Asking questions about next-generation bombers and unmanned air vehicle projects in Russia’s defence industry leads to quick – albeit unhelpful – responses in on-the-record interviews.
“Let’s keep [that topic] for the future,” says Yuri Slyusar, the newly appointed chief executive of United Aircraft Corp (UAC).
But there is no doubt that the Russian government and industry is working to address such curious gaps in the portfolio. The Russian air force is virtually alone among air forces of its size to have not procured or developed a large, weapons-capable unmanned air system. MiG rolled out a demonstrator aircraft called Skat at the MAKS air show in 2007, but nothing has been heard of the project since. UAC, meanwhile, has reported receiving a contract to develop a next-generation bomber, which has been assigned to Tupolev.
With those projects ongoing behind the scenes, the aviation branch of Russia’s military has had a lot of catching up to do. The atrophy of the post-Cold War years was exposed in the brief conflict with Georgia in 2008, leading to the release of an arms modernisation plan unveiled in the State Armaments Plan for 2010-2020.
That sweeping document laid out plans to buy as many as 441 fighters, 250 airlifts, more than 1,100 helicopters and 80 jet trainers, as well as to modernise the air force’s jet-powered bombers, heavy lift transports and the MiG-31.
The scope and breadth of Russia’s shopping list raised questions about the defence industry’s ability to support it, but Slyusar says the industry is keeping up with the government’s requirements so far, even as military aircraft deliveries ramp up to near Cold War levels at above 100 units a year.
“We don’t see a problem with these numbers. When the programme will be updated and finalised, we are ready to turn out the necessary numbers of 120-130 aircraft per year,” Slyusar says.
Of course, the government is providing the industry some relief from the demands imposed by the 2010 document.
The cornerstone of Russian fighter jet modernisation since 2010 is the PAK FA (an acronym translated as “future aviation project for front line aviation”). The first Sukhoi prototype T-50 flew on 29 January 2010, shortly before the Russian government unveiled to plan to procure 70 operational PAK FA aircraft by 2020.
But several incidents in flight testing, including two publicised engine failures, and Russia’s deteriorating economy has slowed development and slashed procurement plans. The state armaments programme (SAP) for 2015-2020 unveiled last year trimmed T-50 procurement to 55 aircraft over the five-year period. But that was before a currency crisis altered Moscow’s budget priorities. By last March, the number was further reduced to only 12 aircraft through 2020, according to Russian media reports quoting deputy defence minister for armaments Yuri Borisov.
Slyusar notes that the reduction in the five-year programme only postpones the aircraft purchases, rather than eliminates them.
“It’s not a decrease. It’s been postponed. The development cycle is still ongoing and there’s a little push to the right side of the whole programme. It’s not cut in numbers and we also hope that our co-operation with India would support this project. We’re not speaking about changing something major. It’s just a slip to the right basically,” Slyusar says. “The principle thing that this decrease was compensated by the increase in acquisition of other platforms – Su-30, MiG-29, Su-35 and other aircraft.”
However, PAK FA is not the only fighter programme suffering from Russia’s fiscal weakening. The 2010 SAP revealed a plan to buy 96 super-manoeuvrable Su-35S fighters, but that number was halved in the 2015 budget. By contrast, the tried-and-proven Su-30M is a beneficiary of leaner times. Its procurement allocation doubled between 2010 and 2015 to 60 fighters. Still unscathed is a plan to buy 48 MiG-35s, but the deal is not expected to be signed until 2016.
The Russian bomber fleet has encountered more stability in the procurement plan. The numbers of modernised Tu-160s and Tu-95s in the long-term acquisition plan have remain unchanged. But reports of development delays of the PAK DA programme have confused the picture. Russian air force officials have recently unveiled a plan to revive Tu-160 production after the line closed more than 20 years ago. How that plan could further drain the classified PAK DA budget account is not clear.
As modernisation of the current Tu-160 fleet continues, the government also reportedly now intends to re-start production of the famous “White Swan” bomber starting in 2023, more than 40 years after Tupolev started assembling the first swept-wing, supersonic bomber.