Outside view: Russian air power

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— Past problems with lack of funding for pilot and crew training have led to strange incidents in the Russian air force.

A few years ago, a Maj. Troyanov lost orientation in the Baltic sky, flew over Lithuania instead of the Kaliningrad region, and had to eject from the aircraft when his plane ran out of fuel. It was later established that Maj. Troyanov had had just seven hours of flight experience in the year preceding the incident. Lack of combat experience was among the reasons for the loss of two planes during the peacekeeping operation in South Ossetia.

It’s no secret that until recently, Russian military pilots had just 20 hours of flying time a year, while the standard was 150 hours. A rapid growth in oil prices limited the availability of fuel and lubricants. Young graduates of flying schools could not gain the necessary experience as they were not allowed to conduct solo flights because of the potential risk of losing expensive hardware. Meanwhile, it was necessary to keep the older, more experienced pilots fit for combat duty. Simulators, no matter how perfect, cannot substitute for real flying experience.

The Russian air force currently has enough fuel, three-star Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin, commander of the Russian air force, told a recent news conference in Moscow. By now, the average flying time among tactical and army aviation pilots has risen to around 90 hours a year. Special attention is paid to young pilots.

The flying time for the crews of strategic bombers also has increased considerably. Starting from Aug. 17, 2007, Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear warplanes resumed flights over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. Since then, the crews have conducted more than 150 patrols amid “counteraction by aviation of neighboring countries,” Gen. Zelin said.

NATO fighters approached very close to Russian planes, sometimes beyond safety regulations, aiming their weapons, and the Russian crews responded, although they had no combat missiles on board, by simulating firing at the “potential adversaries,” practicing repelling “hostile” attacks. In fact, it was joint combat training.

During the 2007-08 joint drills with Russia’s Northern and Black Sea fleets in the Atlantic, long-range aircraft for the first time in many years saw intensive action far away from their bases. They rehearsed the destruction of naval targets together with ships, naval aviation, air defense and shipboard missile systems.

This year, Russian army aviation crews have conducted a few dozen tactical training exercises with live firing of missiles at aerial, ground and naval targets. The exercises usually were part of joint drills with motorized infantry, coastal units and navy vessels. This proves that the Russian armed forces command is focused on simultaneous multirole combat employment of troops on the ground, in the air and at sea.

Joint drills of long-range aviation and navy ships are scheduled to be held in the Indian Ocean this year. Last year’s cruise will be repeated but with new objectives and in new conditions.

Another priority is the further development of the joint air defense system of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is the only operational defensive system within the CIS countries, Gen. Zelin said.

Besides Russia, this system comprises the air defense troops of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Ukraine. The CIS countries are facing the task of improving the control system of the joint air defense and securing mutual information exchanges concerning the situation at the frontiers of the commonwealth.

A universal automation equipment complex for command and control centers is under development on request by the CIS Air Defense Coordination Committee. Air defense troops from the member countries are engaged in joint combat duty. Around 100 warplanes at a time take part in drills within this system.

The Russian air force still has a lot of problems to be solved, Gen. Zelin said. Nevertheless, it is clear that it is recovering, he added.

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