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The Russian Air Force

by Jeffrey Ethell

Jeffrey EthellThere is no question the Russian Air Force today is but a shadow of its former self. With a collapsing economy and the lack of communism's massive infusion of money into the world's largest military machine, line pilots fly, at the most, around 50 hours a year and bring home very little pay to support their families. Times are hard in Mother Russia.

But times have rarely been anything but hard in Mother Russia from long before Lenin. For centuries Russians have learned to survive in a very hostile climate, repulsing every enemy foolish enough to invade Mother Russia's vast expanse. Napoleon and Hitler relearned that lesson the hard way, both being defeated by "General Winter" and the hordes of Russian patriots who came to their country's rescue. In spite of technological superiority and a professional military force, both France and Germany could not overcome the sheer numbers of men and equipment they tried to wade through.

SU-27 in flightDuring World War II a relatively unsophisticated Russian Air Force outfought and outgunned the superior Luftwaffe, which had better aircraft and better-trained pilots. The highest-scoring fighter pilots of World War II were Germans who fought the Russian Air Force (Erich Hartmann is the world leader at 352 kills)...but they lost. At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact had amassed close to 19,000 tanks and 7,500 aircraft for a possible confrontation with the West in Central Europe. Regardless of arguments as to which side was the technological leader, the Soviet Union had numbers. The West argued it could overcome superior numbers with superior technology through "force multipliers." In other words, a single F-15 with superior radar and beyond visual range missiles would down five Russian fighters before being lost. So far, history has never proved this to be a sound concept. As one military philosopher once said, "Numbers has its own quality."

That same tenacity and determination to persevere in spite of tough odds simmers below the crumbling infrastructure and poverty-stricken squadrons of the Russian Air Force. Certainly training is at its lowest, a very real liability, but Russian aircraft are the same brute force machines they have always been, made to operate from rough fields while being maintained with a minimum of support. jet intake gratesNo one will dispute the raw power Russian machines exhibit. Much is made of the crumbling concrete ramps on Russian airfields. The fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter. With excellent FOD (foreign object damage) protection on most aircraft jet intakes, the rubble will not get sucked up into the engines, just as it wouldn't on a grass or dirt airstrip. Russian aircraft can be ill treated and still fly effectively, far more than their Western counterparts.

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