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Challenges to Russia’s Air Force reform


(Russian Federation)
An Analytical Review
Volume XVI, Number 12, 22 April 2010
Russian Federation
Armed Forces by LtCol Andrew Wallace

Challenges to Russia’s Air Force reform
The Russian Air Force has undergone significant reform over the past year. Earlier this month Colonel General Alexander Zelin, the Air Force Commander in Chief described the transformed organization as a “qualitatively new service” of the Armed Forces. (1) Major components of the reform effort included a new command structure, consolidated logistics and modernized weapons. Despite the service’s progress, serious questions remain regarding the leadership of the officer corps, inter-service rivalry and the ability of the defense industrial complex to deliver high-tech weapons systems.  
The Russian Air Force, like the Army, completed major organizational reforms in 2009. The new command structure includes 7 operational commands, 30 air force bases and 10 air defense brigades. (2) Newly acquired military transportation aviation, airborne troop’s aviation and army aviation are now included in the new structure. (3) According to Colonel General Zelin the transformation created a more “flexible” structure that is “better able to adapt to rapidly changing situation[s].” (4)
So far, the integration of military airlift has shown statistical improvement. In 2009, air transportation executed 25,000 hours and airdropped 41,000 soldiers, up 16% and 50% respectively from 2008. (5) In addition, the command resumed resupply missions to the Russian Arctic base “Borneo” for the first time in 20 years. (6)
The air force also took steps to consolidate its aviation and air defense logistics systems. On the aviation front, the air force plans to convert its aircraft maintenance activities into a holding and management company. (7) It further plans to consolidate its air defense maintenance and supply at one central facility. (8) The air force expects the new look logistics structure to be a more efficient and economical maintenance system. (9) 
The new maintenance system should be well suited to manage a more modern inventory of weapon systems. According to General Zelin, the air force will need to modernize 70% of the service’s equipment by 2020. (10) So far, Russia’s struggling defense industry retains a viable aviation and air defense sector. According to Prime Minister Putin, the aviation and air defense sector alone account for 60% of the nation’s defense industry exports. (11) Consequently, the expectation is that the industry should be able to meet the service’s requirements. 
Leading indicators are promising with Russia’s fifth generation fighter starting test flights earlier this year, (12) and the S-500 air defense system projected for completion in 2012. (13) In addition, Strategic Aviation Commander Major General Zhikharev stated, the defense industry was working on the next generation strategic bomber to replace aging Tu-95 “Bear” bombers starting in 2025. (14)
Although the Air Force has made notable progress instituting reform, serious challenges remain. In a recent interview, General Zelin summed up the air force’s inspection cycle for 2009 as “positive.” (15) However, he did say inspectors identified major shortcomings in the “professional know-how” and “skills of the officer corps.” (16) Specific weak areas included insufficient planning and follow-up by unit commanders, imprecise orders and personal incompetence. (17) General Zelin will need the officer corps to lead at a much higher level if he expects to institutionalize the recent reforms.
Another challenge the air force will have to manage stems from the consolidation and transfer of army aviation resources to the air force. Inter-service concerns and rivalries undoubtedly will arise due to the change of asset ownership. Army commanders, who once possessed their own military airlift or combat aviation resources will now have to request that same capability from their sister service. It will be up to the air force to prioritize and fill an army commander’s requests. Army stakeholders are already speaking out. Colonel General Pavlov, former commander of army aviation recently stated, “Clearly Air Force command neither want[s] nor can deal with helicopters. Before army aviation falls to pieces completely, it should be restored to the ground troops.” (18)
Finally, despite the defense industry’s relative success in the aviation and air defense sector, serious concerns remain. In March, President Medvedev called the task of providing the armed forces with new weapon systems “extremely difficult." (19) Specific technology shortfalls include the development of a new jet engine, modern electronics and new onboard radar for the Russia’s fifth generation fighter in order to field the system by 2015. (20)   Another technology shortfall exists in the development of the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). So far, over 5 billion rubles in research and development have been expended by the defense industry without producing a single viable design. In fact, General Zelin said it would be “a crime” to include any defense industry UCAVs in the air force inventory. (21) 
The defense industry also has failed to field an automated net-centric command and control system for the armed forces. The industry’s current troubled effort “Akatsiya,” rumored to enter service later this year, will cost the armed forces one trillion rubles to field. (22) Already defense experts are making the comparison with Bulava and Glonass, two other costly and struggling defense industry programs. (23)  
The air force does not possess any quick fixes for the defense industry’s technological shortfalls. However, it can address both its leadership failures and its inter-service rivalry with the army. In both cases, General Zelin will play a pivotal role in determining the ultimate success or failure of the air force’s effort.  
Source Notes:
(1) Col-Gen Zelin Sees Air Force as Basis of Russia’s Future Air and Space Defense, Krasnaya zvezda Online, 13 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(2) Russia: Chief of Main Staff Views Air Force’s 2009 Achievements, Changing Role, Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer Online, 9 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(3) Russia: Military Transport Aviation Gets New Missions, Equipment, Units, Krasnaya zvezda Online, 13 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(4) Russian Air Force Chief Commander on Successes, Exercises, Reforms, Layoffs, Vestnik aviatsii i kosmonavtiki, 28 Mar 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(5) Russia: Military Transport Aviation, Krasnaya zvezda, 13 Apr 10.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Col-Gen Zelin, Krasnaya zvezda, 13 Apr 10.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Russian Air Force Chief, Vestnik aviatsii i kosmonavtiki, 28 Mar 10.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Russia: PM Putin Promises Development of New-Generation Strategic Bomber,, 6 Mar 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(12) Russian Fifth-Generation Fighter taken to Moscow to Start Flight Tests, RIA-Novosti, 9 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(13) Russia’s Air Force Chief Scores Pace of Work on S-400, S-500, Hits UAV Quality,, 4 Dec 09; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(14) New Strategic Bomber's R&D To Be Complete In 2010 – Source, ITAR-TASS, 6 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(15) Russia: Air Force Commander Zelin Tallies 2009 Training Results, Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer Online, 8 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Russian general speaks of decline of army aviation, Interfax-AVN Online, 21 Mar 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(19) First Trials of New Russian Command, Control System Discussed, Russkiy Newsweek Online, 29 Mar 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(20) Russian Air Force CinC Says New Aircraft May Change Air Force Structure, Rossiyskaya gazeta Online, 12 Feb 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(21) Russia Spent R5 Billion on UAV Development with Zero Results, Komsomolskaya pravda Online, 12 Apr 10; OSCE Translated Excerpt via World News Connection.
(22) Paper notes failures in development of Russian command and control system, Nezavisimaya gazeta, 21 Jan 10; via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
(23) First Trials, Russkiy Newsweek, 29 Mar 10.
By LtCol Andrew Wallace, USAF (
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States government.

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