Military aviation has featured prominently in Russian news reports over the past few weeks, with journalists finding little positive to report. The tragic crash of a Military Transport Aviation (MTA) An-124 Ruslan in Irkutsk on December 6 was the most dramatic incident. It prompted Air Force commander in chief Petr Deinekin to ground the other 25 MTA An-124s and probably also cost him his job. President Boris Yeltsin turned down Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s recommendation that Deinekin be allowed to remain at his post past the mandatory retirement age of 60. (Yeltsin was said to have made the "irreversible decision" that all marshals and senior generals would retire at that age. Sergeev himself will turn 60 next April 20.)
The Irkutsk crash also encouraged critics to take a closer look at current priorities in the Air Force, where commercial gain seems to rate higher than combat readiness. Gen. Lev Rokhlin, a vitriolic opponent of the Kremlin’s plans for military reform, told the Duma on December 10 that the Air Force had allotted nearly one-half of its entire aviation fuel supply this year to commercial flights. The total fuel allotment to the service was just under 25 percent of its needs, and others reported that, as a result, fighter pilots will average just 14 hours of flight time this year against a norm of 180-240 hours. Deinekin was said to have exercised personal control over the MTA’s commercial activities.
There was another fatal aviation accident on December 11, when a military An-12 light transport collided with a civilian Mi-8 helicopter at an airport near Arkhangel in northern Russia. This incident revealed inadequate coordination between military and civil air traffic controllers. The two aircrafts were given permission to land at the same time by different controllers. The mishap prompted Deinekin on December 12 to suspend all non-combat military flights for one week — probably one of his last official acts as his birthday was yesterday.
Russia’s warplane producers, meanwhile, are still trying to find ways to survive until such time as they can again sell significant numbers of fighters and bombers to the Defense Ministry. In one of the latest efforts to regain a market in Eastern Europe, the branch of the Sukhoi conglomerate that deals with attack aircraft announced that it would participate in a joint venture to overhaul Czech and Slovak Su-25 ground attack aircraft at a factory in Slovakia. The same company said that it also hopes to produce Su-39 attack aircraft — the export version of the latest model of the Su-25 — in Poland for the Polish Air Force. Some of Russia’s $2 billion debt to Poland would be used to subsidize this effort, making the Russian plane attractive to the Poles from a financial standpoint when compared with Western models.
Sukhoi is probably better off than any other Russian plane builder due to the sales of its Su-27 fighter and its derivatives to China, India, and Vietnam. The competing MiG organization recently unveiled the latest version of its MiG-29 fighter and hopes that international sales of this and its MiG-AT jet trainer will improve its financial situation. Earlier this month, however, company employees were said to have appealed to the Duma for $10 million in the next budget, warning that the company would cease to exist without such help. (Russian media, December 10-14)
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