Little wonder that few Westerners understand Russia. In the month that its air force finally reveals the closest thing it has to a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (MAPO's Article 1.44), and hints at grandiose plans for new fighters, missiles and long-range bombers, it also announces swingeing manpower cuts that include some of its most capable and experienced staff and funding starvation that makes much of the service a token force.

Service and industry chiefs and politicians seem to be failing to grasp a lot of nettles, at a time when the nation's air force is fast heading for the precipice. Russia's dilemma is this: the nation is all but bankrupt, and cannot afford to fund development of a new generation of advanced aircraft in large numbers. The air force requested R13 billion (around $2.2 billion) in 1998, and only received 5.5 billion. The service desperately needs new aircraft.

If the Russian aircraft industry is to survive, new designs are needed to attract export customers. Funding new designs by traditional means is simply not feasible. Russia's generals have hitherto planned on a miraculous recovery of the country's economy and kept projects like the Article 1.42 fifth-generation fighter in suspension until better financial times. If it was not already obvious that such a recovery would not happen soon, it is following the economic crash of last August.

The current combat fleet of MiGs and Sukhois are likely to be replaced by just two types - the Su-27IB and the LFI (light frontal fighter), an aircraft similar to the US/UK Joint Strike Fighter, that will replace the MiG-29, Su-25 and Su-27 and MiG-29 in tactical fighter roles. The Russians have been reluctant to allow the export of the Su-27IB - if they want to acquire "the aircraft of tomorrow" that may have to change.

The Su-30 is the prime case in point. The Indian air force is the largest customer for this two-seat strike aircraft, which has also been ordered by China. The Russian air force has a handful, but is unlikely to get more soon.

But for the foreign orders it has in hand, the Irkutsk factory producing the Su-30 might now be turning out bicycles. Thanks to exports, the capacity to produce aircraft for the Russian air force is still there, and the revenues generated by foreign sales ultimately contribute to the defence budget.

If exports can boost the production run to a few hundred aircraft, and bring unit costs down to half the current level, then the prospect of the Russian air force being able to buy some new aircraft starts to look realistic.

The roll-out of the Article 1.44 was attended with keen interest by China, which MAPO would welcome as a partner in co-development of a future fighter. Clearly, China still has money to spend on defence. Russia does not, but has the technology - although it will fall behind if something does not come good quickly. Russia's politicians would dearly like to offset US strength and influence by welding an "Asian axis", even if Moscow is also uneasy about China's military strength.

The answer then, must be for Russia to enter serious co-operation deals with its Asian neighbours. Hitherto, military joint programmes have been conspicuous by their absence and a jointly produced combat aircraft programme still seems to be unpalatable to the military industrial complex, though foreign avionics like Sextant displays do appear in India's Su-30MK.

The writing is also on the wall for the manufacturers. MAPO and Sukhoi are only beginning to murmur about future co-operation on the LFI, rather like the captain of the Titanic rearranging his cabin furniture.

Rationalisation of the industry, coupled with foreign co-production deals, even if they involve technology transfer, remain Russia's last reasonable hope of maintaining its military air power.

Russians are rightly proud of their heritage in aviation. It would be a shame if it disappeared because their leaders were short-sighted enough to try to go it alone.

Source: Flight International