The Tu-160 (Image © Tupolev)

Red Bear Rising: Russian Air Power over the Crimea

The Russian bear is clearly awoken over the Ukrainian and Crimea (Krim) situation. While it is unclear what the Ukrainian air forces are capable of and what their exact readiness situation is (see our article here), it is perhaps even more unclear what exactly the Russian bear is hiding in its den. One thing is sure: Russian military aviation is a formidable force that dwarfs Ukrainian capabilities.

According to Monday’s reports, Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers were intercepted Sunday night by Ukrainian Flankers, without shots being fired. The Flanker is now probably the most numerous fighter aircraft in the theatre, with Russian numbers far exceeding those of Ukraine. The Russian Air Force has dozens and dozens of these formidable aircraft at its disposal, although many are slightly outdated by today’s standards.

As recent as December 2013, it was reported that a Russian Air Force fighter unit flying Flankers was moving to Baranavichy airbase in Belarus, a short 150 km (80 nm) flight from the Ukrainian northern – and Polish/NATOs eastern – border.

Next to Flankers, the Russian Air Force is equipped with large numbers of MiG-29 Fulcrum-C and MiG-29SMT aircraft. The Russian Navy also flies MiG-29K Fulcrums and Su-33 Flankers, albeit in smaller numbers. These naval aircraft are meant to fly from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, but can easily be deployed from land bases like Belbek Airbase, that Russian ground forces took at the beginning of March during the first days of the Crimean conflict.

Operational carrier trials of the MiG-29 on board the Admiral Kuznetsov earlier this year. (Image © Mikoyan Gurevich)
A MiG-29KUB seen over the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier. (Image © Mikoyan Gurevich)

Su-35 ‘Super Flanker’
The newest Flanker version is the thrust vectoring and highly capable Su-35S Flanker-E, of which Vladimir Putins’ Russia ordered 48 in 2009. Deliveries run until next year. All of these ‘Super Flankers’ are based at Dzemgi airbase in the Khabarovsk region near China. But with the large ‘planned’ exercise – involving 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, 880 tanks and up to 80 ships – happening close to Ukraine, the Russian could be tempted to deploy some of the top dog Flankers closer to any possible action. The exercise ended on 4 March, with Putin ordering troops back to their barracks, according to Russian press agency Interfax.

The Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E (Image © Sukhoi Company)
The Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E (Image © Sukhoi Company)

Su-34 Fullback
A Flanker-derivative is the Su-34 Fullback, a medium range bomber designed to replace the obsolete Su-24 Fencer. Of these heavily weaponised Fullbacks, 32 were delivered by December 2013. According to Sukhoi sources the production facilities already started constructing another load of 92 aircraft. The Su-34 can carry up to eight tons of weaponry and deliver the payload to a target up to 680 miles (1,100 km) after lift-off without aerial refueling.

An early version of the Su-34 Fullback, seen at the Le Bourget airshow in the mid-nineties.
The Su-32FN, an early version of the Su-34 Fullback, seen at the Le Bourget airshow in the mid-nineties.
(Image © Elmer van Hest)

Su-25 Frogfoot
An older, but very capable ground attack aircraft is the Su-25 Frogfoot, used quite extensively in the 1994 Chechnya war and the 2008 South Ossetian war. Say the Russian equivalent of the US tank killing A-10 Warthog.

Longe range
Russia’s long range bombers are the Tu-22M Backfire, Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-95MS Bear, with supposedly 16 of the former and 62 of the latter available. The Tu-160 Blackjacks are able to utilize the Raduga Kh-101 cruise missile, capable of delivering a payload of up to 880 pounds (400 kg) at a distance of 6,000 miles (9,600 km) after being launched from the belly of the Blackjack. So they never even have to come close to the best of Ukrainian air defence: the S-300 SAM systems with a max range of 200 km. All of Putins bombers have been flying long-range training missions over the last couple of years.

In a league of their own are the 122 MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors that Russia is said to have. The type was introduced in 1981. Sixty Foxhounds will be upgraded to MiG-31BM standard, with final delivery expected in 2020. The Foxhound will then soldier on until at least until 2028, possibly 2038. Although probably not the first choice of the Russian Air Force brass when things get out of hand, sending in a few Foxhounds to sweep clean the Ukrainian airspace must not been ruled out.

A MiG-31E Foxhound against the background of its motherland (Image © Mikoyan Gurevich)
A MiG-31E Foxhound against the background of its motherland (Image © Mikoyan Gurevich)

Russia’s most menacing attack helicopters are the Kamov Ka-50 Black Shark (NATO-name Hokum), Ka-52 Alligator, Mi-28NE Night Hunter and the Mil Mi-35M Hind, a renewed version of the famous Mi-24 Hind. Forces in the Russian Western District are known to have been equipped with the types. Numbers of Hinds and Mi-8 or Mi-17 Hips were allegedly seen over the Crimea the last few days, heading for Russian controlled or soon to be controlled locations.

Archive photo of the Mil Mi-35M (Image © Russian Helicopters)
Archive photo of the Mil Mi-35M (Image © Russian Helicopters)

Reporters, Ukrainian military, locals and even the Russian Ministry of Defence have together reported tens of Ilyushin IL-76 Candid strategic airlifters heading or landing at Anapa (Krasnodor), Kershones Airbase in Sevastopol and Gvardeyskaya Airbase near Simferopol. Although public satellite images show a lot of these aircraft have been sitting around for years, doing nothing, they are still the backbone of the Russian transport fleet. The tanker version of the IL-76 is the IL-78 Midas, while the AWACS version is the A-50 Mainstay, of which Russia is supposed to have 26 in service.

Sporting its coloured star as always, the red bear is rising again. No matter what the operational status of the entire Russian armed forces is, the Air Force has no shortage of military aircraft. If war is the outcome, the Ukrainian opposition will clearly be the underdog.

© 2014 AIRheads’ editors Elmer van Hest & Marcel Burger

An historic shot of the Aeroflot Ilyushin IL-76 with CCCP markings at Leeuwarden AB in the Netherlands (Image © Elmer van Hest)
An historic shot of the Aeroflot Ilyushin IL-76 with CCCP markings at Leeuwarden AB in the Netherlands. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Sukhoi 30
Two Russian Su-30 Flankers, seen in more friendly times during the 1997 Fairford airshow in the UK. That show saw Ukrainian participation as well… (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The Tu-160 (Image © Tupolev)
Top of Russian military might: the Tu-160 longe range bomber. (Image © Tupolev)