The procurement plans of the Russian air force lie in tatters, with the aspirations of its financially beseiged leaders now focused on maintaining a modicum of capability rather than on the acquisition of a new, fifth-generation, aircraft, such as MAPO MiG's Article 1.42 fighter.
The Article 1.42 may grace the public arena at the Moscow air show (to be held at Zhukovsky on 19-24 August), at least as part of the static display. Its next, and permanent, home, however, is likely to be the air-force museum at Monino. The aircraft marks the apex of the old Soviet Cold War combat-aircraft ambition, but, in procurement terms, it represents a post-Cold War nadir.
It was selected to meet the Mnogo funktionalniy Frontovoi Istryibitel or multi-role frontal fighter (MFI) requirement, but it has been plagued by a succession of budget cuts. Still unseen in the West, the aircraft is understood to be a 35t-class air-superiority fighter, intended to be fitted with an array of advanced combat avionics. Technologically and financially, its status now raises questions to which the Russian aerospace industry and the Russian Government have no answers. The advanced avionics have failed to materialise, and the aircraft is unaffordable in anything approaching meaningful numbers.
The extent of the air force's procurement plight can be gauged from the fact that even the aircraft intended to be deployed in the interim until the MFI became available have languished in the research and development (R&D) phase.
The MAPO MiG MiG-29M Fulcrum and the Sukhoi Su-27M Flanker were intended to provide the air force with improved combat-aircraft - replacing the basic Fulcrum and Flanker fleets in frontal aviation units and the air-defence forces. Type introduction, followed by minor modifications, with at least one major modification programme during the airframe's design life, was the traditional procurement cycle for the air force and for Russia's military-aerospace R&D and production monolith.
The MiG-29M programme ground to a halt in 1992, while Sukhoi has continued to fly around ten Su-27M prototypes in various guises. The first aircraft, number 701, is now at the Monino museum - but the Su-27M appears to be nowhere near an in-service date with the air force. Many other Su-27M prototypes have been under test at the air force's trials centre at Ahktubinsk since around the turn of the decade, and several have also become stalwarts of the international air show circuit.
None of this, however, has brought the aircraft nearer entry into service with the air force. What has arguably helped more to achieve this are two critical export sales for Sukhoi, to China and India. While some senior Sukhoi officials still talk enthusiastically about the thrust-vectoring Su-27M, number 711, intended primarily for the Russian air force, its most important role may be as a thrust-vectoring and digital flight-control system testbed for the Indian air force's Su-30MKI canard-equipped and thrust-vectoring two-seat Flankers.
The Indian Su-30MKI programme has revealed the potential to modify basic Flanker airframes. The first Su-30MKI aerodynamic testbed is a basic Su-30 airframe, with a strengthened rear fuselage section, reconfigured tail sting, and canards. Thus, while the air force may not be able to afford all-new Su-27Ms or MiG-29Ms, it might be able to pick elements of these programmes to upgrade basic Su-27s and MiG-29s.
In terms of air-combat capability, one of the most significant elements of the Flanker and Fulcrum mid-life upgrades has been a multi-mode, pulse-Doppler radar, coupled with an active-radar-guided beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile. The Fulcrum radar is the N-010 being produced by Phazotron, while NIIP has been developing the N-011 for the Su-27M. The primary active-radar BVR missile for both aircraft is the Vympel R-77 (AA-12 Adder).
The vast majority of the air force's Flanker and Fulcrum aircraft are limited to single-target engagement with the Vympel R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) semi-active radar-guided missile.
A limited number of MiG-29s (Fulcrum Cs) in air-force service may have been modified with the N-019M, an upgraded version of the aircraft's basic radar, providing a two-target engagement capability. Part of the problem for the air force, however, is that Vympel has struggled to establish series production of the R-77.
The break-up of the Soviet Union, and of its stillborn successor, the CIS, shattered the Soviet Union's military-industrial establishment. Overnight, central rule was usurped by national borders and political independence.
In the guided-weapons arena, this posed problems for Russia's Vympel in that the intended production line for the R-77 was to be in Kiev, Ukraine. Given the sensitivity of the programme, and of the friction between the two states, the decision was taken to shift production of the missile to Moscow. Some Vympel sources now suggest that the first few missiles have recently been produced from the Moscow assembly line. It is indicative of Russia's budgetary blight that the Malaysian air force is likely to receive its R-77s at the same time, if not before, the first Adders reach Russia's own air force.
A radar upgrade poses particular questions about the basic Flanker airframe. One of the drivers behind fitting the Su-27M with canards was to try to retain the manoeuvrability of the basic Flanker while allowing for a heavier phased-array radar. The canard configuration offsets the shift in the centre of gravity resulting from greater mass forward of the cockpit.
The air force, given the example of the Indian Su-30MKI prototype, may opt to modify as many basic Su-27s as it can afford, although whether this stretches as far as to include canards remains to be seen.
Another less-ambitious radar option for the air force would be to opt for a mechanically scanned antenna. NIIP and Phazotron, with its so-called Zhuk-27, could both provide the air force with an alternative to an electronically scanned-array radar, which incurs a considerably lower weight penalty. This would allow the Flanker's basic manoeuvrability to be retained, while obtaining a multi-mode, pulse-Doppler radar, with multiple targeting capability.
While Sukhoi's Su-27M programme appears never to have been officially cancelled, in the Russian public's view, at least, the MiG-29M project was shelved publicly by the Government. The irony for the then Mikoyan was that its mid-life upgrade programme was at a more advanced stage of development than that of the Su-27M. While the Su-27M airframe design was relatively mature, many of the avionics and radar subsystems were far from ready.
Despite problems with the MiG-29M and the Article 1.42, MAPO MiG so far appears to continue to harbour ambitions as a fighter house. These hopes, however long term, are being fed by the air force.
The air force continues to sustain hopes of eventually acquiring a fifth-generation air-superiority combat aircraft, irrespective of the demise of the Article 1.42, and Mikoyan's Project 701 for a MiG-31M Foxhound B replacement.
MAPO MiG and Sukhoi are carrying out design work into combat aircraft beyond the Article 1.42. MAPO MiG's lightweight frontal fighter (LFI) has once again resurfaced after a decade of somnolence. Information on the project is scant, although some company officials draw parallels with the USA's Joint Strike Fighter project.
An LFI public debut is probably some way off, but what may be unveiled in the nearer term is Sukhoi's S-32. The genesis of this project remains a source of conjecture - but Sukhoi is understood to have built a forward-swept-wing, twin-engined, twin-vertical-stabiliser aircraft which is approaching flight test.
This aircraft may be a technology demonstrator, being used to examine such areas as forward-swept-wing aerodynamics and composite structures.
Sukhoi's former general designer, Mikhail Simonov, may have attempted to push the S-32 to the air force as a genuine contender for a next-generation air-superiority platform. Simonov's pretender to the MFI throne could also make its debut at Zhukovsky this month.
The activities of Sukhoi and MAPO MiG are the clearest indication that the air force views the Article 1.42 problems as a setback, rather than an end, to its fifth-generation fighter procurement plans. For Sukhoi and MAPO MiG, sustaining projects beyond their current fighter portfolios is also important in maintaining their impetus in the export market.
It is not only fifth-generation fighter projects which collapsed with the Soviet Union - so too did bomber projects aimed at providing its long-range aviation units with next-generation strategic and theatre-strike aircraft.
Long-range strike aviation units are now dependent on the obsolescent Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber. The handful of Tu-160 Blackjacks in air-force service remain at best a token force. Tactical strike-aircraft units are dependent on the Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot. All of these aircraft would have been, during the mid-to-late 1980s, the subject of R&D programmes aimed at providing successors to supplant one or more of the in-service aircraft.
Tupolev is known to have been working on a follow-on to the Bear in the late 1980s. This programme has been associated by the design bureau with Project 245, although this designation has also latterly been attributed to a Tu-22M3 upgrade programme.
Sukhoi, meanwhile, was working on the T-60 medium bomber, which, during the early 1990s, began to be referred to as the T-60S. Sukhoi's medium-bomber project dates back to at least the 1970s, when the design bureau started to look at a Fencer derivative with a much greater take-off weight - under several airframe guises the take-off weight of the design has risen by more than 10t every decade. The T-60S is thought to have a maximum take-off weight of 80-100t. Tupolev's Bear successor project is unlikely ever to appear, however, and there is an even bigger question mark against the relationship between the Tu-22M3 upgrade project and the T-60S.
A modified Tu-22M3, equipped with conventional stand-off weapons such as the Raduga Kh-101 and Kh-SD now in development and test, would fulfil long-range strike needs in the interim, but eventually a new aircraft will be required.
There have been reports that the air force has shifted some of its limited resources from the ambitious T-60S to the Tu-22M3 upgrade, although these remain to be confirmed.
One air-force strike-aircraft development programme which continues to make clear, if painfully slow, progress is the Su-27IB (Istribitel Bombardirovshik) fighter-bomber variant of the basic Flanker. Sukhoi refers to the aircraft as the Su-32FN and Su-34, although the air force appears to continue to use the Su-27IB designation for its own requirement.
The Su-27IB was intended to supplant the Su-24 Fencer in some roles as well as possibly taking on some of the stand-off attack roles of the Su-22 Fitter. In spite of the funding famine, which has effectively crushed the vast majority of the air force's procurement aspirations, work on the Su-27IB continues.
The Sukhoi-associated manufacturing plant at Novosibirsk appears to continue to produce prototype/pre-production-standard aircraft. Aircraft numbers 42, 43, 44 and 45 have been shown in public, and at least another two aircraft are believed to be in the final stages of -assembly .
While the air force can probably make do with limited sensor and weapons-systems upgrades to its Flanker and Fulcrum fleets in the near to medium term, it badly needs a tactical strike aircraft to replace the Fencer. The air force's mid-1980s procurement blueprint would have shown the Su-27IB already in service, according to Russian industry sources.
The indications are that, while the fighter fraternity in the air force maintains ambitions to pursue fifth-generation projects, it is tactical strike aircraft, in the shape of the Su-27IB, which will take priority in the near to mid term. It also remains to be seen, given the lessons of the Chechnya war, whether the upgraded Su-25TM eventually finds its way, even in limited numbers, into frontal aviation units in the battlefield support role.
Whatever the outcome in terms of particular developmental airframes, the air force is being forced to re-evaluate radically its procurement plans. In terms of the bomber force, the irony for the air force is that, in a multi-polar rather than a bi-polar world, its nuclear-strike capability potentially takes on an increased, rather than a diminished, role.
The air force's true "tactical" nuclear capability is the poor relation in Russia's strategic nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines with ballistic-missile capabilities and bombers, and it is best suited to the new security environment.
While there are attempts to portray the submarine as having a "substrategic" capability, the platform offers neither the timeliness not the flexibility of an aircraft armed with stand-off missiles. The Su-27IB may yet have a role to play in this equation.
The air force's re-examination, however, is more difficult because of the continuing fundamental instability of Russia's political system. It may be some time yet before the Russian air force can finally be sure of its future shape.
Source: Flight International