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The invasion of Ukraine on 24 February provoked ‘swift and severe’ retaliatory sanctions against Russia – as President Biden had warned. Russia’s defence industry was a target sector for santcions. In the last year the maritime and land domains have been significantly debilitated by sanctions. In Russia there is debate over how naval ship-building can recover under sanctions. Uralvagonzavod (UVZ), Russia’s main tank manufacturing company, is only now starting to produce replacement T-90M tanks (and using convict labour). By contrast, the aerospace sector has survived better. This article reviews new-build combat aircraft delivered to the Russian Air Force (VVS1) in 2022 and examines implications.
Brief background to combat aircraft production in the Russian Federation
In March 2021, financial difficulties forced the merger of RSK MiG and Sukhoi under the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) umbrella. UAC also subsumed Tupolev, Ilyushin and Irkut Corporation. The many legacy design bureaus (KBs) were brought under a single Moscow-based centre, but engineering functions survived mostly without significant restructuring. In the sober reporting of Gazeta.ru following the announcement: ‘The merger of MiG with Sukhoi means that Russia can no longer afford two full-fledged parallel design bureaus in the field of fighter aircraft.’
The future of Sukhoi seems assured but there is speculation over the long-term survival of MiG. The PAK DP and MiG-41 are both moribund. No MiGs were delivered last year. Just two MiG-35 variants were delivered in 2021 (this aircraft is a re-branded upgrade of the MiG-29). The last volume build of a MiG fighter was in 2009 (28 examples of the MiG-29SMT).
All Russian combat aircraft production is now focussed at the Novosibirsk Aviation Plant (NAZ), the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant (KnAAZ), and Irkutsk Aviation Plant (IAP).
Combat aircraft new-builds in 2022
UAC delivered 27 new-build combat aircraft in 2022: four Su-30SM2s, ten Su-34Ms, seven Su-35Ss, and six Su-57s. The deliveries are summarised in tabular form below. For comparison, Lockheed Martin delivered around 170 F-35 fighters in 2022 and plans to maintain this rate of production; in the case of Eurofighter, 400 were delivered in the initial roll-out from 2003-2013.
A combination of stockpiling of components, import substitution, and probable sanctions evasion, has meant UAC was able to deliver new-build combat aircraft to the VVS through 2022. The historic average from 2008 to 2022 is 40 aircraft per annum, so the 2022 total is somewhat below the average. However, combat aircraft deliveries are cyclical and dependent on the State Defence Order. The high point was 2014 with 101 new-build deliveries. Since then, production has declined significantly reflecting the completion of contracts. Even without sanctions a comparable low number would have been recorded in 2022.
Is production making up for losses? On balance, no. According to the Oryx database, 11 Su-Su30SMs have been lost (minus 7); 17 Su-34s (minus 7); and one Su-35S (plus 6). No Su-57s have been lost but the VVS has been very wary of risking these aircraft. It should also be understood that from the end of the second month of the war, Russian combat aircraft stopped crossing the Ukrainian border due to the loss rate. On the eastern front Russian tactical bombers have been in- and egressing over the Donbass and spending minimum time over Ukrainian-held territory. On the western front the flight paths were over the Black Sea and Dnipro right back enclaves held by Russian forces. Even so, Kherson proved a graveyard for Su-25s (and the Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter).
What of the veteran Su-25 and Su-24 fleets? These aircraft are no longer in production and appear to be used in expendable ways (including the pilots, a number of whom are Wagner contractors). At least 25 Su-25s have been lost and nine Su-24s. The former is the most commonly reported downed aircraft by the Ukrainian MOD.
The wider picture remains unchanged: the VVS failed to achieve air superiority and lacks the competence and precision bombs of Western air forces. Sortie rates are completely inadequate. This point cannot be overstressed. The widely-criticised Operation Allied Force (Kosovo 1999) achieved almost 500 daily sorties by the end, but only after cajoling of NATO allies by an exasperated US leadership. The VVS is flying around 20-30 daily tactical bomber sorties and launching unguided rockets or bombs that likely miss anyway.For comparison, the UK Royal Air Force honestly admitted to the Defence Select Committee inquiry that during Operation Allied Force around 2% of its unguided munitions hit the intended target; this would be expected and there is no reason to suppose the VVS performs better.
What to look out for in 2023
UAC was an entity in trouble even before the war. It is surviving on crumbs. The group is contracted to deliver small batches of Su-35Ss and Su-30SMs in 2023. The Su-345M line was reaching contract end. The domestic production rate will be an indicator to watch.
The other is exports. Long-term, UAC cannot survive without exports. Sanctions have had a significant impact on the desirability of Russian defence kit. Traditional customers (India, Algeria, Venezuela) remain but other countries (Egypt) have turned their backs on Russia (over 20 Su-35Ss originally destined for Egypt are sitting in storage at KnAAZ prompting speculation they may end up in Iran). Aside from exports, the fate of MiG hangs in the balance. It is not the Russian way to lose historic names so the brand will probably survive. But it is also likely the entire unprofitable sector is being subsidised by opaque, Soviet-style funding draining a federal budget now squeezed by the foolish ‘special military operation’.
Cover photo is by the Russian Air Force and is Four Su-34 in 2012.
Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer. He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review. He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.