Russia's Military Aviation Industry

By Johnson, David R. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Russia's Military Aviation Industry

Johnson, David R., Air & Space Power Journal

Strategy for Survival

AT THE 1996 Farnborough Air Show, Sukhoy's SU-37 astounded intenational observers with maneuverability previously unseen in a combat aircraft. The thrust-vectoring SU-27 variant stole show headlines with flight demonstrations widely described in the aviation press as "spectacular."1 One air show reporter opined that the SU-37 shows that the Russian aviation industry "is still alive." Sukhoy's new aircraft is convincing reaffirmation of the world-class and, in some areas, unique capabilities of Russia's military aviation industry. However, though still "alive," Russia's military aviation industry is struggling for survival.

The situation is serious enough that a committee of the Russian legislature examining the problem in 1995 concluded that the aviation industry could collapse by the turn of the century if energetic action to reverse current trends were not taken.2 The main source of the industry's problems is easy to find: orders from the Russian Federation Air Force (RFAF) are down to almost zero. The same is true of orders from former Warsaw Pact nations. Because RFAF purchases have nearly ceased, production lines have gone idle, and workers are laid off or unpaid. A related problem, which may have greater longterm impact than the closure of some production lines, is a steady decline in the number of new scientists and engineers beginning work in the military-industrial complex. The trend points toward a future shortage of trained specialists in the scienceintensive aviation industry.

It appeared during the first several years after the Soviet collapse that the government had no coherent policy on how to reform and preserve the military aviation industry. The evidence now suggests that Russia's federal government and senior military leadership are not blind to the problems of the military-industrial complex as a whole and have outlined a policy for preserving its high-tech components through the country's economic crisis. Because of its high-tech orientation and its importance to national security, aviation is given priority consideration in the new policy.

The emerging government-military policy on the military aviation industry and its scientific-technical base is part of a developing policy on the military-industrial complex as a whole. The overall policy is aimed at slowing and reorienting defense conversion, clearly identifying what elements of the military-industrial complex are necessary to Russia's national security, and supporting high-tech dual-use industries which can be profitably sold abroad or can attract investment in the near term and can provide the technical base for a modernized military once Russia has weathered its economic crisis.

The policy pertinent to the military aviation industry has two key elements. The first is an apparent decision for the RFAF to forgo near-term aircraft and weapons acquisition so that sufficient funding can be channeled to aircraft and weapondevelopment projects to keep advancedtechnology capabilities alive. The second is to continue aggressively marketing advanced aircraft and aviation-production capabilities abroad and to use profits from foreign sales to sustain advanced aircraftdevelopment projects and production capabilities. The result will be increased competition on the world military aviation market, the appearance of Russian advanced fourth- and so-called fourth-andone-half-generation aircraft around the world, despite their not having entered service in the RFAF, and the proliferation of aviation-production technology.

The Russian Federation Air Force: Wishes and Reality

The SU-37 shows that in some quarters the creativity of Russia's aircraft designers is unabated. Nevertheless, Russia's military budget has been hard hit by the country's economic crisis, and this has translated to severe reductions in aircraft orders. Consequently, neither the SU-37 nor any other new aircraft will enter service in the RFAF in substantial numbers in the foreseeable future. …

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