Category Archives: Aerospace Forces

Pchela’s Daughter

Order the flowers . . . Russia’s March 8 (and 9) celebration of International Women’s Day has started.

On February 27, KZ highlighted Yekaterina Olegovna Pchela who may become Russia’s first female LRA pilot.

She’s a cadet at the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation Pilot School (KVVAUL) and the only woman currently studying to fly Russian strategic bombers.

Cadet Pchela’s the start of what Russians like to call a “military dynasty.” Her father — Oleg (promoted to one-star general-major rank on February 20) — has commanded the 22nd Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Donbass Red Banner Division at Engels since 2017. It operates Tu-160 / Blackjack and Tu-95MS / Bear H bombers.

Cadet corps at KVVAUL

Cadet corps at KVVAUL

The Russian MOD first allowed women to attend KVVAUL in 2017, but restricted them to transport aircraft.

According to the school’s deputy chief, now there’s at least one woman studying each of four specialties: one in attack aviation, one in long-range aviation, seven in fighters, and the balance in transports.

On average the women get higher marks than the men. KZ’s editor adds there are 45 women enrolled in KVVAUL.

Female second- and third-year cadets will fly for the first time this spring.

The number of women in the armed forces hasn’t gone up much over the past decade. There were 50,000 in 2012. Perhaps only 40,000 now despite increased opportunities for them in the ranks. Polling indicates about two-thirds of Russians don’t want their daughters to serve.

The move to a Russian Army more reliant on volunteers than draftees, however, means Moscow can’t ignore a large pool of valuable human capital — young women.

A land where male chauvinism has long prevailed, Russia still trails Western countries significantly in this respect. U.S. service academies were open to women by the second half of the 1970s and the first female USAF B-52 pilot was flying in the early 1990s.

Yekaterina Olegovna

Then there’s nepotism. We don’t know anything about Ms. Pchela’s selection for KVVAUL. We have to assume she was a qualified applicant and is a promising future officer. She’s been getting a bit of media star treatment though. Not at random, she was picked to ask Putin questions during last June’s “direct line” with the president.

Russian mothers and fathers worry about hazing and violence against their sons in the army. So they certainly worry about sexual harassment and assault on their daughters. Oleg Pchela’s presence and position in LRA protects Yekaterina in this regard. But it’s likely more difficult for female cadets without fathers who are senior military officers.

Russia’s Second Best Protected City

St. Petersburg is probably now Russia’s second best protected city in terms of air defense (as common sense would dictate).

Interfaks-AVN reported today that another regiment of the Western MD’s 2nd Air Defense Division in Leningrad oblast has completed training with the S-400 to include combat firings against Favorit targets (the 5V55 missile from the S-300P system).

S-400 deployments in the 2nd ADD

S-400 deployments in the 2nd ADD

The regiment, likely the 1489th SAM Regiment, has returned to its home base of Vaganovo ENE of StP. It’s supposed to begin combat duty in February 2020, according to Interfaks-AVN.

The 500th SAM Regiment at Gostilitsy WSW of StP got its S-400s in 2015. The 1488th at Zelenogorsk NW of StP in 2016, the 1490th at Ulyanovka SE of StP probably in 2017, and the 1544th at Vladimirskiy Lager (but launch battalions split between Luga and Strugi Krasnyye) S of StP in 2018.

So not only is the 2nd ADD now all S-400, it’s also a five-regiment SAM division.

Here’s a handy reference to S-400 deployments (which have been difficult to keep up on). No wonder Mr. Putin wants to unplug the Internet and get rid of ru.wikipedia.org.

Mil and Kamov Under One Roof

Mi-35

Mil’s Mi-35 multipurpose combat helicopter

State-owned helicopter conglomerate Russian Helicopters plans to bring the Mil and Kamov design bureaus under a single organizational structure before 2022, according to a company statement.

Russian Helicopters (itself controlled by government holding company Rostekh) announced the two longstanding bureaus will be united in a new National Helicopter Center named for M. L. Mil and N. I. Kamov [National Center of Helicopter-building or NTsV — НЦВ].

Mil and Kamov will be joined in one business by mid-2020. “Further integration processes connected with optimizing the activity of the two design bureaus in the format of one company will continue until 2022,” Russian Helicopters noted. The company said the center will unite the potential of the two helicopter-building schools for more effective resolution of design and modernization missions.

The independent Mil and Kamov “brands” will be retained, but their workers will be combined in the NTsV. The merger is supposed to remove existing administrative, legal, and economic barriers to cooperation between their designers.

Ka-52

Kamov’s Ka-52 attack helicopter

Interfaks-AVN reported the establishment of the center is explained by a need to optimize the work of a whole range of supporting and administrative sub-units and to allow engineers from both bureaus to exchange technical solutions, unify standards, and share work loads.

Besides cutting management and labor costs, the union of Mil and Kamov is supposed to reduce the time required to put helicopters into serial production.

According to Russian Helicopters’ deputy general director Mikhail Korotkevich:

By our accounting, the distribution of tasks between two design bureaus, as well as between the production and repair plants of the holding will allow us to free up 15-20% of their annual effort which can be directed at creating technical reserves and developing new equipment.

Korotkevich added that Russian Helicopters wants to eliminate “unnecessary competition” between Mil and Kamov on similar helicopter designs. He expects more efficient use of infrastructure and lower expenditures on testing to come from the merger of the bureaus.

This merger of Russian helicopter giants will be interesting. 

There are mergers and then there are mergers. Putting Mil and Kamov under the same tent as separate entities is one thing. Сhanging their business and breaking their “rice bowls” is something else. Actually achieving efficiencies and savings is another thing too.

From Soviet times, the Russian approach was to create competition where it wasn’t in the socialist centrally-planned economy. That’s how the MOD and defense industry created world-class armaments — Sukhoy vs. Mikoyan, Ilyushin vs. Antonov, Rubin vs. Malakhit, Yuzhnoye vs. Makeyev vs. MITT, etc.

Over time the design bureaus — probably guided by the MOD and government — tended to concentrate on their specialties rather than competing directly.

This hasn’t stopped brutal clashes particularly when state purchases of weapons systems are limited or declining. It may be happening now, and it may have led the Kremlin to rationalize Russia’s military helicopter market. But blending Mil and Kamov won’t be easy. There has been more recent bare knuckle competition between the helicopter designers than in other segments of Russian defense industry.

In recent days, Primorye media reported on a demonstration by workers at Kamov’s AAK Progress plant 100 km northeast of Vladivostok. They are protesting the lack of orders for their helicopters and attendant cuts in the work force.

Military Academy Instructor Arrested in Bombing

Kommersant recently covered what’s happened on this case. Recall on April 2 St. Petersburg’s Military-Space Academy (VKA) named for Mozhayskiy was the scene of an apparent terrorist bombing. But the prime suspect is an instructor, Colonel Rifat Zakirov —  combat engineer and decorated EOD expert with two tours in the Chechen wars to his credit. Other sources say he’s a lieutenant colonel. He’s under house arrest.

Rifat Zakirov

Rifat Zakirov

Zakirov was injured in the blast and couldn’t be questioned for nearly a month. Military investigators say he had TNT and bomb components taken as war trophies, and he’s been charged with theft of explosives as well as illegally possessing and transporting them. But they say he didn’t intend to blow up VKA. No, he just wanted to privatize another military apartment.

Yes, Zakirov hoped his desperate action would resolve his unsatisfactory housing situation.

To back things up a bit, Zakirov once had a 58-square-meter two-room apartment in Sertolovo outside St. Petersburg. It was a service apartment (belonging to the MOD) he received in 2004 and immediately privatized. This satisfied the MOD’s obligation to provide the career officer with permanent housing. The widowed Zakirov lived there with his two sons.

But things got complicated. Relatives came to live with him. He remarried. In 2016, he asked the MOD to improve his circumstances, now outside the norm for inhabitants per square meter. The military duly assigned him a new service apartment in St. Petersburg but said he couldn’t privatize it because he couldn’t return the “permanent” one in Sertolovo where left his relatives.

So Zakirov hatched the plot to plant an explosive device, discover, and disarm it. As a hero, the MOD wouldn’t deny another request to privatize his second, larger apartment.

When Zakirov and colleagues entered the VKA building on April 2, he “noticed” a suspicious package with a mobile phone with wires inside. He sounded the alarm and evacuated cadets and staff. Wearing a protective vest and helmet, he was about to cover the bomb with a vest when it detonated. The bomb contained no shrapnel and, other than Zakirov, no one was seriously hurt by the explosion.

If someone other than the GVSU claimed all this, you’d say he was crazy.

Putin Boosts Su-57

Putin walks the flight line at Akhtubinsk on May 14

Putin walks the flight line at Akhtubinsk on May 14

Russia’s Supreme CINC boosted the fortunes of the country’s fifth generation Su-57 fighter declaring yesterday that Moscow will procure 76 of them. Until now it appeared the VKS might only receive a handful and forego series production altogether.

According to Kremlin.ru, Putin said:

“Multipurpose fighters Su-35S and Su-57 are in the final phase of state testing. These aircraft have unique characteristics and are the best in the world. It’s essential to fully rearm three Aerospace Forces regiments with the future aviation system fifth generation Su-57.”

“At the range [Akhtubinsk] yesterday the Minister [of Defense Shoygu] and I talked about this. Under the arms program to 2027 it’s planned to buy 16 of such aircraft. We analyzed the situation yesterday, the Minister reported. As a result of the work we did, as a result of the fact that we agreed with industry, — industry has practically reduced the cost of the aircraft and weapons by 20 percent, — we can buy many more of these combat aircraft of this class, of this, essentially, new generation. We agreed that we will buy over that time period 76 of such airplanes without increasing the cost. We have to say that in such volume, but the volume isn’t even the thing, the thing is we haven’t done anything like this new platform in the last 40 years. I hope the corrected plans will be fulfilled. And we’ll soon complete the contract for the systematic delivery of 76 of these fighters equipped with modern aviation weapons and the essential supporting ground infrastructure.”

Seventy-six is an odd number. Seventy-two would make three two-squadron regiments (24 fighters per).

Looks like Putin laid down a hard line with Sukhoy and KnAAPO. But hardware price issues have a way of persisting even after the Supreme CINC has spoken. Industry, after all, has to recoup its development costs and keep up with rising prices for components, etc.

Presumably, the 76 Su-57 fighters will have the “second phase” engine giving them true fifth generation maneuverability. That engine is still in testing that won’t finish til 2023. Could make for quite a backloaded production scheme.

Capture

A Russian defense industry source has told Kommersant that a 170 billion ruble contract will be signed at the MAKS-2019 air show in August. That’s making 76 Su-57s for a fly-away price of $34 million per plane. The F-22 was $150 million in 2009. The F-35 is at least $100 million. Even adding the 20 percent back in makes the Su-57 only $41 million a copy. We should be skeptical about this plan.

Maybe saying Russia will produce reams of Su-57s is no skin off Putin’s nose. In 2024, he’ll be out of office unless he officially makes himself president-for-life. Still Putin can’t fight time; he’ll be 71 when [if] the 2024 election happens. When those 76 Su-57s are supposed to be done, Putin will be 76 years old. Ironic.

MiG-35 Update

The Russian MOD has reportedly received the first two MiG-35 multirole fighters under a contract for six signed last August. The other four will be delivered before end of 2019, according to an Interfaks news agency source.

MiG-35D

MiG-35

The first two MiG-35s were ready for acceptance testing in December, but there’s no official word that the MOD has received them. The MOD said its pilots were testing the MiG-35’s maneuverability and aerodynamic stability at the State Flight-Test Center in Akhtubinsk in late 2018.

The MiG-35 has “deeply modernized” RD-33MK engines and an on-board radar capable of detecting and tracking 30 airborne targets at 160 km, and engaging six airborne and four ground targets simultaneously. The fighter has nine hardpoints for carrying air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.

In 2017, then VKS CINC General-Colonel Bondarev claimed the entire Russian light fighter inventory (MiG-29s and variants) would be replaced with MiG-35s. However, the Interfaks source says the VKS isn’t planning on making a large MiG-35 purchase at least in the near term.

Most Russian MiG-29s are essentially inactive or located at training bases. But fighter regiments in Kursk and Millerovo as well as the Russian air base in Erebuni, Armenia still have a handful of operational MiG-29 and MiG-29SMT squadrons.

Tanker Shortage

Russian aerial refueling

Writing in Izvestiya on December 26, Ilya Kramnik concluded that a shortage of aerial tankers is damaging the readiness of Russia’s air forces. He makes a convincing argument that Moscow has upgraded its air power but failed to provide the logistical support to operate it successfully.

The last half of his article is translated below.

“The New Reality”

“The fact that the country didn’t have the money to maintain large air forces to ensure the necessary composition of forces in any direction¹ became clear in the 1980s, and by then all future multipurpose fighters and frontal bombers had gotten the requirement for aerial refueling in their technical tasks. The transfer of aviation units from one direction to another, including with the help of aerial refueling, looked like a quicker means to support the concentration of forces than a transfer using intermediate airfields, and certainly much cheaper than maintaining the necessary number of aviation groupings in all directions.”

“The USSR’s collapse ruined practically all plans to renew military aviation, but in the end new aircraft entered series production. Besides Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers, A-50 AEW aircraft and long-range Tu-142M reconnaissance aircraft kept in the order-of-battle, Su-34 frontal bombers, Su-30SM, Su-35, MiG-29SMT fighters being built for the Russian air forces today are being equipped with aerial refueling systems.”

“The above-mentioned Su-24M, Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft, MiG-31B fighter-interceptors, including also the modernized MiG-31BM, were equipped with these systems. Of course, the fifth generation Su-57 fighter is also outfitted with an aerial refueling system.”

“Of the more or less new aircraft not having the refueling system were several dozen modernized Su-27SM, and the largest number of ‘unrefuelable’ frontal aviation aircraft are the Su-25 attack aircraft.”

“One way or another, the Russian air forces made into part of the Aerospace Forces [VKS] in 2015 have hundreds of aircraft equipped with the aerial refueling system, and this number is growing. Most likely, judging by everything, even though earlier deprived of this capability in the framework of strategic arms limitation the Tu-22M will receive it during the modernization of the Tu-22M3M variant. Besides this, the ‘strat’ inventory will grow also on account of restarting Tu-160 bomber production in the Tu-160M2 variant.”

“But there are no tankers. All this grandeur falls on one regiment of tankers with 15 Il-78 or Il-78M aircraft built on the base of the Il-76 transport aircraft.”

“The prospective growth in this number doesn’t inspire optimism because of the extremely difficult development of the new Il-76MD-90A series viewed as a platform for a tanker, and the air forces’ demand for transport aircraft themselves, and for airborne radars being built on this platform, the number of tankers clearly won’t turn out to be large. It would be optimism to suppose that the United Aircraft Corporation could deliver more than fifteen Il-78M-90A aircraft over the next 10 years, which in the best case would allow for increasing the number of aerial tankers in the air forces to 30 aircraft, including the Il-78 and Il-78M aircraft it already has.”

“Alternative Decisions”

“And 15 or 30 tankers is very few considering that the number of aircraft capable of being refueled in mid-air will grow. Moreover, taking into account the shrinking inventory of military-transport aviation, it’s possible that refueling will be required for them in the future in order to increase the inventory’s capabilities without increasing its numbers.”

“In the final accounting, even the USA with its greater military budget practices the refueling of transports, while the typical distances of a possible transfer in Russia’s case can turn out to be a little shorter.”

“Air forces strategic mobility is one of the main priorities of military organizational development, the transfer of aviation units across the entire country is a characteristic sign of the greater part of large exercises over the last fifteen years, and aerial refueling is an integral part of these exercises. So the tanker inventory isn’t enough and can’t be enough under present circumstances, as Izvestiya’s interlocutor in Russia’s VKS described the situation.”

“Tankers are actively used in the course of the Syrian campaign, to support the transport of equipment from Russia to Syria and back, as well as in place: it’s well-known that fighters and bombers regularly carry out missions while on “air patrol” requiring many hours of loitering over the combat area.”

“In conditions of growing activity by Long-Range Aviation, and also the deployment of Russian air units in the North and Far East with their huge expanses, the requirement for tankers has become greater still, both on the strategic and tactical levels.”

“One variant for fulfilling this mission is a return to earlier put-off plans for the production of a tanker on the base of the Il-96 airliner. In the event that the military department turned again to it, this would allow for solving two problems: both to justify expenditures to restart the Il-96 without making it into a commercial airliner for civil aviation, and also, possibly, to avoid the requirement to use Il-76MD-90A platforms as tankers.”

“A potential tanker based on the Il-96, given its dimensions and cargo capacity, could meet the requirement of strategic aviation in the future with an order volume in the realm of 30-40 planes in the coming fifteen years.” 

“On the tactical level it would be possible to use existing the Il-78/Il-78M, given the essential repair and modernization of these aircraft, and besides this, the existing Il-76TD/MD aircraft in storage which haven’t used up a significant part of their service lives and allowing for reworking into Il-78M variants could act as a reserve. This would allow for growing the Il-78M inventory sufficiently quickly by several dozen aircraft.”

“In the event the condition of the Il-76 ‘from storage’ is too poor to use it as a tanker, more exotic but fully realizable decisions are possible: for example, development of a Tu-204S ‘tanker’ variant — the cargo version of the Tu-204/214 aircraft, the passenger cabin of which in this case will be used for the placement of additional fuel tanks. This is an established and serially produced type, on which the fuel supply of the tanker variant could exceed 60 tons, that will fully guarantee the requirements of tactical aviation.”

“Since the presence or absence of tankers of a such class can determine the presence/absence of multipurpose fighter squadrons at the necessary place at the necessary time, similar projects have direct economic sense, allowing us to not chase after the number of extremely expensive modern combat aircraft (of which quite a lot are required), increasing the capabilities of aviation sub-units by buying relatively cheap (compared with combat aircraft) aerial tankers based on commercial aircraft.” 

“There is a need for this in any case, with the current number in the tanker fleet its capabilities are largely nominal.”

Kramnik makes good (and obvious) points, but there are other things worth knowing to be thrown in here.

The day after Kramnik’s article, Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar-SP announced that its “convertible” Il-78M-90A tanker has entered flight testing.

Il-78M-90A

Presumably the Il-78M-90A is the same as the new Il-76MD-90A, but equipped to accommodate fuel storage tanks in its cargo bay and refuel other aircraft when not deployed as a transport.

TVZvezda offered video from inside the new transport/tanker.

Visiting Aviastar in August, Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Aleksey Krivoruchko said the Russian MOD is considering a contract with the firm for 14 Il-78M-90A tankers to be delivered by 2027. He also indicated that number might grow.

So Kramnik’s call about maybe getting to a fleet of about 30 new and old tankers sounds about right. But, as recently as 2013, the Russian air force was talking about acquiring 30 new tankers.

By the by, the USAF operates something north of 450 tankers, and that’s counting only KC-10 and KC-135 aircraft.

¹ Направление or direction in the military sense of a strategic axis or the Soviet/Russian concept of western strategic direction, south-western strategic direction, etc.