Air Force Proudly Puts On a Show and Tell
A mammoth An-70 military transport jet lumbered across the sun-bleached skies of the southern Astrakhan region as dozens of foreign military attaches from Arab, African and Eastern European countries craned their necks to get a better view.
The Russian-Ukrainian built plane, rejected by European nations as a contender for NATO`s fleet, made a slow, sweeping turn before opening a hatch to drop heavy equipment and paratroopers.
All the while, Lieutenant General Yury Klishin, the deputy commander of the air force, kept up a running commentary to his clearly impressed audience perched on wooden bleachers in the parched Caspian steppe stretching for kilometers around the sprawling Groshevo Test Field.
``See the paratroopers go - one, two, three, four,`` Klishin said, counting off each paratrooper until the last and 12th one had jumped in the An-70's first ever parachute drop.
``Now we can congratulate the Antonov team and those at the test field for carrying out such fine work,`` he said, signaling that it was time to applaud.
After the An-70, which was rebuilt after a crash earlier this year, a Ka-50 helicopter thudded its way across a field close to the ground.
A showcase of Sukhoi, Mil and Kamov aircraft - including a Su-30MKI, Su-24MK1, Su-39 and Mi-24PN - were paraded past the attentive visitors, first on the ground and then in the air. Pilots of the more than 20 aircraft released a barrage of high-tech missiles and bombs onto targets in the vast steppe.
The air show Monday and Tuesday was the first display of such magnitude at the test field since Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited in 1971. And the air force, which organized the excursion, said it was high time that the government and the international military community see with their own eyes that Russian aviation is alive and kicking.
``We have gathered for the first time all of the experimental jets that are being tested onto one air field to show that Russia has been and will remain a great aviation power,`` Klishin told visitors Monday.
Klishin said that the show, coupled with a Moscow air show scheduled for later this month, was meant to convince the government that the military aviation sector is up to par and ready to secure state orders. The Russian air force has not received any new planes in recent years, and the few new aircraft that have been built have been sold abroad.
``We want to show that we are not lagging behind and in many respects are ahead,`` said Vladimir Babak, chief designer of attack jets at Sukhoi.
A government delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov attended the demonstration Tuesday.
For foreigners, the Groshevo and Moscow air shows aim to prove that Russia has the advanced technology needed to meet combat demands for the next decade and that they should at least upgrade their existing hardware, if not buy new equipment.
While Brezhnev checked out second- and third-generation equipment 30 years ago, Russia is today developing a fifth-generation fighter to compete with new aircraft in the West. But with the air force in desperate need of upgrades, officials at the Groshevo Test Field appeared to agree that such modernizations deserved top priority. ``Upgrading an aircraft costs 5 to 10 percent the price of a new one,`` Klishin said.
Analysts say a new Su-27 fighter jet, for example, can cost up to $40 million.
On the frontline in upgraded jets are the Su-27UBM and the Su-30KN.
Modernizations more than double the combat effectiveness of jets, according to the air force. The changes allow a jet to hit targets in the air, on the ground and on water, while boosting its navigation and strike capabilities.
Klishin said the display this week was intended to pave the way for the government to give its go-ahead for 2002 orders, which would then be ironed out at the Moscow air show. He would not elaborate on the number of aircraft that might be modernized, saying the government orders have not yet been drafted.
Russian media reports put the number of Su-27s in the air force at 60.
Top air force commander Anatoly Kornukov said Monday that 80 percent of the country`s defense aircraft will have to be modernized by 2005. ``At present modern aircraft account for less than 5 percent of the air force`s fleet,`` Kornukov told Interfax. ``A great number of aircraft are nonoperative : and to fix them we need more than 3,000 different spare parts worth 11 billion rubles.``
Klishin said that the upgraded aircraft should also attract the interest of countries that purchased Soviet-built aircraft for their air forces. Russia has been battling with Israeli and French consortiums for contracts to upgrade Russian aircraft.
Some of the observers Monday were lavish with their praise about the planes.
Indian military attache P.K. Barbora declared the Su-30K the best fighter in the world, but said the air force should have invited more foreigners to the show. ``The demonstration was very nice and impressive, but I feel it should have been done for a bigger number of attaches in Russia because they could have then carried their impressions back to their countries,`` Barbora said.
By Lyuba Pronina Moscow TimesAVIA.RU - Информационное агентство "Российская авиация и космонавтика"