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Russia's Best-Kept Secret

by Jay Miller

Russian fighter planes at baseI have a friend, Professor George Hopkins, who—after spending several weeks touring Russia—once said to me, "If the Soviet Union didn't exist, the U.S. Department of Defense would have to invent it." I couldn't agree more.

Having been to Russia three times over the past five years, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the Russian Air Force—as we in the west once imagined it—not only no longer exists as a viable defensive entity, it never existed as one in the first place. Though in possession of enormous quantities of aircraft and an equally sizable force of pilots and ground support personnel, the military air service, as a world class combatant, has always been sorely lacking in terms of discipline, wherewithal, and the massive infrastructure required to support and maintain its enormous hardware fleet. In a country that has difficulty getting even minute quantities of fresh produce to public market, the latter failing comes as no surprise to even the most casual observer.

MiG-29 taxiing on runwayI've been privileged not only to tour Russian military bases, but also to spend a considerable amount of time reviewing sophisticated flightworthy hardware including the modestly capable but not particularly imaginative Mikoyan MiG-29 (NATO codename, Fulcrum), the world-class Sukhoi Su-27 (NATO codename Flanker), and the definitive Sukhoi Su-35 (also bearing the NATO codename Flanker) fighters. Though aesthetically appealing and capable of extraordinary brute performance, these Mach 2-plus-capable fighters are decidedly antiquated in an era now dominated by low-observables technology, non-metallic structural materials, proactive attention to cockpit/pilot interface, and a rapidly surfacing international military initiative in the direction of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

view from cockpit at close formationConversely, the latest MiG and Sukhoi fighters, though offering a plethora of mildly innovative and utilitarian features, are simply behind the technological power curve...to the tune of about a decade. Though fighter design parity with the west was temporarily achieved by the Russian aircraft industry during the late 1950s and early 1960s with the advent of the midlife improvements to the Mikoyan MiG-21 (NATO codename Fishbed), this status was short-lived...and only accidentally achieved. As a point of interest, though now well into its fourth decade of operational service, the MiG-21 remains perhaps the single biggest threat to western combatants. This is due to its ubiquity, its exemplary maneuvering performance throughout much of its flight envelope, and its small size (which, by definition, brings it into the contemporary realm of low-observable technology).

SU-27 landingNot surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Defense has fought long and hard during the post-World War Two era, the Cold War era, and now, the post-Cold War era to maintain a public image of Russian technological and numerical superiority. It had been, and in fact continues to be, a self-serving "spread the gospel" mission that exploits public (aka taxpayers) fears while concomitantly providing justification for continued—and exorbitant—government defense expenditures.

I write not theoretically from having seen a magnified review of classified reconnaissance imagery; not from having read third-party analytical verbiage assembled via the exploitation of a broad spectrum of eclectic public domain documentation; and not from having had access to reports that are the privileged viewing of only a select few high-level government bureaucrats, but rather from the perspective of one who has laid his hands on the metal, sat in the cockpit, hung out with the pilots and ground support personnel, smelled the combusted kerosene, and slept in working Russian's apartments rather than overpriced hotels. I've been there, and I've done that, and I'm telling you the Russian Air Force is a threat no more. In fact, it never was.

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