The Russian Air Force's Special Aircraft
Aleksandr Stukalin, Kommersant Publishing House
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)
Aleksandr Stukalin, Kommersant Publishing House
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)
Apart from combat and transport aircraft, the Russian Air Force operates a fleet of special aircraft. These aircraft are based on the design of mass-produced planes, and made in small batches. The Air Force uses them for radar patrol and targeting, command-and-control, communication and signal relay, radio-electronic jamming, reconnaissance, and various other purposes.
One of these special aircraft, the A-60 (1A2), being developed under the Sokol-Eshelon R&D project (the aircraft is equipped with a laser weapons system) was the subject of a separate article in MDB last year. The Russian Air Force aircraft procurement and repair program for 2013-2015, which was unveiled earlier this year, includes a whole range of other special planes and helicopters, such as the A-100, Zveno-3S, Yastreb, Foreytor-S, Mi-8VURT Forvard-M, Il-22PP Porubshchik, and Mi-8MTPR-1. Publicly available information about these aircraft is scant, but most of them have been mentioned, one way or another, in various open sources. The details gleaned from those sources can give a general idea of Russia's special aircraft programs.
The new Russian AWACS plane
The most high-profile program from the above list is probably the A-100 (sometimes also referred to as the Premier program). The program is led by the Vega radio-electronics concern (Moscow) and the Beriyev Aerospace Research Center (TANTK Beriyev) in Taganrog.Its objective is to develop a versatile airborne radar patrol and targeting system for the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy. The program was launched in 2005 in accordance with a presidential decree issued on April 28, 2004.The TANTK side of the project began under the leadership of the center's deputy chief Sergey Atayants.TANTK delivered the first set of early blueprints in 2006, receiving the customer's approval. In 2007 TANTK won the tender for the Premier-LA project. The Vega side of the project is currently being led by the company's chief designer Aleksandr Vasilyev.
In 2008 Vega designer-general Vladimir Verba published a book entitled "AWACS systems. Current State and Outlook", in which he outlined his vision of the future aircraft of that type. The book is freely available to any member of the public, but it is simply too large for this article to attempt even a brief summary. It has as many as seven pages devoted to the list of objectives the aircraft must be able to fulfill, in Prof. Verba's opinion. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that according to the Vega chief, the new Russian AWACS plane must perform the functions of reconnaissance, warning, and command-and-control in the air, on the ground and at sea. It must also be capable of detecting and tracking mobile and stationary objects.
The range of the specific strategic, operational and tactical tasks the new plane must be able to perform is very broad. In includes traditional air space monitoring and target designation; detection of the main groups of the enemy's forces and their direction of attack; tracking non-strategic ballistic missiles along their entire trajectory; fire control for over-the-horizon anti-aircraft missile systems; coordinating radio-electronic warfare measures; and participating in search-and-rescue operations to retrieve pilots whose aircraft have been shot down. It remains unclear, however, whether and to what extent the views expressed in the book by Prof. Verba have been incorporated into the specifications and requirements for the new AWACS plane drawn up by the Russian MoD. So far, the ministry has released very few details about the program.
The MoD unveiled the contract for the A-100 in September 2010 at a sitting of the Commission for the Modernization and Technological Development of the Russian Economy. A year later Col. Gen. Aleksandr Zelin, the then Commander Chief of the Russian Air Force, disclosed some of the details of the program. He said that the aircraft platform chosen for the A-100 was the Il-76MD-90A (Il-476) transport, which is entering mass production at the Aviastar-SP plant in Ulyanovsk. He also confirmed that the A-100 "will have capability against targets on the ground" (whereas the existing A-50 AWACS plane is only effective against targets in the air and at sea). Another major difference between the A-100 and its predecessor is the use of an active phased array antenna. According to Gen. Zelin, the development of that antenna had been completed by 2011, and the entire aircraft should be ready by 2016. "The chief of the General Staff has given his backing to the Air Force command on this matter," Zelin said. "The Air Force has received the funding necessary to complete this project."
In 2011-2012 the government disbursed all the moneys due under the new AWACS program. There have been reports in the media that about US$230 mln has been spent , but the figure has yet to be confirmed or denied officially. Early in 2013, however, questions arose about the schedule of the A-100 program. Aleksey Mitrofanov, a member of the Russian Duma, even submitted an official query to the government and the Audit Chamber, claiming that the deadline for the completion of the project "has been postponed yet again" from 2015 to 2017 at the contractor's request. Incidentally, only six months previously the developers of the A-100 insisted that the R&D phase would be completed in 2014. There were also doubts about the results of the program achieved so far, including its compliance with the customer's specifications, the danger of the A-100 becoming obsolete even before it has been completed, and allegations that too little has been delivered for the money already spent.
Representatives of the Vega concern were quick to reject any doubts about the company's performance under the A-100 program – but some of those doubts may not have been entirely groundless. Be that as it may, the MoD has set up a special commission to monitor the program's progress, lead by the new Air Force Commander Chief, Viktor Bondarev. In February 2013 Lt. Gen. Bondarev and a group of Vega specialists visited all the key companies involved in the program as subcontractors. According to Vega deputy chief Vartan Shakhgedanov, the subcontractors demonstrated to the commission almost all the key elements of the future AWACS plane, including the aircraft itself, the antenna cowlings, the automated workstations and racks of IT and control equipment, and the radio-electronic hardware components.
The Aviapriborostroenie concern is known to be leading the development of standardized platform-independent inertial navigation systems for the A-100. The onboard communication systems are being developed by the Moscow Communication Systems Research Institute (MNIIS) under the Premier-BKSS R&D project. Another subcontractor is the All-Russian Radio Equipment Research Institute (VNIIRA, St Petersburg), which leads the Premier-VRL and B5 projects. Engineers of the Rubin Research and Production Company (NPP Rubin, Penza), which is part of the Aviapriborostroenie concern, were involved in the development of technological systems for dynamic replay and rapid decoding of flight information. The same engineers are now involved in developing a data processing ground station.
It has been announced that using a combination of government financing and its own funds, Vega is approaching the completion of a project to develop a comprehensive test bench for various A-100 systems. In order to speed up the future joint state trials, the test bench will be used to replace parts of the flight tests with semi-realistic simulation for some of the software, ergonomics, and performance characteristics. As for long-range detection and identification of small targets and cruise missiles, these tests will be performed using the ERIK-1 standard radar measurement complex at the Air Defense Research Center in Tver, under the current proposals.
The MoD expects that a combination of the A-100 and the new PAK FA fifth-generation multirole fighter will give the Russian Air Force an unprecedented reconnaissance, strike and rapid response capability. Also, the new Russian AWACS system will work in tandem with the new automated control system currently being developed by the Peleng Special Design Bureau (Yekaterinburg).
Joint state trials of the A-100 were initially expected to commence in 2013-2014 , but it appears that they will have to be postponed as the whole program is taking longer to complete. Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force has commissioned TANTK and Vega to upgrade the existing fleet of the A-50s (which were built in the 1980s) to the A-50U specification (project Titan-U). The upgrade includes the replacement of the R-type radar system with the more advanced RM type. In December 2007 the first prototype of the A-50U entered joint state trials , which were signed off in November 2009 by the then Air Force commander, Gen. Zelin. The aircraft selected as the upgrade prototype was an A-50 with serial number 0083476298 and side number 37 Red. The new radar system (in which LCD displays have replaced the old cathode ray tubes) is lighter, providing for longer endurance of the whole aircraft, and has greatly improved automated workstations. The project to upgrade the workstations involved NPP Pubin. Also, the operators' cabin is now equipped with a small lounge and a buffet.
The first aircraft to be upgraded after the prototype was an A-50 with serial number 0043453577 and board number 47 Red. Its upgrade began in December 2008, and on October 31, 2011 the plane was delivered to the Air Force with a new state registration number, RF-92957. Another upgraded aircraft (board number 33 Red, serial number 0043454618, registration number RF-50602) was delivered in 2013.
Other special aircraft
A lot less information is available about other Russian special aircraft programs. One of these programs is the Zveno-3S, an airborne command-and-control and relay station that will be developed as part of the third stage of the Zveno system.  At present the government is selecting the main contractor for the Zveno-3S.
Development of the entire Zveno program began back in Soviet times at the Gorky Radio Communications Research Institute (now known as NPP Polet, Nizhniy Novgorod, led by Yevgeny Belousov). The purpose of the system is control of the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal in emergency situations. The increased survivability of the system is achieved by using mobile platforms (planes or helicopters) with senior commanding officers on board. A single airborne command-and-control station of the Russian General Staff can control the strategic nuclear weapons operated by the Strategic Missile Troops, the Air Force, and the Navy. The system's onboard communication station can maintain "simultaneous jamming-resistant exchange of information via radio relay, satellite, medium-wave, short-wave, VHF and UHF channels with stations on the ground, at sea, and in the air". In recent years the MoD has been upgrading four Il-80 Zveno airborne command-and-control planes (built on the Il-86 platform). Meanwhile, NPP Polet has been working on the Zveno-2 R&D project, which aims to "develop and manufacture the 83T120 onboard system". At some point in the future the Zveno program will probably be augmented by a new operational-strategic tier command-and-control and relay aircraft (codename Yastreb) , which is also mentioned in documents pertaining to the program.
Another program, codenamed Foreytor, is mentioned in the list of airborne satellite communication stations for mobile command-and-control applications that have been (or are being) developed by NPP Radiosvyaz (Krasnoyarsk). In a report filed by the St Petersburg-based Inteltekh, the Foreytor-3-Inteltekh R&D project is listed next to Zveno-3. Another source reports that as part of the Foreytor program, the contractor is developing an onboard computer system "for an information and control system of airborne objects". The system in question is probably a new set of radio equipment for relay aircraft, being developed to work in tandem or as part of the Zveno system. Previously, projects to upgrade the existing Il-82 relay planes (built on the Il-76 platform) were also led by NPP Polet.
The Forvard R&D project, which aims to develop a new C&C and relay helicopter on the Mi-8MTV-5 platform, is also being led by NPP Polet under a contract signed with the MoD on December 2, 2007. However, both sides have failed to meet various deadlines stipulated in that contract, so its implementation will probably continue under an adjusted set of requirements and specifications.
The Il-22PP Porubshchik, a jamming and aerial reconnaissance plane, is being developed under government contracts No 93032 of November 8, 2009, and No 459/ZA/2012/DRGZ of June 5, 2012. The contractor is the Myasishchev Experimental Machinery Plant (EMZ Myasishchev in Zhukovskiy, Moscow Region). As part of that program, EMZ is to upgrade three Il-22 aircraft in 2012-2013. Active jamming equipment was installed on the first of these aircraft back in 2011. Last year that plane, equipped with the L-415 complex, performed 18 flights as part of engineering flight tests. In 2011 EMZ received 210 million roubles in financing under this program; in 2012 the figure rose to US$14.5 mln.
Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force is already taking deliveries of the Mi-8MTPR-1 jamming helicopters. In April 2011the Moscow Mil Helicopter Plant delivered one such helicopter (side number 95357) to an MoD unit in Vyazma. In September 2011 several helicopters stationed in Vyazma took part in the joint Russian-Belarusian exercise Union Shield 2011, which was held at the Ashuluk range in Astrakhan Region. The helicopters were tasked with the suppression of the adversary's AA missile radars in the combat zone. Several Mi-8MTPR-1 helicopters are to be delivered in 2012-2014 to units of the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Command (Southern Military District).