on technological upgrades, are welcomed within the service itself. However, Khvorov also argues that long-range aviation can be successfully used against Russia’s most pressing security threat — terrorism. “Long-range aviation has not been intended for combating terrorists, but times are changing,” he observed. A feasibility study into the use of such airpower against terrorist targets, conducted by the Russian air force in the aftermath of Beslan, appears to signal the possible use of long-range aviation as an option against terrorists. Although Khvorov readily admits that it has no role to play in a Beslan type crisis, he equally discounted the use of “carpet-bombing” during such an operation. Evidently the Russian air force sees a need to justify the theoretical use of long-range bombers in the context of international terrorism, though it does not have any clear picture of what this may involve.
Existing manpower problems, budgeting, and overall standards within the Russian air force give rise to serious concerns within the Russian Ministry of Defense. A recent study into the causes of military air accidents in Russia between 1992-2004 found that five percent of these accidents resulted from the poor medical service and reduced efficiency of pilots. According to Lieutenant-General Sergei Solntsev, head of the armed forces flight safety service, around one-third of such accidents have been caused by the failure of pilots to comply with the pre-flight rest routine or even flying while drunk (Interfax, December 27).
Underlying the publicly touted technical advances in some aspects of the Russian air force or within army aviation, a culture of decline persists, with failing pilot standards and little serious systemic effort to reverse these trends. Yet more alarming is the notion that long-range bombers may fly against “terrorist” targets, in an unspecified operational tasking, while the terrorist threat facing Russia is more likely to involve enemy action within population centers, rather than insurgents out in the open presenting themselves as a target for long-range aviation. In reality, as the Russian armed forces are subjected to increasing political cliches about the need to restructure into effective forces that can combat terrorism, many elements within the existing system are promoting their own case for greater funding on the basis of combating terrorism. At this time, when there is arguably a greater need for raising the standards of personnel within the air force, Solntsev observed that military accident levels are surpassing civilian aviation accidents. Falling standards among air force personnel cannot be replaced by technology, but technology is a useful mechanism for deflecting attention from the decline.