Russia’s Air Force Modernizes for a “Virtual Cold War”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 31

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov confirmed on February 9 that the Ministry of Defense (MOD) has decided to purchase 34 MiG-29SMT Fulcrum fighter aircraft originally intended for delivery to Algeria. The contract agreed upon by Russia and Algeria in 2006 was reportedly worth 25 billion rubles ($692 million). It permitted the Algerian Air Force to trade in old MiG fighters as partial payment for the new planes. This deal ground to a halt after the delivery of 15 MiG-29 fighters to Algeria in 2006 and 2007 revealed serious flaws. "The issue of the Defense Ministry’s purchase of the fighter aircraft made under the former Algerian contract for 25 billion rubles has been decided. This has already taken place," Ivanov said (Interfax, February 9).

Since Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov announced a radical military reform and modernization program in October 2008, the Russian Air Force has been planning to implement sweeping reforms, though details of how the state will afford to procure expensive new-generation fighters or fund the overhaul of aging and obsolete equipment have been less forthcoming. The air force anticipates that, in the future, air and space will become a single theater of operations, requiring transformation of its defensive capabilities accordingly through the unification of air defense, missile defense, space defense and radio-electronic warfare into one system. This is driven by the conviction that other states will acquire new assets using new technologies, including hypersonic and air/space aircraft, unmanned reconnaissance drones and strike aircraft. Moscow fears that foreign powers will gain the ability to carry out precision strikes on a global scale. Such thinking is also pushing forward the current agenda of air force reforms.

Although air force procurement in recent years has failed to address issues related to an aging fleet, the decision by the MOD to purchase the MiG-29SMTs was, in fact, a necessary government intervention to save the MiG Company from bankruptcy. The MiG-29s rejected by Algeria are newer than most of Russia’s MiG-29s, many of which were built in the early 1980s and are a considerable burden on the air force. They are therefore an alluring acquisition (Echo of Moscow Radio, February 9).

On December 5, 2008, a MiG-29 crashed five kilometers (three miles) from Domna airbase in the Chita area of Transbaikal. Its crew members were killed, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, Colonel-General Aleksandr Zelin, ordered an investigation, which found that the crash had resulted from corrosion in the load-bearing parts of the aircraft. As a precaution, an inspection was rapidly carried out on Russia’s entire fleet of MiG-29s. Only 30 percent were found to be free from corrosion. Zelin ordered 70 percent of the MiG-29 fleet (around 200 aircraft) grounded until additional safety checks could be completed (Interfax, February 6).

Senior officers in the Russian Air Force are concerned that media reports about the condition of its fighter aircraft are creating a negative image of its current combat capabilities. Most of the MiG-29s nevertheless remain grounded as safety checks continue. Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Drik, the air-force spokesman, claims the fact that only one-third of the aircraft are currently cleared to fly does not "materially reduce the combat readiness of the Russian Air Force." Others offer reassurance that the air force is far from facing a real crisis, giving the impression that the inspections are only a routine investigation of the fleet’s airworthiness. Lieutenant-General Sergey Baynetov, head of the armed forces’ flight safety service, said that the inspection of the MiG-29 fleet was still in progress and was being done in cooperation with the MiG Corporation and the MOD’s 13th Research and Development Institute, using special diagnostic equipment (Interfax, February 6).

In such straightened and sobering times, when air force commanders may play down the sense of crisis and avoid igniting more controversy about the whole modernization program, highly ambitious statements are still commonplace. On February 10 Zelin elaborated reform plans for the air force, saying that in order to "optimize" the organization, about 30 percent of its personnel would be made redundant. The optimization of the air force is currently planned up to 2016 and aims at completion by 2020. "In line with organizational measures, we will have to reform 84 percent of the military units, 10 percent of which will be disbanded, 22 percent reorganized, and 68 percent transferred to different staffing tables," Zelin said (RIA Novosti, February 10).

These reforms are by no means abstract; they form a key part of the strategic vision for force development as well as for the realization of Moscow’s aspiration to develop a multi-polar world order. Zelin believes that an integrated air and space defense system will provide a shield for Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and offer Russia adequate protection from air or space attack:

"The transition to the air force of the future will take place against the backdrop of a more active geopolitical and geostrategic realignment in the world and the formation of a new global and regional security system and of a multi-polar world. Militarily, the dominant factor will be the aerospace aspect of warfare, and this will have a defining impact on the course of military operations in the future" (RIA Novosti, February 10).

Airpower is a vital component in modern warfare and if military reform is to succeed in Russia, the reform of the air force will be pivotal. This will, however, be expensive and may require more time to achieve. Meanwhile, faced with an economic downturn, Russia’s political, military, and security leaders are promoting the prospect of a successful military reform, linking it to Russia’s re-establishment as a great power on the world stage. Zelin’s emphasis on a "geopolitical and geostrategic realignment in the world and the formation of a new global and regional security system" underscores the role the military plays in promoting Russian interests. It does not indicate how realistic these plans will prove in the long term, however. Reality is currently eclipsed by holding out the hope of eventual transformation. Moscow is downplaying speculation about a possible new Cold War, preferring instead to conduct a "virtual Cold War" that exploits divisions among the European NATO member states in order to re-establish "spheres of influence." It appears that there may be a similar "virtual" dimension to Russia’s military modernization.