Russia is to militarize the brand-new MS-21 (MC-21 in Russian) airliner under development with Irkut as lead, sources in Moscow and at the Paris Air Show (PAS15) have confirmed. Like with the Boeing 737 turned into the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and airborne surveillance platform, the Russian military is reportedly keen to do the same thing with the new flagship civilian airliner.
The Russian Ministry of Defence is or will soon order 30 to 45 MS-21. They are to start replacing its aging Tupolev Tu-134 and Tu-154 aircraft serving as VIP/transport aircraft. The Tupolevs also provide specializations. The UBL version, for example, flies as a bomber trainer operating from Tambov Airbase with as many as 30 believed to be operational. The Russian Air Force reportedly still has 9 Tu-134s and 17 Tu-154s operational for passenger duties.
Internationally overshadowed by the Russian military actions on the Crimean peninsula (Krim), the Russian Western and Central Districts ran very large scale readiness exercises from 26 February till 3 March 2014. We at AIRheads↑Fly gathered some of the highlights of the air ops.
According to official statements 90 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, 880 tanks, 1,200 armoured and soft vehicles plus artillery, up to 80 ships and 150,000 troops were involved.
Western District Helicopters
The readiness exercises pre-started on 23 or 24 February in sunny conditions, with 10 to 20 Mil Mi-24 Hinds and Mi-8 Hips of the Western Military District started working on group attack strategies in mountainous areas. Furthermore the Hips flew transport and recon missions in pairs during day and night, flying from unprepared landing zones.
Central District Helicopters
Meanwhile 10 to 20 Central Military District Mi-8s also started in their operational area on 23, 24 or 25 February by fortifying a 5,000 square metres (15,000 square feet) zone with 200 anti-tank mines. According to a Russian Defence Ministry news release that took no more than 10 minuts with the choppers flying at 45 to 60 feet above the ground at a speed of 11 knots (20 kmh). Similar mining tactics were earlier used by Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the war/occupation that lasted from December 1979 to February 1989.
Baltic Fleet Helicopters
At least a dozen Baltic Fleet Mi-24 and armed Mil Mi-8 helicopter from the 125th Independent Helicopter Squadron at Chkalovsk supported ground troops during the readiness exercise in the Kalingrad enclave at the Baltic sea.
Ground crews started the fueling of fighter jets – including Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers – and IL-78 tanker aircraft on 26 February. An unknown number of combat aircraft were dispersed to many airfields in the Western Military District. Some pilots flew into Arctic airfields on flights of over 1,500 km (930 miles). During those missions, lasting up to 2.5 hours, they flew in so-called combat formations executing radar evasion and simulated electronic enemy air defence suppression.
Lipetsk Air Base
These fighter packs included Sukhoi Su-27s from the 91st Training and Research Regiment (91 IIAP) flying from Lipetsk Air Base, which is sort of the Nellis AFB for the Russian Air Force. The unit is said to have 15 Flankers, plus more than twenty MiG-29s.
Combat aircraft Western District
A total of 30 to 60 bombers and fighters of the Western Military District are reported to have been participating in the Readiness Exercise 2014. Taken from north to south the combat aircraft came from bases in regions that included Murmansk Oblast (bordered to Norway and Finland), Karelia (bordered to Finland), Tver (far east from the Baltic republics and Belarus), Kursk (east of Ukraine) and Voronezh (bordered to Ukraine).
The Western Military District pilots flew a total of 700 hours during the span of the Readiness Exercise 2014. MiG-31s and MiG-31BMs supported the bombers. Sukhoi Su-27P and MiG-29SMT flew interception and close air combat missions.
Sukhoi Su-34s (Fullback) and Su-24Ms (Fencer-D) were tasked with operational relocation to other airports and the bombing of ground targets alone, in pairs or connected via a datalink connection. Sukhoi Su-24MRs (Fencer-E) provided tactical reconnaissance and bombing assessment overflights.
At least one four-engined turboprop Antonov AN-12 (NATO-reporting name Cub) with registration RA-11344 was tasked with transport duties. The Tupolev Tu-134 of the air commander of the Western Military District was used on 28 February for a simulated intercept and forced landing by Sukhoi Su-27s on route from Moscow to Besovets in Karelia region.
Tankers and interceptors
Five IL-78 (NATO-reporting name Midas) air tankers took of from Olenegorks Airbase in the Murmansk region on 28 February, to designated predestined zones over the Barents Sea to refuel six Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31s in mid-air at 4,000 metres (12,000 feet). The Foxhounds – as their NATO-reporting name goes – took off earlier from Monchegorsk Airbase. The MiG-31s trained on intercepting naval aircraft from the Northern Fleet base of Severomorsk.
UPDATED 24 JANUARY 2015 (MARIUPOL AIRPORT) | The Ukrainian Air Force (Повітряні Сили or Povitryani Syly Ukrayiny) was already going through a big reorganisation that had a planned time frame from 2009 to 2015, before Russia pushed Ukrainian forces from the Crimean peninsula in February/March 2014 and started its active support of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine in March/April 2014. The military pressure from its former ally has shaken the entire process. Kiev has to change both the armed forces structure and assets, while it is fighting a war at home.
New plans call for more non-Russian aircraft and other hardware, with a preliminary new time frame of 2020 to 2030. The exact readiness levels of the Ukrainian armed forces are unclear. But we at Airheadsfly.com were the first media organisation to present you with an extensive and fairly accurate Overview of the Air Forces of Ukraine, right when the Russian-Ukrainian conflict started. This was clearly appreciated by our fans, as this overview was by far the most read article of our 999 posts of 2014.
Ever since then we try to keep this overview as up-to-date as we can, despite the situation in Ukraine being “fluid”.
The peacetime strength of the air force is projected to be 20,000 to 23,000 personnel, including 18,000 to 20,000 in uniform. The air force has much weaponry that is old and maybe only good for spare parts. This is acknowledged by the military brass who are aiming to level the force off at 120 combat aircraft supported by 50 to 60 transport and special mission aircraft. Officially the Ukrainian Air Force (Повітряні Сили or Povitryani Syly) can field 160 combat aircraft and 25 transport aircraft. The Ukrainian Army (Сухопутні війська or Sukhoputni viysʹka) operates the attack helicopter fleet and has a normal operational strength of 72 combat helicopters: Mi-24s and armed Mi-8s. The Ukrainian Navy (Військово-Морські Сили or Viysʹkovo-Morsʹki Syly) operates 3 Beriev Be-12s and 8 Kamov Ka-27s on a daily basis, and had many airframes in not-airworthy state in reserve.
Notice that in many official reports, YouTube video releases and on aerial footage like Google Maps the Ukrainian Airbases hold many aircraft that in real life are not even counted operational anymore by the Ukrainian Armed Forces themselves, not even before the conflict with Russia. Those are aircraft that have been decommissioned to save money and kept for possible future re-activation.
Based on the official numbers adapted to the current situation, these are these are the most positive force levels at the moment:
Strength Ukrainian armed forces January 2015
Base Source: Ukrainian Ministry of Defence Annual Defence Review 2013
adapted by Airheadsfly.com editors to the situation known to us as of 4 January 2015
Air Forces Command
Combat aircraft: about 76 to 80 of an official active 150. A total of 507 combat planes with all planes in reserve and mothballed included. Up to 30 MiG-29s previously based at Belbek, Crimean peninsula, have or might be returned by Russia. Russia kept at least 7 MiG-29 single-seaters and 2 MiG-29UB two-seaters that were in good flying condition.
Transport aircraft: 21 or less (was 24 or less before February 2014)
Land Forces Command
Main battle tanks: 686 (but many not operational)
Armoured personnel carriers: 2065 (but many not operational), 60 armoured vehicles from either the Marines or the Army were returned by Russia as of 25 April 2014.
Combat helicopters (Mi-24s / armed Mi-8s): about 20 to 40 of an official 72 fully operational. A total of 121 attack helicopters with all choppers in reserve/mothballed included
Artillery guns: 716 (but many not operational)
Naval Forces Command
Troops: probably about 4,000 – 6,000 of an official of 14,600
Vessels: 13, consisting of 1 frigate (U130 Hetman Sahaydachniy) with Ka-27, 1 missile corvette (U153 Pryluky), 1 gunboat (U170), 1 command & ELINT ship (U512), 1 command ship (U500 Donbass), 1 diving vessel (U700), 1 dry cargo barge (U763), 1 tanker (U760 Fastiv), 1 water-supply tanker (U756 Sudak), 1 work/degaussing ship (U811 Balta), 1 landing ship (Kirovohrad), 1 heavy-lift vessel (U852 Shostka) and four (patrol) boats (U172, U173, U241, U721, U855). On 2 May six smaller boats from the Crimea arrived in Odesa. Before the conflict the Ukrainian navy had 17 larger vessels, 1 submarine and 36 smaller boats.
Maritime patrol aircraft: 1-3 (before the Russian take-over officially 3 airworthy)
Anti-submarine helicopters: 5-8 (before the Russian take-over officially 8 airworthy)
Main battle tanks (marines): unclear, before the Russian take-over 41
Armoured personnel carriers (marines): unclear, before the Russian take-over 160, 60 armoured vehicles from either the Marines or the Army were returned by Russia as of 25 April 2014.
Artillery guns (marines): unclear, before the Russian take-over 47. As many as up to 15 artillery guns might have been returned by Russia as of 25 April 2014, part of a shipment of 25 larger pieces of material.
Air Mobile Forces Command
Armoured personnel carriers: 310 (but many not operational)
This map shows our overview of current active air bases of Ukraine without the Crimea peninsula and without the airbases and airfield taken by or under pressure of pro-Russian separatists (UPDATE 24 JANUARY 2015)
Kramatorsk Airbase in the far east is a reserve field, which still has enough infrastructure to restart fighter and/or helicopter operations. During the April 2014 uprising in the East of Ukraine, the base was taken by anti-government activists. According to various sources they were forced to flee the base when Ukrainian armed forces supported by at least one Su-27 Flanker and helicopters retook control. It marked the first time the Ukrainian Air Force fielded a Su-27 in combat. Locals and journalists on the ground report two Mi-24 Hinds on strafing runs, after which another pair of helicopters – presumably Mi-8s – inserted ground troops on the base which can now be used as a staging area for Ukrainian air operations in the eastern part of the country. On 25 April one of the Mi-8s deployed to Kramatorsk exploded on the ground with several wounded as a result. According to a spokesperson of the Ukrainian Armed Forces the fuel tank had been hit by a large calibre sniper bullet. Several eye-witnesses say to have heard multiple shots before the Hip blew up in flames.
The airfield of Luhansk was used by the Ukrainian military – mainly by transport aircraft and helicopters – as an operating and supply base since April 2014. But after Russian regular forces started to openly support the pro-Russian rebels – in late August 2014 Ukrainian government forces were pushed back from the important stronghold. As of September 2014 Luhansk – or what is left of it – serves no longer the Ukrainian armed forces.
Although a civilian location the airfield of Mariupol could have provided an excellent staging area for Ukrainian air assets. But during the third week of January 2015 pro-Russian separatist forces supported by up Russian regular troops (Moscow denies) took the airfield and started launching Grad missiles into the city, killing at least 20 on the first such strike on a market place in a residential area on 23 January alone. A possible loss of Mariupol would seriously shift the strategic balance in the region as it would open up the southern flank alongside the Black Sea coast to Berdyansk and further on to Melitopol. Mariupol also holds substantial industrial assets and a loss would be a next blow to the troublesome Ukrainian economy.
Fighter force Su-27 (“Flanker”)
The front point of the Ukrainian aerial combat force has been short on much the last decade. Combat pilots only spend about 40 hours per year in the air. Of the formidable Sukhoi Su-27 (Су-27) air superiority fighter about 16 are operational and another four could be returned to flying duty. These Fulcrums fly with the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade based at Myrhorod (Mirgorod), but the Ukraine military is revitalising Ozerne Airbase near Kiev as well for Sukhoi Su-27 and MiG-29 operations, with former monthballed aircraft returning to service. In 2014 some Flankers were even training from Zhytomyr Airbase slightly north of Ozerne Airbase.
Four Su-27s operated from Belbek Airbase at the Crimea peninsula (Krim) up to 24 February, to conduct security air patrols in support of the Olympic Games in Russian Sotji. As of 1 March 2014 the Flankers are said to have taken up Combat Air Patrol duties, as captured here by airplane spotter Andrey Rakul allegedly on 1 March 2014. Clearly visible are six R-27 (AA-10 Alamo-c) medium range air-to-air missiles and four R-73 (AA-11 Archer) short-range air-to-air missiles. Since we lack 100% confirmation of date and location the image might have been taken earlier, for example when Ukrainian Su-27 were flying CAP’s from Belbek.
Apparently none of the 39 MiG-29 Fulcrums (МіГ-29) was able to flee Belbek Airbase at the Crimea before Russian forces seized the airfield on 1 March 2014. Relocation would have been possible to the Western Ukrainian MiG-29 base of Ivano-Frankivska and the central MiG-29 base of Vasylkiv (Vasilkova) near Kiev. The Russians are slowly returning MiG-29s in pieces, but have kept possibly seven MIG-29s (possibly all seven upgraded MiG-29UM1s (МіГ-29МУ1)) and two MiG-29UB two-seaters. The total MiG-29 force available is now likely about 24 – 30 aircraft, with the possibility of returning another 10 to 20 of an official 60 to 80 remaining Fulcrums back into flying condition on relatively short-term notice. It is believed that at least 12 aircraft are operational at Vasylkiv. Belbek also has three L-39s that was spotted on two different occasions, by a TV crew and footage released on YouTube, after the take-over. The Russians kept those aircraft too. Other aircraft fly from the MiG-29 base of Vasylkiv in the Kiev region as well, with at least one Su-27 and a L-39 Delfin advanced trainer reportedly spotted there as late as 11 March 2014 during an exercise with officially a total number 20 flight hours during 37 flights performed during this tactical exercise. One MiG-29 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists east of Donetsk on 7 August 2014, a second MiG-29 felt victim to hostile fire on 17 August 2014 near Luhansk. As of November 2014 the Russian Air Force operates a fighter unit of 14 to 24 Sukhoi Su-27M2s and Su-30s at Belbek Airbase (SEE VIDEO HERE).
Ground attack Su-24 (“Fencer”)
For the ground attack role the Ukrainian Air Force relies partly on the somewhat “dinosaurish” Sukhoi Su-24M (Су-24М) Fencer-D tactical bomber, of which 6 are fully operational and another 9 to 17 could be airworthy or able to be restored to flying condition on a relatively short period of time. They fly from Starokostiantyniv with the 7th Tactical Aviation Brigade. On 21 March at 15:15 local time one of the Sukhoi Su-24Ms crashed upon landing for a yet unknown reason. The crew – squadron commander Lt. Col. Dennis Plug and navigator Lieutenant Oleg Dudnik – sustained only minor injuries after ejecting from the plane. A board of investigators looks into the accident. Prior to this accident we put the number of available Su-24Ms on 16 to 24.
Of the official about 30 to 36 Su-25M/UB/UBM Frogfoot (Су-25) very capable close support aircraft, we estimate about 15 to 21 could possibly be ready to fight. They fly from Mykolaiv Airbase (Kulbabkino) just north of the Crimea, with 14 updated to M1 (Су-25М1) standard. This airbase might have additional fighter coverage at times by Su-27s and MiG-29s deployed there for the nearby ranges. Four Flankers and two Fulcrums were spotted as late as 4 April 2014. One Su-25 was shot down on 16 July 2014 – marking the first time this happened for an Ukrainian fast combat jet in the country’s history, with a second damaged by hostile fire. On 23 July 2014 two Su-25s were shot down very close to the border with Russia. Another Su-25 was downed on 29 August, over the Donbas region with the faith of the pilot undisclosed. Two more Frogfoots were lost in 2014.
Since 3 May 2014 the Ukrainian Army officially has about 43 Mil Mi-24P/V/PM Hind attack helicopters available of an official strength of 72 helicopters (armed Mi-8s included) that can be deployed for attack duties. But due to lack of funds the active force is estimated to be not more than 20 Hinds. Part of the rotary wing is based at Kherson, 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the Crimea, while Brody is the Army Aviation’s western location. At least two Mi-24s and a Mi-8 fly in white in support of the UN troops in the DR Congo. One Mi-24 has been deployed with the UN forces in Liberia as of 26 March 2014. On 2 May 2014 two Ukrainian Army Mi-24 were shot down by pro-Russian separatists near the town of Slovyansk. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence the choppers were hit by a shoulder-launched portable surface-to-air missile (MANPADS), marking the first time ever an Ukrainian military aircraft were lost by hostile fire in mid-air since the country gained independence after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. On 5 May a third Hind was downed by heavy machine gun fire, also near Slovyansk with both crew making it out alive after the machine crashed / ditched in a river. Another two Mi-24s were lossed or damaged upon repair in 2014.
Until a decade ago, Ukraine also had dozens of Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire long range bombers available. These were scrapped however between 2002 and 2004 under the US-funded Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR).
When it comes to tactical and strategic aerial relocation, resupply and reinforcement the Ukrainian Air Force has at its disposal: five or six Ilyushin IL-76MDs operational and 13 in reserve, 1 Antonov AN-70, possibly still about 2 or 3 Antonov AN-2s, a single Antonov AN-24 with another 2 in reserve, three operational Antonov AN-26s and about 16 AN-26 in reserve. Of the AN-26s several are especially adapted for a medevac role. A sixth or seventh IL-76 was shot down by separatists on 13 June 2014, while landing at Luhansk Airport. A fourth AN-26 taken down by a apparently a relatively advanced SAM on 14 July 2014. Two Tupolev Tu-134s are technically available for VIP flights only, with uncertainty about the flying condition of one of them. The transport fleet is scattered across the country, with the IL-76s flying with the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade at Melitopol and with most AN-26s operating with the 19th Transport Aviation Brigade at Vinnytsia-Havryshivka. Kirovograd Airbase was reopened as an airlift location on 30 August 2014, home to forces relocated from Djankoj at the Crimea. Parts of the Ukrainian transport fleet operate out of Kyiv-Borispol (Kiev-Boryspil) International Airport as well, where they are being serviced by the 15th Transport Aviation Brigade.
The fixed-wing aircraft are supplemented by about 30 Mil Mi-8/Mi-8MT transport helicopters, of which at least one flies in white in support of the UN troops in the DR Congo. Part of the rotary wing is based at Kherson, 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the Crimea, while Brody is the Army Aviation’s western location. On 25 April one of the Mi-8s deployed to Kramatorsk Airbase in the east of the country exploded on the ground with several wounded as a result. According to a spokesperson of the Ukrainian Armed Forces the fuel tank had been hit by a large caliber sniper bullet. Several eye-witnesses say to have heard multiple shots before the Hip blew up in flames. A second Hip was shot down by what officially has been said to be a MANPADS on 29 May 2014 near the town of Slovyansk, killing a dozen servicemen including the Ukrainian Army General responsible for the Army Guard combat training department. A third Mi-8 was brought down on 24 June, and a fourth on 7 August 2014. The details of the loss of a fifth Hip in 2014 are unknown.
On 24 April the Ukrainian Army commissioned the first newly domestically upgraded version of the Hip: the Mi-8MSB-V.
Although not primarily designed for combat, Ukrainian Air Force training aircraft could serve in the secondary liaison role, especially the 20 operational Yakovlev Yak-52M radial engine propeller aircraft based at Kherson in the south of the country. About 40 to 60 Yak’s are held in reserve. The 14 upgraded Aero L-39 Albatros advanced trainers could in theory be equipped for light attack duties. The Albatros’s are based in Chuhuiv in the east, facing a possible Russian invasion first, and at Kulbakino in the south, but at least three possible upgraded L-39s were captures by Russian forces on Belbek at the Crimea at 1 March 2014 and have so for not been returned. The total available Albatros fleet could number around 24 to 30, with the Air Force having 38 of the type on record in January 2014. For basic flight training the Ukrainian Air Force Academy at Kharkiv (Kharkov) uses the domestically developed KhAZ-30 single-engine light propeller aircraft.
The aviation part of the Ukrainian Navy (Військово-Морські Сили or Viysʹkovo-Morsʹki Syly) already lost a lot in the early stages of conflict, namely the cluster of locations that is the Southern Fleet Base on the Crimean peninsula. The Ukrainian Naval aviation has 3 Beriev Be-12 maritime patrol aircraft, 2 Antonov AN-26 transport aircraft and 8 anti-submarine helicopters of the types Kamov Ka-27 and Mil Mi-14 Haze. Many of the assets in reserve (most of them not airworthy) were based at Saky at the Crimea, which means that up to 16 Kamov Ka-29 Helix-B assault transport helicopters, another 8 to 10 Ka-27s, up to 4 Antonov AN-26 transport aircraft, 6 to 8 Mil Mi-8 Hip transport helicopters and 4 or 5 Mil Mi-14 Haze anti-submarine helicopters could have been captured, but we have insufficient data at the moment to narrow down these numbers.
Saky Naval Air Station
According to Ukrainian sources on the ground and later confirmed by video footage one Ka-27, three Mi-14s, two AN-26s and one Beriev Be-12 were able to flee Saky Airbase for the Ukrainian mainland and possibly landed on the airfield of Western Navy Fleet Base city of Odesa. A second Be-12 and three KA-27s were returned in April 2014 by Russia, with only the Beriev in flyable condition.
Footage showing Ukrainian Naval Air Assets making a safe escape from Saky (wrong caption with video though)
Frigate Hetman Sahaidachny
At least one Ka-27 was on board the naval frigate U130 Hetman Sahaidachny that payed a port visit to Souda in Greece on 28 February on the return trip from the anti-piracy mission Atalanta off the coast of Somalia. The ship docked at the Ukrainian naval base in Odesa on 6 March, bringing the flagship of the navy home. The Ministry of Defence in Kiev has confirmed rear admiral Berezovsky, commander of the Ukrainian Southern Fleet at Sevastopol and the whole Ukrainian Navy, has been relieved of his duties and that he is now sought for defecting to the pro-Russian self-declared autonomous government of the Crimea.
Border Guard Aviation
The Border Guard Aviation flies two Diamond DA42 M-NG TwinStar unarmed light patrol aircraft. In 2013 the pair accumulated 434 flight hours, of which 233 were spent on actual border surveillance and 123 on patrolling the naval economic zone and Ukrainian territorial waters. Moreover the service has 5 Mil Mi-8s medium-lift helicopters, an AN-24 transport aircraft and an AN-26 transport aircraft.