The influx of funding in the past two years has undoubtedly benefited industry, triggering a reversal of fortunes. But it also has brought to the forefront a raft of new problems, including how to meet the timetable for replenishing the air force fleet.
The size of the appetite for fighters was underscored by Russian air force chief Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin, who says the service is looking to field five squadrons of Su-34s, or around 120 aircraft. The fighter program languished in development for years; the first operational unit was only established recently, more than a decade late. Four of the aircraft were handed over last year and six are due to be delivered this year, with 12 to follow each year thereafter.
But Zelin is concerned about fielding plans for the Su-35, Russia’s latest fighter, which is seen as an important element in the fleet renewal plan and also as a capability gap-filler until the fifth-generation T-50 arrives. The Su-35 program has suffered development delays, in part because of a ground accident with the third prototype three years ago that destroyed the aircraft, but also due to concern in the service that the Su-35 will not meet the Russian air force’s specifications. The fighter was initially designed for the export market when Russia’s industry was unable to secure funding at home.
Pressure is mounting on the Su-35 program also because of the aggressive time line that has been set for the T-50, which Zelin describes as the service’s top fighter priority. Two aircraft are in flight trials and United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) President Mikhail Pogosyan promises two more will be delivered this year. Plans call for the first preproduction T-50 to be handed over in 2013, with the production standard aircraft to become available in 2014-15.
But behind the scenes, military officials worry that the T-50 development and production milestones cannot be met, and they feel the Su-35 needs to be fielded quickly to address immediate equipment concerns.
In many respects, the Su-35 also serves as a technology pathfinder for the T-50. Both use the same Article 117S engines and their radar technology shares a heritage. The Su-35’s Irbis-E has a 350-400-km (220-250-mi.) detection range for targets with a 3-sq.-meter (33-sq.-ft.) radar signature and is both electronically and mechanically scanned. It has the ability to track up to 30 targets simultaneously and engage eight at the same time.
The Su-35’s laser targeting pod in particular could act as a trailblazer for the T-50. Plans call for the stealth fighter to use the large Article 110KS pod developed by UOMZ, although it would compromise the aircraft’s low observability. The Su-35, on the other hand, will likely use an internally mounted system, with a low radar cross section, that could migrate to the T-50.
Also helping to bolster the arsenal in the near term is a pending order for additional Su-30s. The Russian air force is expected to buy 28 Su-30SMs, the Russian version of the Su-30MKI Irkut has sold to the Indian air force. The Su-30SM would retain Western equipment from companies such as Thales and Safran in a rare departure from Russia’s emphasis on using domestic suppliers, says an industry official. The yet-to-be-announced contract for Su-30SMs also is expected to include an option for 12 aircraft, potentially to meet a not fully defined requirement from Russia’s navy aviation arm.
The concerns about fielding time lines go beyond the combat aircraft realm. Zelin notes that the Il-476 transport is due to be in service in 2013 but says,“we would like to have it earlier.” The current development activity will not allow that.
The fleet replacement worries are further illustrated by the troubles with the Tu-22M bombers belonging to the Russian navy’s air arm, which now fall under control of the air force. Obsolescence of engine parts has created a maintenance nightmare for the fleet and prompted the military to restart parts production of critical powerplant components. Zelin sees progress on this front and says that once the situation is improved the aircraft may be reassigned to the navy.
But there are limits to Russia’s appetite for new equipment. Despite the hopes of industry players such as MiG that the Russian air force will buy into a light fifth-generation fighter program, that does not look promising. Zelin suggests that more likely would be the acquisition of MiG-35s, which were initially developed for India. However, he tempers the prospect by noting that the issue is secondary to the T-50.