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Russian Air Force Faces Deepening Crisis CRAIG COVAULT/MOSCOW

The situation in the dilapidated and demoralized Russian air force continues to worsen with hundreds upon hundreds of aircraft rusting into the ground, few changes in Soviet-era doctrine or tactics and thousands of pilots receiving little or no flight time.

The Russian air force is in a downward spiral from which there is little hope of recovery without more massive cuts than contemplated in both aircraft and personnel, according to about a dozen experts and close observers of that air force who met recently with Aviation Week & Space Technology.

These sources, from seven countries, spoke on background. All confirmed that the overall situation in the Russian air force is generally worse than acknowledged by their military. Modernization remains a dream, but the changes need to be far more drastic than upgraded hardware.

THERE IS SCANT FUEL to maintain basic proficiency, let alone military capability, and the crisis is trending toward an even worse situation when most of the experienced pilots will have retired or moved into staff jobs.

This will leave the air force with a minimal flight experience base and largely unserviceable aircraft.

Under these circum- stances, there is serious question about whether the air force has become as much a liability as an asset to the former Soviet Union.

These assessments on the weakening of the Russian air force will have an impact on U.S. and West European military budgets and weapons system planning, especially as part of the overall Pentagon review ordered by President George W. Bush.

Russian plans to cut 36,000 air force personnel in the next several years will still leave the air force too large and inefficient for the resources needed, according to sources.

In aircraft, for example, the Russians have a force of about 2,000 at the present time, but only 46% or less are serviceable. "I would try and sell them off or dig a big hole and just push them in, scrap them, because they are no good," one source said. "Many are little more than hulks."

In order for the force to remain viable under current conditions, it would need to be reduced to about 500 aircraft. But the experts interviewed had doubts about President Vladimir Putin and the Ministry of Defense opting for such cuts because that would relegate the country to the status of a "regional power," like India, as opposed to a global power--a position in which it still views itself.

However, Russia's strategic bomber force maintains a viable nuclear deterrent with a force of Tu-160 Blackjack, Tu-22 Backfire and Tu-95MS Bear-H cruise missile bombers. About 100 strategic bombers are in service.

As recently as late February, all three aircraft types in the bomber force participated in a major exercise, supported by Il-78 Midas tankers, in connection with the test launch of ballistic missiles fired from Russian submarines.

The situation is much worse in fighter and tactical regiments. There is a small cadre of proficient ground-attack fighter-bomber pilots, many with Chechnyan experience (AW&ST Feb. 14, 2000, p. 76). But pure fighter pilot regiments have become largely impotent, according to sources.

Russian military aircraft export issues and a return to Soviet-style restrictiveness all are also factors in the air force situation. Those interviewed agreed that beyond the aircraft, fuel and training problems there is increased subterfuge and a lack of truthfulness in statements from the Russian military.

THE PROBLEM IS ALSO GROWING in marketing claims made by the Russian military aircraft and weapons industry, sources agreed. There is an increased level of "outright lying, especially by Russian officials at the MAKS Moscow air show," about aerospace system capabilities and Russian export sales and support, one senior official said. "You have to expect some of this because it is Russia, but it is getting worse."

"This is going to increasingly affect their ability to sell aircraft. If they are not being honest with their customers, they will start to go away," another official said.

There are signs that bogus spare parts, fronted by financially desperate Russian component manufacturers, are also beginning to enter the parts support flow for Russian aerospace exports.

"The Chinese were recently given some Russian spare parts that were not up to par, so there is corruption going on in the Russian spare parts business. Parts are being sold with 'false passports' and the factories involved could lose their reputations," a source said.

Export sales of Su-27 variants, like those to India and China, are maintaining Sukhoi as a company and form a basis for modernization of the Russian air force (AW&ST Feb. 5, p. 51). But the sources cautioned not to read too much into the broader impact on the air force from these sales.

Having weapons exports as a fundamental underpinning for operating an air force to carry out Russian national objectives raises serious policy questions.

"Now their only large clients are traditional clients like China and India, that do not have much [political leeway] to buy Western aircraft.

"And they do have a bit of an advertising problem," one source said. "They say 'buy our aircraft--even our own government won't touch them, but you've got to have them.'"

Sukhoi may be relatively healthy, but virtually none of the other Russian aircraft manufacturers are, and exports are no help to them. Some export prices have become so ridiculously cheap that no industry could be sustained on the prices charged. The sources said some Mil Mi-17 armed helicopters capable of carrying about 25 troops have been sold for as little as $3.5 million, while base prices for MiG-29s have been quoted as low as $11.5 million.

And there is little stability in the way sales are conducted. When people who were involved in a deal at the outset change, contracts are not necessarily honored by the new people. "This is one of their biggest problems. If a deal is signed by one guy, the next guy may not honor it."

Putin recently made another in a series of continuing shifts in this regard. The heads of Russia's two arms export agencies, Promexport and Rosvooruzheniye, were removed and the organizations merged into a single agency called Rosoboronexport.

THE SHIFT MAY BE GOOD for Russia if it can bring order to the export process. But if history is any guide, the new agency will still go for big sales with countries like India and China where they can make fast money, sources said. By doing this, they are neglecting broader arms export options and arrangements--even with U.S. companies--that might create more stability.

And the new managers will likely bring their own set of rules--which will all change again if they are shifted out, as has been the trend in the past.

The influence of the traditional Soviet-style power ministries also appears to be growing under the Putin Administration. "We continually get reports of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic arm of the old KGB, tightening the screws," several of the sources agreed.

"I've detected an increase in the influences of the security services and a general regression to Soviet ways. Their reflexes are still Soviet," said another source.

The reorganization of the air force is another major challenge. In the past five years air defense forces, formerly a separate entity, have been brought into the service while there continues to be a major internal debate about merging the strategic rocket forces with the air force.

THAT MAJOR SHIFT IS LIKELY to happen eventually, but once it occurs there are questions about whether the strategic missile arm will still consume large amounts of the reorganized air force budget.

Putin's relatively new bureaucracy remains in somewhat of a power struggle with the Ministry of Defense over reorganization.

And although there are signs Putin is trying to convert the Russian Security Council into his own de facto, Soviet-style "Politburo," the Putin side has either been unsuccessful--or failed to try--to bypass the military General Staff for military organizational decisions. "The Security Council is where the political lines are being drawn, but the General Staff is still very much playing a role in any reorganization decisions," a source said.

Russia's military space program is in as bad a shape as its air elements, leaving Russia largely "blind and deaf" from a space-support standpoint, they said.

Putin, in late January, took the military space forces out of the strategic rocket forces to form a separate space force to address this problem and give Russian military space planners more autonomy and flexibility. The shift is significant but it could be years before the change will show results.

The commander-in-chief of the air force, Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, has gone on record in the past as saying that the air force is achieving all of its aims, yet, in other forums, the same commander has said the air force cannot achieve its objectives and will die altogether within a few years without major funding. "They can't keep giving both sides of that coin," a source said.

Kornukov earlier this year said that 2000 "was a year of stabilization" and he claimed that training levels were up as the number of exercises rose to 400 in 2000 from about 300 in 1999 (AW&ST Feb. 5, p. 52).

But he also said that, overall, Russian air force pilots accumulated, on average, just 25-30 flight hours for the entire year, slightly higher than in 1999. Transport pilots averaged only 50 hr. per year, while strike and bomber pilots were getting a mere 25-35 hr. per year, slightly higher than previously. But fighter pilots continue to receive a paltry 10 hr. annually.

Kornukov said that 2.5 million metric tons of aviation fuel are required to maintain proper training levels, but last year only half a million metric tons were made available.

Although the flight-time averages indicate much of the force is barely getting minimal hours for fair-weather flying in the landing pattern, "there are whole air force regiments that have not been flying at all for two years," sources said.

MiG-31 and Su-27 crews are doing next-to-no flying while Su-24 and Su-25 pilots in Chechnya have been logging more hours than the force average.

"The Russian system is to give a limited number of first-class pilots the larger amount of hours while the rest are just flying simulators."

Russian simulators are of poor quality, according to sources who have flown several of them. They are comparable to U.S. and European simulator technology of the mid-1960s, and are not capable of keeping pilots in flight-ready condition.

This means that in a few years, they will face an even bigger problem as first-class pilots age. When even senior-level fighter pilots get as few as 10 flight hours a year, it's nowhere near enough to maintain safe flight on high-speed aircraft.

"If these guys had to go to war, it would take them a long time to work up their people--and then a lot of them would fly into the ground," according to a source.

If the service were to get a large infusion of money it would take 5-10 years to produce several regiments capable of modern flight operations. And the conditions are so bad now it would take two years to work up even 2-3 effective squadrons, he elaborated.

With this situation, even factoring in the Chechnya experience, tactics have continued to stagnate.

"Their manner of conducting air warfare has not changed significantly--there have been some minor tweaks--but it has not changed in a major way," a source said. "To the extent that they have precision weapons, they do not seem to be using them in the same way we did in Desert Storm or Kosovo. We would come in from specific directions so if we missed, there would be less collateral damage. They still go in with everything until they have killed it, 'and to hell with the broader effects.'"

If the Russian air force continues the way it is going--thousands of aircraft being underutilized and tens of thousands of people receiving no flying and no meaningful training--then it is "going to go down the drain," was the consensus of everyone interviewed.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 07, 2001


Headline: Russia's blue water blues

By Cristina Chuen & Michael Jasinski

Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2001, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 65-69


[Also see other articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about dangers of unguarded nukes, especially "Potatoes were guarded better", -- Andre]

On August 12, 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank with all hands lost. Since then the incident has been swirled in controversy. Did the Kursk collide with another submarine, as some in the Russian military claim, or was it an explosion onboard that sealed the boat's fate? Some reports claim that sailors may have survived for several hours or even days in the crippled submarine. Could they have been rescued?

What is certain is that while Russia continues to mourn the loss of 118 sailors, the world's attention is focused on the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. It was only chance that the Kursk tragedy did not involve a nuclear missile. The world may not be so lucky next time.

Despite Russian boasts of a leaner, meaner navy, the reality is a bloated and unsafe force, with lower funding per ship and sailor than in other nuclear navies. Russian sailors and officers receive only $50 and $150 a month, respectively, much less than the $350 the average Russian is estimated to take home each month.1

Many sailors and officers take outside jobs, undermining the military's vertical command structure. Inadequate and irregular federal funding has led to insufficient crew training and maintenance of Russia's sophisticated weapons; external funding creates the potential for divided loyalties. Disruptive administrative reforms also take a toll on efficiency and safety, while traditional levels of secrecy make it difficult to spot deficiencies, theft, and corruption.

Critics in Russia and abroad have noted the dangers of underfunding, but they fail to examine the problems with how the navy is funded, and how this affects safety. The present situation will not improve unless there are radical changes in how Russia allocates its scarce resources.

Technical hazards

Russian submarines are armed with many types of sophisticated weapons that require careful handling. These weapons are not only carried on Oscar II-class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines like the Kursk, but also on attack and ballistic missile submarines. If the Kursk was sunk by a catastrophic malfunction of a faulty or improperly handled weapon, then all of Russia's submarines risk sharing its fate.

A military service that operates complex weapons is at risk of disaster if its financing is erratic. Even conventional weapons used on submarines require skilled handling. There has been much speculation since the disaster about a catastrophic malfunction of one of the Kursk's weapons. Although the navy has not released detailed information on the submarine's weapon load, it is possible to analyze the dangers faced by the crew.

Russian submarines can carry several types of rocket-propelled weapons, including the 200-knot Shkval torpedo and the SS-N-15/16 anti-submarine missile. Both use solid fuel, which while safer to handle than liquid fuel, is not risk free. Solid rocket fuel decomposes and may become unstable over time. In 1974, the Black Sea Fleet lost a Kashin-class guided missile destroyer when the solid fuel in one of the ship's surface-to-air missiles spontaneously ignited. While no Russian submarine is known to have suffered such an accident, a rocket-fuel fire on board a submarine would have dire consequences.

Russia's navy also uses several torpedo types fueled by kerosene and either liquid oxygen or peroxide, both of which are unstable and require careful handling. There are no known cases of major malfunctions involving these weapons, but in the 1950s the Soviets suffered a series of fatal accidents during experiments with submarine propulsion systems using liquid oxygen.

The navy's electric torpedoes are less prone to fire or explosion, but they have hazards of their own. According to one theory, a secondary explosion aboard the Kursk may have been caused by a chemical reaction between damaged torpedo batteries and seawater.2

Finally, the latest Russian torpedoes, such as the UGST, use a new type of liquid monopropellant containing its own oxidizer, similar to the Otto fuel used by U.S. Mk 48 and British Spearfish torpedoes. This type of fuel offers increased performance, but it is toxic and potentially explosive. According to the Johns Hopkins Chemical Propulsion Information Agency, in certain conditions, the fuel poses "blast and fragment hazards" similar to high explosives. And the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament notes that British ships have reportedly suffered two fatalities as a result of improperly handled Otto fuel.3 Since the UGST is either still in testing or has only recently entered service, the dangers associated with its fuel may not be well understood by Russian torpedo-handling crews, particularly given current training problems.

Finally, most Russian ballistic missile submarines use liquid-fueled missiles. In 1986 this caused the loss of the K-219, a Yankee-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), and earlier this year the Pacific Fleet suffered several casualties caused by improperly handled missiles. Complex weapons require skillful handling, but Russia's navy does not provide the training necessary to safely operate its ships and weapons.


Russia's federal funding is insufficient and irregularly disbursed. To supplement their budgets, submarine units receive additional money from regional "sponsors" and engage in self-funding activities, while individual submariners moonlight and sometimes resort to pilfering. Even the Kursk, an Oscar II submarine that carried out high profile missions and was commissioned only six years ago, was not fully funded by the federal government: Its crew was sponsored by the Kursk regional government. The situation is worse for older, less active submarines, and far worse for decommissioned nuclear submarines, despite the danger these ships represent. If Russia is unable to fully fund one of its newest nuclear subs, what might the situation be on decommissioned boats that have no sponsors?

Regional authorities have sponsored nuclear submarines since the fall of 1997. The Kursk region, for example, sent its best recruits to serve on the Kursk, constructed housing for crew members, and gave submariners vacations at Kursk resorts. Nearly all Russian nuclear submarines have regional sponsors. Yekaterinburg provides stipends to the top four submariners on the Yekaterinburg. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov promised to fund construction of the SSBN Yuri Dolgoruki and to subsidize fuel for the Northern Fleet.4

These funds are not reflected in the naval budget. Nor does it appear that the funding they provide has given the regions leverage over naval activities. After the Kursk tragedy, though, the regions were quick to demand that the safety of "their" submarines be ensured. The regional sponsorship system is fickle, however, and is no substitute for sustained federal funding.

Naval units also engage in "self-funding" by growing their own food and fishing, often at the expense of training. And officers and sailors alike subsidize their meager salaries by moonlighting. While one might not consider this a source of "funding," it does reflect the navy's inability to pay salaries on time. Moonlighting also harms morale and job performance. Furthermore, there is a slippery slope from legal to illegal moonlighting and outright theft.

A tradition of secrecy makes it difficult to track outside employment and pilfering, but the money raised from these activities is significant. Although extra cash helps relieve subsistence problems, it also dilutes professionalism and morale, undermines the chain of command, and reduces time available for training. In short, funding shortages, combined with the desperate search for alternative financing, expose ships and sailors to grave risks and--since so many of Russia's ships are nuclear powered or armed--the risk extends to Russia's neighbors as well.

Training and maintenance

Despite its economic problems, Russia's navy is attempting to reform and modernize itself, but lack of money gets in the way. Economic hardships create an incentive to adopt cheaper weapons and to spend less on testing, which makes the adoption of new weapons riskier. It is not clear if the Kursk sank as a result of problems with new weapons, poor training, or a collision with another ship or an old mine. However, even if problems with weapons or training did not sink the Kursk, they may contribute to future submarine incidents. For financial reasons, Russian crews are seeing less hands-on training. Some officers must board sister ships and serve as "understudies" to officers with similar jobs instead of training on their own vessels. Sustained training is necessary to safely operate a complex nuclear submarine and its weapons, old or new. Submarine duty has decreased by 25 percent since 1997, and as of last July, financing of combat training was less than 1 percent of the annual requirement.5

The crew of the Kursk was made up of competitively selected recruits. Sailors on other boats are reportedly of uneven quality. Alcohol and drug problems exist, and retaining key non-commissioned and commissioned officers has become difficult. According to a recent article by former Northern Fleet Commander Adm. Oleg Yerofeyev, good officers are discouraged from attending a naval academy because doing so requires a cut in pay. Commanders, who must send a certain number of officers to academies each year, sometimes send unqualified or unwilling officers.6

Administrative changes can disrupt training. The navy has recently reformed its chain of command, creating a "Northern Bastion" and a "Kamchatka Bastion" in order to create unified regional commands. This initiative has been met with resistance and has yet to show results. Such reforms, while possibly of long-term strategic utility, are difficult to implement at best, and potentially dangerous when they disrupt already insufficient control over dangerous vessels and weapons in a time of reduced funding.

Maintenance of ships and weapons has suffered as a result of the disintegrating support infrastructure. For example, the service lives of the newest cranes used for loading and off-loading nuclear and conventional submarine weapons for inspection expired in 1998. The 500 million rubles (about $17.4 million) earmarked for cranes in the 2000 budget was spent on a new submarine instead. The crane problem has led to fewer weapon inspections; some reports suggest the Northern Fleet has halted them altogether.

The cranes are unsafe. On June 16, 2000, a crane scheduled for retirement in 1995 dropped an unarmed SS-N-18 Stingray submarine- launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in Konyushkovski Cove, about 40 kilometers from Vladivostok. The fall resulted in the release of the SLBM's oxidizer, killing 1 and injuring 11. Had the missile's fuel compartment been breached, 5 metric tons of toxic liquid heptyl fuel could have escaped.

While Russia's navy has insisted on commissioning new submarines in spite of its inability to maintain existing ones, economic problems are no doubt affecting the quality of new submarine construction and creating delays. For example, the Amurski Shipbuilding Plant has been building an Akula II-class nuclear-powered attack submarine for over a decade. Its nuclear power plant is already operational, but the shipyard has not received enough money to complete the submarine. Delays in paying wages have caused 15,000 of the yard's 20,000 employees to leave, leading Clay Moltz of the Monterey Institute to question the plant's ability to complete the submarine even if funding should materialize.7


The Kursk disaster shows the extent to which cost-cutting has reduced safety. Rescue submarines inherited from the Soviet Union have been mothballed for lack of money. Improved rescue equipment has never been adopted. Rescue training has been minimal in recent years, with some rescue equipment resting idly in storage.

Naval traditions of secrecy and efforts to maintain the navy's status within the Russian military make civil intervention difficult. Since the sinking of the Kursk, Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to create naval rescue centers, but recent media reports suggest the federal government is unlikely to fund them. Instead, oil and gas companies like Gazprom and Lukoil, which do prospecting on the sea shelf, will likely be required to maintain search and rescue services that the state can call upon in time of need. While that would be an improvement over the present situation, it would not be the same as consistently funded professional rescue teams, and it is not clear that the navy--given the culture of military secrecy--would provide private rescue centers with necessary information. Since the accident, the regions have bombarded the navy with questions about safety and offers of assistance. However, there is no guarantee that increased regional funding will persist if memories of the Kursk incident fade and the high world oil prices currently buoying the Russian economy fall. Increased civilian attention to naval affairs may similarly wane, while the navy itself is unlikely to reveal its deficiencies to the public in the future any more than it has in the past.

Decommissioning and dismantlement

Inadequate funding for the stewardship of decommissioned nuclear submarines has increased environmental and proliferation risks. Russia has decommissioned 179 submarines. Of these, 36 are SSBNs that the U.S. Defense Department is helping dismantle. There is as yet no money to dismantle most of the rem aining 143, 87 of which still have nuclear fuel aboard. In the meantime, these vessels must be guarded, their reactors monitored and protected. The large number of incidents of theft from decommissioned submarines alone indicates that the navy is unable to cope.

The responsibility for decommissioned boats is being shifted to the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), which could be a difficult transition. According to Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the May 28, 1998 government decree that transferred jurisdiction over the submarines from the navy to Minatom resulted in the release of 10,000 naval personnel from duties on decommissioned submarines. Further, more than 1 billion rubles ($37 million) in the navy's budget earmarked for the upkeep of decommissioned vessels was spent elsewhere.

It is unclear if Minatom will bolster funding and bring attention to the issue. On April 11, 2000, Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Vladimir Vinogradov said that Minatom received 560 million rubles (about $20 million) for submarine dismantlement in 1999 and would receive 850 million rubles (nearly $30 million) in 2000. Since these funds are insufficient, Minatom plans to use money earned from selling highly enriched uranium to the United States.8

In the long run, it probably makes sense to transfer responsibility for dismantlement from the navy, but traditionally Minatom has been just as secretive as the navy, and it is not clear how well the two organizations will work together. International assistance and Russian transparency could help make the situation safer. It would also speed the process of getting rid of these dangerous submarines: Only eight were defueled in 1999, and Minatom may not be able to fulfill its plans to defuel more without additional funding.

The bottom line

Russia's economic woes have badly hurt the navy. Its problems are compounded by spending on construction of new weapons instead of training or safety measures. Naval officers and sailors must cope with confusing economic incentives, reduced training, poorly maintained ships and weapons, and disruptive administrative reforms. The only reform that has not moved forward--one that might reduce costs and increase quality--is downsizing the navy. Safety is a low priority, as the mothballing of rescue equipment indicates. The state of decommissioned vessels is even more worrisome than that of the active ones.

Recent reforms of the military chain of command and the transfer of control over decommissioned submarines, spent fuel, and radioactive waste from the navy to Minatom may make long-term sense, but the transition will be difficult. Implementing these changes requires more, not less, money and attention.

Talk of a smaller, better navy has increased since the Kursk disaster, but in the short term, this too would require increased funding and attention. If Russia continues to develop complex new weapons and ships but does not fund maintenance, safety, dismantlement, and training, more accidents will surely happen.

Cristina Chuen is a research associate at the Russian Nuclear Profiles Database Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Michael Jasinski, a former arms control inspector, helped implement cooperative threat reduction projects in the former Soviet republics and is a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.


1. Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2000. 2. Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 6, 2000 ( 3. 4. Na strazhe zapolyarya, May 19, 1999. 5. Morskoy sbornik, September 2000. 6. Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, August 2000. 7. Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2000. 8. Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, April 14, 2000.

-- Andre Weltman (, March 08, 2001.

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